Georg Christoph Wagenseil


Symfonier vol. 1


Music in the Age of Maria Theresa

The preclassical period in Vienna more or less coincided with the reign of Maria Theresa, who succeeded her father, Emperor Charles VI in 1740 and led the Habsburg monarchy until her death in 1780. It was during this forty-year period that the transition from the imperial late-baroque to fully developed Viennese classicism took place. Joseph Haydn published his String Quartets op. 33, a manifesto of classical style, in 1782, and during the previous year Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had left his post under the Salzburg archbishop to began to make his way as a freelance artist in the Danube metropolis. The imperial court had been the determining factor in Viennese music life prior to 1740, but during Maria Theresa’s reign the patronage and practice of music increasingly passed into the hands of the aristocracy and well-to-do middle class. After Maria Theresa had ascended to the throne, the glory that had been Viennese court music underwent rapid decline, This decline left its traces in the statistics. During the mid-1720s Charles VI and his court music director, the great Johann Joseph Fux, had a court ensemble of 134 members at their disposal, including about seventy instrumentalists. Only fifty years later only twenty musicians remained in the court’s employ, and some of them were too old to render active service. Instruments such as the violoncello, double bass, and organ were no longer represented in the imperial court ensemble!

How did these but little honorable circumstances come about? Maria Theresa inherited a politically and financially precarious situation from her father in Austria, and this made drastic economy measures absolutely necessary. The downsizing of the lavish court style maintained by Charles VI also meant budgetary streamlining for the court music ensemble. The musicians’ salaries were reduced, and the post of court music director left vacant at Fux’s death in 1741 was not filled until 1746 with Luca Antonio Predieri. Predieri’s main area of responsibility involved the performance of operas at the court. Since the last gala imperial opera on the grand scale had been performed in 1744 in honor of the marriage of Princess Maria Anna (Hasse’s Ipermestra), Predieri had very little to do right from the very beginning. He resigned in 1751 and left the imperial court. Georg Reutter the Younger, who had been in charge of sacred and chamber music up until that point, took over Predieri’s duties and at the same time had to live with official reform measures that ended up sealing the doom of the court ensemble over the next twenty years. In a sort of leasing system, Reutter was obliged to maintain some semblance of court music life on an annual budget of 20,000 guldens. This sum was only enough to keep the performance of church music going. Reutter could not hire any new musicians and made do with outside musicians when necessary. The pensions for the musicians were also paid out of this budget. The court withdrew from the opera field in particular, even though Maria Theresa was very much fond of lavish musical spectacles outside her own court. As in well known, she attended opera performances at Eszterháza Castle, the residence of Prince Eszterházy, and these performances commanded her greatest respect. The empress is said to have stated, “When I want to hear a good opera, I go to Eszterház”. And one might add, yes, of course, because the Habsburgs had eliminated their own opera. The Eszterházy court is a splendid example of the aristocratic music patronage during this period. The prince of this “Eszterházy fairy-land”, an understanding patron of the arts, gave court music director Haydn all the funds necessary for making music the center of a lavish festival culture. It was here that the music world that had once been the domain of the imperial court found its continuation.

And, we should note, Maria Theresa knew what she was talking about. In keeping with Habsburg tradition, she too was a fine musician. Her father had taken part in performances of Fux’s operas as a harpsichordist, and her grandfather, Emperor Leopold I, had delivered a series of first-class compositions. She played the harpsichord and performed as a singer and dancer at festive family occasions. Even after she had ascended to the throne, she set her eye on a part in Hasse’s Ipermestra but had to give up the idea owing to the dignity of her position. She began harpsichord lessons under Gottlieb Muffat, Georg Muffat’s son and the leading harpsichord composer in Vienna at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and then went on to perfect her skills under the tutelage of Georg Christoph Wagenseil.

Wagenseil – Court Composer and Court Keyboard Master

The Vienna-born Wagenseil had been appointed to the post of court composer in February 1739 together with Giuseppe Bonno. This was not an exclusive position but certainly an honorable one that Wagenseil shared with several colleagues under the court music director. Nevertheless, Wagenseil would not have advanced to this post if he had not had Fux’s support. The twenty-year-old composer had received a court stipend in 1735. Charles VI had set aside these funds to prepare promising talents for possible future service at the court. On the award of his stipend, Wagenseil received instruction in keyboard, counterpoint, and composition from the court music director and from court composer Matteo Palotta for three years. He then entered court service first as a court composer, a post that he would hold until his death, and in 1741 as the organist to Elisabeth Christine, the widow of Charles VI. His tasks included the writing of compositions, with most of his work coming in the fields of sacred music and opera. The court granted commissions for the performance of the latter works by outside lessors. Wagenseil produced six operas at the Vienna court theater between 1745 and 1750 and two others in Venice and Florence. In addition, he gave lessons to Maria Theresa and accompanied the empress at the keyboard during her occasional presentations of her singing talent in private settings. He also taught the children of the imperial family and thus rightly earned the title of court keyboard master in 1749. His salary as a court music composer (700 guldens) was more than matched by the fees that he received for instruction (800 guldens).

Maria Theresa regarded her court composer with special favor as long as she lived, valued his musical gifts, and lent him financial support – which, given the strict economy measures in effect at the court, is all the more remarkable. On the other hand, Wagenseil was not hit directly by the decline of the court music ensemble. And any effect that this development may have had on him was more than offset by the fame that he was able to gain for himself as a brilliant harpsichord virtuoso. Already in 1751 Metastasio wrote from Vienna to Farinelli that Wagenseil was “a portentous harpsichord player”, Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart regarded him as one of the “principal harpsichord virtuosos” of his time, and Charles Burney mentioned him in the same breath with Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach. Wagenseil contributed more than ninety works to the still young genre of the harpsichord concerto and wrote well over a hundred works for harpsichord solo. Most of these works came, however, from the period after 1750, when Elisabeth Christine died and her private ensemble was disbanded. This brought an end to Wagenseil’s employment as an organist. Moreover, during the same year, now listed as the first court composer on the imperial payroll, he was officially released from the composition of church music. He made good use of his new freedom and turned to the production of instrumental music.

Following the years of open enmity between Austria and France resulting from the conflicts surrounding the Austrian succession, the two countries eventually established closer political terms. It was against the background of this favorable climate that Wagenseil sought his own favor with Paris publishers during the 1750s. The music-publishing business was experiencing rapid growth in Paris, then ranking as the unofficial capital of the European music world, and Wagenseil was able to take advantage of this prosperity. He was granted publishing privileges in the French capital for ten years on January 12, 1756, and these privileges were extended during the following year. Eleven Paris publishers, among them Huberty and Venier, included music by the Vienna court composer in their programs. They were followed by publishers in London, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Germany, so that Wagenseil slowly advanced to celebrity status in the European music scene during the 1760s. When he made plans for a concert tour in August 1756, Maria Theresa granted him a leave of absence for two years and an advance amounting to five annual stipends! He doubtless must have planned to build on the success that he had already achieved in Paris on this trip, but the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War kept him from carrying out his plans. Wagenseil remained in Vienna, composing and teaching members of the imperial family as well as pupils like Joseph Anton Stefan, who would succeed him as court keyboard master, František Xaver Dušek, and Leopold Hoffmann.

He had to resign from his court posts for reasons of illness in 1769. When he died of tuberculosis in 1777, he was buried in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With his death the Viennese music world lost its most important representative before the great era of Viennese classicism. Charles Burney’s question on his arrival in Vienna in 1772 points to the importance enjoyed by Wagenseil. He asked himself what great musicians Vienna had to offer apart from Hasse, Gluck, and Wagenseil. Today Wagenseil’s significance in music history has been reduced to that of a mere precursor of the classical style, but Burney’s question gives us some inkling of the outstanding reputation of this imperial court composer and court keyboard master during his own lifetime.


Wagenseil’s Symphonies

Wagenseil’s symphonies were extremely popular during the second half of the eighteenth century. Almost all of his sixty-three symphonies recognized as authentic today were in circulation in the leading European music centers. Currently, fifty-seven of them are documented in more than three hundred manuscripts or printed editions in archives ranging from Sweden to Italy and from Czechia to the United States – impressive evidence of the wide dissemination of these works. From numerous sources it can also be gathered that Wagenseil’s symphonies were also performed just as frequently. The Concert spirituel, a public concert series founded by Philidor in 1725, included one of his symphonies in its program already in 1759. Further performances followed during later years, and Wagenseil’s presence in publishing catalogues was the logical complement to such representation. It is interesting to note that this court composer in imperial service was able to establish himself in a field that like no other was a synonym for the decentralized music culture of those years. The imperial court continued to maintain its predilection for the strict style and its erudite fugues for quite some time and increasingly lost its monopoly. In contrast, the middle class and aristocracy were more open to the new currents, and the symphony found welcome ears in the salons and the public academies. Of course, the symphonic form involved here was not yet the ”grande symphonie” of the age of Beethoven, and emotional depth, originality, and supreme seriousness were not (yet) concerns of this genre. Instead audiences sought and found a charming and entertaining pastime in the symphony. As was entirely in keeping with its origin in the Italian opera overture (sinfonia), the symphony did not form the main attraction of a concert; the spotlight was reserved for the solo performances of singers and instrumental virtuosos. Johann Philipp Kirnberger wrote of this Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (1771–74), “Its [the symphony’s] end purpose is to prepare the listener for an important piece of music”.

Symphony in C major WV 351 Sinfonia “Vincislao”

1. Allegro assai
2. Polonoise
3. Allegro assai

Wagenseil’s earliest symphonies, all from 1745–50, are still genuine opera overtures, representatives of the “sinfonia” genre. (The terms “overture” and “sinfonia” were still synonymous around the middle of the eighteenth century.) They introduce stage works, among them the operas Ariodante and Alessandro nell’Indie, display the characteristic three-movement design (fast-slow-fast) and a trim form, and avail themselves of the striking effect. The Sinfonia in C major WV 351 for the opera Vincislao is one of the last examples of this kind penned by Wagenseil. Premiered on December 8, 1750, Vincislao marked the end of his dramme per musica at the Vienna court. The instrumentation with trumpets and timpani instead of the more frequent horns lends the sinfonia a festive touch, but in its concise sonata form without the repetition of the movement components, the Allegro assai does not intend any sort of detailed discourse. The slow movement in A minor reserved for the strings is based on the polonaise form that had enjoyed such great popularity ever since the days of August the Strong and is usual in its stylized dance character. A monothematic finale 3/8 in trim style sees to it that the work comes to a close with the required high-volume conclusion.


After 1750 Wagenseil almost exclusively composed independent sinfonie concertanti while continuing to remain true to the three-movement design of the opera sinfonia. We do not know of a four-movement symphony with a minuet in the third position by Wagenseil. Although the structure of the movements is more complex and more extensive when compared to the overtures, Wagenseil retains the economy of the material and its concise elaboration as well as his predilection for the effective rhetorical devices representing the symphonic style of those times: motif formulas, chord beats, unison passages, harmonic surprises, rhythmic contrasts, extensive intensifications, and a writing style in broad brush strokes placing the tonal and dynamic capabilities of the orchestra in the proper light. Wagenseil’s motivic designs are not all that original in detail because he takes standard formulas typical of those times as his starting point (and here he was not alone). The combinations of these motifs and their integration in the very well-thought-out design of the larger whole are impressive. And here he clearly prefers the sonata-form movement with its thematic dualism and three-part division into exposition, development section, and recapitulation. At his hands this outline already takes on a developed shape.

Symphony in B flat major WV 438

1. Allegro
2. Andante ma molto
3. Vivace

The Symphony in B flat major WV 438 from the mid-1750s was published by Venier in an anthology of symphonies including works by other composers. The first movement is a very good illustration of what we have stated above: the primary and secondary themes offer two different views of the ascending broken triadic chord, and the transitional and closing groups are formed by amorphous blocks based on dynamically shaded intensifications of the tremolo strings or octave scales – simple ingredients with a structure of immediate appeal. For the rest, the character of the introductory themes surprises us with its 3/4 time in the dance mode; it practically breathes Handel’s spirit. The Andante in the subdominant key of E flat major was published separately by Breitkopf as a piano transcription. It is followed by a concluding Vivace in the form of a gigue.

Symphony in G major WV 413

1. Allegro di molto
2. Largo
3. Tempo di Minuetto

The Symphony in G major WV 413 is to be dated to a few years later. Its middle movement, a Largo in G minor of deep emotion, is unique among Wagenseil’s symphonies. The first violin concertizes with motif fragments over the chordal underlay of the other strings. The fragments suggest lament and usually bypass the metrical demarcations. The movement’s genuine appeal comes from its harmonic richness. Toward the end the Neapolitan sixth chord sets a melancholy accent. This time the concluding movement is a minuet in 3/8 time with a trio taking us back to the Largo’s sphere with its G minor key. Wagenseil also exploits the contrast between G major and G minor in the Allegro. In the recapitulation he inserts a surprising G minor section between the primary and secondary themes. This section changes the proportions significantly.

Symphony in G minor WV 418

1. Vivace
2. Andantino
3. Allegro assai

Wagenseil’s symphonies include only three minor works, all of them in the key of G minor (also Mozart’s symphonic minor key, cf. KV 183 and KV 550). The Symphony WV 418 from the early 1760s is similarly a typical “Storm and Stress” work in which some of the elements already observed are expressed even more strongly: dynamic contrasts, unison chains, abrupt chords. For all this, the introductory Vivace is a pronouncedly homogeneous unit drawing on a few basic motifs constituting the whole of the movement. In the development section Wagenseil works logically with the existing store of motifs before moving on to a regular recapitulation. The sparkling finale, like the Andantino, adheres to the principles of the sonata form but lives up to its “Storm and Stress” context in its tone, which is strikingly reminiscent of comparable pieces by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Symphony in B flat major WV 441

1. Vivace
2. Andante
3. Tempo di Menuet

The Symphony in B flat major WV 441 from about 1764 was published by Huberty as the fifth work in an edition of six Wagenseil symphonies. The first movement goes beyond its predecessors in its command of form pointing to its composer’s ability to bring together heterogeneous elements to form a fascinating whole and his mature mastery in the treatment of proportions. Wagenseil also already succeeds quite well in lending a characteristic color to the universality of the vocabulary. This represents a clear step in the direction of the classical symphony. With its charm, grace, and employment of the connotations of the Lombard rhythm, the Andante represents one of the best slow movements in Wagenseil’s symphonies. The energetic inserts at the beginning of the development section are to be understood entirely dramatically as a narrative element and quite clearly herald the breaking with the baroque unity of affect. A carefree minuet (this time without a trio) forms a rather more traditional conclusion to the symphony.

Andreas Friesenhagen
Translated by Susan Marie Praeder

Symfonier vol. 2


Traditionally, the dates of the great composers of past times have often been regarded as milestones for marking the course of (Western) music history. In this connection, the date of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death, 1750, has taken on the significance of an epochal divide signaling the end of the baroque era or the age of the thoroughbass. What followed, at least according to schoolbook accounts, was the so-called preclassical or early classical period, in which not least Bach’s (composing) sons played a significant formative role. This period lasted until 1781, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Vienna.

At the very latest since the rediscovery of the so-called Mannheim school, that circle of musicians formed around the middle of the eighteenth century by members of the Palatine Prince Elector Carl Theodor’s court orchestra, historiography has viewed matters from a clearly more nuanced point of view. It has set the beginnings of what was a so very dramatic change in musical style some ten years earlier and spoken of an orchestral culture unknown until those times (with the English music scholar Charles Burney, who, referring to the special qualities of the Mannheim court orchestra, spoke of an “army of generals”, often being cited in this context). Moreover, special attention has been paid to the increasing international significance of music publishing. Here it is first and foremost Paris that would have to be mentioned; until the French Revolution, that is, within a period of fifty years, some eighty new publishers set up business. No other European music center, London included, could point to similar growth figures.

Driven by the competition, which often was running its own business only a few doors or houses away, the publishers, men and women, endeavored to hold their own on the marketplace. Royal privileges which they obtained for periods of ten, twelve, fifteen, or even twenty years and as a rule were limited to the works of specific composers, most of them foreigners, helped them to maintain their market position.

At first the majority of the famous foreign composers concerned were of Italian origin and their music was obliged to the late baroque idiom, but around 1755 new names emerged, most of them with roots in Southern Germany and Austria. Apart from Johann Stamitz, Georg Christoph Wagenseil would be the first name to be mentioned in this connection. A printed edition of his three Sinfonie a Quattro obligati con corni da caccia ad libitum containing the same number of such works by Ignaz Holzbauer, also a composer tracing his origins to Vienna, marked the beginning of a series of more than thirty French printed edition, with works by this Habsburg court composer and widely esteemed keyboard virtuoso. Wagenseil had the honor of being granted two privileges issued directly to him, but if seems doubtful that he himself actually had the opportunity (as had been announced) to present his symphonies, concertos, and sonatas to the Paris public. (Owing to the political turmoil caused by the Seven Years’ War [1756–63] throughout Europe, he had been urgently advised to cancel his two-year foreign tour. As compensation, he would later receive the annual sum of five hundred guldens, which equaled a third of his salary as court composer.) In addition, he obtained personal advantages from the Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality signed between Austria and France on 1 May 1756, and these advantages certainly contributed their part to enabling him to enjoy the position of the main representative of Austrian music in the Parisian concert world for many years.


Symphony in F WV 398 / F5

(Ouvertüre zur Oper Il Siroe, Wien 1748)
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante
3. Allegro assai

Before he could reach such prominence, Wagenseil still had a long path in front of him when at the end of the 1740s, while serving as organist to the Dowager Empress Elisabeth Christine, he undertook to establish his reputation as a first-class opera composer. Functioning as a link between the generation of his teacher Johann Joseph Fux and that centering on Christoph Willibald Gluck, Wagenseil wrote for Venice, a city he visited in 1745, and soon for the Burgtheater in Vienna. Three years later, on the occasion of the name day of Emperor Francis l, he wrote the dramma per musica entitled Il Siroe, Rè di Persia after the text of the court poet Pietro Metastasio. All the overtures of Wagenseil’s stage works, eight in number to the mid-century mark, are extant as independent symphonies, with most of them surviving in several libraries in Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Switzerland, Belgium, England, and Sweden. In this connection, the overture to Il Siroe (WV 398) is to be regarded as rather unusual because of its F major key but also by virtue of the fact that neither trumpets nor timpani are used. Instead, a very prominent role is signed to the horns – which is to be understood as an allusion to hunting, the favorite occupation of the Persian royal house.

Symphony in A op. 12 Nr. 5 / WV 421 / A3

(Ouvertüre zur Oper Demetrio, Florenz 1746 / Mailand 1760)
1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegro assai

The work that, according to a source from Naples, is supposed to have been performed as the sinfonia to Demetrio (Florence, 1746), also does not entirely harmonize with our view of Wagenseil’s early opera symphonies. As for as its musical rhetoric is concerned, it seems to be much too advanced. Other evidence suggests that the work concerned, as a Basel manuscript with the heading “Overtura a più stromenti per il Teatro di Milano” reveals, in actual fact involved a new composition for the Teatro Ducale Regio of Milan and the new performance of Demetrio there during the 1760 Carnival season. Its publication a few months later by Jean Baptiste Venier in Paris in a collection of Sei Sinfonie a più stromenti composte a vari autori may also speak in favor of the correctness of this theory.

Symphony in C op. 5 Nr. 5 / WV 361 / C9

1. Allegro molto
2. Andante
3. Tempo di minuetto

Symphony in D op. 3 Nr. 1 / WV 374 / D10

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegro assai

Symphony a 6 in A WV 432 / A10

1. Con spirito
2. Allegretto sempre piano
3. Con spirito

Apart from occasional stylistic glances back to the past (what is meant is, e.g., the operatic, somewhat conservative, but highly animated Allegro molto from the Sinfonia in C [WV 361], a work forming part of another collection published by Venier). Wagenseil’s style increasingly follows a clear line of development toward the concert symphony – this against the background of his Paris successes. Repetitions of introductory segments become part of the standard inventory of these compositions and together with the extension of the middle and final movements in these same works result in an increase of overall length of about fifty percent. In addition, modulations of key of experimental character, excursions to minor keys occupying whole segments, if not whole movements too, and instances of tone-color interplay (e.g., when Wagenseil uses the transverse flutes to reinforce the violins [WV 374] or in unison with the violins and oboes [WV 432]).

Symphony in E op. 13 Nr. 3 / WV 393 / E1

1. Allegro
2. Andante molto
3. Menuet

The Symphony in E major (WV 393) represents the undisputable high point among the works brought together on this recording. It too was published by Venier, around 1761. With its “loud jubilation, laughing joy, and pleasure that is not yet complete, full” it brings to expression the characteristics of this key as stated by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. Indeed, the opening Allegro is a model example of proportion, inner peace, and harmony. It is followed by on Andante molto in A major (“declaration of innocent love; hope for reunion at a lover’s parting”) and goes over into a cheerful minuet that even those dark clouds that do occasionally drift by are unable to dim.

Christian Moritz-Bauer
Translated by Susan Marie Praeder