The Life of Rebecca Clarke
BBC Women’s Hour Feature BBC Broadcast on Clarke;
includes a 1976 interview with Clarke,
as well as a conversation with her niece Rebecca Clarke Evans
“A Note To You” Radio Broadcast on Rebecca Clarke,
with Virginia Eskin and Liane Curtis
“Rescuing Rebecca Clarke” Musical Times article (1996)
(PDF – 3.7 mgs)
A Personal Reminiscence and a Bach arrangement.
Further Reading: A Bibliography
Article on Rebecca Clarke from The New Grove Dictionary Of Music And Musicians
Born and raised in England, with a German mother and an American father, Clarke spent much of her adulthood in the United States and she claimed both English and American nationality. Her late-Victorian childhood and, in particular, her father’s cruelty, are described in her memoir written in 1969-73. But it is also clear that her family was artistically inclined and her musical studies were encouraged. Clarke enrolled at the RAM in 1903, where she studied the violin. She was abruptly withdrawn from the institution in 1905, when her harmony teacher, Percy Miles, proposed marriage. In 1907 she began a composition course at the RCM, where she was Stanford’s first female student. Again, she was unable to finish her studies, as her father suddenly banished her from the family home.
To support herself, Clarke embarked on an active performing career as a violist, and in 1912 she became one of the first female musicians in a fully professional (and formerly male) ensemble, when Henry Wood admitted her to the Queen’s Hall orchestra. In 1916 she began a US residency that included extensive travel, concertizing and visits with her two brothers. With cellist May Mukle, she performed extensively in Hawaii in 1918-1919 and on a round-the-world tour of the British colonies in 1923.
During these years Clarke achieved fame as a composer with her Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921), both runners up in competitions that were part of the Berkshire (Mass.) Festival of Chamber Music, sponsored by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Coolidge commissioned the Rhapsody for Cello and Piano in 1923, making Clarke the only woman composer the famous Maecenas supported.
Clarke settled in London in 1924, where she performed as a soloist and ensemble player with musicians including Myra Hess, Adila Fachiri, André Mangeot, Gordon Bryan, Adolphe Hallis, Guilhermina Suggia and Mukle. In 1927 the English Ensemble was formed, a piano quartet made up of Clarke, Marjorie Hayward, Kathleen Long and Mukle. Clarke also performed as a soloist and ensemble musician in BBC broadcasts, and made several recordings. The quantity of her compositional output decreased in the late 1920s and 30s, possibly because of the discouragement she faced as a composer.
With the onset of World War II, Clarke found herself in the USA, where she lived alternately with her two brothers and their families. During this period she returned to composing. Her productivity ended, however, when she accepted a position as a nanny in 1942. In a note preserved in a scrapbook of the 1942 ISCM conference (Berkeley, CA), Clarke describes the Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale she had written for the festival, and also mentions her modest circumstances of employment. She was particularly proud that her work was included, as she was one of only three British composers represented and, as she and others noted, the only woman. In the early 1940s Clarke became reacquainted with James Friskin, a member of the piano department at the Juilliard School, whom she had first known as a student at the RCM; the couple married in 1944. Her last compositional projects include God Made a Tree (1954), an arrangement of her song Down by the Salley Gardens and, around her 90th birthday, revisions of earlier scores, including Cortège and The Tiger.
Clarke’s earliest compositions anticipate her study at the RCM. Several songs are of the parlour variety, an idiom she later parodied in The Aspidistra (1929). Standing apart from these, Shiv (1904) and Nach einem Regen (?1906) are perfectly sculpted miniatures. Gervase Elwes made Shy One (?1912) part of his repertory. June Twilight (1925) and The Seal Man (1922) were dedicated to John Goss. The Tiger (1929-33), relentlessly revised during her romantic entanglement with him, is her darkest song; its swirling chromaticism borders on Expressionism. The Seal Man, one of her favourite compositions, demonstrates her interest in atmospheric effects within large-scale structures, and dramatic, declamatory vocal writing. Her setting of Psalm xci (1921), the weightiest of her choral works, features melodic use of augmented 2nds as well as unison singing.
Clarke’s shorter solo pieces, written for herself or her friends to play, can be compared to similar works by Frank Bridge or Arnold Bax. Morpheus (1917-18), for example, develops a single melody through colouristic devices such as pentatonic glissandos on the piano and artificial harmonics on the violin. Her best known works, the Viola Sonata (1919) and the Piano Trio (1921), are powerful and expansive examples of post-Romantic sonata form influenced by the German tradition. The clarity of texture and Impressionist vocabulary of these pieces suggest comparisons with Franck and Debussy. One contemporary report implies that during the anonymous Coolidge competition, some judges mistakenly identified the Viola Sonata as written by Ravel, while The Daily Telegraph supposed ‘Rebecca Clarke’ to be a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch. Later chamber works include two pieces for string quartet. Sections of Comodo et amabile (1924) feature a buoyant lilting melody that surrounds a constructivist interior made up of short motifs, polymetric rhythms, polytonal harmonies and taut contrapuntal writing. The intense Poem (1926) merges a single pervasive motif with the harmony and texture of Debussy, fusing French colour with German depth. The Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola (1941) explores a neo-classical idiom. With its driving momentum, the Allegro can be compared to Stravinsky. The poignant melody of the Pastorale is emphasized by a stark undulating accompaniment. The Dumka (?1941), with its unusual scoring for violin, viola and piano, was probably written for Clarke and family members to play. It not only employs the 3 + 3 + 2 rhythms used in Dvorák’s trio of the same name, but also incorporates other gestures reminiscent of Eastern European folk music. Clarke was both familiar with Bartók’s music and editing a book on Martinu at the time of its composition.
Much of Clarke’s music was never published and remains the property of her estate. Her difficulties in publishing the Piano Trio, documented in her diaries, may have discouraged her from pursuing publication of later works. Although she has been identified as among the most important British composers of the interwar years, a complete understanding of her significance will only be reached when more of her music is available for study. The Viola Sonata has been recorded many times, and the Piano Trio and many songs are also available on recordings. The publication in 1998 and 1999 of three of her many heretofore unpublished works raise hope of wider availability of more of her work in the future.
Inst: Sonata [lmvt], vn, pf, 1907–9; Sonata, vn, pf, 1908–9; Theme and Variations, 1908, lost; Danse bizarre, 2 vn, 1909, lost; Lullaby, va, pf, 1909; Lullaby, va, pf, 1913; Lullaby and Grotesque, va/vn, vc, ?1916 (1930); Morpheus, va, pf, 1917–18; [Untitled], va, pf, 1917–18; Lullaby, vn, pf, 1918; Sonata, va/vc, pf, 1919 (1921); Chinese Puzzle, vn, pf, 1921 (1925) [arr. fl, vn, va, vc, 1925]; Epilogue, vc, pf, 1921; Pf Trio, 1921 (1928); Rhapsody, vc, pf, 1923; Comodo et amabile, str qt, 1924; Midsummer Moon, vn, pf, 1924 (1926); Poem, str qt, 1926; Cortège, pf, 1930, rev. c1976; [Untitled], 2 vn, ?1940, unfinished; Combined Carols, str qt/str orch, 1941; Dumka, vn, va, pf, ?1941; Passacaglia, va/vc, pf, ?1940–41 (1943); Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, va, cl, 1941 (1999); Daybreak (J. Donne), v, str qt, c1941; I’ll bid my heart be still, va, pf, 1944
Choral (SATB, unless otherwise stated): Now fie on love, ?1906; Music, when soft voices die (P.B. Shelley), 1907; A Lover’s Dirge (W. Shakespeare: Twelfth Night), ?1908; The Owl (A.L. Tennyson), ?1909; Come, oh come, my life’s delight (T. Campion), ?1911–12 [arr. 1v, pf, 1924]; My Spirit like a charmed bark doth float (after Shelley), ?1911–12; Philomela (P. Sidney), ?1914; He that dwelleth in the secret place (Ps xci), S, A, T, B, SATB, 1921; There is no rose of such virtue (15th-century Eng. carol), Bar, ATBarB, 1928; Ave Maria, SSA, ?1937 (1998); Chorus from Hellas (Shelley), SSSAA, ?1943 (1999)
Solo vocal (1v, pf, unless otherwise stated): Wandrers Nachtlied (J.W. von Goethe), ?1903; Ah, for the red spring rose, 1904; Aufblick (R. Dehmel), 1904; Chanson (M. Maeterlinck), ?1904; Klage (Dehmel), ?1904; O Welt, ?1904; Shiv and the Grasshopper (R. Kipling: Jungle Book), 1904; Stimme im Dunkeln (Dehmel), ?1904; Du (R. Schaukal), 1905; The moving finger writes (O. Khayyám: Rubaiyát, trans. F.S. Fitzgerald), 1905; Oh, Dreaming World, 1905; Wiegenlied (D. von Liliencron), 1v, vn, pf, ?1905; Durch die Nacht (Dehmel), 1906; Das Ideal (Dehmel), ?1907; Nach einem Regen (Dehmel), ?1906; Magna est veritas (C. Patmore), 1907; Manche Nacht (Dehmel), 1907; Nacht für Nacht (Dehmel), S, C, pf, 1907; Vergissmeinnicht (Dehmel), 1907; Spirits, 2 high vv, pf (R. Bridges), ?1909; The Color of Life (trad. Chin.), ?1910; Return of Spring (trad. Chin.), ?1910; Tears (trad. Chin.), ?1910; The folly of being comforted (W.B. Yeats), ?1911; Away delights (J. Fletcher), 2 vv, pf, ?1912–13; The Cloths of Heaven (Yeats), ?1912 (1920); Hymn to Pan (Fletcher), T, Bar, pf, ?1912–13; Shy One (Yeats), ?1912 (1920); Weep you no more sad fountains (J. Dowland), ?1912; Infant Joy (W. Blake), ?1913 (1924); Down by the salley gardens (Yeats), 1919 (1924) [arr. 1v, vn, c1950]; Ps lxiii, 1920; The Seal Man (J. Masefield), 1922 (1926); June Twilight (Masefield), 1925 (1926); A Dream (Yeats), 1926; Sleep (Fletcher), T, Bar, pf, 1926 [2 versions]; Take, O take those lips away (Shakespeare: Measure for Measure), T, Bar, pf, ?1926; The cherry-blossom wand (A. Wickham), 1927 (1929); Eight o-clock (A.E. Housman), 1927 (1928); Greeting (E. Young), ?1928 (1928); The Aspidistra (C. Flight), 1929 (1930); Cradle Song (Blake), 1929 (1929); The Tiger (Blake), 1929–33, rev. 1972; Binnorie (trad. ballad), c1940; Lethe (E. St Vincent Millay), 1941; The Donkey (G.K. Chesterton), 1942 (1984); God made a tree (K. Kendall), 1954
Arrs.: 3 Old English Songs (Shakespeare), 1v, vn, 1924 (1925); 3 Irish Country Songs (H. Hughes), 1v, vn, 1926 (1928)
MSS in GB-ALb; US-BEm, R, WC; private collections
FullerPG [links are accessible from within www.grovemusic.com]
GroveA (E. Lerner) [links are accessible from within www.grovemusic.com]
GroveW (S. Banfield) [incl. further bibliography]
W.H.H. Squire: ‘Rebecca Clarke sees Rhythm as Next Field of Development’, Christian Science Monitor (12 Dec 1922)
C. Johnson: ‘Remembering the Glorious Rebecca Clarke’, American Women Composers News, iii (1981), 3-6
M. Ponder: ‘Rebecca Clarke’, British Music Society Journal, v (1983), 82-8
D. Richards: ‘”And you should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman”: Gedanken zu Rebecca Clarkes Klaviertrio’, Neuland, iv (1983-4), 201-8
N.B. Reich: ‘Rebecca Clarke: an Uncommon Woman’, Sounds Australian, no.40 (1993-4), 14-16
L. Curtis: ‘Rebecca Clarke: a Case of Identity’, MT, cxxxvii/May (1996), 15-21
C. Barr: ‘A Style of Her Own: the Patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’, Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists Since 1860, ed. R.P. Locke and C. Barr (Berkeley, 1997), 185-203
L. Curtis: ‘Rebecca Clarke and Sonata Form’, MQ , lxxxi (1997), 393-428
M. Kielian-Gilbert: ‘On Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano: feminine spaces and metaphors of reading’, Audible Traces: Gender, Identity and Music, ed. E. Barkin and L. Hamessley (Zürich, 1998), 71-114
L. Curtis: ‘Rebecca Clarke‘s Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet ’, The Strad, (Oct 1999)
D. Kohnen : Rebecca Clarke, Komponistin und Bratschistin (Egelsbach, 1999)