John Hsu, one of the great musicians of the twentieth-century and into the present millennium, celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this year. Born in Shantou, China in 1931, Hsu studied the cello with Viennese émigrés who had fled Hitler and ended up in Shanghai. Hsu was trained in the highly expressive tradition of central European Romanticism half a world away from its source; he emigrated to the United States in 1949, the year of the Chinese Revolution. He brought with him a gorgeous and intricate woven textile from his hometown, where Scotch missionaries and weavers had mingled their art with indigenous traditions. Landing in Tacoma, Washington, Hsu sold the shawl and used the money to go to Carroll College and then on to New England Conservatory, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1971. Some years ago, he returned to Tacoma in search of the shawl, but could not pick up the trail.
Through his own initiative, the cellist Hsu transformed himself beginning in the early 1960s into a pioneer of the viola da gamba. After mastering the instrument, he played it all over the world in leading concert venues and on a host of award-winning recordings. He became expert in the great viol music of the French grand siècle, for which he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2000.
I was fortunate enough to hear Hsu’s last public performance on the gamba in Bach’s St. John Passion in 1998. Hsu played the solo part in the Passion’s decisive aria Es ist vollbracht (It is finished), rendering it with a devastating, melancholy, poised yet desperate. Hsu never treated the old instruments he played like fusty antiques, but as living vessels that could be made when necessary to supersede the communicative possibilities of their “modern” descendents. The John Passion solo was a fitting and unforgettable finale for a triumphant career as a gambist.
While establishing himself as the leading gambist of his generation, Hsu the cellist remained devoted to the music of Haydn. The composer’s huge output of string quartets and trios led Hsu to ensemble music for a forgotten cousin of the gamba—the baryton. Joseph Haydn was its most prolific composer, his mind-boggling productivity yielding nearly two hundred works for this unlikely instrument. Hsu was the first modern to resurrect this historical curiosity and make it into a living musical being.
Slightly larger than a cello, the baryton is a combination of the harp and viola da gamba, a bowed-string instrument with six or seven strings and frets. The harp strings are accessible through an opening in the back of the neck, which is thicker and broader than that of the cello; through this hole the strings can be plucked with the thumb of the left hand. They also resonant sympathetically with the bowed strings, giving the baryton its unique richness, particularly on ringing final chords. The thumb of the left hand must nimbly strike the harp-strings while the other four fingers are busy stopping the frets: it is like playing two instruments at once, with the added difficulty that the player cannot see the strings to be plucked. The player must trust the physical memory, the mind’s eye directing the thumb to the correct string at the right time.
Already declining steeply in popularity during Haydn’s lifetime, this polymorphous instrument suffered devastating neglect as intimacy was increasingly sacrificed in favor of carrying power that would reach the back row of increasingly large concert halls.
In 1760, Haydn became Vice-Kapellmeister (assistant director of music) for Prince Anton Esterházy, the head of one of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s most powerful families. Two years later the Prince died and was succeeded by his younger brother Nikolaus. In 1757 Prince Nikolaus had been the great hero in a major encounter of the Seven Years’ War. At the Battle of Kolin his courageous actions bolstered the Austrian cavalry and led to Frederick the Great’s first defeat of the war. Like the Prussian King, the future Prince Nikolaus Esterházy was also an avid amateur musician: how typical and terrible it was that these two men musical accomplishment in candlelit princely halls could meet on a field on which nearly half of the Prussians’ 32,000-strong army would die.
Before going into battle, Frederick played the flute, the most portable of instruments, and the refined superior to the fifes which organized his advancing columns: where that high-pitched instrument was shrill and piercing, the flute of Frederick’s era was soft and infinitely nuanced.
Nikolaus Esterházy played the baryton, which was probably too big and unwieldy to take on the campaign, though given this musician/warrior’s enormous wealth—he was said to be richer than the Austrian Emperor himself—lugging the thing along was by no means out of the question. The plaintive sound of the baryton—both as a solo vehicle, but more frequently as member of small groups—would have soothed the princely player’s ears and spirit after a day of roaring cannons and the dying cries of thousands. In Europe and elsewhere war and music have long been partners, either on the field or as a mode of both forgetting and of commemoration. Through the legacy Haydn’s music, the warrior Nikolaus goes down as the most famous player of the distinctly unwarlike baryton.
The Prince reprimanded Haydn in 1765, the year he was elevated to director of the princely establishment musical, for not composing enough for his favorite instrument. Haydn’s production duly increased. Much of his labor for the Esterhazy Princes was administrative, but once forced to write music for the baryton he did not treat this as bureaucratic paper-pushing: when it came to composing, the urge to create art overrode any disgruntlement. In their dozens the trios flowed from Haydn’s quill.
There was a knowledgeable and committed player to please, one who paid the composer’s salary. One might think that servitude would have yielded stale, even spiteful, music. If Haydn were going to do it he would do it right: the irrepressible muse made the lackey sing.
Volume one of Hsu’s baryton discs, on which he is joined by David Miller (viola) and Fortunato Arico (cello), was recorded some twenty-five years ago; it begins with Trio no. 97 in D major written for the Prince’s birthday in 1771. (Here’s Rainer Zipperling doing it on YouTube.) The piece’s seven movements take sixteen minutes to play and visit a broad range of affects and techniques: a perfect musical digestif after the sumptuous birthday banquet. Like so many of the trios, this one begins with a yearning Adagio: a slow tempo that allowed the prince to warm up and give musical shape to his feelings without having first to face the perils of high-speed figuration. In musical matters, men of power often like first to show themselves to be me men of feeling.
A more festive, even boisterous, Allegro follows. The Prince could get around his instrument too; there was more to him than feigned introspection. Decorous dances follow: two minuets and polonaise, easy to play, but characterful—medals jangling, boots scuffing the parquet, the swoosh of petticoats, the feint of plumes. A fleeting turn to minor pathos is made with yet another Adagio. At cadences the harp strings are summoned, sounding very much like a harpsichord accompaniment giving gentle but firm emphasis to moments of rhetorical closure.
Haydn stages the musical discourse so that the prince is seen to decide when things should end. His is the final word, even when speaking along with his partners in music-making. On his birthday, the Prince would be indulged and admired for his command of sentiment by all required to do so. Haydn’s job was to show his employer as a master of emotion and its expression, and therefore human like even the lowliest tenants of the vast agrarian holdings that made up his wealth. Even though all people felt, only a few knew how to show it in the properly uplifting way. Music was the most prized forum for sublimation, and Haydn the most skillful of therapist for extracting these moderated admission from his master.
The D-major trio ends with a Presto fugue, one that pleases the erudite pretensions of the patron: there are antique turns and fleet scales of real virtuosic ambition. The birthday music performed by the birthday boy himself ends with buoyant wit. The way Haydn uses the instrument is all about clever and varied colloquy and communal music making: enthusiastic utterances, spirited rejoinders, assuaging asides, encouraging gestures. Above his fellow players in worldly station, the Prince is among them when at music.
Throughout both volumes of the recording, Hsu’s group converses with a joint familiarity that encounters each turn in the music with delight and amusement, but always with impeccable precision. The ensemble breathes together, the members conversing with a real sense of shared purpose and resolute individuality. There is something almost egalitarian audible beneath the the hierarchical context of ruler and servant: in the end this leveling ethos is Haydn’s revenge. That Haydn’s burden of subservience and self-expression should yield such riches is, at least for us, a pleasant paradox.
John Hsu imbues the baryton with a rare voice that the instrument, for all its peculiar possibility, alone does not supply: his is the intangible expressive power of a real, and very rare kind of musician. For Hsu the brilliant passagework, the pleading moments of introspection, the lithe plucking all sound with an elegance and graciousness that welcome the listener in. One feels oneself not so much to be eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation, but to be participating in it.
Through hard work, curiosity, scholarly dedication, and real talent, the boy from China made himself a true chevalier, one of the great aristocrats of music. Nowhere is this bearing to be heard more compellingly than in this timeless recording of Haydn’s baryton trios.