John Hsu, Prince of the Viola da Gamba

In the final pages of Charles Burney’s massive four-volume General History of Music published between 1776 and 1789 and the first of its kind written in English, there appears an elegy for an instrument that “during the last century had been,” as Burney put its, “a necessary appendage to a nobleman or gentleman’s family throughout Europe.” Burney also offers an elegy for a great master of that instrument, his friend, Karl Friedrich Abel, one of the many German musical immigrants to settle and thrive in London after escaping the continental autocratic regimes Burney detested. Burney quotes the obituary that appeared in London’s Morning Post on June 22nd, 1787, two days after Abel’s death, “his favourite instrument was not in general use, and would probably die with him.”

In the same tribute to Abel, Burney also mentions a related instrument that had extra accompanimental bass strings “at the back of the neck.” These “were an admirable expedient” says Burney, always ready with a witty remark, “in a desert or in a house where there is but one musician.”

The instruments Burney refers to are the viola da gamba (to be seen in both portraits of Abel painted by Thomas Gainsborough, the second with his dog lounging beneath the musician’s composing table) and the baryton.

John Hsu, who died this past Saturday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the age of 86, proved Burney wrong:  Hsu brought performance on the viola da gamba, whose halting revival had been underway since the late  nineteenth century, to a perfection worthy of Abel, and he also resurrected that phantom of history, the utterly forgotten but, once heard, unforgettable baryton.

Born in Shantou, China in 1931, Hsu studied the cello with a Viennese émigré who had fled Hitler and ended up in Shanghai. He was thus trained in the intensely expressive tradition of central European Romanticism half a world away from its source.

Emigrating to the United States in 1949, the year of the Chinese Revolution, Hsu brought with him an large, intricately woven textile from his hometown, where Scotch missionaries and weavers had mingled their art with indigenous practices. Landing in Tacoma, Washington, Hsu sold the shawl and used the money to enroll first at Carroll College in Wisconsin, then transferring to New England Conservatory, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1971.  Some years later, he returned to Tacoma in search of the shawl, but could not pick up the trail.

Hsu joined the faculty of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1955, retiring fifty years later. His range of service at Cornell was vast, and included giving private lessons, coaching chamber music, teaching music history and theory, and conducting the orchestra.

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 performance of viol music of the French grand siècle, and necessarily its leading scholar, preparing over many years of labor, a complete edition of the instrumental works of Marin Marais, gambist to Louis XIV. For his contributions, Hsu was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2000. His 1974 recording for the Musical Heritage Society of the second book of Marais’ Pièces de viole of 1701 remains a classic.

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 that 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. As Burney pointed out, 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 resonate 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, as Burney also suggested, this polymorphous instrument suffered devastating neglect as intimacy was increasingly sacrificed in favor of carrying power that could reach the back rows of 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 of musical accomplishment in candlelit princely halls could meet on a field on which nearly half of the  32,000-strong Prussians army would die.

Before going into battle, Frederick played the flute, the most portable of instruments and the refined relative of the fife 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, bulkier than the flute, but also portable enough to take on campaign, especially for someone of this musician-warrior’s enormous wealth: he was said to be richer than the Austrian Emperor himself. The plaintive sound of the baryton—both as a solo vehicle, but more frequently as member of small ensembles—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. Thanks to the legacy of Haydn’s music, the warrior Prince 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 musical establishment, for not composing enough for his favorite instrument. Haydn’s production duly increased.  Much of his labor for the Esterhazy Prince 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 Haydn baryton trios, 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. 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 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 a 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 as human as the lowliest tenants of the sprawling agrarian holdings that produced the Prince’s wealth. Even though all people felt, only a few knew how to show feeling in the properly uplifting way. Music was the most prized forum for sublimation, and Haydn the most adept therapist skilled at providing an expressive outlet for 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 that reveal 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.

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 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 power of a 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, as 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 his timeless recording of Haydn’s baryton trios.

Writing this now on Good Friday morning, I recall vividly Hsu’s last public performance on the viola da gamba in Bach’s St. John Passion twenty years ago in April of 1998 in Cornell’s vast Bailey Hall filled to capacity. Hsu played the expansive instrumental solo in the Passion’s decisive aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished), rendering it with a devastating poise. The 1,400 listeners in the auditorium were as rapt as the student chorus that surrounded Hsu on stage, drawn in even from the farthest balcony as if to hear his gamba’s voice speaking next to them, the cavernous concert hall become an intimate chamber.

Hsu never treated the old instruments he played like fusty antiques, but as living vessels that could even be made to supersede the communicative possibilities of their modern descendants. The John Passion solo was a fitting culmination to Hsu’s remarkable, exemplary career as performer. His musical life has indeed been accomplished, but it is not over. It continues not only through his recordings and editions, but also vibrantly through his many students, colleagues, friends, and followers.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at