The Cloths of Heaven
Notes from the CD, 2000
The songs on this disk represent a wide range of Clarke’s output, from the earliest mature songs (“Tears,” “The Cloths of Heaven,” ca. 1912) to her last completed work (“God Made a Tree,” 1954, according to the catalogue by her estate manager, Christopher Johnson), and music both published (some from the 1994 collection reprinted by Boosey & Hawkes) and still unpublished (“Tears,” “Tiger, Tiger” and “The Donkey”). Fifty three songs by Clarke survive, most for solo voice and piano and also several other combinations including the songs arranged for voice and violin.
John Masefield was not yet Poet Laureate of Great Britain when Clarke met him in 1925 to discuss her settings of his writings. “June Twilight” and “The Seal Man” both evoke undulating scenes of nature, but there the similarities end. “June Twilight” is rapturous in its joy of a country scene, wistful only at the temporal finiteness of that beauty. A prose text from Masefield’s A Mainsail Haul, Clarke set “The Seal Man” in 1922. Based on the Celtic myth of the seal who takes on the form of a man in order to lure women to their death in the sea, the legend reverses the genders of the Greek myth of the Siren. This declamatory prose setting is one of which she always spoke of as being one of her favorites.
W. B. Yeats was a favorite poet of composers of Clarke’s generation. She dedicated “Shy One” “The Cloths of Heaven” to the famous English tenor Gervase Elwes, who was one of the first to champion her music, and who sang her music in New York City just days before his 1921 death in a Boston train accident. Clarke’s setting of “Shy One” is warmly tinged with modal flavor and a strongly profiled melody; yet the Musical Times attacked its use of dissonance.
With its imagery of flowers and romance, Anna Wickham’s poem “The Cherry Blossom Wand” might at first glance seem to be cheerful, but closer reading reveals a dark cynicism. The poem was widely read when it was first published in 1915, but although labeled “To be set to music” (Wickham herself trained as a singer), Clarke’s is the only setting. Clarke knew the poet through their mutual friend, cellist May Mukle.
Clarke would go on to set three more works by women poets to music, the resulting songs a small but distinct part of her output. Ella Young, an Irish poet and novelist, settled in California in 1925. Clarke’s setting of Young’s “Greeting” is a small but strongly chiseled lyrical expression. Starting with rolling waves and buoyant melody, the mention of a lost love darkens the mood and leads to harmonic twists and shifts of texture.
The poet of “God Made a Tree,” Katherine Kendall, is unknown in literature and was a British friend of Clarke, and a devout Catholic. Rebecca and her siblings were raised “in the strictest irreligion,” as one of her nieces recalls, but did gain an informal interest in western religion and Christianity as shown by her Psalm settings of the early 1920s, and this setting of the Kendall text, and also the setting of Chesterton’s wry but profound Palm Sunday text, “The Donkey”; interestingly, none of these religious-themed works were published. Clarke dedicated “The Donkey” to the Danish dramatic soprano Povla Frijsch in 1941. Frijsch had long championed Clarke’s songs, naming her in a Musical America interview as among her favorite American composers. Frijsch’s release of “Shy One” on a recording, the first of Clarke’s music, may have motivated the dedication.
Clarke’s setting of Psalm 63 was one of the works she showed to Gustav Holst in 1921 in order to receive his opinion and advice. It reveals the influence of Ernst Bloch, as well as Clarke’s exposure to Jewish chanting through her London friends the Bentwiches. While many of Clarke’s British contemporaries set texts from A. E. Housman’s early publication A Shropshire Lad, Clarke was the first to turn to his Late Poems, from which “Eight O’Clock” is drawn. Clarke illustrates the concise text in a work of devastating impact.
The anonymous poem “Tears” (labeled by Clarke as “Old Chinese Words”) reveals Clarke’s fascination with the Far East, which had grown since encountering a Javanese Gamelan at the World Exposition in Paris in 1900. The spacious span of its opening, and its use of wholetone scales create an austere and exotic atmosphere.
“Come, O Come my Life’s Delight” offers a rapturous view of love. Based on words set by the seventh-century Thomas Campion, Clarke based this 1924 song on her own earlier choral setting. Claude Flight, author of “The Aspidistra,” was an artist and friend of Clarke’s. Parodying the conventions of the Victorian Parlour, “The Aspidistra” is a bold statement in its outrageous humour.
The Blake settings “Cradle Song” and “Infant Joy,” evoke the traditional maternal position. Since Clarke had no children, these works might be understood as a musical expression of her perceived feminine role. “Cradle Song” employs clarity of structure and rhythm, and accessible poetic scansion; these are enriched by the impressionist vocabulary of chordal parallelism. Also a Blake setting, “Infant Joy” is a gem, a radiant outburst of devotion. Clarke also wrote several instrumental lullabies, with one for violin and voice included here.
“Tiger, Tiger” also sets Blake, a text that Benjamin Britten would turn to in the 1960s in his much more reserved setting. Clarke’s work is her darkest song, with swirling chromaticism bordering on the expressionist, matching the text’s evocation of the erotic and the unknowable subconscious realm. Clarke probably wrote “Tiger, Tiger” with John Goss in mind, as she relentlessly revised it during her romantic entanglement with him (ca. 1929-1933); she was also discouraged by a publisher’s rejection of the work; they no doubt preferred lighter fare, especially from women. The disturbing power of “Tiger, Tiger” suggests that Clarke deserves consideration as a major composer of twentieth century song.
Like most violists, Clarke started on the violin as a child, switching to the viola while at the Royal College, and at the suggestion of Stanford. Yet, she sometimes still played the violin, in family or informal settings, or in her role as a versatile freelance musician. A former teacher and suitor, Percy Miles, died in 1922 leaving Clarke a Stradivarius violin, which she occasionally played in subsequent years.
“Midsummer Moon” was dedicated to Adila Fachiri, with whom Clarke often performed in ensemble concerts in England. “Starting a fiddle piece using some old scraps,” she wrote of the work in February of 1924, a vivid description reflecting Clarke’s hobby as an avid sewer. The Musical Times noted the brilliance of the work, while determined to consider it only as representative of the “‘new’ woman composer.”
The arrangements of Old English Songs, and Irish Folk Songs for voice and violin were among Clarke’s most popular pieces, which she sometimes played for pleasure as well as in concert settings. Their folk and traditional themes remind us that Clarke should be squarely placed in the mainstream of the English Musical Renaissance, since they both suggest her influence by Holst’s settings of the same unusual combination, and her possible influence on Vaughan Williams who would write for voice and violin in 1928.
Patricia Wright’s pure voice, intelligent musicianship and natural technique are the basis of her success in Opera, Oratorio, Lieder and Art Song. Her April 2000 debut in the title role of Madame Butterfly with New Zealand Opera earned the tribute of “exquisite singer – the most refined in New Zealand perhaps.”
Jonathan Rees began playing the violin when he was seven, and continued his studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School. In 1978 he was a prize-winner in the BBC Young Musician of the Year. In 1987 he was appointed Artistic Director of the Scottish Ensemble. In his capacity as soloist/director he has gained the ensemble an international reputation through extensive national and international touring.
Kathron Sturrock, pianist, studied at the Royal College of Music and then won an Australian Government scholarship to study with Alfred Brendel in Vienna. Further awards enabled her to accept an invitation from Rostropovitch to study the repertoire for cello and piano with him in Moscow. Sturrock’s interests are varied and wide-ranging. Along with her solo career she is in much demand as an ensemble pianist. She is a founder member of the chamber music group The Fibonacci Sequence, and has recorded for Hyperion, Chandos, Pickwick, Sain, Gamut, ASV and Virtuosi Records.