Week 376: “Simpson’s Point” by Vincent DiFrancesco

Let’s take a second to appreciate the viola.

Think of it this way: do you remember that quiet, unassuming introvert from high school? The one who was always friendly to everyone? Who’d lend you five bucks and then never ask for it back? Who got a bit part in the school play and didn’t complain about it at all, even though they had secretly memorized the whole script?

Do you remember that person?

Well, in the world of orchestral instruments, that person is the viola.

Larger than a violin but smaller than a cello, the viola goes virtually unnoticed, the shy middle child of the string section. For many composers, its main function seems to be no more than to fill the frequency void between the other, more attention-seeking instruments.

It’s so innocuous that I forgot to mention it in a previous post about the various personalities of members of the orchestra. Mea culpa.

Fortunately for me, people like Vincent DiFrancesco give the viola the respect it deserves. He explains his love for his chosen instrument in this way:

The viola is truly an instrument like no other. There’s always a joke about the viola in the world of classical music, that it’s the instrument that bad violinists play … So, one can say we violists have got a bad rap, especially when one looks at the popularity of cello and violin repertoire compared to the popularity of viola repertoire. Regardless, you just can’t get the same depth, richness, or resonance on any other instrument.

So if the viola is that overlooked kid from high school, Vincent DiFrancesco is the guy who always believed in the viola; the guy you run into at your ten-year reunion, who tells you that the viola ended up graduating from an Ivy-League university, and now runs a wildly successful tech company.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The viola manages to be both majestic and timid at the same time, as if it’s got big ideas in its head but doesn’t want to tell anyone.

2. The ambient noise, recorded at Simpson’s Point in Maine, adds width and scope to the track.

3. The breadth of sounds DiFrancesco manages to conjure from the viola is startling. Plucking and bowing across the instrument’s range, he proves that the humble viola can carry a song on its own with effortless grace.

Recommended listening activity:

Letting someone else have a turn.