Hanus Wihan was born on June 5, 1855 in Poliza near Brournow. His aptitude for music surfaced very early, and at the age of thirteen he was admitted to the Hegenbarth class of the Prague Conservatory. In 1873 the young man graduated successfully, and performed a concerto by Schumann with the orchestra, which in itself attested to his serious artistic intents and his interest in profound music.
After graduation Wihan, like Popper, had to begin his musical career abroad. In 1873, he began as professor at the Salzburg Mozarteum. and a year later as soloist in the chapel of the Russian art patron Pavel Derviz, which performed in Nice during winter and in summer appeared in Italy and Switzerland (Lugano).
But nostalgia and a longing to play in solo concerts quickly brought Wihan back to Czechia, where in 1875, he undertook a tour with the pianist Josef Jiranek, a pupil of Bedrich Smetana. At that time, in addition to works by Schumann, Brahms, Folkmann, Chopin, Servais and Popper, his repertoire already featured a sonata and andante by Anton Rubinstein, Davydov's At the Fountain and other compositions.
After a brief stay at a Prague theatre, in 1876 Wihan began to play in the famous Berlin orchestra directed by Benjamin Bilse. The violinist Karel Halir, Wihan's compatriot, was at that time the concertmaster. A year later, Wihan became a member of the private chapel in Sonderhausen (near Weimar) and thus was able to engage in more extensive concert activity. By that time he had become a close friend of Franz Liszt. In 1880-1888, Wihan was a soloist of the court chapel in Munich, where he made friends with Hans van Milow, Richard Wagner (Wihan took part in the Wagnerian celebrations in Bayreuth) and Richard Strauss, who dedicated a sonata and two pieces for cello and piano - Romance and Humoresque - to the Czech violoncellist.
Wihan did not break his ties with the land of his birth and with Czech music, whose propagandist he had always been. In Munich, he and the violinist Beno Walter formed a quartet which often performed works by Czech composers, especially those by Dvorak, as well as quartets by Beethoven, including the last ones. After Hegenbarth's death in 1888, Wihan succeeded him as professor at the Prague Conservatory following an open competition (the violoncello class and chamber ensemble class). It was then that he became friendly with eminent Czech musicians (in particular with Antonin Dvordk), was very prominent in the musical life of Prague and toured extensively as a soloist and chamber musician both in his country and abroad, specifically in Russia.
When on December 2, 1888 Wihan made a successful appearance in a concerto by Folkmann at the Prague Rudolphinum, Peter Tchaikovsky, who was in the audience, promised the talented cellist that he would help in the organization of his concert tour of Russia. Karl Davydov also provided assistance. Wihan had met him in 1885, and from that time on always sought his advice, when the Russian artist was on tour abroad and when he was in St. Petersburg.
In the article dedicated to Wihan's 60th birthday, Zdenek Nejedly emphasized the importance of his creative contacts with "the greatest masters of the instrument" particularly Davydov, about whom (Wihan) had the most grateful reminiscences." Wihan maintained friendly correspondence with Davydov and Tchaikovsky.
Hanus Wihan used to tell his pupil Bohns Heran about his studies with Davydov, and drew special attention to the natural manner of playing which he assimilated from the Russian cellist, especially the free motion of the right hand which made it easier to produce a natural sound, broad "breathing" of the bow, and polished strokes. Wihan was the spokesman of the progressive principles of the Davydov school for cellists at the Prague Conservatory.
In a letter to Wihan from Moscow on December 12/24, 1888, Davydov wrote: "That the press is particularly praising your sound (Tonbildung), makes me especially happy-has any of St. Petersburg advice been of use to you?"Later, Russian critics were often to comment on the beauty and nobility of the cellist's tone.
As a true artist, Wihan could not help being inspired by Davydov's vividly impressive and profoundly realistic art. Nejedly justly stated that Wihan's greatest merit as a performer was that he "Clearly realized the objective in art and the means ... His art is a long way from virtuoso shallowness. He is a master of his instrument, as are very few of his rivals, but his mastery serves to disclose freely and completely the wealth of the works of art." Both he and Davydov were opposed to "sound for sound's sake" and the "beautiful" sugary music; Wihan thought that sound should first of all be expressive, "lively," -wrote Nejedly, recalling his playing and the art of "talking" to a person's heart.
Commenting on the mastery and expressiveness of Wihan's playing, a Prague reviewer emphasized that "with all his sensitivity he never lapses into drawing-room sentimentality", that "his broad, speaking sound never sinks into the sweetishly breathing vibrato." Another contemporary underlined the cellist's virtuoso technique, deep sentiment and simple interpretation.
Wihan's name was among the names of the expected guest artists in "Moscovskiye vedomosti" in 1890 and 1892, but it was not until 1894 that the first notices of his Moscow performance appeared. The performance took place at the symphonic gathering of the Russian Musical Society on January 29 in Moscow, and Wihan played a concerto by Folkmann and Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" with dazzling success. The Folkmann concerto-very rarely played today, poetic but not especially original, with obviously solid knowledge of the cello cantilena, expressive and virtuoso resources by the composer-demands accomplished mastery which was fully demonstrated by Wihan. "Mr. Wihan's playing," wrote Nikolai Kashkin, "with all the perfection of the technical side and serious musicality of style, is absolutely deprived of pretensions to superficial glitter at conquering any difficulty; he ultimately does conquer them, but does it so quietly and simply, as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about it . . . " On the following day the program was repeated, with some changes, in the concert for Sunday schools.
During that same visit, Wihan revealed the best side of his talent as a chamber musician. On February 3, he performed one of Beethoven's last quartets, Op. 131, with Jan Hrimaly, David Krein and Nikolay Sokolovsky, plus a Chopin sonata with Pavel Schletzer, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory.
A highlight of Wihan's concert career was his five-month tour of Czech towns with Antonin Dvorak and the violinist Ferdinand Lachner in 1892. During this tour Dvorak wrote Rondo Op. 94 for the violoncellist which they first performed in Hrudim, and also did violoncello transcriptions of his piano works-the poetic Silence of the Forest (Silent Woods) and two Slavonic Dances. It was Wihan whom Dvorak was thinking about when he wrote the melodious violoncello part in Dumkas for the piano trio Op. 90 (1891). Dvorak also dedicated to him one of his finest works -the Violoncello Concerto Op. 104 written during 1894-1895, which won world renown for its splendid artistic merits. Dvorak could not accept all the modifications of the violoncello part suggested by Wihan, especially the cadenza added to the finale. Nevertheless, it was evident that the character of the usage of the cello cantilena and virtuoso expressive resources, and the composer's decision to write a concerto for this instrument were to a large degree encouraged by the cellist's mastery -his artistic and expressive phrasing, powerful and beautiful sound, and virtuosity.
In the same year the Concerto was completed, Wihan had already begun to study it, and was to perform it in several towns. In August 1895, he first performed it with the composer in a private home in Luzany with the Czech Quartet members present. When he was in Karlovy Vary, Wihan showed the Concerto to Fritz Simrock who published it in 1896.
However, at the first public performance of the Concerto in London, it was the English cellist Leo Stern who took the solo part, which gave rise to a conjecture about a quarrel between Dvorak and Wihan. But Dvorak's letters referring to the months preceding the premiere, published in 1957 by the British scholar Dr. John Clapham, show that this supposition is incorrect, and confirm the sincerity and continuity of their friendly relations. Dvorak did want Wihan to appear in the premiere of the Concerto., but the only possible date of the London concert coincided with the Czech Quartet tours that were stipulated by contracts signed earlier.
The cellist was later to perform the Dvorak Concerto with the orchestra; this was in January 1899 in the Hague, then in Amsterdam, and then on December 20 of that year in Budapest under the baton of the author. A reviewer of the local paper ("Pester Lloyd") underlined the "technical perfection, refined musical taste, brio and verve" of his playing, as well as the powerful and robust sound."'
During his many years of touring different countries, Wihan's repertoire featured a wealth of versatility. The concertos by Schumann and Dvorak, sonatas by Beethoven, Chopin, Rubinstein, Brahms and Strauss, pieces by Dvorak, Davydov, Czui, Popper, etc. attest to its artistic significance and seriousness. At the zenith of his solo concert career, Wihan gave great attention to chamber music, particularly to sonatas for cello and piano.
Wihan's repertoire as a concert cellist harmonized with his performing style, whose outstanding features were faithful and profound interpretation, completeness and emotion of musical phrasing, impeccable rhythm, a beautiful noble sound and perfect technique that eschewed any kind of superficial effects or mannerism. These factors determined the significance of Hanus Wihan in the history of the Czech violoncello school.
Wihan's quartet activity requires special attention. An excellent chamber musician, he managed very rapidly to form a quartet of talented young Prague Conservatory students-the violinists Karl Hoffmann and Josef Suk, the violist Oskar Nedbal (pupils of Antonin Bennewitz) and his own pupil Otakar Berger. He strove to instill in them good taste and a love for the art of quartet playing.
In 1891 the Quartet had already made its first public appearance, and in the following year it was named the Czech Quartet. At the time the ensemble came into being, the most advanced principles of the quartet style, which called forth its realistic tendencies and profound artistic interpretation were presented by Wihan. This was possible because of the ensemble's serious study of the quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Smetana, Dvorak, Novdk, Foerster, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Tanjeev and other great composers of quartet music, of which the Czech Quartet soon became the oustanding interpreter. This illustrious ensemble remained together for more than forty years and was extremely popular in Europe.
Wihan's love for the Quartet and his faith in its future prompted him to substitute for the cellist Otakar Berger when the latter was ailing and, following Berger's death (in 1897). Shortly afterwards he even gave up teaching at the Conservatory. A mature artist and musician, Wihan remained the heart and soul of the Czech Quartet for many years, and frequently appeared with the ensemble in many countries of Europe, including Russia-St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and other cities. The Czech Quartet and Sergey Tanjeev established especially close creative and ffiendly bonds. He often expressed deep satisfaction with their interpretation of his works, he appeared with the Czech artists both in Russia and abroad in performance of his G Minor Quintet, and dedicated his Fourth Quartet to them. Leo Tolstoy was also among the Russian admirers of the Czech Quartet... The Quartet's historical significance stems from its artistic achievements and favorable publicity for classical chamber music, particularly Czech and Russian.
Playing in the ensemble, Wihan possessed the art of subjugation of his mastery and brilliant individuality to the interests of the artistic whole. His broad and powerful tone formed a wonderful bass foundation for the ensemble, while the cello's expressive singing made a deep impression in solo episodes and was in perfect harmony with all the other instruments. The high qualities of the tone, skillful strokes, vivid pizzicato, etc. were often specially noted in the reviews of the Quartet performance.
"The Czech Quartet and Wihan-these are two names that history will link eternally," wrote Zdenek Nejedly, "and if we consider the Czech Quartet to be the summit of Czech performing art, this only means that for us, Wihan is the maestro whose name will always be in the first rank of the Czech musicians of our time."
The traditions of quartet style that the Quartet evolved under Wihan's direction were preserved during its final two decades. It was disbanded in 1934 after Ladislav Zelenka, a leading representative of Wihan's school, in 1913 replaced his ailing teacher in the ensemble.
Until 1918 Wihan lived in Brandys over Orlitza (Bohus Heran studied with him there as a child) practicing the cello regularly and playing in ensemble with his friends. After the downfall of the Hapsburg monarchy, Hanus Wihan, Otakar Sevcik and Frantisek Ondricek were offered professorships in the "High Mastery Schools" at the Prague Conservatory (1919) but a serious heart ailment prevented him from teaching and seeing his new artistic plans materialized. Wihan died in Prague on May 1, 1920.
Despite his relatively short period as professor of the violoncello class at the Prague Conservatory, Hanus Wihan taught a great number of the illustrious musicians who were the basis of his school. Among those who should be mentioned are Artur Krasa, Otakar Berger, Jan Burian, Julius Junek, Rudolf Pavlata, Maximilian Skvor, and Bedrich Vaska.
These and several other Czech violoncellists, pupils and disciples of Hanus Wihan constituted the Czech violoncello school of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, which produced many talented concert artists as well as excellent chamber musicians and teachers.