ITHACA, N.Y. -- In April of 1961, when John Hsu gave a solo recital of 18th century French music on viola da gamba at Cornell University, he unwittingly, yet artfully, teased a musical genie from its bottle. That historical concert, the first Cornell faculty recital on a period instrument, initiated Hsu's inadvertent career as a viola da gamba virtuoso, pedagogue and leading authority on then-obscure French composers who wrote for the instrument. Hsu's esoteric efforts greatly contributed to the resurgence of interest in the viola da gamba and marked the emergence of Cornell's music department as a center for historical instrument study and performance.
Hsu's work also greatly pleased the officers of the French Ministry of Cultural Services who know a good turn when they hear one. In February, Hsu, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor at Cornell, was honored with the prestigious Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Pierre Buhler, French cultural counselor, conducted the medal ceremony at the French embassy in New York. The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 to recognize notable artists and writers and those who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.
In a 1991 Cornell College of Arts and Sciences newsletter, Hsu described the prosaic path that led to his "stardom." In the late 1950s, the music department was seeking to expand its performance curriculum to include Renaissance and Baroque instruments, Hsu explains. Donald Grout, the first Given Professor of Musicology at Cornell, asked Hsu -- a cellist by training -- if he'd "be willing to learn to play the viola da gamba if the university were to provide the instrument." Hsu writes: "Being young and foolhardy, I said yes, without thinking about the necessary investment of time or assessing the chance of success while preoccupied as a cellist and teacher."
In 1960, the music school acquired three viola da gamba -- a treble, a tenor and a bass -- and Hsu, "with mixed feelings," set to mastering the instruments. The rest is music history, as an excerpt of Buhler's February 2001 presentation to Hsu in part attests: "Tonight we honor your mastery of the rare baroque instrument the viola da gamba and its repertoire …. You have made the viola da gamba and the rich musical history it represents available to audiences worldwide, teaching us about French musical traditions and letting us hear pieces by French baroque composers for the first time."
For the full text of the presentation, visit the web site: http://www.frenchculture.org/people/honorees/hsu.html .
Hsu's contributions to the instrument include A Handbook of French Baroque Viola Technique (1981) and his editorship of a seven-volume study called the Instrumental Works of Marin Marais . Marais was perhaps the most influential composer for the viola da gamba. Hsu has recorded more solo pieces for the viola da gamba than any other performer. His complete recordings of Antoine Forqueray's suites for the viola da gamba were unprecedented. In addition, according to Buhler, the works of Jacques Morel and Charles Dollé "would be unknown in the world of music today had it not been for [his] interest in their work." Hsu also founded the Cornell Summer Viol program in 1970 and the Haydn Baryton Trio and the Apollo Ensemble, and he served as the artistic director for the Aston Magna Foundation for Music and the Humanities.
During his Cornell career, Hsu has taught music theory and history, directed the Collegium Musicum, Cornell's chamber and symphony orchestras (he currently conducts the Cornell Symphony Orchestra), while also serving as a chamber music coach and stringed instrument teacher. Unfortunately, he had to stop playing viola da gamba several years ago due to arthritis in his fingers.
Hsu's solo effort in 1961 marked the first stage in the development of historical performance practice at Cornell, which later attracted expert faculty in the field, led to the establishment of the Center for Eighteenth Century Instrumental Music and graduate degrees in the performance of 18th century musical instruments.