Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Listen to Rebecca Clarke's Morpheus performed by violist Paul Coletti and pianist Phillip Bush.
Listen to Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano performed by Paul Coletti and Phillip Bush.
Upon hearing two as yet unpublished works for viola, played by violist Paul Coletti, we become acquainted with the distinct and beautiful musical voice of Rebecca Clarke, a talented violist herself as well as a prolific composer of chamber and vocal music.
Rebecca Clarke was born in Harrow, England. Her mother was from Bavaria and her father, Joseph Clarke, an American, was a representative for the Eastman Kodak Company in Europe. Music was important to the family. Joseph played cello and provided his four children with musical instruction. Rebecca studied violin from an early age and switched to viola at the urging of her teacher, Sir Charles Stanford of the Royal College of Music. As a violist in an orchestra, she could be "in the middle of the sound," and learn how the music was constructed.
Growing up, Rebecca's relationship with her father was strained, making her home life less than happy. She finally rebelled against Joseph by building an actual "house of cards" from the letters of her father's mistress. This act helped to sever their relationship completely and permanently, and in 1910 she left home, channeling her frustration with her family life into her composing. Left on her own from this point, she supported herself with a burgeoning career as a violist. Clarke attained virtuoso status, and her undisputable gifts as a violist account for her output of superb music for the instrument.
In 1919, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge invited Rebecca Clarke to enter a piece in her annual composition competition. The result was her Sonata for Viola and Piano. The judging panel was split down the middle, and when the tie was broken, Ernest Bloch was announced the winner. However, Rebecca Clarke's sonata had captured the attention of the judges, who were shocked to learn that their second choice was a young unknown composerand a woman, no less!
Rebecca Clarke, by her own admission, had a hard time composing while she was in love. This accounts for a dry spell in the early 1920s when she had a romance with a married singer. During their affair, she wrote just one piece, a song dedicated to him. She was living and working in New York when in 1944 Rebecca fell in love again and married James Friskin. Their marriage was a happy one, and she did not compose much until her death in 1979.
Clarke's music possesses lovely singing melodies suspended above lush and colorful harmonies. She incorporates simplicity and peacefulness as well as complex rhythms with stormy outbursts. In addition to her compositions for viola and piano, she wrote chamber works including her most famous piece, her Piano Trio, and many songs, preferring to focus her energy on these smaller forms rather than on large orchestral works or operas. While her principal influences would appear to be English folk song and French Impressionism, the musical passion derived from her own life is uniquely her own.
Many of Rebecca Clarke's works, including Morpheus and the Sonata for Viola and Piano, were never published. Happily, Oxford University Press is now working to provide new and future releases of Clarke's music in published form in addition to those carried by Boosey & Hawkes.