The baryton is part of the viol family, but with a difference. Played between the legs like a cello, it has two sets of strings. The gut strings are strung like a normal cello, above the neck. But a second set of steel strings are behind and to the right of the neck. This allows the player to pluck them with the left hand’s thumb. The strings can be plucked to create a bass line with the melody, or they can be left alone to reverberate harmonically with the other strings.
The earliest barytons come from around the 1620’s but it was never a popular instrument. It is documented that the baryton was admired by King James. Walter Rowe was one of the first baryton players to be written about. Originally from England, Rowe ended up as the chief musician for the Marquis of Brandenburg. The fact that Rowe was from England had made many historians wonder if the Baryton was originally an English instrument.
The instrument’s popularity peaked in the 1700’s because of one man. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire played the unusual instrument. And in the Esterhazy’s employ as kapellmeister was Joseph Haydn. The prince reprimanded Haydn in 1765 for not composing enough for his employer’s favorite instrument. Haydn’s baryton composition output greatly increased to the point where he wrote almost 200 works for the prince.
The baryton quickly fell out of favor by the end of the 1700’s. It doesn’t appear that Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who replaced Haydn as Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy palace, composed music for the prince’s instrument. This may be part of the reason Hummel was ultimately dismissed from his post.
The baryton experienced a revival in the 1960’s due to the “historically-informed” performances that began to emerge. John Hsu was a major proponent of the baryton and brought Haydn’s unusual trios back into the limelight.
Enjoy this performance by Baryton Trio Valkkoog of the Trio No. 97 by Haydn. Notice when the baryton performer plucks the back strings with his thumb at about the half-way through the composition and at the end.