Thursday, April 27, 2023

Stuart & Friends: Where the Music Comes From (Part 2)

Rebecca Clarke (1920) - Jennifer Higdon - Amy Beach

(This is part 2 of an on-going post about the "Stuart & Friends" program on Saturday, 7:30 at Market Square Church in Harrisburg. While the first post included videos of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio and Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata, this post continues with another look at Rebecca Clarke' life and career before proceeding to that of Amy Beach. If you only have time to listen to her Piano Quintet which concludes Saturday's concert, scroll down to find a complete video.) 

When I was a child, I remember asking “Where does the music come from?” and being told it came from the speakers of our old phonograph (either that or, with parents who grew up with the 1930s pop tune, being given a verse of “the music goes round and round...”). But that's not what I was looking for – not the sound of the music but the music the musicians were playing.

“Oh, you mean who wrote the music?” “Yes, where did he get the music?” (Because, back then, it was always a he...) “Well, he writes it down on paper and the musicians perform it from that.” “Yes, but where does that music come from?” “You know, I think it's almost time for dinner!”

More recently, I'd heard Lee Hoiby's song, “Where the Music Comes From,” which has the simplicity and beauty of a Schubert song that, if it doesn't specifically answer my childhood question, if you (composer or not) succeed in experiencing and absorbing all these things, it might help shape your Inner Self and help support the growth of a child to develop into the adult artist – or into the person who will enjoy the music even more.

With images of Beethoven walking through the fields or Brahms slaving away over his piano, I still wasn't sure where composers found their inspiration. And while I didn't really think “money grew on trees,” I also suspected you didn't “find the music” hidden behind flowers in the garden or in the beauty of a sunset. Only later did I discover "oh, but you can!" 

Since I'm looking at this solely from the standpoint of a composer, I suppose, if there's a point, individual composers discover it individually for themselves – just as performers do who get beyond merely reproducing the notes composers place on the page, just as painters turn what they see into something that is much more than what the rest of us can merely see, just as authors turn the hint of a story into a novel that is so much deeper than that.

While this also gets into the “nature” or “nurture” divide – imagine if there was such a thing as aesthetic politics where partisans hurled anathemas at each other depending on our beliefs about “where talent comes from?” – let's think, for a moment, listening to the music on this program, what might have influenced these composers, given their personal backgrounds and the times they lived in, to create the music they did.

As I mentioned in the first of this concert's posts, Jennifer Higdon was influenced by (or found inspiration in) her reactions to colors, as if she's spreading paint on a canvas. The fact her father was a painter would invariably have had a great impact on her even if it was just another part of her home environment, like hearing the songs of the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel her parents listened to. 

In this post, what kind of "sources" might we find that helped Rebecca Clarke and Amy Beach to find music no one else ever heard before, no one else had written before, music that just, somehow, came in to being?

In the first part, I'd mentioned some of what can only be called the trials and tribulations of a young Victorian woman like Rebecca Clarke – a teenager, still – growing up in a society that by and large felt she had no business being a professional musician much less a composer. Her parents had “an interest in music” and allowed her to attend the Royal College of Music, more support than Ethel Smyth received from her old-fashioned father a generation earlier who wouldn't even let her study music. Composing was not something deemed “suitable for a woman” (small wonder she grew up to become involved in the Women's Rights movement and was jailed for her sufragette activities). But when one of Clarke's teacher proposed marriage, her father pulled her out of school.

While her father may deserve a good deal of the scorn aimed his way in Clarke's biographical summaries, he at least had his daughter's interests at heart when he sent some of her early songs to the composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford who agreed to take her on as his first female composition student, quite a controversial move on his part.

But there were other issues with her father: in 1967, she began writing her memoirs, “I Had a Father Too,” which she completed six years before her death in 1979 and which (like most of her music) she never published. In it, “she describes her early life, marked by frequent beatings from her father and strained family relations which affected her perceptions of her proper place in life.”

In 1910, during a major row with her father, she confronted him over his extra-marital affairs, and he “turned her out of the house,” cutting off her funds. She was 24. Without money, she had to withdraw from school, this time to attempt to earn a living as a free-lance musician. In 1912, Sir Henry Wood hired her for his previously all-male Queen's Hall Orchestra, speaking of “controversial moves”. One can only wonder what the work-environment must have been like! In 1916, then, she decided to leave for America to pursue a performing career there.

Given her two major works – the Viola Sonata of 1919 and the Piano Trio of 1921 – failed to earn a prize or, despite performances, subsequent recognition, it was the disappointment over trying to get the Trio published which so discouraged her she soon gave up composing. She never wrote another “substantial work” after that.

Growing up amidst the usual Victorian Parlor Music, it's surprising how mature and forward-looking, stylistically, these two pieces are. Even more startling are two songs composed between 1922 and 1929, setting a dark ballad by John Masefield called “The Seal Man” based on a disturbing Celtic legend (akin to the Selkies); in this case, a supernatural creature who lured a young woman to her death), and a frighteningly intense setting of Blake's “The Tiger” (which she kept revising through 1933), inspired by her affair with a singer which she only finished by the time they ended what had become, apparently, a turbulent relationship, reflected clearly in the music. When she sent “The Tiger” off to be published, it was returned as unsuitable since it was “not the sort of music they would consider publishing by a woman.”

Small wonder her desire to compose wasted away! Eventually, even her interest in pursuing a musical career as a performer ended during World War II when she again found herself in the United States. She met a fellow musician she'd known in London, now teaching at Juilliard, and they married in 1944. By then, her music was out-of-print, forgotten, or lay unpublished in the metaphorical attic trunk. Despite his encouragement, she wrote only a few slight arrangements. It was only with her 90th birthday when there was a special radio broadcast that included the Viola Sonata (as she called it “her one little whiff of success”) which, three years before her death, revived interest in her music. Now, finally, she's regarded as one of the finest British composers “during the years between the wars.”

But imagine what she could have written if – (the eternal what if...?) – she had the social support women today have to pursue musical careers?

While it's always difficult to diagnose medical histories from the past – “What caused Beethoven's Deafness?” “What killed Mozart?” – one musicologist, Liane Curtis with the Rebecca Clarke Society, has written about the possibility that Clarke had dysthymia, a chronic form of depression “combined with at least two other symptoms which may include insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue or low energy, eating changes, low self-esteem, or feelings of hopelessness. Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions [can be] another possible symptom. Irritability is one of the more common symptoms.”

Clarke's lack of encouragement and the often outright discouragement she received for her work made her reluctant to expose herself to the trauma that composing can be for some. She “did not consider herself able to balance her personal life and the demands of composition.” As Clarke would later write, “I can't do it unless it's the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep.”

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Meanwhile, not far from Boston in the years following the American Civil War, there was a child prodigy named Amy Cheney. Perhaps the term “infant prodigy” would be more appropriate here, since she could sing forty songs accurately by age one, improvised countermelodies a year later, and by 3 had taught herself to read. She composed three waltzes for piano when she was 4 (take that, Mozart), though, according to a 1998 biography, her mother “attempted to prevent the child from playing the family piano herself, believing that to indulge the child's wishes in this respect would damage parental authority.” As a result, she didn't begin actual piano lessons until the ripe old age of 6 and shortly began giving public recitals of works by Handel, Beethoven, and Chopin, along with a few of her own pieces. Her parents declined offers from agents who proposed arranging concert tours for her.

All this had happened while growing up in New Hampshire.

Moving to Boston in 1875, it was suggested Amy, now pushing 8, enroll in a European conservatory, there being no American school where she could study (it was standard in those days, budding American composers going to Germany for their musical training, but it was in the fall of 1875 John Knowles Paine was appointed the first professor of music at Harvard, turning his “fluffy” electives of music appreciation (without credit) into offerings of theory and composition classes as well as, eventually, private instrumental lessons leading toward a music degree, the first music department in an American university, but I digress...). Again, the family declined and found her local teachers including, by the time she was 14, for harmony and counterpoint, the closest she ever got to formal instruction in composition.

Otherwise she was self-taught, collecting any book she could find relating to harmony, composition, and orchestration (with no suitable work available in English, she translated Berlioz' treatise from the original French).

Then came her debut as a piano soloist with the Boston Symphony in October, 1883, when the 16-year-old girl performed the 3rd Piano Concerto of Ignaz Moscheles (now largely forgotten, he was one of the leading virtuosos of the 19th Century and a teacher of Mendelssohn's) – and played it to a generally enthusiastic audience. She also was the soloist in the Boston Symphony's final concert of the 1884-'85 Season.

Then came her marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent Boston surgeon 24 years her senior: she agreed "to live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts. She agreed never to teach piano,” to limit her public performances to two recitals a year, and to focus on composition rather than performing (though, like most 19th Century virtuosos, whether Moscheles or Paganini, she considered herself a performer who composed her own music). Because it was unseemly for a married woman to have a male tutor, she must continue to teach herself. And she became the composer known as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach.

Given the debates over women's rights and questions of personal identity in marriage that still rage today, the image of her I had received as a student in the 1970s from professors or writers about music, whenever her name surfaced (which was rare), was that she had been “forced” to give up performing and having her compositions performed in public which, it turns out, was not accurate. (Even a1995 New York Times review of her opera Cabildo, performed at Lincoln Center, began by saying she had “given up her career in favor of Victorian Marriage.”)

Looking back in 1942, she described married life as a happy one (officially, she put it “I was happy and he was content”). But she was also active as a composer: look at some of her works and their premieres. Her Mass in E-flat, written in 1892, was performed by Boston's Handel & Haydn Society. Her Gaelic Symphony, a New Englander's response to Dvořák's “New World,” was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896 to great success. She became famous, later if not then, as “the first American woman to have a symphony premiered by a major orchestra” (which begs the question, “were there other American woman who had symphonies premiered by minor orchestras?”). A prominent Boston composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, wrote to her of his enthusiasm for her symphony, adding that "I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine work by any of us [his colleagues in the 2nd New England School of Composers], and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you [like it] or not – one of the boys." That same year, she was the pianist for the premiere of her Violin Sonata with Franz Kneisel, the orchestra's concertmaster, having already played the Schumann Piano Quintet with him and other members of the orchestra. In 1900, she again appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony for the premiere of her Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor.

In 1907, then, following a similar performance with the Kneisel Quartet of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, she composed her own Piano Quintet, this one in F-sharp Minor, and performed it frequently with them until they retired in 1917, including on one occasion a multi-city tour. It would become one of the most frequently played of her works during her lifetime, including some radio broadcasts. 

It's is a three-movement work – a dark opening Allegro after a slow introduction with a theme that will pervade all three movements; a lyrical but intense and often mournful Adagio; and an agitated finale that certainly brings to mind the "High Romanticism" of the 19th Century. According to one writer on Beach and her music, this opening motive, heard at different points throughout the quintet, is "borrowed" from the finale of Brahms' Quintet but reworked and substantially transformed. It's not difficult to tell this is a work heavily influenced by Brahms, especially his Piano Quintet, given her harmonies and textures, whether that was a deliberate tribute or simply a "phase" she was going through at the time (many American composers at the end of the 19th Century sounded like they were imitating Brahms, and several of them had studied in Germany with lesser-known composers who were, after all, friends and devotees of The Great Brahms). 

Regardless, Beach's Quintet is a substantial and "serious" work to put beside so many of the salon-like songs and piano pieces she composed throughout her career, and while many critics (then and more recently) have argued "yes, it's okay for a 'woman composer,' but it doesn't quite match up to Beethoven and Brahms, does it?" One could mention, for that matter, there are several "man composers" who appear regularly on our concert programs who have the same failings.

(The Jupiter Quartet with pianist Ran Dank recorded live at the 2022 Bowdoin International Music Festival)

One thing is certain, after listening to this, one can never accuse Amy Beach, even if she seems hampered by social and marital conventions as an artist, of lacking self-confidence. If she had any doubts about what she wanted to be at any point in her career, it never affected her in the same ways circumstances affected Rebecca Clarke (and numerous other composers, regardless of gender). 

(Incidentally, a small detail: I've seen numerous dates assigned to when the Quintet was written, ranging from 1905 to 1909. Whenever she may have started work on it, the final page of the manuscript score is dated, in Beach's hand, "December 14th, 1907." It was premiered in February, 1908, and published in 1909. So there's that bit of housekeeping...)

After her husband died in 1910 – and her mother seven months later – Mrs. Beach went to Europe to rest and grieve, but noticed the “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach” confused the Germans so she re-styled her name as Amy Beach. And shortly, she resumed her career as a performer, including standard recital repertoire as well as her own pieces, receiving considerable success for her songs (though many German critics found them “kitschy”) and for the more substantial Violin Sonata. (Again, the image I had received in the 1970s, that “as soon as her husband died, she was back to performing and composing,” was simply not true, though she did a good deal more of it simply because, now, it didn't have the restrictions of her husband's social expectations.) Curiously, once she returned to the United States and was being asked if she was the daughter of Dr. H.H.A. Beach, she changed her name back to Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and remained so until her death in 1944 at the age of 77.

- Dick Strawser 

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Stuart & Friends: Where the Music Comes From (Part 1)

Meet The Composers: Rebecca Clarke, Jennifer Higdon, & Amy Beach

Who: pianist Stuart Malina, with violinists Alexander Kerr and Peter Sirotin, violist Michael Isaac Strauss, and cellist Julian Schwartz

What: Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata, Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio, and the Piano Quintet of Amy Beach

When & Where: Saturday, April 29th, 2023, at 7:30pm, Market Square Church on the Square in Downtown Harrisburg

(This post is about Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio and Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata; Part 2 will be about Amy Beach's Piano Quintet)

A good definition of “Chamber Music” might be “music for a small number of instruments performed in a more intimate setting than a large concert hall.” Or, as I prefer to think of it: “music by friends for friends.” You can, of course, have a string quartet play in Carnegie Hall. But you can't have the New York Philharmonic play in your living room (well, not my living room...).

One of the traditions Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, initiated was a program of chamber music where he'd play a variety of chamber works with members of the orchestra, usually principal players. Understandably, it was called “Stuart & Friends.”

Now, the tradition continues with Market Square Concerts, and he gets to continue his love of playing chamber music with Peter Sirotin, Co-Director of Market Square Concerts and Concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony, plus friends like violinist Alexander Kerr, violist Michael Isaac Strauss, and cellist Julian Schwartz. And not to forget another friend from his days at the Curtis Institute of Music like Alex Kerr and Michael Strauss: the composer Jennifer Higdon.

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As most of us who are regular concert-goers know, reading program notes, music appreciation books (“concert guides” about “what to listen for in music”) or biographical summaries of The Great Composers, Mozart began composing at the age of 6 and by 17 had written that incredible G Minor Symphony, No. 25 in his catalog of symphonies; or that Mendelssohn wrote two of his most popular (many would agree, his greatest) works, the Octet for Strings when he was 16 and the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture the following year.

By her own admission, Jennifer Higdon has been called “the poster child for late-bloomers.” She taught herself to play the flute at the age of 15, began serious study of music at 18 when she took her first college music courses and had to take “remedial theory,” and only began writing her own music at the age of 21.

There's no way of knowing what made Mozart a “genius” (at least as far as his music was concerned) or what turned him into a composer as opposed to just another talented violinist or pianist. Why was Mendelssohn different from any of those teenagers who didn't write works like that Octet for Strings? And if centuries of young music students everywhere – whatever their own (or their parents') aspirations were – had it drummed into their heads (and fingers) to be “more like Mozart” or they'll never succeed when they grow up (the question, of course, whether musicians ever do “grow up” aside), how does a composer like Jennifer Higdon exist today?

Unlike Mozart or Mendelssohn, she did not grow up in a musical household (or at least one that listened to or performed Classical Music, more like the folk and rock music of the 1950s and '60s). Who in high school encouraged her to study music in college much less eventually try writing her own music? (Her college flute teacher, actually: more to the point, what did she see that suggested this possibility?)

Over the years, I've talked with her before a Harrisburg Symphony concert a few times – we met in 2000 over a performance of her surprise hit, her “Concerto for Orchestra” with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center – and I remember one comment she made when her father, a painter who was by day a mild-mannered graphic artist, was listening to a piece his daughter had written and said, “Where did that come from!?”

And what makes one person a successful composer and another one, not? Or a composer at all? What is it that makes one composer "work" one way, and another "works" completely differently, regardless of their own individual musical styles?

Music, of course, is always a mystery to those who are not musicians. Where does any of this come from? To musicians, it's no less a mystery even if, by and large, we'd rather not think about it. Probably the greatest fear any musician (or composer) has is waking up one day and finding it (whatever it is) isn't there any more. Inspiration can be a fickle thing.

Several young composers – “prodigies,” to use the over-used term – have talked about inspiration being “like a radio station in your brain that never stops.” All you have to do is write it down: it's just there. Until one day – usually when you turn 21, it seems – it isn't. That's when you need to rely on craft, the ability to push notes around on a page (or at the keyboard) to come up with something that – aha! – you can turn into your next piece.

Schubert could hardly write fast enough, sometimes (the story goes) wearing his glasses to bed so, if he was struck with inspiration in the night, he didn't have to waste time trying to find them when he got up to jot down a new idea. Beethoven, judging from his sketchbooks, found “creativity” a long and sometimes arduous process, not helped by his deafness.

Some composers had short careers: Mozart died at 35, Schubert at 31, and Mendelssohn at 38. Some composers gave up writing early: Rossini, was 37 when he retired after completing William Tell and would live another 39 years. Sibelius, after his 7th Symphony and the tone-poem Tapiola, found himself “written out” at 61 and while perhaps not retiring willingly, completed no other major works during the remaining thirty years of his life.

On the other hand, there's Elliott Carter. Hearing him talk about “inspiration,” I remember how he ignored the common definition – suddenly you've got a tune that comes out of nowhere and then you do things to it – and worked with small combinations of pitches (motives more than melodies – but then, the same could be said of Beethoven) to see what you could do with them (this is technique, the compositional equivalent of a pianist practicing scales and arpeggios). A commission for a new piece with a specific combination of instruments, for instance, presented him with “questions” – “what can I do with this or that combination?” – and then the inspiration came in how to answer (or solve) those questions. It must've worked for him: he completed his last composition, a Piano Trio, “Epigrams,” 13 weeks before his death only 5 weeks before what would've been his 104th birthday.

So, looking at the music on this program, “where,” indeed, “does that come from?” What inspired these three composers – or rather, what role did “inspiration” play in creating the music we're going to hear?

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Let's start with the most recent work on the program.

One of the things I've noticed in concert programs since I was a child many (many) years ago is how many of the composers are Living Composers. And not just the occasional piece here and there. Jennifer Higdon is celebrated as one of the most performed “living composers” in America, second only, as far as the statistics I've seen mentioned, to John Adams who is now 76 (I heard his “Grand Pianola Music” in 1982; and it's perhaps an inspiration to those of us challenged by a lack of inspiration to remember this was followed by an 18-month period of “writers block”).

Ms. Higdon – it seems so formal to call her that, since we don't say “Mr. Beethoven” and yet it's a bit too chummy and braggadocious to call her “Jennifer” – has won three Grammys for her Percussion Concerto, her Viola Concerto, and her Harp Concerto (the first and third heard in Harrisburg with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony) and, for her Violin Concerto (written for Hillary Hahn in 2010) a Pulitzer Prize in Music. Most recently, Harrisburg heard her recent “Cold Mountain Suite,” extracted from her first opera based on Charles Frazier's novel, this past January.

The Piano Trio was written shortly after the success of her Concerto for Orchestra with the Philadelphia Orchestra, commissioned by the “Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival” in Colorado in 2003. There are two movements, each one given a title more suggestive than programmatic: “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red,” a long-lined lyrical profusion followed by a conflagration of energy that reminded me how one critic described Higdon's style as “Bartók on speed...”

In her program note for the trio, she writes:

Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music? I have always been fascinated with the connection between painting and music. In my composing, I often picture colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas, except I do so with melodies, harmonies and through the instruments themselves. The colors that I have chosen in both of the movement titles and in the music itself, reflect very different moods and energy levels, which I find fascinating, as it begs the question, can colors actually convey a mood?”

Piano Trio: 1. Pale Yellow (with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianist Adam Neiman from their CD on Naxos)

Piano Trio: 2. Fiery Red (with members of the United States Marine Band, “The President's Own,” from a May 2021 concert)

(granted, it may seem like gilding the lily to have musicians wearing bright red uniforms reinforcing the title's image...)

When she was here in May, 2014, for the Harrisburg Symphony's second programming of her Percussion Concerto, Jennifer mentioned her dad died just recently. In tribute, she'd posted one of his paintings on her Facebook page.

Until then, I had not seen any of her father's artwork. Being a not very visually oriented person, myself, I hadn't thought much about his possible influence aside from seeing her give her works “colorful” titles – in addition to the Piano Trio, there was also the string quartet “Impressions” (a slightly different musical view of impressionism) has a movement called 'To the Point' which was inspired by the pointillistic style of Suerat, while the others are called 'Bright Palette,' 'Quiet Art' and 'Noted Canvas.'

But this explained a lot to me:

Bird Journal by Kenny Higdon (posted [initially in the Market Square Concerts Blog] with Jennifer Higdon's permission)

That,” I'd said, “is where this comes from.” I see many elements of her musical style in her dad's painting style – from the sense of colors and the way he uses them, the textures, even the brush strokes which give it a real energy, and, of course, the picturesque and whimsical title for an abstract work. Even if that's the only painting of his I'd ever see, I would say Jennifer Higdon is very much her father's daughter – translating his visual art into her music which is, after all, “aural art”. 

This is not the only family inspiration behind Higdon's music, directly or indirectly: her most performed piece is a 13-minute orchestral piece called Blue Cathedral written in 2000 to celebrate the Curtis School of Music's 75th Anniversary (Curtis, incidentally, where she went to school and met a pianist and conductor named Stuart Malina, and where she would later teach, retiring in 2021 to devote full time to composing). In her program note, she writes, “The recent loss of my younger brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make in our lives, crossing paths with so many individuals singularly and collectively, learning and growing each step of the way. This piece represents the expression of the individual and the group... our inner travels and the places our souls carry us, the lessons we learn, and the growth we experience. In tribute to my brother, I feature solos for the clarinet (the instrument he played) and the flute (the instrument I play). Because I am the older sibling, it is the flute that appears first in this dialog. At the end of the work, the two instruments continue their dialogue, but it is the flute that drops out and the clarinet that continues on in the upward progressing journey.”

Listeners have often questioned me, when I tell these kinds of “anecdotes,” if that has any bearing on the music they're listening to. “No,” I'd say, “you don't need to realize that to enjoy the music you're listening to, but it had a bearing on the composer who wrote the music you're listening to. In that sense, whether you're aware of it or not is immaterial. If you are, it may deepen your understanding of 'where the music comes from.'

If you're wondering how composers' careers begin, here's Jennifer Higdon, in Harrisburg for the first performance of her Percussion Concerto in 2008, talking about that when she was interviewed in a live radio broadcast of “Composing Thoughts,” curated and hosted by John Clare and filmed in the atrium of WITF. In this excerpt she describes what it was like getting an unexpected phone call from the Philadelphia Orchestra to commission a new piece which would eventually become the Concerto for Orchestra.

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If someone had interviewed the English-born composer Rebecca Clarke at the time she wrote her “break-out” piece, the Viola Sonata which opens the program, we would hear a different story. 

Rebecca Clarke in 1919
When she was born in 1886, most Victorians would've agreed not only children should be seen and not heard but also women. Clarke grew up at a time when “household music-making” was part of the everyday world of well-brought-up young ladies. As a child, Rebecca began taking music lessons only because she would sit in on her younger brother's violin lessons. Apparently, her father, who was interested in music, allowed her to study at the Royal College of Music the year she turned 17, but forced her to withdraw after one of her teachers proposed to her two years later.

It would be interesting to compare – if anyone's looking for a thesis topic – the influence of Victorian Society on the early lives of composers Rebecca Clarke and Ethel Smyth, a Victorian of the previous generation. Both had certain ambitions as professional musicians as well as composers which their society basically “frowned upon.” While Dame Ethel could never be accused of lacking self-confidence, why, then, did Rebecca Clarke write only a few works in a concentrated span of time before eventually giving up both composing and performing?

Before I go any further, let's listen to the Viola Sonata, written in 1919 when she was 33. Just listen to the music (at least the opening few minutes) of either of these videos (the second for the fan(s) who like to follow the score), then read the famous story that usually overshadows it.

(Richard O'Neill and Jeremy Denk, live in concert)

(violist Antoine Tamestit and pianist Ying-Chien Lin; with score)

After being disowned by her father in 1910 (a story in itself), she tried to make a “go” of it as a professional musician in London, first as a violinist, then as a violist, moving to the United States in 1916. In 1918, she gave a recital at New York's Aeolian Hall which included two brief works of hers for viola and cello as well as her Morpheus (written two years earlier) for viola and piano but here listed under a pseudonym, Anthony Trent. Critics liked the “Trent,” but largely ignored the works listed under her own name.

If we're asking “what inspired her to write her Viola Sonata,” there's at least a two-fold possibility. First of all, as a performing violist, she wanted something of her own she could perform on recitals, something more substantial than a lighter piece like Morpheus. And then there was this competition which may have been coincidental or she may have decided, “why not...?” and wrote it specifically with the prize in mind.

With over seventy scores submitted anonymously, Clarke's Sonata initially tied for first place with a piece by the well-established Swiss composer, Ernest Bloch.

There are, it seems, two stories: the older one says Coolidge, having met Clarke at one of her music festivals in 1918, invited her to submit a work to her competition for a new work for viola and piano for next year's festival.

The judges were deadlocked on a winner and Mrs. Coolidge was called in to break the tie. She voted for the piece that turned out to be written by Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born composer who'd arrived in America the same year as Clarke – he'd just finished his most famous work, the rhapsody for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, and was just beginning to establish his career. His winning work was the Suite for Viola and Piano.

It was the other work that startled the judges when the composer's name was revealed: Mrs. Coolidge remarked, “You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman!” To her credit, she had Clarke's Sonata performed on the festival's program as well.

A different story arises from the often suspect Wikipedia which mentions Coolidge was Clarke's neighbor and that the judges deemed it would smack of favoritism if her neighbor won which makes it sound like they knew the composers' identities (but the scores were submitted anonymously, right?).

Anyway, the story is one of “those” stories and the point is, however the judges knew it, Clarke's sonata “just didn't sound like it could've been written by a woman.” And in those days, over a hundred years ago, how many “women composers” had these judges come in contact with, anyway?

The sonata is in three movements. The first, marked Impetuoso, begins with a vibrant fanfare from the viola, before moving on into “a melodic and harmonic language reminiscent of Claude Debussy and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two important influences on Clarke's music” (keep in mind Debussy had died in 1918, and Vaughan Williams had recently completed his 2nd Symphony), influenced considerably by Debussy's use of modes and the whole-tone scale and the use of parallel blocked chords (one passage reminds me of Vaughan Williams' 3rd Symphony but that wasn't premiered until 1921). The second movement, Vivace, “makes use of many interesting 'special effects' like harmonics and pizzicato.” The final movement, beginning as an Adagio, “is both pensive and sensual in its language. However, Clarke works in a special surprise: a segue into a restatement of themes from the first movement,” ending “in a lush and brilliant pyrotechnical display, showing off the full range of the viola, as well as the piano (whose part is of equal difficulty).”

Perhaps it was Fate Redux in 1921 when Rebecca Clarke submitted her Piano Trio to another of Mrs. Coolidge's competitions: she again failed to gain the prize. While there are more “hints of Bloch” in her style, here – especially the cello's theme at 0:26 that reminds me of Schelomo which had premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1917 – this is a much more forward-looking piece. Perhaps its dissonance and rhythmic anxiety reflect the reality of life after World War I? The opening alone must have knocked the collective socks off the judges if they thought the Viola Sonata was too masculine a piece to be written by a woman...

Continue to read Part 2...

- Dick Strawser

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(photo credit: Jennifer Higdon's photo in the center of the banner was taken by Andrew Bogard.)