|Rebecca Clarke in 1919|
Rebecca Clarke is one of those composers who could’ve been, to turn a familiar movie phrase less often associated with artists, “a contender.”
She grew up at the end of the Victorian Era with its societal repression of women’s roles and was dominated by her equally repressive father, an American living in England and married to his German wife. The idea of a woman becoming a musician was unthinkable for a respectable lady and that she wanted to study composition seemed ridiculous, apparently, even to many fellow musicians. She was allowed to study the violin at the Royal Academy of Music – after all, she could still play for musicales at home – but two years later, when her violin teacher “proposed to her,” her father pulled her out of school (not, as usually thought, because he disagreed with her course of study - well, yes, that too, no doubt).
Two years later, now 21, she resumed her studies at the Royal College of Music, studying composition with one of the leading composers and teachers in England of that generation, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who suggested she play the viola rather than the violin. It seems, in addition to Mozart’s preference – because you’re sitting in the middle of the action and get to appreciate everything going on around you (particularly good from a composer’s viewpoint) – the viola was also beginning to become a respectable solo instrument and there weren’t as many people who played it well. Very quickly, she became one the best viola players around and so she found herself getting more “gigs” rather than competing with all those violinists hanging about.
She also began studying composition more seriously and was the first of Stanford’s “female composer” students. She also worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, a youngish composer despite pushing 40 (let’s say, he was a late-bloomer) on the verge of premiering his choral first symphony, “A Sea Symphony.”
However, when she criticized her father for his extra-marital affairs, he tossed her out of the house and cut off his financial support (stuffy old twit, he was: concerned about her being a lady and then pushing her out onto the streets because he was acting like a pig, but hey…). So, she left school once more, this time to find necessary employment, becoming the first female member of a major London orchestra when the legendary Sir Henry Wood hired her for the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.
Once the First World War began, she went to the United States to set up a career here, performing several pieces of her own on a program in New York City, one of them posted under the pseudonym “Anthony Trent.” Critics liked the Trent piece but ignored her other works, not even dismissing them.
A similar thing happened with the Viola Sonata she composed in 1919 when she submitted it to a competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (who also happened to be a friend and neighbor of hers). Out of over 70 entries, her sonata tied for first place with a work by Ernest Bloch. The assumption by the judges was that “Rebecca Clarke” must have been a pseudonym for Bloch himself, so the story goes, entering two pieces, because, certainly, no woman could’ve written such a good piece as that. The assumption is, the judges didn’t realize the second composer’s true identity until after the decision had been made. A woman composer! They were shocked, no doubt – shocked!
A Piano Trio had a similar fate in a subsequent competition, placing well but winning no prize. At least she did receive Mrs. Coolidge’s financial patronage as a result.
But this, alas, ended up being the peak of her career which was, by most retrospective glances, just beginning. Instead, she returned to England and focused primarily on performing, organizing concerts and making recordings. Visiting her brothers in America, she was stranded here at the start of World War II and, to support herself, became a governess for a family in Connecticut. Meanwhile, she composed some more – in 1941, one her better-known later pieces, the “Passacaglia on an Old English Theme” for viola and piano, using an old-fashioned modal tune attributed to Tallis. Presumably the work is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, a young ex-patriot English composer then staying in America (and hanging around Tanglewood) who would, five years later, write his own passacaglia on a theme by Purcell, better known as "The Young-Person's Guide to the Orchestra."
Her music was largely overlooked – most people would say “forgotten,” but to be “forgotten” you first have to be known, and she never really was “known” as a fine composer. In fact, from her childhood on into her maturity, this lack of support and encouragement resulted in a chronic form of depression now called “dysthymia” which often prompted her to not compose.
Ironically, in the mid-1940s, she ran into an old school friend in New York City and they, now both in their 50s, decided to get married. James Frisken was a composer and pianist and on the faculty of the newly formed Juilliard School of Music and, even though he was supportive of his wife’s composing, she essentially stopped completely. A radio broadcast of some of her music on the occasion of her 90th Birthday revived interest in her existence, but she died in 1979 at the age of 93.
One wonders what she might have written had things been easier not just for her but for other women who wanted to become composers. Few had the indomitable butchness of Ethel Smyth to overcome the idiocy that held them back, and even then, who pays much attention to Dame Ethel’s music, these days?
While I can’t find any respectable presentation on You-Tube of the piece on this program, here’s a reasonable presentation of the first movement of her wonderful Viola Sonata. Molly Carr is the violist with Yi-fang Huang, the pianist.
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- Dick Strawser