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Rebecca Clarke (composer)

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Rebecca Helferich Clarke in sepia.

Rebecca Clarke (Friskin) ( August 27, 1886 October 13, 1979) was an English classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She is considered by one commentator to be one of the most important British composers in the interwar period between World War I and World War II; she has also been described as the most distinguished British female composer of her generation.

Though she wrote little, due in part to her ideas about the role of a female composer (see below), her work was recognized for its compositional skill. Most of Clarke's works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published), and her work was largely forgotten after she stopped composing. Scholarship and interest in her work revived when she reached her ninetieth birthday in 1976.

Early life

Clarke was born in Harrow, England, to Joseph Thacher Clarke and Agnes Paulina Marie Amalie Helferich, and studied at London's Royal College of Music. She grew up a bilingual speaker of English and German. She was known as Beccle by family and friends.

The paths of her life and career were strongly affected by her gender. Beginning her studies at the Royal Academy of Music, she was pulled out by her father after being proposed to by teacher Percy Hilder Miles (who left her his Stradivarius violin in his will). She then attended the Royal College of Music, becoming one of Sir Charles Stanford's first female composition students (Clarke herself mistakenly claimed to be the first). At Stanford's urging she shifted her focus there from the violin to the viola, just as the latter was coming to be seen as a legitimate solo instrument. She studied with Lionel Tertis, who was considered by some the greatest violist of the day. Later, when selected to play in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, Clarke became one of the first female professional orchestral musicians.

Having been kicked out of the house without funds by her abusive father for criticizing his extramarital affairs, Clarke supported herself through her viola playing after leaving the Royal College, and moved to the United States in 1916 to perform. Her compositional career peaked in a brief period, beginning with the viola sonata she entered in a 1919 competition sponsored by patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Clarke's neighbour, tying for first prize in a field of 72 entrants with a piece by Ernest Bloch. (Coolidge later declared Bloch the winner. Two judges of the contest remarked to Coolidge that though they had favored Clarke, it was good that she did not win, to avoid the appearance of Coolidge favoring her neighbour and friend and destroying the reputation of the then-new contest.) It was speculated by reporters that "Rebecca Clarke" was only a pseudonym for Bloch himself, or at least that it could not have been Clarke who wrote these pieces, as the idea that a woman could write such a work was nearly unheard of. The sonata was well received and had its first performance at the Berkshire music festival in 1919. In 1921 she again made an impressive showing, though still just failing to take the prize, with her piano trio. A 1923 rhapsody for cello and piano followed, sponsored by Coolidge, making Clarke the only female recipient of her patronage. These three works represent the height of her compositional career. From then on her output was sporadic; she composed hardly at all throughout the 1930s, for example, nor did she write during her employment as a nanny, though she continued to perform.

Rebecca Clarke, Mrs. James Friskin, in 1976.

The years from 1939 to 1942 were to prove her last significant creative period. By this point Clarke was living in the United States with her brothers, and was unhappy to see them turning out, in her eyes, as badly as their father. This period of unhappiness proved nevertheless to be a fertile one, but it did not last long.

Later life and marriage

Clarke performed and wrote little after 1942. She suffered from dysthymia, a chronic form of depression; and the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—she received for her work also stayed her pen. Perhaps the greatest barrier to composition was her own idea of her proper role. She married Juilliard piano instructor James Friskin in 1944. Clarke did not consider herself able to balance family life and composition: "I can't do it unless it's the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep." Clarke took the responsibilities of family life to be more important than composition; she stopped writing, though she continued working on arrangements until shortly before her death. She also stopped performing after her marriage. Her last composition, one of three to follow her wedding, was probably a song entitled "God Made a Tree", composed in 1954 (published 2002).

Clarke later sold the Stradivarius she had been bequeathed, and established the May Muklé prize at the Royal Academy, named after the cellist with whom she frequently toured. The prize is still awarded annually to an outstanding cellist.

After her husband's death in 1967, Clarke began writing a memoir, entitled I Had a Father Too (or the Mustard Spoon); it was completed in 1973 but never published. In it she describes her early life, marked by frequent beatings from her father and strained family relations, which went on to affect her perceptions of her proper place in life; her father's disapproval of her musical ambitions as well as his harsh treatment of her and her three siblings are speculated to have affected her compositional career. Clarke died in 1979 at her home in New York City, at the age of 93, and was cremated.


A large portion of Clarke's music features the viola, and takes advantage of the strengths of the instrument, as she was a professional performer for many years. Much of her output was written for herself and the all-female chamber ensembles she played in, including the Norah Clench Quartet, the English Ensemble, and the d'Aranyi Sisters. She also toured worldwide, particularly with cellist May Muklé. Her works were strongly influenced by several trends in music of the 20th century; Clarke also knew many leading composers of the day, including Bloch and Ravel, to whom her work has been compared.

The impressionism of Debussy is often mentioned in connection with her work, with lush textures and modernistic harmonies; the Viola Sonata (published in the same year as the prizewinning Bloch and also of the Hindemith Viola Sonata) is a particular example, with its pentatonic opening theme, thick harmonies, emotionally intense nature, and dense, rhythmically complex texture. The Sonata remains a part of standard repertoire for the viola to this day. Morpheus, composed a year earlier, was her first expansive work, after over a decade of songs and miniatures. The Rhapsody sponsored by Coolidge, is Clarke's most ambitious work, roughly 23 minutes long, with complex musical ideas and ambiguous tonalities contributing to the varying moods of the piece. In contrast, "Midsummer Moon", written the very next year, is a light miniature, with a flutter-like solo violin line.

In addition to her chamber music for strings, Clarke wrote many songs. Nearly all of Clarke's early pieces are for solo voice and piano. Her setting of "The Tiger", which she worked on for five years to the exclusion of other works during her tumultuous relationship with baritone John Goss (who was married at the time; Clarke was not), is dark and brooding, almost expressionist; most, however, are lighter in nature. Her earliest works were parlor songs; she went on to build up a body of work primarily drawing from classic texts by Yeats, Masefield, and traditional Chinese writings.

During 1939 to 1942, the last prolific period near the end of her compositional career, her style grew less dense and strongly developed, and more clear and contrapuntal, with emphasis on motivic elements and tonal structures, the influences of neoclassicism appearing in her works. Dumka (1941), a recently published work for violin, viola, and piano, reflects the Eastern European folk styles of Bartók and Martinů. The " Passacaglia on an Old English Tune", also from 1941 and premiered by Clarke herself, is based on a theme attributed to Thomas Tallis which appears throughout the work. The piece is modal in flavor, mainly the Dorian mode but venturing into the seldom-heard Phrygian mode. Dedicated to "BB", ostensibly Clarke's niece Magdalen, scholars speculate that the dedication is more likely referring to Benjamin Britten, who organized a concert commemorating the death of Clarke's friend and major influence Frank Bridge. The Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, also composed in 1941, is another neoclassically influenced piece, written for clarinet and viola (originally for her brother and sister-in-law). Ralph Vaughan Williams befriended Clarke in the 1940s, and conducted concerts featuring her music on several occasions.

A 1917 program showcasing Clarke's work; her duo "Morpheus" is here credited to the pseudonym "Anthony Trent".

Clarke's views on the social role of women—herself in particular—were incompatible with any ambition to compose music in the larger forms. Her oeuvre consists largely of short chamber pieces and songs; notably absent from her work are large-scale pieces such as symphonies, which despite her talent she never attempted to write. Some of her choral music, however, is large in conception—particularly the setting of Psalm 91, and the Chorus from Shelley's "Hellas" for five part women's chorus; both works were first recorded in 2003 shortly after their posthumous publication.

Her work was all but forgotten for a long period of time; it was revived in 1976 during a radio station celebration of her ninetieth birthday, and with recent scholarship, particularly works by the Rebecca Clarke Society, she has since begun coming back into public awareness. Over half of Clarke's compositions remain unpublished, in the personal possession of her heirs, along with most of her writings; however in the early 2000s revival of interest in her music continued, with more of her works being printed and recorded, and continuing efforts being made to make her works available. Examples include two string quartets as well as one composition published in 2002, a short, lyrical piece for viola and piano entitled Morpheus, the latter composed under the pseudonym of "Anthony Trent" to avoid having her name on a recital program so often. Reviews of the concert praised the "Trent", while all but ignoring the works credited to Clarke.

Rebecca Clarke Society

The Rebecca Clarke Society was established in September 2000 to promote performance, scholarship, and awareness of the works of Rebecca Clarke, following an event at Brandeis University celebrating her work. Founded by musicologists Liane Curtis and Jessie Ann Owens and based out of the Women's Studies Research Centre at Brandeis, the Society has pushed forward recording and scholarship of her work, including several world premiere performances and recordings of unpublished material as well as numerous journal publications. Dr. Laura Macy, another early board member, is now the editor of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a highly regarded reference work on all aspects of music, and was instrumental on increasing the publication's coverage of female composers, including Clarke, who was cut from the previous 1980 edition.

Of particular interest is the publication of previously unpublished compositions from Clarke's estate, include some that were unknown even by her family until after her death. "Binnorie", a twelve-minute song based on Celtic folklore, was only discovered in 1997, and not premiered until 2001. Over 25 previously unpublished works have been made available since the establishment of the Society. Several of Clarke's chamber works, including the expansive Rhapsody for cello and piano, and Cortège, her only piano work, were first recorded in 2000 on the Dutton label, making use of material made available from the Clarke estate. They organized and sponsored the world premieres of the 1907 and 1909 violin sonatas in 2002. Several concerts of her music have been put on through their efforts, particularly in the Boston area.

In addition to promoting Clarke, the Society also encourages female composers by sponsoring the Rebecca Clarke prize for new music by women. The contest was begun in 2003 and is planned to be held every two years.

The head of the Rebecca Clarke Society, Dr. Liane Curtis, is the editor of A Rebecca Clarke Reader, published by Indiana University Press in 2004. Unfortunately, due to copyright clearance problems, the book was withdrawn from circulation by the press when it felt it could not support the author's belief in her freedom to use music examples against the complaints of the copyright holders.

Selected works

  • "Shiv and the Grasshopper" (1904), vocal, text Rudyard Kipling
  • "Shy One" (1912), vocal, text Yeats
  • Morpheus (1917–18), viola and piano
  • Sonata (1919), viola (or cello) and piano
  • Piano Trio (1921), violin, viola, and piano
  • He that dwelleth in the secret place ( Psalm xci) (1921), SATB choir with S,A,T,B solo
  • "The Seal Man" (1922), vocal, text John Masefield
  • Rhapsody (1923), cello and piano
  • "The Aspidistra" (1929), vocal, text Claude Flight
  • "The Tiger" (1929–33), vocal, text William Blake
  • Passacaglia on an Old English Tune (?1940–41), viola (or cello) and piano
  • Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale (1941), viola and clarinet
  • "God made a tree" (1954), vocal, text Katherine Kendall
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