About this Recording
GP670 - VOŘÍŠEK, J.H.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 - 6 Impromptus / Fantasie / Piano Sonata (Urban)
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Jan Hugo Voříšek (1791–1825)


Like many before him, Jan Václav (Hugo) Voříšek, an exceptionally talented pianist and promising young composer, left his native Bohemia for Vienna in 1813 to further his musical ambitions. Under the patronage of Countess Rozina Kolowratz-Libstejnsky, owner of the Vamberk estate where he was born, Voříšek had already begun to establish his reputation in Prague as a pianist while studying philosophy, aesthetics, mathematics and later law at the Charles University. His failure to complete his studies in Prague was due to no lack of ability but rather the increasingly prominent part music was beginning to play in his life.

One of the most influential figures in Voříšek’s development as an artist was his teacher, the pianist and composer Tomášek, who was so impressed with his pupil’s abilities that he taught him free of charge from around 1804. Under Tomášek’s guidance Voříšek made rapid progress as a pianist but little attention was paid in his lessons to theoretical matters. Voříšek later recorded that instruction ceased when he reached the seventh chord and his extant notebooks appear to bear this out. Nonetheless, Tomášek’s own works as well as those of Bach and the great Viennese masters taught him a great deal about the craft of composition and Voříšek’s first works, some German dances and a funeral march, appeared in print as early as 1812. He also composed and had performed the cantata Gefühle des Dankes as a farewell to one of his teachers.

Although Voříšek’s move to Vienna in the autumn of 1813 was ostensibly to further his education in law, he threw himself into the musical life of the city. He quickly established a reputation as an exceptional pianist and, like his rivals, Moscheles and Hummel, he was particularly admired for his brilliant extempore playing. Voříšek appeared regularly in the concerts of the newly-established Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and indeed had performed Hummel’s Rondo brillant in A, Op. 56, at their very first concert in December 1815. He was appointed assistant conductor of the Gesellschaft’s orchestral concerts in1818 and the following year he was named a principal conductor and member of the advisory council. Among his many other musical activities in Vienna was regular participation in Kiesewetter’s Historische Hauskonzerte which gave Voříšek extensive experience of performing older works from which he also learned a great deal about compositional technique.

Although Voříšek was enjoying considerable success in Vienna as a pianist he returned to his legal studies and finally completed his degree. In May 1822 he was appointed a clerk in the maritime division of the Imperial War Department and later that year applied successfully for the position of Second Court Organist. He was appointed on 10 January 1823 and promptly resigned from his post in the War Department. On the death of the First Organist later that year Voříšek succeeded to the position which he held until his death from tuberculosis on 19 January 1825.

Voříšek was a highly gifted pianist and composer but no prodigy. He developed slowly as a composer if only for the reason that his principal creative activity was as a performer. His output was not large and the early works are mostly small scale, proto-romantic piano pieces that still lean heavily on eighteenth-century formal conventions. Composition became a serious focus only after 1818 and by 1824 his health was in serious decline. The Canadian musicologist Kenneth DeLong has observed that each of the major late works, including the symphony, Mass and Sonata quasi una fantasia, is a one-off in which Voříšek sets out to master an important genre. Although there are occasional weaknesses in these works they leave no doubt that had he lived Voříšek would have composed a substantial body of music of very high artistic worth.

The six Impromptus, Op. 7, comprise the last and most important group of Voříšek’s lyric pieces for piano. As in his early rhapsodies, Voříšek turned to the works of his teacher Tomášek for inspiration when composing the impromptus. His model was the eclogue, a piece Tomášek described towards the end of his life as ‘a type of pastoral’ that took as its structural model the minuet and trio. Tomášek composed 42 eclogues over a period of twenty years and these were issued in sets of six. The first of these, published in Leipzig in 1807 as Op. 35, served as Voříšek’s model and there are clear links between at least two of the eclogues and the impromptus. Like their models, Voříšek’s impromptus are symmetrical in their musical structure and phrase morphology, with smooth diatonic melodies that are occasionally enlivened with a telling chromatic inflection. DeLong writes of their ‘air of discipline and restraint—even austerity—unique to Voříšek’s music’ and draws attention to the likelihood that they were conceived as a unified set or cycle in which there is ‘a systematic exploration of specific, delicately drawn pastoral moods’ based on his study of the moods and emotional characteristics of keys. The six Impromptus unfold in a progressive sequence of tonalities that follow each other at the fifth, beginning in C major and ending in B major. It is evident from notes in Voříšek’s private journals that he was acquainted with C.F.D. Schubart’s theory of key characteristics in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (Vienna, 1806) as well the older writings of Johann Mattheson and Friedrich Marpurg, but his experimentation with it in the Impromptus is not wholly successful because each of the ‘pastoral moods’ is still subject to formal constraints. Nonetheless, the last three Impromptus, and in particular the fourth in A major, with its melody artfully concealed within the prevailing triplet figuration, reveal a subtlety of phrase length manipulation, harmonic imagination and sense of tone colour that surpass by far Tomášek’s models and look towards the more direct and personal style that would later characterize the lyric pieces of Chopin and Schumann.

By ca 1820 Voříšek was well-established in Vienna as a virtuoso pianist and had enjoyed modest success as a composer of small-scale works for the piano. As he gained greater experience and confidence as a composer, however, his ambitions gravitated towards the composition of larger-scale works. Unlike his earlier works, which are essentially lyrical in character, these later compositions show Voříšek applying himself assiduously to mastering the structural principles of late eighteenth-century instrumental music.

Voříšek’s Fantasy in C, Op. 12, draws its inspiration from an earlier work, Hummel’s Fantasy, Op. 8, of 1811. It looks to the examples of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for the finer detail of its internal musical organization, but owes its distinctive character to Voříšek’s own artistic personality which craved freedom and spontaneity while embracing order and tradition. Published in 1822, the Fantasy was clearly composed in two distinct phases. Voříšek’s autograph for an earlier version of the second movement, marked, incidentally, Allegro di bravura, is dated 1817 and may have been intended for a different type of work. The first movement was composed later, possibly after 1820, around which time he presumably undertook the substantial revision of the ‘original’ movement. It is possible that both movements began life as improvisations, but the complex relationship between the two, the result of meticulous structural planning, tells us more about Voříšek’s long-term ambitions as a composer than his formidable powers as a pianist. The first eight bars of the Andante, a deceptively simply unfolding of a C major chord with chromatic inflections, contain within them the kernel of the entire work, generating secondary thematic material as well as providing the genetic material for the second movement. Although the second movement is cast very obviously in sonata form, the first too draws heavily on its organisational principles including the all important recapitulation of the main thematic groups in the final phase of the movement. Voříšek’s reversal of the order in which they first appeared might not be new (it was a favourite device of composers such as Johann Stamitz in the 1750s), but it is highly effective in this context and allows the movement to end as it began, a favourite conceit of improvising pianists. Like many fantasias, Voříšek’s Op. 12 is multi-sectional and juxtaposes deliberately contrasting material. Its occasionally frivolous tone is offset by more serious musical substance including the introduction of counterpoint. Nonetheless, as DeLong argues, the counterpoint may be effective but consists of little more than contrapuntal clichés of a kind that any accomplished improviser had at his disposal. Indeed its presence, more than any actual deficiencies in the writing, emphasizes the impression that this work marks the beginning of a new phase in Voříšek’s career rather than the achievement of artistic mastery.

The final work on the recording, the Sonata quasi una fantasia, Op. 20, is one of Voříšek’s most impressive compositions. Like the Fantasy, Op. 12, the sonata was composed in two distinct phases and the rondo finale was published as an independent composition five years before the completed work. The autograph score shows that Voříšek was in the process of revising the sonata but did not complete the revision before the work was published in the last year of his life. The reason for this is almost certainly due to his failing health. The presence of so many small errors in the first edition suggests that the composer was also unable to supervise the preparation of the edition. Nonetheless, the work was well received by the reviewer in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung who wrote:

“We first became acquainted with Worzischeck through this work. He must be a solid, well-experienced musician. What he says is not only noteworthy and unique, but also reasonable and estimable. It contains a powerful allegro, a fast and arresting scherzo with a pleasing trio, a lively and rather happy finale—everything for the trained amateur accustomed to bravura playing, or for those who want to become proficient in playing in difficult keys, for Mr Worzischeck never uses less than five flats or seven sharps and often uses more.”

The title Sonata quasi una fantasia derives from the autograph and not from the first edition. It nods in the direction of Beethoven’s two Sonate quasi una fantasia, Op. 27, but perhaps more importantly, its transformational approach to thematic construction looks back to Voříšek’s Fantasy, Op.12, and his own improvisational practices. Not only are there clear thematic links between sections which provide a structural underpinning to the work, but all of the important thematic ideas unfold in five-bar phrases including the rondo. Voříšek’s manipulation of this apparent instability is very accomplished and it helps to infuse the work with energy and a sense of élan. The quality and unflagging musical interest of this sonata makes Voříšek’s early death all the more regrettable.

Allan Badley

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