Forgotten Masterpiece

Rebecca Clarke’s viola music speaks for all times

by Helen Callus

Four years ago I began my research into British women composers’ literature for the viola and it didn’t take long for that voyage to lead to Rebecca Clarke. As a student, I had fallen in love with her Viola Sonata and coming back to it I had the chance to fall in love with the piece all over again.

The story behind this sonata is infamous beyond degree. At a time when women composers were few and far between, Clarke wrote the piece with the intention of entering the 1919 international competition for chamber music organized by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The rules of the competition required that pieces be submitted anonymously, so to identify it she put an excerpt from a poem by Alfred de Musset at the beginning. Because the poem was in French, some of the judges apparently concluded that the piece must have been written by Ravel. Of the 75 works entered, the sonata tied for first prize with Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano. Coolidge herself broke the tie and the prize was awarded to Bloch. No one knew until the winner was announced that the Viola Sonata had been written by a British woman.

It was this work and undoubtedly the drama around it that brought Clarke to international fame, although she was a well-known violist in Britain during the early part of the 20th century. Born in 1886 in Harrow, just outside of London, Clarke was introduced to the viola by her composition teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, at the Royal College of Music (RCM). She became a celebrated chamber music player both in Britain and the United States, sharing the stage with some of the most famous and respected performers of the day. She once noted in her diary, "Played quartets with Heifetz! Charming boy."

Parallel Universes

As I began to look into her history in more detail, I felt an immediate connection to Clarke. I soon realized the many similarities in our lives. Both of us are of British descent. Clarke began her studies on the violin and attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, as did I. She was born and lived for some time in Harrow—I also spent some time there while a student in London. She wrote her sonata at age 33; I recorded it at that same age. Finally, she moved to the United States, where I live now, and we both married musicians in this country.

Her story, however, takes many very different turns. In 1939, she found herself in New York at the start of World War II and unable to find passage home. Clarke’s composing had slowed in the 1930s and it is hard to imagine what great works could have left her pen had she continued to write prolifically during that time. It’s interesting to note that she had never depended on composition for her livelihood, having supported herself as a performer in her earlier years, and later benefiting from a family inheritance. Upon arrival in New York, however, she began to compose with much more regularity.

We are blessed to have a wealth of beautiful music for viola and piano from the period around the Coolidge competition. Her "Morpheus," from 1917, is described by Paul Coletti as "the best short work ever written for the viola." Many other smaller but equally touching works such as "Lullaby" from 1909, and the "Irish Lullaby," written in 1913, are wonderful additions to the repertoire.

Perhaps the most stunning of the newly published smaller works is "I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still," which she wrote for her husband, the Scottish pianist James Friskin, in the year of their marriage, 1944. They had been students together at the RCM with Stanford, and they met again after Clarke moved to New York; he was professor of piano at the Juilliard School. It could be no coincidence that she wrote this piece for viola and piano. The work appears on pages 34–35.

"I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still" is based on a poem inspired by Neidpath Castle in Scotland. It depicts a beautiful love affair between the daughter of the Earl of March and the son of a border chief. According to the tale, the Earl was outraged when he discovered the affair and the couple were doomed to be parted. The melody of the work is based on a traditional Scottish border melody and one can only draw from it that Clarke, then in her late 50s, loved her husband with all the romantic impetuousness of a woman young at heart.

Clarke on Disc

I recorded these beautiful works last year on A Portrait of the Viola (ASV CD DCA 1130) and was joined by Robert McDonald, professor of piano at the Juilliard School. It gave us great pleasure to find these small masterpieces. I was always aware of Clarke’s other works, but having copies of the original manuscripts on which I could see her direct and firm handwriting and build a more colorful picture of her passions and temperament was an exceptional gift. The smaller works are a must for any violist who wishes to study and perform the Viola Sonata and are thoroughly enjoyed by audiences, amateurs, and professionals alike. The lyrical passages in the Sonata are equally as beautiful as those crafted in the smaller works and her gift for such gentle but passionate music is revealed in their texts.

These works recently have been published and are now available from Oxford University Press in a collection entitled Shorter Pieces for Viola and Piano (ISBN 0-1936-8130-7).

Our CD includes music by Freda Swain, Janetta Gould, and Pamela Harrison together with the most comprehensive recorded collection of Clarke’s works for viola to date. But I did not set out to actively support these women because they were women. I set out to learn more about my heritage as a young British violist and to find out what other kinds of music might be close to my heart, close to my experiences, and important to the field. It was in this journey that I found a part of myself, became reacquainted with these women from my past, and grew to understand and appreciate all that they did.

Swain, Gould, Harrison, and Clarke are all composers of early 20th century with lives that intertwine with each other and with my roots in Britain. These women are stunning examples of all that can be achieved as composers and provide us with beautiful music that in some cases has not seen the concert stage for many years. It is time that we go back into these dusty attics and search for all those wonderful masterpieces that have been forgotten. Because among them are the works of our ancestors, of past generations and of future generations.

The 100 years between us seem to speed past in the blink of an eye, and their experiences reveal only how connected we are to each other.