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GP672 - VOŘÍŠEK, J.H.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 3 - 12 Rhapsodies (Urban)
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Jan Václav Voříšek (1791–1825)
Complete Works For Piano • 3: Twelve Rhapsodies, Op. 1


The Czech composer, organist, conductor, piano virtuoso and teacher Jan Václav Voříšek, the ‘prodigy from Prague,’ settled in Vienna in 1813 at the age of twenty two, anxious to meet the great Beethoven, whom he deeply admired, and to show him his Rhapsodies, his Opus 1. Beethoven expressed his approval of the young man’s piano compositions and remained a strong influence on the course Voříšek’s compositions were to take. It has been said that Voříšek was one of the few musicians resident in Vienna at that time whose works invited comparison with those of Beethoven.¹

Voříšek’s earlier compositions foreshadow Schubert and the early German Romantics, yet, paradoxically, some of his later works reach a peak of Classicism. These include the Piano Sonata in B flat minor, the Violin Sonata in G major, the Missa solemnis in B flat major and, in particular, the Symphony in D, with its taut construction and unpredictable modulations which bring to mind Beethoven’s middle period symphonies. Nevertheless, it is generally unhelpful to identify Voříšek as either Romantic or Classical. He is a unique figure, the product of his background as an organist, a Czech musician and a master of improvisatory style.

Music played an essential part in the Czech lands, where cantors sang the liturgy in Czech and, through music, brought the warmth of faith directly into the core of life.² Charles Burney, who travelled through the Czech lands in 1772, recorded his admiration for the rôle of music in Czech life: “…cultivation contributes greatly towards rendering the love and knowledge of music general in this country: and the Bohemians may as well be called a learned people because they can read, as superior musicians because they can play upon instruments, since the study of both are equally made by them essential parts of common education”.³

Voříšek received a solid musical education from his father, Kaspar Václav Voříšek, at their home in Vamberk, Bohemia. He was taught the piano from the age of three, and, at the age of nine, he was proficient on both the organ and the violin. He received organ lessons from Josef Seger’s student Matěj Sojka (1740?–1817) and, at the age of nine, replaced a family member as organist at the church of Golčův Jeníkov. Around the same time he spent three summer holidays on concert tours, on foot with his father, playing the piano and organ. After 1800 he went to Prague, for three years study of philosophy and it was there that he took lessons for a short time from his teacher Václav Tomášek.

The importance of these studies has been overestimated. Aloys Fuchs, Voříšek’s closest friend and the author of his first biography, later quoted him as saying that he did not go further with Tomášek than with seventh chords: “wir kamen leider nur bis zum Septimen-Akkord”.4 Olga Zuckerová (Voříšek’s greatest biographer along with Kenneth DeLong) argues that Voříšek discovered and studied Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier by himself and not under Tomášek’s tutelage. Once discovered, it became an inseparable part of his musicianship for the rest of his life. For the most part Voříšek developed through his own studies and can be considered an autodidact. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, however, brought his refined touch to Voříšek’s playing and considered him more as a colleague than a pupil. Voříšek’s output was small, and all written within nine years (c. 1813–1822) of his short life. He died from tuberculosis in 1825, two years before Beethoven.

The twelve Rhapsodies, composed mainly in Prague, are large works that differ from the free and flamboyant character normally associated with the idea of the rhapsody. Their rigorous form is similar to that of the Scherzo, while they have the expressive power of epic poetry. They embody literally the etymology of the word “rhapsody”, from the Greek rhaptein (to weave), and odia (songs).The first instrumental rhapsodies were written by Voříšek’s teacher Tomášek, a passionate Hellenist who inspired Voříšek to compose in the same manner. The student surpassed his teacher, with a pioneering inspiration and genius that are undeniable. The most striking legacy of the Voříšek Rhapsodies are the Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 by Johannes Brahms, whose friend Eduard Hanslick was also a student of Tomášek.

Voříšek’s Opus 1 opens in the key of C sharp minor, which is unusual; but for someone who played Das Wohltemperierte Klavier at the age of ten, this is perhaps an echo of Bach. The irrepressible flow subsides and becomes a sea of calm in the trio. Here already, Voříšek makes use of the bold enharmonic modulations that are the hallmark of Romanticism. The E major of the Second Rhapsody brings light, and the 3/4 metre brings grace to the movement. A moderate tempo allows the polyphony to be heard.

With the Third Rhapsody, the mood changes. After a stormy opening, the central section, with its melodious cantilena, brings the piece to a climax, a reflection, as in the Seventh Rhapsody, of the quality of Beethoven’s poetic Innigkeit. The Fourth Rhapsody is the most exuberant of the set, anticipating the Scherzo from Voříšek’s later Piano Sonata. His study notebook contains a list of the characters of the different tonalities in which F major is described as ‘Ruhig und sanft’. The trio is indeed quiet and tender.

The principal element of the Fifth Rhapsody is its chromatic passus duriusculus (heavy tread). Based on the contrapuntal motif, one theme with two subjects in counterpoint, as in Rhapsody No. 12, the two subjects alternate between the two hands. The polyphonic middle part evokes an improvisation on the organ in the voix céleste register. Aloys Fuchs wrote in his Biographische Notizen über Johann Hugo Worzischek (1826), that Voříšek preferred the organ to the piano, enjoying above all the long sustained notes of the organ which do not grow weaker when held. According to Fuchs, while playing the organ Voříšek found himself in a state of creative ecstasy which the piano could not provide.

When they were published in 1818, the Rhapsodies received an excellent review, but the reviewer complained that the large chords and stretches were unfriendly to the smaller hands of the ‘weaker sex’. In the Sixth Rhapsody with the tenths in the left hand, this becomes obvious. The two pages of the middle part unmistakably anticipate Chopin. (The Czech-born Vojtěch Živný, Chopin’s first piano teacher, probably came from the same musical background in Prague as Voříšek.) The Seventh Rhapsody provides a contrast between the Allegro furioso of the first section and the more expansive middle section, marked con afflizione and con amarezza (with suffering, with bitterness), an apt description of its character, whether directly attributable to the composer or not.

At one of the musical soirées in Vienna Voříšek competed with another famous virtuoso, Ignaz Moscheles. While Moscheles’ playing was described as brilliant, Voříšek’s was said to have more expressive accentuation and fantasy. The accents in the Eighth Rhapsody give the composition an impetuous character that anticipates Robert Schumann, as if unpredictable dancers had escaped from Voříšek’s pages to reappear decades later in those of Schumann. The ardently romantic Ninth Rhapsody is Voříšek’s most frequently performed composition. In the trio we find the theme of the popular song Dies und Das (This and That). It is the only Rhapsody to be published several times in the nineteenth century and cited in works about Voříšek.

The Tenth Rhapsody, in C major, has a lively opening section with rapid triplet figuration in the right hand, echoed in the left. The central part again recalls Voříšek the organist who enjoyed polyphony. Unfortunately, for a long time, and even today, the Rhapsodies have been regarded merely as brilliant pieces, studies that are meant to demonstrate a diversity of technical skills. One cannot imagine Voříšek daring to knock at Beethoven’s door, however, to show him his book about various piano techniques. The Eleventh Rhapsody, in B minor, with its triplet semiquaver figuration, suggests a perpetuum mobile, building up to a climax before the affectionate con anima trio in G major that it frames, a pastoral song that will reach its apogee in Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words.

In Voříšek’s table of tonality and moods, E flat major is called “prächtig und feyerlich”—splendid and festive. Based on imitation, with polyphonic elements, the virtuosity serves the majestic counterpoint. In the middle part of the Twelfth Rhapsody the crotchets in the bass are as if borrowed from Beethoven. Here, Beethoven is knocking at the door, a most eagerly expected guest. The few bars at the end of the middle part are almost a quotation from the final movement of Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27, No. 1.

Biljana Urban

¹ Harry Halbreich, “Jan Vaclav Voříšek,” in François-René Tranchefort, Guide de la musique de piano et de clavecin (Paris: Fayard, 1982), p. 825
² Guy Erismann, La musique dans les pays tchèques, Fayard, 2011
³ Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces, London, 1775, Vol. II, pp. 24–25.
4 Voříšek, Notebook 18

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