Rebecca Clarke

Feminale of Music

A photograph with the portrait of a young woman with a viola.

»I take this opportunity to emphasize that I do indeed exist ... and that my Viola Sonata is my own unaided work!« (Rebecca Clarke, 1977)

Rebecca Clarke was born on August 27, 1886 in Harrow, England. Around the age of eight, Rebecca was allowed to accompany her younger brother to violin lessons. It soon turns out that she is more talented than he. At the age of 16 she was taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and at 21 she finally took composition lessons at the Royal College of Music, the only woman in the composition class. Her teacher advises her to take the viola as an additional subject. 

When she is 24 years old, she loses the support of her father and has to support herself in the future through concert activity, which she manages with great success. As a chamber and orchestral musician, Rebecca Clarke developed into one of the most sought-after violists of her time. Throughout her life she has worked with many important musicians, and her chamber music partners include such personalities as Pablo Casals, Artur Rubinstein, Jacques Thibaud, and Myra Hess.

Of her nearly 100 compositions, only about 20 were published during her lifetime, and only 10 compositions -- two songs and eight chamber music works -- were proven to have had their world premieres. In fact, the number of works performed will be somewhat higher, since Clarke wrote many works for viola primarily for her own concert activity.

In a 1976 interview with Robert Sherman, Rebecca Clarke talks about her sometimes amusing, but also significant experiences as a composer. In a concert in 1918 in the Aeolian Hall in New York, where she appeared as a violist, some of her compositions were also played. Clarke explains in an interview that there are generally not very many solo pieces for viola, and that she therefore wanted to include some more of her own compositions in the concert program on that day. On the other hand, she found it »silly« that her name appears too often in the program booklet and therefore invented without further ado the person »Anthony Trent« as composer of one of her pieces. To her great astonishment, the listeners were subsequently more interested in this piece than in her other compositions, even though, according to Clarke, it was »not a particularly good piece«.

In the same interview Clarke reports the following: She had won second prize in an international composition competition in 1919 for her composition of a sonata for viola and piano. Clarke tells us that the rumor arose that she had not written the piece herself, but that someone else had done it for her. She remembers newspaper articles which said that it »could not possibly be the case that she wrote it herself«. Another newspaper went so far as to claim that »Rebecca Clarke« did not exist, that the name was rather a pseudonym of a (presumably male) composer.

Music pieces 

Viola Sonata: I. Impetuoso published by and performed by Soo-Min Lee (viola) together with Hyo-Sun Lim (piano), recorded on »Clarke, Vieuxtemps Sonatas & Capriccio«, 2018 Universal Music Ltd.

The Seal Man (1922) published by Laura Strickling, played by Laura Strickling (soprano) and Joy Schreiner (piano), recorded on 11 December 2013.

Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale (1941) published by Singer Joy, played by Patricia McCarty (viola) and Peter Hadcock (clarinet), recorded on »Rebecca Clarke - Music for Viola«, Northeatern Records 1985/1989

Piano Trio (1921) published by and played by AngellTrio: Frances Angell (piano), Jan Schmolck (violin) and Richard May (violoncello), recorded live on Swiss Readio DRS2 from Basel

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