The baryton is a bowed string instrument in the viol family, in regular use in Europe up until the end of the 18th century. It most likely fell out of favor due to its immense difficulty to play. Its size is comparable to that of a violoncello; it has seven or sometimes six bowed strings of gut, plus from nine to twenty-four sympathetic wire strings (most often twelve). The gut strings are bowed while the wire strings are plucked by the thumb of the performer in order to create a contrasting tonal quality. It is rarely played today. Alternate spellings include: bariton, barydon, paradon, paridon, pariton, viola paradon, viola di bordoni, [Italian] viola di bardone, [German] viola di bordone.
Of the repertoire for this instrument, the best known works are the 175 compositions written by Joseph Haydn for his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who enjoyed playing this instrument. Of these, 126 are trios for viola, cello and baryton. They were written in the earlier part of Haydn's career, from 1766 to 1775.
Of the trios, John Hsu writes, "Throughout the trios, there is a feeling of intimacy. This is the most private of chamber music, written especially in response to the wishes and needs of one person. We can easily imagine the satisfaction and inspiration which Prince Esterházy experienced while playing these trios." Hsu conjectures that when the Prince played baryton trios, the viola part was taken by Haydn, and the cello part by whoever was the cellist in the Prince's orchestra at the time.
The instrument that the Prince used had seven bowed strings, tuned like a bass viola da gamba (to which the sound of the bowed baryton strings is quite comparable); i.e. AA, D, G, c, e, a d'. This consists of a sequence of rising fourths, except for the third between c and e. The ten plucked strings were tuned in a D-major scale, plus the A a fourth below and the E a major second above.
John Hsu estimates that the Prince was probably not a virtuoso on his instrument, judging from the difficulty of Haydn's writing. The composer used only the top five of the seven bowed strings, and seldom required the player to pluck and bow simultaneously. The keys chosen are also the simplest to play in: mostly D major and the neighboring keys of G major and A major.
Of the trios, critic Lucy Robinson has written "Despite the limitations of the combination, Haydn's genius is evident in the kaleidoscopic range of melodic and textural ideas and the witty interplay between instruments."
The baryton was "completely neglected" (Hsu) in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth, with the rise of the authentic performance movement in classical music, new barytons were built and played, and at least a fraction of the repertoire can now be heard in recordings. Probably the first person to initiate the revival of the viola di pardone or baryton was Christian Döbereiner in Munich. In 1934 he ordered a copy of an instrument by Simon Schodler (1782) from the renowned luthier, Ferdinand Wilhelm Jaura in Munich. The first performance in modern times on that baryton took place in Munich in 1936, which featured a Trio by Haydn. This instrument forms part of the Vazquez Collection of Historical String Instruments and is frequently employed in performance by the Orpheon Foundation. A complete documentation of the Jaura Baryton is available at the Orpheon Foundation web site.
Among the modern active baryton players are Jeremy Brooker, Kazimierz Gruszczyński, Balasz Kukak (Haydn Baryton Trio of Budapest), José Manuel Hernández, John Hsu, Roland Hutchinson and José Vázquez. In 2009 a complete recording of Haydn's works for baryton was launched. The Esterházy Ensemble (Michael Brüssing, baryton) recorded the pieces in Esterházy castle, Eisenstadt. In addition, the Swiss composer Klaus Huber has written an important solo part for the instrument in his work ...à l'âme de marcher sur ses pieds de soie... (2004).