Joseph Burgksteiner, baryton composer

December 25, 2009



    From Carol Gartrell’s book on the baryton, it seems Burgksteiner (1730-1797) worked for three decades as a bass singer from 1766 aged 30 until the year of his death, aged 61. He was born just a few years later than Haydn, so is unlikely to have studied composition with him. The 24 Divertimenti for baryton/violin, viola and bass (‘cello) appear to have been written out by Elssler, court copyist who also wrote out Tomasini’s and Neumann’s works, in 1767, just a year after being appointed to the imperial Kapelle and by which time Haydn had composed 33 baryton trios and when Prince Nicholas’ interest in the instrument was starting to became obsessional. His appointment as singer also coincided with the move of the court to the Esterhaza castle.

1767 – a big year

Presumably Burgksteiner was an all-rounder string player (violin and viola) who worked under konzertmeister Tomasini, who was appointed just five years before. The nature of the compositions, simpler than those of Haydn and Franz, point to him perhaps being a violinist at heart who wrote trios the top line of which could be played by the Prince, the only barytonist at the time. One gets the strong impression that a bunch of court instrumentalists, Tomasini on violin, Karl Franz on horn and Burgksteiner on violin/viola, all jumped on the bandwagon of baryton composing (along with Haydn) at the same time, with Karl Franz probably the fastest learner or the most adept.

Divertimento No.21 in G

Gartrell points to the increasing technical complexity in the writing for baryton across the oeuvre so that only the last few use the lower manual, as in the example she gives in Gallery 2, a Divertimento in G. The lower manual provides aural colour and contrast and the notes are included in staff notation of the part-book presumably to assist when played by a violin; the lower manual certainly doesn’t provide the sort of bass harmony function associated with the jeu d’harmonie of the baryton of earlier times. Can we assume that 1767 marks the start of the use of the lower manual plucked strings at Esterhaza – used by Haydn, Burgksteiner and possibly Neumann?

The Gartrell example deploys an Allegretto/Minuet/Trio/Finale Presto. The viola works overtime in provided double stops and dense harmonic support under long notes for the baryton. Dynamics (pp, p and f) are clearly indicated by the composer and I’m sure they add a lot of vitality to what is otherwise simple music. I’m sure a lot describe this vitality as “wit”, “witty” being one of those adjectives used in connection with Haydn’s music. I think the C18 ‘wit’ becomes C19 ‘drama’.

The plucked lower manual is used as an aural highlight in the first movement. The same happens in the Minuet but becomes the ‘main event’ in the first half of the Trio, as it seems to be in the short excerpt given on page 76 of another piece, the first 8 bars of Divertimento 18. The Finale Presto is quite dramatic with its sforzando like cadences and full bars of rests before cadences. The most straightforward of the pieces to play in this book – just about the only example in Gartrell that’s wholly accessible to me technically. To get my hands on any more Burgksteiner means seeing the originals in the Stockholm National Museum. The only academic references, apart from the Fruchtman thesis, appear to be one from 1910 and one by the performer of the recording mentioned below, Liebner.

Divertimento in A

The Liebner recording is of one in A Major (Andantino/Minuet/Finale-Allegro), played on baryton and harpsichord so it’s hard to separate out what might be separate baryton and viola parts. It features extensive use of the lower manual in just about all the movements. This example (the number of the piece isn’t given) confirms my impression from the Gartrell examples that Burgksteiner aims for a high degree of thematic similarity across each Divertimento.

Carol A Gartrell, A History of the Baryton and its Music: King of Instruments, Instrument of Kings.

Barytonmusik des 18. Jahrhunderts. CD, Eterna. 


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