Programs paper the office door—records of concerts played and countries visited. Poland on Thanksgiving, Sydney in July.

I put my life on the door,” Brent Wissick says. “Not to be arrogant, but to reveal to my students how I make life and performance and teaching all hook together.” The hook? His love of discovery. His interest in exploring odd corners of the past and revitalizing what he finds.

Wissick, cello and viol da gamba professor in the music department, loves to find the story in the score. He dusts off manuscripts long silent and brings the music back to life through his performance and storytelling.

Wissick started out as a cello player with a passion for J.S. Bach. Pretty soon he got involved in a new trend in classical music—the original-instrument movement. Instrument makers were reconstructing older models of modern instruments, and in some cases, rebuilding instruments that had entirely disappeared from modern performance. And musicians were reconstructing how these instruments were originally played.

At first, the original-instrument movement attracted Wissick because he wanted to find the “right” way to play Bach. “On a superficial level I assumed there was a correct answer,” he says. “If I could find out how Bach performed a piece and play it that way too, that was true art. Later I realized this was too rigid. It stifled creativity. And I decided that the movement’s value for me was how it excited me to new ways of performing and hearing.”

Wissick began to use his research to inspire his performance—to expand the way he thought about playing with other people, and to rework how he performed familiar pieces. Interested in exploring new sounds, he learned to play the baroque cello, an earlier version of the modern cello, and the viol da gamba, an ancestor of the string bass. He also changed the way he interacted with his audience. Always enthusiastic, Wissick brings his excitement onto the stage both in his music and in his stage presence. His concerts are lively and relaxed, and he talks to the audience, taking the time to describe each piece and its composer. The music comes alive—it seems more poignant and meaningful—when we hear its story.

Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, “Jupiter”

Forqueray’s “Jupiter” hails from a father-and-son collection of viol da gamba music. Wissick became interested in the For-querays because of their personalities. “The music is so difficult,” he says. “And some people play it extremely well. What I try to bring to it is what I know about the Forquerays as characters.”

When Wissick talks about “Jupiter,” his usual animation rises a notch or two. This piece is exciting to him, both musically and because of its story. To understand “Jupiter’s” importance, he says, you have to know about the family.

The two Forquerays, Antoine and Jean-Baptiste, were viol da gamba players in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his two successors. A virtuoso performer and composer, father Forqueray became insanely jealous as his son’s talents grew to match his own. By the time the son was in his twenties, he’d been jailed and then banished from the French court by his father’s noble allies.

But young Forqueray had his own set of allies, and when the father died Louis XV awarded him his father’s position as court musician. Young Forqueray later published the collection of pieces by his father and himself, claiming, in a clever political ploy, a reconciliation with his dead father and his father’s allies. Historians later realized that the supposed reconciliation was purely revengeful—his father had never allowed his music to be published.

This collection fascinates Wissick. It’s a grouping of musical portraits. Each piece is named after a famous person of the time, and each offers clues to young Forqueray’s opinion of the portrait’s subject. “The Regent,” named after Forqueray’s staunchest ally, is a beautifully engraved work of art; Wissick describes it as “arrogant and smooth.” An Italian dance is dedicated to the elder Forqueray, a devout fan of the genre. Wissick says “La Forqueray” is a killer piece—”wild and mean.”

The last piece in the collection is the kicker. “`Jupiter,’” Wissick says.”What does this title suggest? You know the myth: Old Cronus was afraid of his children. He swallowed them all—except Jupiter, his youngest son. Cronus’ wife, Rhea, substituted a stone in place of her son, and Jupiter grew to overthrow his father and rescue his siblings from the darkness of their father’s belly. `Jupiter’ is the young Forqueray’s celebration of his ultimate victory and sweet revenge over his father.”

Giovanni Bononcini, Cello sonata no. 11

Giovanni Bononcini wasn’t a cutthroat like the senior Forqueray. Wissick started researching Bononcini when he noticed his name paired with Handel in descriptions of London’s musical life in the 1720s. This was during the height of baroque opera, and Bononcini and Handel were composing opera after opera in a race to win away each other’s audience. Wissick wanted to learn more about this unfamiliar composer. Then he discovered Bononcini’s cello music.

I was fascinated,” Wissick says. “Here was this famous opera composer who was also a cellist.” At the time, the cello was largely regarded as an accompaniment instrument; the violinists played the melodies and had leading roles in the orchestra. Wissick says, “I wondered, did Bononcini feature the cello more prominently in his music than other composers did? How much did he perform? Did he switch roles with the first violinist and conduct as a cellist?”

Wissick later found out that Bononcini was indeed a famous virtuoso, and that he continued to perform, even when his fame as an opera composer reached its height. In fact, despite their competition, Handel and Bononcini often played in each other’s operas—Handel on the harpsichord and Bononcini on the cello. And the composer of that night’s opera always conducted from his position in the orchestra.

Studying Bononcini’s music and performance practice led Wissick into a collaborative project with Lowell Lindgren, a musicologist from MIT. Years ago Lindgren had run across several cello sonatas by Bononcini, unpublished and stashed in a Paris library. Wissick acquired a few and began to perform them. His partnership with Lindgren soon led to a printed collection of the complete sonatas. Lindgren edited the collection, and Wissick acted as the performance consultant. He played through each sonata, checking the scores for problems, and adding footnotes and citations to help cellists interpret the music.

Wissick says his interest in Bononcini is partly academic and partly artistic. “I’m intrigued with the Bononcini pieces. Academia demands that everyone find something in which they are the authority. And every artist needs that too.” He’s also become known as an expert accompanist. His expertise earned him a faculty position at Aston Magna, an interdisciplinary program for the arts held biannually and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last summer Wissick taught accompanying techniques, spoke on Handel and Bononcini, and performed with the rest of the faculty.

Despite his busy performance and teaching schedule, Wissick makes time for other projects. Sometime next year he hopes to record the Bononcini cello sonatas, and he’s currently negotiating with a play wright about a drama involving the Forquerays.

Says Wissick, “When people participate in music by getting involved in its history, they discover what they can learn from the past and what they can bring to it that’s new—they have a stake in it that someone merely performing a piece, acting as the composer’s vessel, just can’t have.”

Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.