Whispers of Vanhal in Australia

Diana Weston

This article follows on from a recording made in Sydney in October 2023 which featured a semi-restored square piano, made in Liverpool, England c. 1835. The significance of the English square piano has been under-estimated in Australia – both in terms of its qualities as an instrument and its role in our social history. Because square pianos are not being reproduced (yet), we were fortunate to acquire an original instrument requiring minimal restoration. The representative pieces for the recording were chosen for their compatibility with our English Square and included works by Johann Christian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Baptist Vanhal. In addition, two new works by Australian composer Ann Carr-Boyd showcased the square piano in contemporary fashion. 

One may ask what has Vanhal got to do with Australia? The short answer is – nothing directly. But things were happening in Australia in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth that paralleled and were influenced by developments in instrumentation and musical composition in England and Europe.


In 1788, the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay and along with convicts and government officials, came a square piano, owned by the ship’s doctor. Though unlikely to have survived long in the harsh new climate and conditions of the settlement, it is significant that this instrument, non-essential to survival, was thought important enough to have been included in the expedition to the Great Southern Land.

In the amazingly short time of twenty-five years, the settlement became a colony then a township. By then the colony at Sydney Cove had food security, growing more than enough to feed everyone, and able to think beyond mere survival. What was lacking was sufficient public places of entertainment, certainly in remote areas.  Piano fortes were the means whereby people could gather to sing, conduct services with hymns, hold dances, play with another, or simply play alone.  They were central to every family able to afford one and contributed to societal cohesion. Demand was therefore high, and pianos were consistently included in the cargo of every ship arriving at the colony (M. Atherton*), almost all square pianos that took up minimal space, stacked one on top of the other.

*Michael Atherton, A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, La Trobe University Press, 2018, pg. 16

Accompanying the piano fortes were volumes of music – folksongs from Scotland, solo piano music, popular ditties, dances, chamber music for piano and one or two instruments, and songs. A vast number of scores, almost all involving piano forte, is currently archived in Museum of History New South Wales, as the Stewart Symonds collection.* *(https://archive.org/details/slm-sheet-music-and-manuscripts?page=3)

While for the most part, the composers of this music are long-forgotten, standing out among them for the more ambitious player, were works by Pleyel, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Cramer, Moscheles, Haydn, Schubert… and Stephen Storace (‘the overture to Ladoiska, for the piano forte’). Two of these names were directly associated with Vanhal – Ignace Pleyel, (who was his student and who lived and worked in London very successfully as a publisher), and Stephen Storace. Storace published a collection of piano music (‘Storace’s Collection of Original Keyboard Music’ *) inclusive of composers he had met and known in Vienna – Mozart, Haydn, Kozeluh, Hoffmeister and Vanhal – on his return to London.  Piano forte music by Vanhal then, would have in all likelihood, been available in London, and bought by people who wanted to play the piano, including those in Australia.

*Allan Badley, After the Party: Wanhal, Storace and his Collection of Original Keyboard Music, article for The J.B. Wanhal Society

Music by Vanhal has not turned up in the Stewart Symonds collection. 


The current recording of Vanhal’s Sonata II in A major from ‘Deux Sonates a quatre Mains pour le Clavecin ou le Forte-Piano composées by J. Vanhall, 9th livre de Clavecin, Op. 32 has two movements – the first a set of variations, the second a ‘Rondo alla Tadesca’ (allegro). The theme to the variations appears as Adagio alla Francese and Variazioni alla Italiana. These and the six subsequent variations offer varying degrees of ornamentation and elaboration, taking full advantage of the piano forte’s capabilities without stretching the point, and are in an uneven binary form. The Rondo alla Tadesca alerts the player to the dance-like nature of this movement. It is a German dance, a form frequently used by Vanhal for actual dances. It is structured with a first half (‘A’) of 8 bars (repeated) and a second half (‘B’) of 16 bars (repeated) the last 8 bars of which is a somewhat varied repeat of the ‘A’ section. Between this recurring format are sections of a different nature – exuberant, sombre, triumphant, all playful, all divisible by 8, which probably more than anything reflects the intended nature and age of its duetto players.  

In a further article, Allan Badley discusses the structure of the dance music composed by Vanhal for the Viennese imperial ballrooms (Redoutensäle) popular during the 1780s and -‘90s. He notes that the commonest dance-types – the minuet and German dances – have the same structural pattern of “two sections of eight bars, repeated: a second section – generally but not invariably labelled Trio – which follows with the same pattern, after which the first section is repeated”, this allowing for dancers to come and go throughout the dance. Badley further notes that Vanhal, admired generally, was commissioned in 1792 specifically for his skill in composing dance-music. 

*Allan Badley, Wanhal’s dances for the ‘Kleiner Redoutensaal’ and late eighteenth-century Viennese dance culture’, article for J. B. Vanhal Society

In a previous recording of music from the Stewart Symonds Collection/Lucy Havens portfolio (‘Miss Lucy Haven requests the pleasure’, Wirripang, 2021) made by my group Thoroughbass, it was apparent that apart from songs and their accompaniment, and a complete set of sonatas for piano forte and violin by Pleyel, dance music formed a very large part.  Within one volume labelled ‘Waterloo Medley composed by Nath. Gow for the Queens Assembly, Friday the 19th Jan, 1816’ are five dances (reels and strathspeys), each in two sections of eight bars each, with repeats, for piano forte. In another, ‘Five Favorite Tunes arranged for the Piano forte or Violin & Violoncello by Mr. Clarkson’ the same structure prevails. A ‘Collection of Waltzes for Piano Forte’ (of which there are dozens) by William Browne, all bear a striking structural similarity to Vanhal’s.

Circumstances and stylistic similarities aside, whether or not Vanhal, well-known and respected during his later decades of composing for piano forte, producing large amounts of music for social occasions such as dancing and duetting, whether or not he influenced composers from England and Scotland whose works eventually filtered to Australia, can’t be known. But he might have. 


Given that Vanhal was a significant and popular composer of piano forte music in the last two decades of the eighteenth century,
Given that at least a representative sampling of his piano music was published in London,
Given that a number of his Viennese colleagues’ music did get to Australia albeit in small quantities,
Given that his music was superior in quality to the very many composers of piano forte music of that period, or just after,

Why didn’t his music make its way to Australia?

If think I’d better keep looking.

Diana Weston, MB.BS. (Sydney U) FRACGP, MMus (hons. Performance Research, UNE)