Haydn and the Baryton

Franz Joseph Haydn, the greatest composer after Mozart of the Classical era of the late 18th century, wrote 175 works for an obscure instrument called the baryton.

How he found time to do this is amazing to me since he also wrote over 104 symphonies, 70 string quartets, 60 piano sonatas, numerous concertos, masses and operas, and more.

Admittedly, he did have a lot of time to compose. He was employed by the wealthy Esterhazy family for nearly 30 years, and his patron, Prince Nicolas Esterhazy was an avid amateur player of this unusual instrument.

The baryton is a bowed string instrument of the viol family about the size of a cello that has 6 0r 7 bowed strings on a fingerboard and from 9 to 24 sympathetic wire strings in back of the hollowed out neck that can be plucked.

The resonating metal strings in back give the baryton an unusual sound that apparently Haydn’s patron really enjoyed. It’s been reported that he wasn’t particularly competent on this difficult-to-play instrument but  enjoyed performing  chamber music compositions on it, usually accompanied by viola (often played by Haydn) and cello.

The interesting thing is that, given the prince’s limitations, Haydn managed to write with such imagination in the interplay of the parts. The baryton trios are intimate chamber pieces probably played for relaxation and diversion in the Esterhazy palace when Prince Nicolas and Haydn had the time.

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