Five Divertimenti for Solo Violin

By Frank Proto

In 1997 during my final season with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra I met Eric Bates, a young violinist who had joined the orchestra earlier that year. One day after a concert while we were both in the locker room changing clothes, Eric said to me, "I’m thinking about entering a violin competition and need a contemporary, unaccompanied solo piece. Do you know of anything that I might enjoy learning?" Not being too familiar with that area of the violin repertoire, I mentioned a couple of pieces that I had heard that might be worth looking into. He said that he knew them but was looking for something different — something more of a virtuoso piece. I asked when the contest was and how much time he would need to learn a new piece. He said he’d need to have something soon, in about two or three weeks in order to prepare it in time. "Well how about something new then?" I asked. He said "great!" and, as luck would have it - having a bit of free time on my hands, I set to work on the new piece.

Having collaborated with several exceptional soloists over the years, my working routine, when I compose specifically for a particular individual, dictates that I spend a fair amount of time with him, getting to know his technical abilities and musical idiosyncrasies. However in this case, with such a tight deadline on the horizon, this wasn’t really possible. So I just went home and began to write. Two weeks later I brought the Divertimento for Solo Violin to Eric and a week or two after that he played it for me. I was thrilled with what I heard. It would be wonderful to say that he proceeded to play the premiere at some big, important concert or walked off with first prize of the whatever violin competition, but the reality is that he changed his mind about entering the competition and the world premiere took place one night at a bar in downtown Cincinnati with an audience of a few musician friends and an even larger group of wondering regulars who would have been happy with anything from Vivaldi to Elvis to Thelonious Monk.

Despite the inauspicious birth of our new baby we were both happy with the results and that seemed to be that. However, a few weeks later I mentioned that " . . . it really is kind of silly to have just one of these pieces." I was thinking that two would be a better number because I was in the middle of a recording project that two of these solo pieces would work into beautifully. Eric said he was up for it so I got to work and a short time later brought in Divertimento No. 2. Again we were both happy with the result. I told Eric that I was very excited about having these two works appear on the new recording. He was happy and again that seemed to be the end of it.

After some more time went by — actually close to two years because of both of us getting busy with other projects - Eric said to me " . . . instead of putting these two pieces on a compact disc with some other music I’d like to do a series of them — Five Divertimenti — and fill up an entire disc." At first I was a little disappointed — I really was looking forward to finishing my other recording project, which had now been on hold for quite some time — but that feeling didn’t last very long. This divertimento experience was very enjoyable and the tree was bearing fruit so why not try to get back to it and see if we could continue where we had left off? So at the beginning of 2001 we returned to the project. By No. 3 we were hitting a groove, really enjoying ourselves. In fact we were so confident that we began recording right after Eric learned No. 3. We recorded No. 3 first followed by No.’s 2 and 1. I continued to compose, working on No.’s 4 and 5. All the music was written by June and we finished recording in November of 2001. The recording: Five Divertimenti for Solo Violin (Red Mark CD 9221) was released in 2002.

When you work with a soloist over a longer period of time — i.e. composing more than only one or two pieces for him — you really get to start to know his playing. And just as important, that soloist gets to know your writing. Approaching this kind of a project more as a duet rather than as two separate entities — the composer writing the music and the soloist playing exactly what the composer has written — has great advantages. Spending a great deal of time together working out what works and what doesn’t - not only at the technical and structural levels, but also at the musical and performance levels - does wonders for the end result. A composer can write what he thinks is a masterpiece, but it’s the performer who is the one that ultimately has to convince an audience that the work is worthy of their attention. We’ve all had that experience of looking at something written on a staff of music and thinking, " . . . oh, this is going to sound great," especially if we’ve written it ourselves! However, we know that what many times looks wonderful on paper can turn out to be less-than-wonderful when rendered by the performer. And it’s not always the fault of the performer when disaster strikes. Sometimes all that is necessary to change a piece from just OK to a joy to play and listen to are a few minor adjustments. Of course there are also times when nothing short of a total rewrite will salvage the work! Taking advantage of this kind of thinking and working throughout our - composing-performing-recording - project allowed us to achieve the results that we were after; that of satisfying ourselves with both the compositions and the performances. Yes, there might come a time when we change our minds about either or both of these things. But that is what makes us human, is it not?

Having said all of that, some reasonable questions might be "So, did you write this music for only one person? If not, for whom did you write it?" Well, just by the existence of this edition you know the answer to the first question. As for the for whom part, allow me to put it this way: Fiddle players who can successfully convince an audience of the worthiness of these pieces will not only have great chops, but have the ability to dig beneath — or inside — or around — or . . . or . . . or . . . — those printed notes to bring their own personality to the fore. They’ll be playing a duet with the composer. While I would like to hear all of the notes, I wouldn’t relish hearing a carbon copy of what I’ve already heard from other performers, even if I loved their realization. Musical elements - tempos, phrasings, dynamics, articulations and rubatos - along with human elements - drama, passion, elation and grief — are all individual aspects that belong to the domain of the performer. I’m writing these words at a time when so many technically endowed performers are struggling mightily to sound the same. They might dress differently but as for the results . . .

The violin has an enviable repertoire, with most of the great masters having written major works for the instrument. Unaccompanied pieces, which receive constant performance range from the 24 Caprices of Niccolo Paganini to the Six Sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe. But perhaps the father that looms largest over this genre is J.S. Bach. His series of Sonatas and Partitas still set the standard for both performers and composers. I’m not referring to a sports-type standard where the object may be to surpass or beat or challenge an opponent, but more a motivational or inspirational benchmark where the object may be more a self-challenge. This is music rarely heard by the masses. Except for an occasional movement performed as an encore after a concerto performance you won’t be hearing this kind of music squeezed between an overture and a symphony. Recitals are the home base of this genre. And chamber music found on recitals should (or at least could) stretch the ears (to quote Charles Ives) a bit more than the typical Saturday night at the symphony program. We write and perform this kind of music more for ourselves and other musicians who are looking for a different musical satisfaction after their normal workday is over. Perhaps this is the after-hours place we go where we want to play for ourselves without the constraints of our usual put the bread on the table musical life. The place where we go when we don’t want to be held prisoner within the confines of the gig!

It is tempting for me to make all sorts of performance suggestions since in my own mind I certainly do have some definite ideas on how things should go. However, I think it would actually be more helpful and a bit more challenging if I were to just drop a few hints, leaving (you) the performer with as much freedom to explore the ins and outs of the music as possible.

Think color. These pieces are not in black and white.

Think vibrato. Comes in many shades — almost as many as ponticello or tremolo.

• Think open strings. Yes, even the open E string is beautiful. They most certainly are not sinful!

• Think harmonics. Do we vibrate on them? Do we play them pure and cold? Are they in color too? Yes!

• Think rhythm. No not that kind — the other kind. What is other? It don’t mean a thing if . . .

Think gypsy. Freely — Fantasia — Rubato — Ad lib — Rhapsodic — etc.

Think core. Find the inside, the essence, the root of it all. No, these are not jazz pieces. Nor is this classical music. But you’ll have a much harder time opening the door if you don’t have a more-than-passing passion for both.

Frank Proto

Catalog Information
Red Mark Compact Disc
Click to view or download a PDF sample of the Music