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Rebecca Clarke Is ‘Composer of the Week’ In Upcoming BBC Series

Rebecca Clarke

ZEALnyc, May 26, 2017

It seems odd that we are still playing catch-up with highlighting and bringing focus to the accomplishments of the vast majority of female composers, both domestically and internationally, but there you have it. Our media counterparts across the pond seem to be a bit more in tune with shedding light on these unsung heroines of the art form. Next week, starting on Monday May 29 and continuing through Friday, June 2, composer Rebecca Clarke will be the featured artist in the BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the Week.

The contributing commentators responsible for putting this lesser-known composer and her compositions into context are Ian Jones, of the Royal College of Music, and our own Contributing Writer for classical music, Christopher Johnson, whose wife is the great-niece of the composer. Christopher spent a good deal of time with Ms. Clarke during the last decade of her life, helping to organize and catalogue her works, and expressed how pleased he was with the outcome of the planned series in which each broadcast will feature complete recordings of a number of Clarke’s works, even some of the longest ones.

Rebecca Clarke’s life certainly had its ups and downs, being born into a musical family in Harrow, England, in 1886, she learned the violin at an early age, and then went to the Royal Academy of Music, London, for further study. In 1908, she was accepted as Sir Charles Stanford’s first female composition student, and entered the Royal College of Music. Stanford urged her to shift over to the viola because then she would be “right in the middle of the sound, and can tell how it’s all done.”

Rebecca Clarke with her viola in 1919

Rebecca Clarke with her viola in 1919; courtesy of the artist’s archives.

Two years later, when family turmoil forced her to leave the College, she began to support herself as a violist, and soon became a much-sought-after supply player in orchestras and ensembles around London. In 1912, Sir Henry Wood hired her to play in his Queen’s Hall Orchestra, making her one of the first women to become regular members of a professional orchestra in London. She played chamber music with many of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, including Schnabel, Casals, Thibaud, Suggia, Rubinstein, Grainger, Hess, and Szell.

Billing herself “Rebecca Clarke, viola player and composer,” she became a fixture of recital halls in England and the United States, gave a concert of her own works at the Wigmore Hall, London, and made an around-the-world tour. In 1919, she wrote one of the greatest extended works for viola: her Sonata, which tied with the Bloch Suite in an anonymous competition sponsored by the American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The Sonata was published in 1921 and rapidly became a cornerstone of the viola literature. Many of Clarke’s finest songs and chamber works, including her now-classic Piano Trio, were in print by 1930.

Clarke’s output was numerically small—about eighty pieces, excluding early amateur efforts—but its power, brilliance, and poetic depth were widely acknowledged, and as early as 1920 Clarke’s name and compositions began to appear in British, American, and European reference-works. As a performer, she remained a familiar presence in concert halls and recording studios, both in London and in New York, but her composing was disrupted by a painful love-affair in the 1930s, and again by World War II.  With the postwar triumph of serialism, her essentially tonal idiom began to seem “old hat,” as she put it, and her published works gradually went out of print.

By the 1970s, however, with tonality making a comeback and the women’s movement stirring up new interest in female composers, Clarke was ideally positioned for a revival. She allowed her works to be cataloged, and set about revising many of them. By the time she died in 1979, she had had several major New York performances and had taken part in an extended radio broadcast honoring her ninetieth birthday. The following year saw the first in what became a spate of commercial recordings. Virtually all of her mature compositions have now been either published, or recorded, or both, and many have become mainstays of the concert and recital repertoires.

There are five episodes in the BBC series, beginning May 29 and continuing through June 2, at 12:00 noon local time/London, England (7:00 a.m. Eastern Time/NYC), repeated at 18:30 (1:30 p.m. Eastern Time/NYC). It will then be available for streaming for some weeks in its entirety, and then in a one-hour digest indefinitely. To tune into these broadcasts click here prior to the start of each.

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson; ZEALnyc.

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