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Rebecca Clarke & Pamela Harrison

Lewis Foreman, 2002

(Notes from A Portrait of the Viola. Excerpted by kind permission.)


  Rebecca Clarke
Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke's music was forgotten for many years, the muddle attending her entry in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music, where she is tacked on to the end of the entry for her husband James Friskin, being symptomatic. It was her 80th birthday in 1976 which attracted some local attention in New York where she lived in her later years. In May 1979 the then Head of Music at the Oxford University Press, Alan Frank, presented a programme on BBC Radio Three in which he introduced the Viola Suite by Bloch and the Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke, and he talked about Clarke, then still living in New York. For most music-lovers in the UK this came as a complete revelation, for Rebecca Clarke, then long domiciled in New York, had been forgotten by the British musical world.

Rebecca Clarke was born in Harrow near London in August 1886; her father was American, her mother German. She studied the violin at the Royal Academy of Music and composition at the Royal College where she was reputedly Charles Villiers Stanford's first woman composition student. Such is the curiously small impact she made as a composer in England in her lifetime that in the first edition of his book Cinderella No More, the celebrated viola player Lionel Tertis does not mention her Viola Sonata, even though we would now regard it as one of the principal works for the instrument of its era.

Clarke tells how it was Stanford who introduced her to the viola by suggesting that, as a composition student, by being in the middle of the orchestra she could 'tell how it's all done'. She found the change from violin to viola a very natural one, recalling how she had warmed to the Brahms songs with viola accompaniment when a child. When her difficult and unpredictable father ordered her out of the family home, it was as a violist she found she had the means of earning her own living, at first at the RCM. She became celebrated as a chamber music player both in England and the USA.

In the January 1923 issue of the quarterly journal Music & Letters she discusses quartet playing and the viola's role in it, clearly an eloquent expression of wide first-hand experience. She was also a freelance orchestral player, from 1912, in the Queen's Hall Orchestra. That year she played in the celebrated London premiere of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces. In London from 1924, the following year saw a concert devoted to her music at the Wigmore Hall.

She was strikingly tall, and in the 1930s she would have been a familiar figure to concert-goers, playing with various groups including a quartet with the d'Aranyi sisters and the celebrated cellist Guillemina Suggia, and the English Ensemble, an all-women piano quartet with Kathleen Long as pianist. She was thus well-known among the composers of her generation as a player, and E. J. Moeran dedicated his String Trio to her.

She found herself in New York at the outbreak of war in 1939. Unable to get a passage home, she remained there for the rest of her life. It was there that she met again the pianist James Friskin who had been Stanford's favourite pupil when they had been at the RCM. Friskin had taught at the Juilliard School for many years and the couple, both now in their late 50s, married and remained New Yorkers for the rest of their lives.

Clarke's earlier music consists of songs written in her late teens and a Violin Sonata which won her an Exhibition (i.e. a scholarship) at the age of 23. Later she wrote a Dance Bizarre for two violins and piano which won her a second Exhibition. From this time comes the earliest piece in our program, the Lullaby written in 1909. There were various short movements for viola or violin including the Irish Lullaby (c.1913). The fact that her next piece, Morpheus (1917), was written under the pseudonym Anthony Trent and not her real name, suggests the difficulties a woman composer may have been experiencing in getting her music performed during the First World War. The last of our short pieces comes from much later in Clarke's career. This was her arrangement of the old Scottish border melody I'll Bid My Heart Be Still which she made in 1944.

Clarke came to celebrity with her Viola Sonata, which was written while touring in 1918 and 1919, being started in Honolulu and finished in Detroit. She submitted it to the international competition for chamber music run by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at her 1919 Berkshire Chamber Music Festival, held at her New England home near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 73 works submitted were judged anonymously and two scores for viola and piano tied—Bloch's Suite and Clarke's Sonata. The prize went to Bloch on Coolidge's casting vote. It is reported that when Clarke was revealed as a woman of 33 it caused considerable comment. ('You should have seen their faces!' wrote Coolidge.) The first performance took place at Pittsfield on 22 September, with Louis Builly, viola and Harold Bauer, piano. It was published in London by J. & W. Chester in 1921.

The published score of the Sonata is headed by a quotation from Alfred de Musset's La Nuit de Mai:

Poete, prends ton luth; le vin de la jeunesse
Fermente cette nuit dans les veines de Dieu.
(Poet, take up your lute; the wine of youth
This night is fermenting in the veins of God.)

The sonata is in three movements consisting of two substantial movements separated by a slighter scherzo. The impassioned opening rhapsody reflects the mood of the literary motto given it by the composer and it introduces various elements which recur, notably a motif of four semiquavers. In 1929 Cobbett listed the sonata as 'atonal', but he may have been influenced by the constant expressive chromatic changes used by Clarke. In fact it often has a pentatonic feel and overall the first movement moves from a questing E minor to a confident and serene E major.

The central scherzo is a spectral jig, its nocturnal character enhanced by the violist's pizzicati, harmonics and glissandi. The wide-spanning, seemingly serene opening to the finale has the stature of a slow movement on its own account. The viola's heartfelt incantations twice hint at the passion burning beneath the surface, but each time the quiet reverie returns, and eventually after some six minutes gives way to a remarkable passage where the solo viola sustains a pianissimo tremolando on the open C string, while above it a single decorated piano line sings like some oriental snake charmer, becoming more and more decorated and agitated and leading into the busy, driving music of the Allegro. After a slow interlude eventually the opening movement's semiquaver motif signals our journey is over and with the return of material from the opening comes the emphatic closing bars. There is no resolution; it is as if we are about to set out again. […]

Pamela Harrison was born in Orpington, Kent, and attended the Royal College of Music where her teachers were Arthur Benjamin (for piano) and Gordon Jacob (for composition). While earning her living as a schoolmistress she listed her profession as 'composer', and first came to notice with a String Quartet played at the National Gallery concerts in 1944. Other chamber works included a Clarinet Quintet and a Piano Trio. Works for string orchestra included A Suite for Timothy, Six poems of Baudelaire for tenor and strings (followed by cycles setting Dowson and Edward Thomas) and a Concertante for piano and strings. There were also short programmatic orchestral works including An Evocation of the Weald and Brimstone Down. She was killed in a road accident at the age of 74.

Harrison's Sonata for Viola and Piano dates from 1946. It is the antithesis of the Clarke Sonata and in its clear-cut writing it is reminiscent of the textures of her teacher Gordon Jacob. A poised and urbane first movement leads to a quicksilver scherzo and a serene Andante affectuoso. This is music that never wallows. But in the highly-characterised scampering final Presto Harrison's lyrical second subject, with its hint of folk song and a reflective spectral episode—all nocturnal moonlight— sings expressively with a personal voice that is good to discover. […]