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Conservatory students explore the charm of low strings

A manuscript page by Wagenseil, British Library accession number Zweig MS 98 [f. 3r]
A manuscript page by Wagenseil, British Library accession number Zweig MS 98 [f. 3r]
from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Student recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music frequently provide intriguing opportunities to learn more about repertoire. Last night three of the students in the Conservatory Baroque Ensemble, along with the group’s co-director Elisabeth Reed, concluded the evening showcase with a thoroughly nonstandard string quartet. The scoring was for three cellos and double bass and the composer was Georg Christoph Wagenseil.

Wagenseil was born in 1715, making him about a year younger than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. While Bach’s training came primarily from his father, Wagenseil received most of his training in Vienna from Johann Joseph Fux under an imperial court scholarship that begin in 1735 and lasted for three years. His Grove Music Online entry, by John Kucaba and Bertil H. van Boer, provides a useful review of his operas, keyboard music (including concertos), and symphonies but says nothing about his chamber music. Indeed, the listing of his works cites four quartets but says nothing about them, including their dates.

Like the younger Bach, Wagenseil was a forerunner of the Classical period. His music was known to both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. (He also gets a paragraph in Charles Burney’s A General History of Music.) However, none of the “usual sources” seem to have very much to say about his approach to instrumentation in this particular quartet.

Last night’s ensemble played only the opening Allegro, performing on period instruments. Wagenseil clearly appreciated both the strengths and limitations of low strings. He appreciated how too much activity could lead to a murky blur, but his music was anything but solemn. He found just the right melodic contours that would work in the lower register at an Allegro tempo, and through that thematic vocabulary he was able to weave some fascinating patterns of interaction among the four instruments. If the initial impression was a bit disarming, the ear quickly adjusted to the novelty of the setting, leaving at least one listener wondering if the entire quartet was as appealing as this opening movement.