CLARKE, R: Viola Music
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Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
And when I had that one little whiff of success that I've had in my life, with the Viola Sonata, the rumour went around, I hear, that I hadn't written the stuff myself, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two little bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn't have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn't exist, there wasn't any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch!
This was Rebecca Clarke speaking in a 1976 interview about her 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Clarke had composed the work for the competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, as part of her annual chamber music festival held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The competition was organized with anonymous submissions, and 73 composers submitted entries for viola and piano, the instrumentation chosen for that year.
In an infamous moment, the six judges deadlocked between the two finalists, with Mrs Coolidge herself breaking the tie and naming Bloch's Suite for Viola as the winner and Clarke's sonata as the runner-up. The sonata was performed at the Festival and subsequently published, but in the decades following this 'whiff of success', Clarke and her music were completely forgotten. The 1976 radio broadcast celebrating Clarke's ninetieth birthday sparked the rediscovery. Since then, her Viola Sonata has become perhaps the most frequently performed major work for viola and piano, with over a dozen CD recordings, and it has recently been arranged for viola and orchestra.
Clarke was born and educated in England, but she had close ties with the United States through her American father, and her best known works were written in periods of residence in the United States. She studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Sir Charles Stanford, known as the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Her parents were both avid amateur musicians and she started on violin as a child, but at Stanford's suggestion switched to the viola, and she worked as a performing musician for many years. She was based in London from 1924, but in 1939 she was visiting her brothers in the United States when war broke out, so she wound up not returning. Following a period of work as a nanny in Connecticut, she married the pianist James Friskin in 1944 and lived in New York City until her death in 1979 at the age of 93.
Clarke only published twenty works in her lifetime, and there were extensive periods in which she wrote very little; she eventually gave up composing. She left nearly eighty pieces in manuscript in her estate. Of the works on this CD, only the Sonata, the Passacaglia and Chinese Puzzle were published in her lifetime.
Critics have suggested a range of stylistic contexts for Clarke's musical language in the Sonata; we might recognize Brahms in the intense lyricism of many of the themes, and the richness of the textures, as well as in the clarity of the sonata form she employs in the first movement. Vaughan Williams is a composer that Clarke named as an influence (as well as a colleague), and the modally-tinged harmonic language connects Clarke to what is sometimes called English impressionism. Thematic recall and transformation is an important technique in building the large-scale architecture of the work. The cyclical recall of the initial "trumpet-call" motif for the final expansive conclusion is one example, and this motive and others derived from it or its fragments are also present. The middle movement, Vivace, is a sprightly scherzo, whose dissonances and jagged harmonic content give it a certain irony; its exoticism reminds us of Ravel's Piano Trio. The beginning of the third movement poignantly evokes Debussy's Little Shepherd, but builds to an expansive breadth and monumentality. The conclusion is nothing less that rapturous, and despite being named runner-up 87 years ago, Clarke's Sonata is clearly a winner.
In the Passacaglia (on an old English Tune), Clarke employs pre-existing material to provide structure and connection with tradition. It is based on a hymn, Veni creator, included in the 1906 English Hymnal compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although the hymn is attributed to Thomas Tallis, that attribution is not confirmed by research. The hymn serves as an organizing element often more underlying rather than in the foreground. Clarke herself gave the first performance of the Passacaglia on 28 March 1941, in New York City. The success of that concert led to the work's publication; it was her last piece to be printed (in her lifetime). In my essay in A Rebecca Clarke Reader (The Rebecca Clarke Society, 2005) I suggest that the sudden death of Frank Bridge on 10 January 1941, may have motivated Clarke to write this melancholy work, the one most steeped in British tradition of all her pieces.
The dates of Clarke's music left in manuscript in her estate are tentative, suggested by the composer late in life as she looked over her work of decades earlier. The 1909 Lullaby is rooted in romantic tradition, but revealing modal shadings and a folk-like quality, as heard in the pentatonic melody. The atmospheric quality of the middle section, with its sparkling sense of motion, contrasts with the outer sections. The Coda features the tune combined with an evocative countermelody in the piano.
The 1913 Lullaby on an Ancient Irish Tune is altogether edgier, with a sinuous winding melody and lilting polytonal exchanges. The open-ended conclusion is mysterious and evocative. As in her 1944 setting of a Scottish tune I'll bid my heart be still, the melody is not varied but rather placed in the midst of different contexts, keys and textures.
Clarke told the story of her use of the pseudonym 'Anthony Trent' several times in important interviews, but the survival of a programme from 13 February 1918, explains that Morpheus was the work she composed as 'Trent'. She described it in 1976 as "not particularly good", but that statement reflects both her chronic modesty and her realisation that her work was sometimes judged unfairly: "This is one for Women's Lib … The piece by Anthony Trent had much more attention paid to it than the pieces I had written, I mean in my own name." Morpheus is full of atmospheric effects and dramatic features; it showcases the viola and anticipates some of the flavour of her Viola Sonata, especially in the sonata's third movement.
Clarke wrote Chinese Puzzle in 1921, for violin and piano, and made a viola arrangement the following year. She explained in her memoir that the tune was one she had learned from a Chinese friend of her family, and she checked the accuracy of that tune when she visited Peking (Beijing) on her trip around the world in 1923. A popular and accessible piece, it was published in 1926 and she also arranged it for flute, strings and piano.
I'll bid my heart be still, an arrangement of a Scottish tune, was Clarke's last work for the viola. The tune is included in The New National Songbook (1906), edited by Clarke's teacher Charles Stanford. It seems that she wrote the work with James Fri