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Haydn and the challenge of the baryton

Peg box of a baryton, Brussels (undated)Divertimento 24o per il pariton [original manuscript, 1766]

Stanford University Libraries, Memorial Library of Music, MLM 491

Link to downloadable images of this work

The baryton [pariton] is a bass instrument in the viol family that may be simultaneously bowed and plucked. It features a double set of strings, the upper set gut, for bowing, the lower set metal, for sympathetic vibration and for plucked accompaniment. The metal strings run the length of the neck behind the fingerboard, which is hollowed in the back to allow the left hand to pluck the strings.

Loosely related to the lyra-viol, the baryton likely originated in seventeenth-century England. Its moment in the sun, however, came in ighteenth-century Austria, at the court of the barytonist Prince Nicholas Esterházy, with music supplied in abundance by his ambitious young Kappelmeister, Joseph Haydn.

Prince Nicholas Esterházy (1714-1790) rose to head the court at Ezsterháza upon the death of his brother Paul Anton in 1762, and became Haydn’s employer and patron for the next three decades. Haydn, who also played the baryton, immediately set about composing works for Nicholas, including over 170 chamber pieces featuring the baryton, in the years between 1765 and 1778. He composed 126 Divertimenti for baryton, viola and cello (hXI:1–126). Stanford University Libraries’ original manuscript leaf is a fragment of the baryton part for the Divertimento no. 24.

Divertimento no, 24, baryton part (detail)As with much of Haydn’s output, existing original manuscripts for the Divertimenti are incomplete and scattered among repositories. Stanford’s manuscript leaf, in the composer’s hand and dated 1766, is the earliest surviving manuscript from these sets of works, and helps narrow the dates of composition of at least the first two sets (nos. 1-12 and 13-24) to between 1765 and 1766.

According to librettist and music writer Giuseppe Carpani (1752-1825), Haydn himself admitted to the benefits of writing for the baryton (quoted in Strunk):

"Haydn informed me," Carpani reports, "that his compositions for that instrument [the baryton] had cost him much trouble, but that the experience had been of great value to him later in writing for other instruments."

While it had been generally thought that Nicholas’s musical tastes and talents restricted Haydn’s growth as a composer, contemporary research suggests just the opposite, when considering the Divertimenti.  That Haydn could experiment and develop his signature musical language and display such inventiveness within confines imposed by the genre, the close range of the instruments, the requirement to feature the baryton as soloist, and the limited technique of the Prince, has been the subject of fruitful investigation by modern scholars.

Nicholas’s baryton (J.J Stadlmann, 1750) is the only baryton listed in the 1936 inventory of instruments at Eszterháza to have survived WWII; it is preserved in the Hungarian National Museum. Haydn’s baryton (D.A. Stadlmann, 1732) has also survived and is in the collection of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien. The late 20th century saw a baryton revival, including many new works composed, and the formation of the International Baryton Society.

YouTube provides a recording of the Divertimento no. 24.


For further reading:

W.O. Strunk: ‘Haydn’s Divertimenti for Baryton, Viola, Bass’, Musical Quarterly, xviii (1932), 216–51.

E.R. Sisman, ‘Haydn’s Baryton Pieces and his Serious Genres’, International Joseph Haydn Kongress Wien 1982 (Munchen, 1986), p. 426-444.

P. Holman: ‘An Addicion of Wyer Stringes Beside the Ordenary Stringes: the Origin of the Baryton?’, Companion to Contemporary Musical Thought, ii (London, 1992), 1098–1115.

Baryton, in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

C.A.Gartrell, A History of the Baryton and its Music: King of Instruments, Instrument of Kings. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.



Baryton, Brussels (undated)

A baryton

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this item.