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Composer Focus: Rebecca Clarke

Our historical composer for April is Rebecca Clarke. You can find her music featured in our April Patreon playlist, and a recording of her beautiful arrangement of I'll Bid My Heart Be Still on our YouTube channel. We have several upcoming performances on her music in Cambridge, Cheltenham and Wensleydale.


Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was an Anglo-American composer and violist. Self-deprecating to a fault, her music fell completely out of performance during her own lifetime, only to be rediscovered in 1976 due to an interview she gave with Robert Sherman about Myra Hess. In the course of the interview, Sherman realised that Clarke herself was a composer and later dedicated a programme to the performance of her works. By far her best known work is the Viola Sonata (also transcribed for cello), which is now featured on over fifteen recordings. She left behind a small but compelling body of work, much of it for the viola.

Clarke’s initial musical studies were as a violinist at the Royal Academy of Music. She was transferred to the Royal College of Music by her overbearing father, apparently when her harmony teacher had declared his love for her. Here she studied composition with Charles Stanford, and viola with Lionel Tertis. Her characteristic lack of self-confidence is demonstrated in a comment on her studies with Stanford:

“That I was the only woman he accepted was a source of great pride to me, though I knew full well that I never really deserved it.”

Clarke forged a highly successful career as a violist, playing with musicians including Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubenstein and Jacques Thibaut. In 1912 she was one of six female string players to be accepted into Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra, making her one of the earliest female professional orchestral musicians. (The male players were ‘disgusted’ according to Clarke, but eventually accepted their female colleagues.) In 1925 she performed a recital of her own works at the Wigmore Hall, and she was a member of the English Ensemble, an all-female piano quartet with whom she toured extensively. Her major breakthrough as a composer came in 1919 when she entered her Viola Sonata into the annual chamber music competition in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Compositions were submitted anonymously, and Clarke’s Sonata was tied in the jury vote with a suite by Ernest Bloch. The discovery that her sonata had been written by a woman was so shocking that there were numerous press rumours that ‘Rebecca Clarke’ must be a pseudonym for a male composer. There was even some suggestion that it was another name taken by Ernest Bloch. In her programme note for a recital of the Sonata in 1977, Clarke confirms that she does indeed exist, and that the Sonata is her unaided work.

Clarke had an ambiguous relationship with her status as a ‘woman composer’. In an interview with Ellen Lerner in 1976, she claims that the only reason her music had been relatively regularly performed at some points of her life was that ‘people were so anxious to be fair to women.’ However, in the same interview she tells of a concert she gave where, embarrassed by the number of her own pieces on the programme, she claimed that one of the works was by the composer ‘Anthony Trent’. In press coverage of the concert, the work by ‘Trent’ was given more coverage than those by Clarke, despite her belief that it was musically inferior.

Clarke spent the Second World War stranded in the United States, unable to obtain a visa to return to Britain. During this time she composed a number of works including her Passacaglia on an English Tune and Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet. In 1944 she met and married composer and pianist James Friskin. Despite his encouragement of her, she stopped composing after her marriage. Reflecting on this decision in 1978, Clarke said:

“I’m awfully sorry now that I didn’t [write anything more] because I’ve always felt that I had it in me to write something really good, perhaps, if I’d only gone on with it.”

Clarke is one of the composers performed most frequently by Scordatura, and on a personal level she is one of my favourite composers. We will be performing her Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale in Cambridge on 5th May, and have commissioned a companion piece to go with it which will be premiered in Cheltenham next year.

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