A mErica’s musical press in 1919 was awash with rumors about a new work – Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata. He had just tied for first place in the prestigious Berkshire Festival chamber music competition, for which all entries had to be submitted anonymously.
The jurors had speculated that the Sonata had been written by Ravel. When Clarke was revealed as the composer, they were amazed. ‘You should saw their faces when they saw it was by a woman,” the Festival boss told Clarke. The Sonata was hailed in the press as a work of the “greatest genius”, compared favorably to pieces by Debussy.
Who was Rebecca Clarke
The Sonata has remained one of Clarke’s best-known works and is now a staple of the viola repertoire. He also spearheaded the “rediscovery” of her music in the 1980s. . She was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as her husband, pianist James Friskin. The difference between his position at the end of his life and the peak of his career is staggering.
Its entry in the 1980s Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians read, in its entirety, ‘See James Friskin’. But by 1927 his entry in the same dictionary had been long, listing all his major works, including the Sonata, his Piano Trio (1921) and Cello Rhapsody (1923) and a substantial amount of songs. Like so many female composers, Clarke’s music has been slowly removed from historical records and is only now returning to concert halls.
When was Rebecca Clarke born?
Born in 1886 in Harrow, North West London, of a German mother and an American father, Clarke had a difficult childhood. She was extremely close to her mother, Agnes, but had a strained and complex relationship with her father, Joseph. In the memoirs Clarke wrote in her eighties, she recalled Joseph beating her four children, “sometimes very painfully”. Needless to say, when Joseph asked his daughter to pick up an instrument, she didn’t immediately adopt it.
Like many middle-class fathers of his generation, Joseph wanted to nurture family music, being an amateur cellist himself. When they were old enough, his children received violin lessons – Rebecca, being ‘only a girl’, was sent to her brother Hans’ violin lessons rather than being taught individually. She hated playing the violin and there was no indication that she would have any musical career.
Despite this inauspicious start, as a teenager Clarke developed a real appreciation for the music her father forced her to play. In music, she found an escape from her family life. At 16, her mother accompanying her on the piano, she auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music, securing a place as a violin student. After just two years, however, her father pulled her out of the Academy after her harmony teacher proposed to her. She then attended the Royal College of Music, where she learned composition with Charles Stanford. All her life, she considered her studies at the College “a happy time, an ecstatic time”, and under the tutelage of Stanford, she developed a distinctive compositional voice. When composing at her best, Clarke felt “inundated with a wonderful sense of potential power – a miracle that made anything possible”.
When did Rebecca Clarke start playing the viola?
While at the RCM, Clarke switched from violin to viola and became a celebrated performer and internationally renowned chamber musician on that instrument. In 1913, she became one of the first six women to be engaged in a professional orchestra, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. In the early 1920s she toured Asia, broadcast regularly on the young BBC, and later formed an all-female piano quartet called The English Ensemble, with which she performed around the world.
Rebecca Clarke the composer
Being a performer was essential to Clarke’s success as a composer. As she herself observed, some performers showed a “bias against female compositions”, which made it difficult for many women to get their works performed. Clarke, however, was able to perform own works with friends and colleagues – all internationally renowned performers standing – which was his habit bedroom sets. She herself gave the New York and London premieres of the Viola Sonata; similarly, his Cello Rhapsody was created by his close pianist friends Lady Myra Hess and cellist May Mukle, who were also instrumentalists in the creation of Clarke’s Piano Trio, with Marjorie Hayward on violin.
Clarke wrote his first works in the 1910s and 20s, when London was a melting pot of musical influences, full of conflicting ideas about what ‘modern’ music should sound like. Working alongside composers like Fraying (Clarke played his concerts in London when he visited in 1928) and Vaughan Williams (who was a close friend and conducted for a company Palestrina that Clarke co-founded), Clarke’s music was also busy with all the latest musical ideas. His Trio, for example, opens with a fiery, violent surge of dissonance that gives way to a menacing cello theme – the tension never drops for a second. Critics hailed her as an “outspoken follower of modernity”, viewing Clarke as one of the international modernist groups that included not only the likes of Ravel, but also names that have since fallen into relative obscurity, such as Ernest Bloch and Bernard van Dieren. Their music was as much a part of Clarke’s musical universe as Debussy and Stravinsky, alongside English composers such as Arnold Bax and frank bridge.
Clarke was also pioneering in her programming, often pairing contemporary music with seventeenth-century works, in keeping with the modernist fascination with early music. His contemporary Peter Warlock put together similar programs that juxtaposed and complemented the old and the new, as would Michael Tippett and benjamin britten after her. This interest in early music is evident in Clarke’s work, particularly in his Passacaglia on an old english tune (1941), built on a melody by Thomas Tallis.
Folk music was another source of inspiration, surfacing in her Three old English songs (1924) and Three Irish country songs (1926), both for violin and voice. The same goes for the romantic repertoire that Clarke grew up playing; Dvořák’s nuances can be heard in his concert work Doumka for violin, viola and piano, and Rachmaninoff in both Passacaglia and I will ask my heart to be quiet (1944), written for James Friskin and based on a Scottish folk tune.
The most enduring connection in Clarke’s music, however, is with the French school. It is not surprising, in a certain sense, that the judges assumed that his anonymous work was by Ravel. They share a similar approach to harmony, form and melody. And like Debussy before her, Clarke was captivated by the sound of Indonesian gamelan when she heard it performed at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. His work is imbued with the orientalist sound so beloved of French modernists at the turn of the century, saturating his works for viola as Morpheus (1916), summer moon (1924) and, of course, the Sonata. Unusually among composers of her generation, Clarke traveled to the countries whose music inspired her – Indonesia was among the countries she visited on her 1922-23 performance tour, and her song of 1919’s “Down by the Salley Gardens” was written in Hawaii, perhaps trying to emulate the sound of Chinese musicians she heard playing there.
It is clear from all of Clarke’s music that she was an accomplished performer; his works have a theatricality that truly savors and showcases the physicality of musical creation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his song “The Seal Man” (1922), telling the story of a young woman who drowns in the ocean trying to follow her lover. The piano and vocal part are unabashedly dramatic, the singer alternating between sung and semi-spoken passages to differentiate individual characters in the song. And the piano part is virtuoso in that it always threatens, like the sea, to overwhelm and dominate the singer. The vocalist and pianist must be in perfect tune for this song to work convincingly, creating an experience that can be truly electrifying live.
Clarke is now recognized as one of the most important “woman songwriters” of her generation – but as she sternly told a reporter, “I’d rather be seen as a 16th-tier songwriter than be judged as if there was only one type of musical art”. for men and another for women. Gender bias during Clarke’s lifetime kept her out of the limelight, but her outstanding works should surely secure her a position as one of the most important musicians of her generation: modernist composer, international performer and pioneering composer. for viola.
When did Rebecca Clarke die?
Rebecca Clarke died in New York on October 13, 1979, at the age of 93.
Excerpts from Rebecca Clarke’s memoir “I Had a Father Too, or The Mustard Spoon” used with permission.
Rebecca Clarke’s Style
Until the 1920s, there was little consensus on what “modernist” music was or should be. Clarke was one of several composers experimenting with different directions for new music, writing pieces that incorporated a range of styles, including Impressionism and Neo-Classicism.
Clarke was composing during a British vogue for Chinoiserie, and many of his works can be considered musical Chinoiserie. More generally, she has often used sounds inspired by Indonesian gamelan (above).
Harmonically, Clarke’s work is closely aligned with the music of composers such as Ravel and Debussy, and critics with some justification have often compared her to them during her lifetime.
Like his friend and contemporary Vaughan Williams, Clarke included historic English music among his influences, ranging from 16th-century Tudor polyphony to folk music.
We’ve named Rebecca Clarke one of the greatest songwriters of all time.