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ClassicsOnline Home » CLARKE, R: Viola Music
Rebecca Clarke’s music is often described (along with that of Vaughan Williams) as English impressionism, but her style ranges from lush post-romantic (as in the passionate Viola Sonata, her best-known work) to the taut neo-classicism of Stravinsky (as heard in her Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale). Clarke trained with Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London, but wrote much of her music while living in the United States. Most of her music remained unpublished in her lifetime, and this recording is part of a dramatic discovery that has been taking place since her 90th birthday in 1976.
By Michael Cookson
By Julian Haylock
This is music that gives up its secrets to only the most gifted. Any attempts to try to align Clarke's work with the Romantic tradition from which it sprang would simply overload its refined, neo-Classical textures. Play it too cool, however, and one runs the risk of crusting over its molten core of bittersweet nostalgia. All of which makes these particular performances doubly remarkable for keeping such a sure hand on the emotional tiller of each work.
By Calum MacDonald
International Record Review
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
And when I had that one little whiff of success that I've had in my life, with the Viola Sonata, the rumour went around, I hear, that I hadn't written the stuff myself, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two little bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn't have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn't exist, there wasn't any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch!
This was Rebecca Clarke speaking in a 1976 interview about her 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Clarke had composed the work for the competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, as part of her annual chamber music festival held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The competition was organized with anonymous submissions, and 73 composers submitted entries for viola and piano, the instrumentation chosen for that year.
In an infamous moment, the six judges deadlocked between the two finalists, with Mrs Coolidge herself breaking the tie and naming Bloch's Suite for Viola as the winner and Clarke's sonata as the runner-up. The sonata was performed at the Festival and subsequently published, but in the decades following this 'whiff of success', Clarke and her music were completely forgotten. The 1976 radio broadcast celebrating Clarke's ninetieth birthday sparked the rediscovery. Since then, her Viola Sonata has become perhaps the most frequently performed major work for viola and piano, with over a dozen CD recordings, and it has recently been arranged for viola and orchestra.
Clarke was born and educated in England, but she had close ties with the United States through her American father, and her best known works were written in periods of residence in the United States. She studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Sir Charles Stanford, known as the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Her parents were both avid amateur musicians and she started on violin as a child, but at Stanford's suggestion switched to the viola, and she worked as a performing musician for many years. She was based in London from 1924, but in 1939 she was visiting her brothers in the United States when war broke out, so she wound up not returning. Following a period of work as a nanny in Connecticut, she married the pianist James Friskin in 1944 and lived in New York City until her death in 1979 at the age of 93.
Clarke only published twenty works in her lifetime, and there were extensive periods in which she wrote very little; she eventually gave up composing. She left nearly eighty pieces in manuscript in her estate. Of the works on this CD, only the Sonata, the Passacaglia and Chinese Puzzle were published in her lifetime.
Critics have suggested a range of stylistic contexts for Clarke's musical language in the Sonata; we might recognize Brahms in the intense lyricism of many of the themes, and the richness of the textures, as well as in the clarity of the sonata form she employs in the first movement. Vaughan Williams is a composer that Clarke named as an influence (as well as a colleague), and the modally-tinged harmonic language connects Clarke to what is sometimes called English impressionism. Thematic recall and transformation is an important technique in building the large-scale architecture of the work. The cyclical recall of the initial "trumpet-call" motif for the final expansive conclusion is one example, and this motive and others derived from it or its fragments are also present. The middle movement, Vivace, is a sprightly scherzo, whose dissonances and jagged harmonic content give it a certain irony; its exoticism reminds us of Ravel's Piano Trio. The beginning of the third movement poignantly evokes Debussy's Little Shepherd, but builds to an expansive breadth and monumentality. The conclusion is nothing less that rapturous, and despite being named runner-up 87 years ago, Clarke's Sonata is clearly a winner.
In the Passacaglia (on an old English Tune), Clarke employs pre-existing material to provide structure and connection with tradition. It is based on a hymn, Veni creator, included in the 1906 English Hymnal compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although the hymn is attributed to Thomas Tallis, that attribution is not confirmed by research. The hymn serves as an organizing element often more underlying rather than in the foreground. Clarke herself gave the first performance of the Passacaglia on 28 March 1941, in New York City. The success of that concert led to the work's publication; it was her last piece to be printed (in her lifetime). In my essay in A Rebecca Clarke Reader (The Rebecca Clarke Society, 2005) I suggest that the sudden death of Frank Bridge on 10 January 1941, may have motivated Clarke to write this melancholy work, the one most steeped in British tradition of all her pieces.
The dates of Clarke's music left in manuscript in her estate are tentative, suggested by the composer late in life as she looked over her work of decades earlier. The 1909 Lullaby is rooted in romantic tradition, but revealing modal shadings and a folk-like quality, as heard in the pentatonic melody. The atmospheric quality of the middle section, with its sparkling sense of motion, contrasts with the outer sections. The Coda features the tune combined with an evocative countermelody in the piano.
The 1913 Lullaby on an Ancient Irish Tune is altogether edgier, with a sinuous winding melody and lilting polytonal exchanges. The open-ended conclusion is mysterious and evocative. As in her 1944 setting of a Scottish tune I'll bid my heart be still, the melody is not varied but rather placed in the midst of different contexts, keys and textures.
Clarke told the story of her use of the pseudonym 'Anthony Trent' several times in important interviews, but the survival of a programme from 13 February 1918, explains that Morpheus was the work she composed as 'Trent'. She described it in 1976 as "not particularly good", but that statement reflects both her chronic modesty and her realisation that her work was sometimes judged unfairly: "This is one for Women's Lib … The piece by Anthony Trent had much more attention paid to it than the pieces I had written, I mean in my own name." Morpheus is full of atmospheric effects and dramatic features; it showcases the viola and anticipates some of the flavour of her Viola Sonata, especially in the sonata's third movement.
Clarke wrote Chinese Puzzle in 1921, for violin and piano, and made a viola arrangement the following year. She explained in her memoir that the tune was one she had learned from a Chinese friend of her family, and she checked the accuracy of that tune when she visited Peking (Beijing) on her trip around the world in 1923. A popular and accessible piece, it was published in 1926 and she also arranged it for flute, strings and piano.
I'll bid my heart be still, an arrangement of a Scottish tune, was Clarke's last work for the viola. The tune is included in The New National Songbook (1906), edited by Clarke's teacher Charles Stanford. It seems that she wrote the work with James Friskin in mind (he was Scottish) in the passionate summer of 1944, in the months preceding their marriage. Their romance is documented in a touching series of letters, among the few that Clarke saved. After giving the piece to Friskin he encouraged her to compose more, in a letter dated 24 July 1944: 'After looking again at the last twelve bars for your little viola piece, which I find very moving, it seems to me that you ought to start off again on something larger — I'd almost be willing to bet it's there if you'd only let it come out. What about another viola sonata? Please try.' But there is no sign that she did try – instead I'll bid my heart be still might be Clarke's message to herself. Clarke's marriage to James Friskin allowed her to make peace with her troubled composer identity by putting it to rest, where it remained dormant, closeted, for many years, until the rediscovery began in 1976.
Both in its asymmetrical rhythms, the angular melody and the jangling dissonances of the harmonies, the Untitled Piece (from around 1918) employs approaches that would be developed more powerfully in the 1941 Dumka. For violin, viola and piano, this last reveals Clarke as steeped in traditions of nineteenth-century chamber music (of course Dvořák's Dumky Trio comes to mind).
Dumka refers to a traditional Slavonic lamenting song; it was adopted for use as an instrumental form retaining the sombre mood, but also featuring contrasting sections of high-flung emotions. Dvořák's Dumky is the plural, a multi-movement series of Dumka. Late in life Clarke recollected that the work dated from 1941, a date that can only be considered approximate (as with many of the works that were not published in her lifetime). Formal clarity and polytonal harmonies infuse a modernist, neo-classical ethos, while the high-strung contrasts of roiling emotions illustrate the passions of a luscious romanticism tinged with ethnic flavour. No information illuminating the origins of this piece are known, but one possible influence is that in the early 1940s Clarke was involved in editing and proof-reading a book on Bohuslav Martinů, a Czech composer who wrote several instrumental Dumkas.
Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale was written in 1941 and dedicated to Rebecca's brother Hans, a well-known biochemist, and his wife Frieda. Hans played clarinet and Frieda violin; both were good amateur musicians. Rebecca, however, wrote for her own instrument, the viola, resulting in a fine pairing of two instruments of similar range.
Clarke decided to submit the Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale to the 1942 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, held at the University of California at Berkeley. Her friendship with Albert Elkus, conductor and professor at the University, probably played a rôle in her involvement, since he was one of the festival organizers. One of 33 works accepted for the festival, Clarke's piece was, as she and others observed, the only one by a woman and one of three by British composers.
Responding to a request for information, Clarke sent a letter to the festival organizers that gives an apt and vivid description of her work, as well as a sense of her genial personality:
The whole thing is very unpretentious: a short unassuming little prelude; an Allegro I originally thought of calling a Toccata – as it gives both the players plenty to show what they can do… The subject is more or less "mirror-writing," and in the coda the instruments are, in addition, continually crossing one another. There is a fugato section in the middle of the movement, after a second subject in pizzicato on the viola. The whole of the second movement should sound very spirited, and is, I think, quite effectively written for both parts. The third movement, Pastorale, is rather melancholy and nostalgic, ending in a very subdued way.
An article about this work published in The Strad magazine in 1999 is available on the website www.rebeccaclarke.org. Although Clarke never sought publication for this duet, she valued it highly, as she stated in an interview in 1978, and was delighted when friends gave a private performance for her in her apartment in New York. In 2000 this became the first of Clarke's instrumental works left in her estate, to be published.
President, The Rebecca Clarke Society
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CLARKE, R: Viola Music