J.B. Vanhal

In this blog about Viennese Tuning, there will be quite a few articles about the Double Bass Concerto of Johann Baptist Vanhal (presumably composed in the 1770s).

This is not a blog where you will find an extensive biography of the composer, or esoteric information about his works in a language that only scientists can understand. There are other sources for that, written by more knowledgeable authors with the appropriate musicological credentials and full mastery of the required vocabulary.

(However, maybe this is the place to introduce something i found in Carl Friedrich Cramer's "Magazin der Musik" (Hamburg, 1783-86), a collection of articles and letters about music. The article was published on 10.02.1784, and mentions a Vanhal imposter:

"Die Geschichte
des unechten Vanhall"

The author talks about the many virtuosi who visit Hamburg in the hope of performing there, and says: 

"Das muss ich aber zur Entschuldigung der Hamburger sagen, dass mancher Stümper, mancher Undankbare, ja mancher Betrüger sie getäuscht hat, wie zum Beyspiel die Geschichte des unechten Vanhall beweiset..."

I have not been able to ascertain who this imposter was, nor have i found any other source that mentions the story, or additional information. But maybe the fact that Vanhal was deemed important enough for anyone to pretend he was the musician himself, can be seen as an indication that Vanhal was indeed one of the bigger names of the time).

My aim then, is to transmit in normal human language and to anyone who is interested, some of the things i have learned over the past many years. Things that might benefit other players or that may inspire them. Therefore these articles focus on a practical approach, not a theoretical one. 

Why Vanhal's concerto, and not one of the other 30-odd Viennese Classical Bass concerti, why not Ditters, Zimmermann, Kohout, Hoffmeister or Sperger? 

For the simple reason that this concerto is one of the most beautiful in our repertoire, and that it's probably (apart from Ditter's 2nd Concerto) the best known bass-piece from the Viennese Classical period. Of course, we don't really know all of Sperger's eighteen Bass Concerti yet, some of which are absolutely delicious as well. A few bass players have been very active in unearthing and playing them, as well as the works of other Viennese composers, so that we can get to know and appreciate them. Hopefully one day we will have so many great pieces that we won't know which one to play first.

Besides, most (if not all) of what we discover in this concerto is applicable to other works of the same period. Vanhal, let us not forget, was a first-rate composer. Had he not been eclipsed by the greater genius of Haydn and Mozart, he might have become one of the big names from the Viennese Classical period. The fact that his concerto is not "just" a bass piece but an inspired and inventive  work full of character, with impeccable construction and balance, can help us understand the works of other and lesser composers.

The Ludwig Streicher recording of this piece just blew me off my socks when i was 18. Although i had heard the bass as a solo instrument before (i owned three LP's of bass music then, none of them very inspiring), Streicher made me realize that the bass could be as powerful and emotional an instrument as a violin or a piano. 

Ludwig Streicher in his
"Fiebertraum eines Kontrabassisten",
"A bass player's Nightmare"

Only much later did i discover a handwritten score that Streicher made of the Vanhal concerto: in 2014, in Kakogawa, Japan, of all places. The score is in the possession of Satori Hasegawa, an ancient Streicher student and an excellent bass player - beside being a buddhist Monk. More details in my other blog:

The Streicher/Hasegawa manuscript

Like so many players and editors, Streicher (who must have had access to the manuscript) had made the same mistake of interpreting some of the articulations exactly as they seem to be originally written (see the excerpt below, and compare to the examples in the "Vanhal Manuscript Part 1" elsewhere in this blog), but in the end he didn't play them like that in his recording. I can only speculate that his innate musicality was stronger than the desire to follow the supposedly original articulations. 

(Ludwig Streicher was not only a musician with a very developed sense of style, but many details in his way of playing seem to connect closely with a historical, classical Viennese tradition. Even his sometimes derided playing position, with the left foot as a stabilizing "tool" reminds one of the ancient Viennese Violone that was stabilized by its system of "Knauf", "Packen" and "Sporn", which almost enabled the instrument to stay upright without the player having to hold it (as described in Adolf Meier's "Konzertante Musik für Kontrabass in der Wiener Klassik", Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler 1969 and in Josef Focht's "Der Wiener Kontrabass", Hans Schneider Verlag 1999).  It makes me wonder whether Streicher knew about this. When i visited him at his home in Vienna's Würzburggasse in the 80s, he also told me about a wooden contraption somebody was building for him, that would enable the bass to stand by itself while being played).

Streicher's Vanhal score, and one of his Dölling bows...

When i started to discover this work for myself, as a player, i didn't question the available editions. I wasn't even aware that there was an original manuscript, and i probably wouldn't have been all that interested in it anyway. Who wants to read from a handwritten part when there are all these nicely printed editions on the market?  

It was only later, when i read about Viennese Tuning in Alfred Planyavsky's "Geschichte des Kontrabasses" (Hans Schneider Verlag, Tutzing, 1970 1st Edition, 1984 2nd Edition), that i started to think there might be more to discover. The very first piece i played in Viennese Tuning, back in 1985, was the Mozart Aria KV 612 "Per Questa Bella Mano". Since then i haven't played any Viennese bass music in modern tuning, except the Dittersdorf Concerto, because i needed to know that one in the "traditional" audition version so i studied it in "regular" and in Viennese Tuning.

After Mozart, the Vanhal soon followed. In Viennese Tuning i could feel the bass resonate like it had never resonated in modern tuning. I discovered new and exciting fingerings. A fascinating world opened up to me, and i knew i would never again play Viennese pieces on a bass in fourths.

But i was still using the modern editions, not knowing that there was something like a manuscript, somewhere. And i was still using a modern 4-string bass with steel strings, no frets, and a modern bow.

Going back to school to study Ancient Music at Brussels Conservatory, at age 50, was the best decision i made in my life as a musician. Discussing with and learning from the specialists, from harpsichord and traverso players, from baroque cellists and violinists, from gamba and oboe players, changed my whole outlook on music: not only Ancient Music, but music as a whole. 

Instead of looking at the Classical period from a present-day viewpoint with its roots in the Romantic and Modern esthetic, i hopped back a few hundred years to Renaissance and Baroque, and then approached the Viennese Classics from that angle. The experience was extremely enriching and rewarding. Realizing for the first time that the historical element is almost entirely lacking in our modern music education was a shock. Knowing where the music came from, historically speaking, became a necessity for me. 

When i found the Vanhal manuscript (in facsimile form), many things fell into place, and many questions arose. What to do with the many 8va-signs? Were these original, written by the composer? What about all those different articulations? Every time a certain musical idea came back it was articulated differently. Why was that?

These questions have fascinated me for many years. When one leaves out the 8va-signs, the concerto seems much more balanced. Still, i have never heard a commercially available recording that presents the work without them. 

No serious research that i know of has been done to determine who added these signs and when. Bass players, when given half a chance, will often prefer the highest register of the instrument. Maybe it's time we bass players got over our feelings of frustration when we compare ourselves to violinists and cellists. If the only reason we want to play so high is "because we can", we're not really serving the music as well as we could.

As i have mentioned elsewhere before, especially in the case of Viennese Classical concertos there seems to have been a reluctance on the part of composers to exhibit too much virtuosity. In "Music in Eighteenth-Century Austria", a must-read collection of essays edited by David Wyn Jones (Cambridge University Press 1996) we find some very interesting information in Chappell White's fascinating essay "The early Classical violin concerto in Austria" (i underlined some passages that i find particularly interesting):

"The exhibition of virtuosity is essential to the solo concerto, and to none more so than the violin concerto. Yet we should not mistake the nature of eighteenth-century virtuosity as being concerned exclusively with the overcoming of difficulties. For the violinist, as for the singer, the production of tone is an element in display; and in the early Classical style, the ability to charm the listener was as important as the ability to astonish.

The evolution of technique in the early Classical violin concerto is not a steady progression towards greater difficulties. On the contrary, the early forays into galant style in the violin concerto are markedly easier than examples of late Baroque virtuosity. We may turn again to Tartini for illustration. His early concertos, while not so extreme as Locatelli's famous caprices, show characteristic Baroque difficulties, and they exploit the upper range at least to a4 - i.e. seventh position. His late concertos, with much less elaborate figuration, do not go above third position.

Tartini is extreme in his renunciation of difficulties, but the trend towards technical simplicity is general in the 1750s and much of the 1760s. Virtuosity as the conquest of amazing technical difficulties returns with a vengeance in the person of Antonio Lolli (c. 1725 - 1802), the true eighteenth-century precursor of Paganini. Everywhere he played, Lolli met with astonishment and sensational success, but always there was a negative reaction too. Vienna, which among the great capitals heard him first, welcomed him warmly in 1763, but some people had doubts. Dittersdorf, who later became Lolli's close friend, probably summed up the reactions of the best musicians. When told he must imitate Lolli, he replied 'God forbid! ... I must do exactly the opposite, and try to cut a better figure in the adagio through good solid playing and expression' ('Behute Gott! ... Ich muss gerade das Gegenteil tun, und durch solides Spielen in Adagio abzustechen suchen')".

And further:

"Often the degree of difficulty in passage work is determined not simply by the extremity of the range or by the occasional phrase that is technically awkward; rather, it is dependent on the length of the passage work and the proportion that lies in the upper register. It is in this connection that Austrian composers appear rather restrained. The upper limit of the instrument in virtuoso concertos was commonly a4 (seventh position), often extended to c5 and occasionally even to e5; but the extreme upper register may be reserved for a climactic ending, and the scope of passage work may be distinctly limited. It is these limitations that separate the conservative display of most Austrians from the extremes of Lolli and his imitators...... In Haydn, Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Mozart, Pichl and other Austrians of lesser talent, extremes are limited and made to function within a calculated balance of musical elements".

Isn't that interesting? The author speaks about "a calculated balance of musical elements" in which good composers limit the forays into the extreme limits of the violin's tessitura. It's precisely this balance of elements that seems to be upset in Vanhal's bass concerto by the abundance of added 8va-signs. When we return to the "original" (presuming that the 8vas were added by somebody other than the composer), this balance is restored and the concerto takes on a whole different aspect: it's no longer the technical fireworks that attract the attention, but the finely sculpted emotions, the subtle affects that are typical of Vanhal's music (i would always suggest to listen to as many of a composer's works as possible. Not just the one piece you're studying. It may be interesting to listen to twenty different interpretations of the bass concerto, but you'll probably learn more from listening to Vanhal's symphonies and other works).

As i have suggested earlier, and as other people have said, i think it might have been Sperger, not Vanhal who added the 8va-signs that litter the concerto (then again, as Joseph Focht mentions in "Der Wiener Kontrabass", Hans Schneider Verlag, Tutzing 1999, the concerto might also have been dedicated to Josef Kämpfer). From what we think we know, i wouldn't put it beyond him. And in his own pieces, Sperger does go very high on the bass: as high as the pressed-down high "d" at the end of the fingerboard (although according to some, he may have pulled the strings sideways like older Italian virtuosos used to do - in which case he didn't need a long fingerboard), and even higher in harmonics (which he indicates, in some works, with the endearing word "flashinett").

Over time, i found many more manuscripts. Sperger, Dittersdorf, Hoffmeister, and others. By comparing different sources, full scores and orchestra parts, through playing and studying all these pieces, i began to get a feeling for the style and i began to see some possible answers to my questions.

Some of those possible answers can be found in this blog. Other questions remain unanswered. That's good. When we have all the answers, where is the fun of discovering possibilities and probabilities?


The manuscript facsimile can be found on the Internet, on the IMSLP site:

It consists of the entire set of instrument parts. There seems to be no full score that has survived. The manuscript is part of the music collection of the Landesbiblothek in Schwerin, Germany.

There are a number of modern editions. Not all of them are useful, but it's interesting to have a look at them and to see how they differ from the manuscript. These differences can be enormous. Some editions include a facsimile of the Solo Bass part, which is nice. But as you will read in the articles, it's important to look beyond the solo part and to include the other instrumental parts as well in your quest for a personal edition.

So-called "Urtext" editions are not to be confounded with manuscript material. Whenever possible, try to find a facsimile of the original(s). An Urtext edition is still an edition, usually made from more than one source, in which the editor has made personal choices based on what he or she thinks is the composer's ultimate intention. In this way the term "Urtext" is misleading because it conveys the idea of an "origin" and of authenticity. 

An Urtext is NOT necessarily a faithful rendition of what the composer wrote and as such should only be used as one reference amongst others. In a decent Urtext edition you will find explanations as to the editor's sources and choices, and some information on the historical background. Sometimes the editor will alter seemingly "strange" notes or articulations that are clearly written in the manuscript, because he or she considers them to be mistakes. It's always a good idea to take a close look at the manuscript for yourself.

The concerto's original tonality is Eb. The Basso Solo part is written in D, because the bass is supposed to tune up a half-step. In this way the instrument retains its advantages of resonant sound, thanks to the open strings and harmonics, and more convenient fingerings. The orchestra plays in Eb, which makes for a less brilliant sound due to the somewhat more difficult tonality in the Ensemble instruments. More information can be found elsewhere in this blog in the Vanhal Lecture article.

In practice, i have played the concerto both in D and in Eb, and at 415, 430, and 440 Hz. Sometimes with orchestra (in that case, having the Ensemble play in Eb at 415Hz, and the Solo Bass in D at 440 Hz is an attractive solution that works perfectly), sometimes with harpsichord (415) or pianoforte (430), and now i often play it in a Duo arrangement for Viennese Bass and Viola D'Amore. I generally prefer 415 Hz. (The 430 Hz i consider to be a bit of a nonsense-tuning with little or no raison d'être other than that it has become an accepted modern standard for "Classical Music").

In the concerto the Solo Bass doesn't descend below low "A", so you don't really need a 5th string. But if you play along in the Tutti passages (as you should), a 5th string is useful. I usually tune the 5th string to low D instead of the historically widely documented and rather theoretical F natural. The 5th string can be tuned anywhere between D and F#, according to the work one is playing.

Although you can use a modern bass with steel strings and without frets, i would strongly recommend to go "all the way" if possible. Gut strings will make it a lot easier to realize the articulations. These will feel much more natural than on steel strings. More on the subject of gut strings and some reasons why i use them can be found here:

Frets will of themselves suggest other fingerings and will facilitate extensions, even in the lowest positions. They enable left-hand possibilities you would otherwise never have tried or even thought of. 

Since the F# string (2nd string) has to be tuned a tad lower than equal temperament (otherwise the perfect triad D-F#-A will sound horrible, especially the third D-F#), all the notes on the F# string will be a bit low-ish if you use frets. The Art of Compromise must be exercised here...

The Viennese Violone had an average string length of around 110 cm (44"). With frets, this is no big problem for the left hand, and the gut strings will sound better with a longer stop, especially when you tune to 415Hz. If you use the Eb scordatura, the tension will be higher. Both my Krattenmacher and Charton basses have 110 cm string stops. Strangely, and counter-intuitively, a greater string length also makes thumb position slightly easier: in Viennese Tuning i often use high thumb position across four strings (thumb on D, first string), and having a little more space up there is very comfortable. 

And that brings us to the set-up of the Viennese Bass.

This set-up is slightly different from what we're used to on a modern bass. I would advocate a very low string height. Most players still believe that gut strings need to be high above the fingerboard. I don't think that is true. Especially in the case of Viennese Tuning, where one often has to play in the very highest positions, a low string action is imperative. Also, since we play across the strings much more often than in regular tuning (even in the highest thumb positions we frequently use the 3rd and even the 4th string), the action should be low on all strings. When you're used to bowing gut strings it's not all that hard to avoid buzzing of the strings against the fingerboard.

I generally use plain gut for the 4 top strings. A plain gut low A string will usually sound better than a wound gut string. Wound gut strings will dry out, causing the gut inside to shrink. Then the outside wrapping will come loose, which results in a big loss of sound volume, extraneous noise, and a "rolling" feeling under the fingers.

The bows then: as far as we know, many musicians of the period made their own bows. The ubiquitous hardwood bows that many baroque players use, made from iron wood or snake wood, were not common for Viennese Classical music. Instead, indigenous softer woods were used, which accounts for the fact that none seem to have survived. (Also, screw mechanisms for the frog were introduced quite late in bow-making, and are not appropriate for most of the Ancient Music we play).

I like to use very light bows, that work really well with the gut bass strings and that allow very fine articulation subtleties. Jérôme Gastaldo made me a walnut bow, from the wood of a 200 year-old bed (the stories my bow could tell...) that is so light it floats up in the air when i let it go. The lightness of the bow doesn't necessarily mean that the sound becomes weak, just like a heavy bow is no guarantee for good sound. Rather, bass, strings and bow have to be in balance with each other to obtain a good sound. 

There is no panacea that will always work for everything. Unfortunately many players suffer from a kind of instrument fetishism or from a blind trust in certain historical sources, and will stubbornly stick to their beliefs at the expense of real musicianship. Personally, as a performing musician rather than as a theoretician, i have more faith in a casuistic approach (case by case) in which the sounding end result is more important than the material tools that i use. After all, music has to "work" on the level of performer and audience: it has to transmit emotion, it has to move. All historical and artistic research thus needs to result in better communication between player and listener. The only motivation for my own research is precisely this: by looking very closely at manuscripts, instruments and sources i may be able to find more and better ways to communicate with my listeners. If what i do is "historically correct" (whatever that means) but i don't succeed in touching the audience, then i have failed as a musician.


Here it is then. My Vanhal Manuscript Blog, embedded in the Viennese Tuning Channel. I hope i'll be able to finish this project soon. The structure is as follows:

- This Introduction (done)
- Three Chapters, one for every Movement, on Articulations (done)
- Three Chapters on Fingerings (coming up)
- Other Chapters on Sperger and VT-related subjects

Please also visit my other blogs, where you can find additional information:

More general information about Classical Vienna:

Not many people are aware there is a website dedicated to Vanhal. Check it out:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Korneel for your definition of the relation from your research as a musician.