Artist Spotlight: Composer Rebecca Clarke

Composer Rebecca Clarke (1886 - 1979) was a trailblazer for proficient female musicians and composers of the Victorian era. Despite living when professional musicianship, particularly the realm of composition, was largely considered the male domain, the UK-native and professional violist enjoyed a successful music career. She also stands as a beacon of light and inspiration, proving that sometimes life’s largest struggles are intrinsically linked to life’s greatest joys. 

In addition to having enjoyed a successful career as a violist, one of Rebecca Clarke’s “greatest joys” (or, as she put it, “my one little whiff of success”) was when her viola sonata tied for first place in a 1919 competition hosted by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Over the course of her career, Clarke wrote more than 100 pieces but published just over 20 of them. Her greatest legacy is a successful female violist who spanned the Romantic and Modern music periods and earned a reputable legacy for her passionate and powerful works. 

British-Born and American-Raised 

While Clarke was born in the UK in 1886 (the tail end of the Romantic period of music), she spent the majority of her life in the United States where her father, Joseph Clarke worked as an architect for the Eastman Kodak Company. Rebecca Clarke’s mother, Agnes, was German and a relatively talented amateur pianist although she played for personal satisfaction and the love of music rather than public or professional acclaim. 

Unlike other artists we’ve spotlighted, Clarke’s talent seemed born more of the exponential combination of two amateur lovers of music than the inheritor of genetically inherited musical genius. That said, it was her father who ultimately pressed her to play the violin with the goal of building chamber ensemble partners within his own family unit. She didn’t begin playing viola until later on, a common theme in many violists’ stories (examples include Richard O’Neil and Kim Kashkashian). 

Clarke described her father as, “...an ardent amateur cellist – ardent but somewhat less than mediocre.” Unfortunately, Joseph Clarke was also a cruel father. Notoriously abusive to his four children, he was described as the type of person who enjoyed preying on the weak. A woman of the times, their mother Agnes never interfered — instead she focused on trying to keep the peace. 

As a result, all four children were deeply affected by their father’s treatment over the course of their childhoods. Sadly, her father’s behavior ultimately led to a rift with Clarke that was never reconciled. 

Powerfully Passionate About Music from the Beginning 

The first glimpse of Rebecca’s powerful and passionate connection to music occurred in her early adolescence. While playing a piece of music with her parents, she was so moved by the power and emotion of the music that she began crying and had to stop the performance. Not long after that, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music where her music proficiency increased, along with her interest in composition. 

At first wary of her talent or ability to compose, her father eventually wrote to his acquaintance, Irish music teacher, conductor and composer Sir Charles Stanford, to ask about her potential gifts. 

That single missive may represent the most positive impacts Rebecca’s father had on her life. Her tutelage under Stanford's guidance was one of the most formative in her musical growth and maturity. Clarke began studying with Stanford in 1908 and he was the one to suggest she migrate from violin to viola, a partnership that would last a lifetime. 

As a result of her eventual rift with her father, which meant being cut off from monetary support, Rebecca Clarke realised her only hope was in carving out her path as professional musician. That she did, and unwittingly inspired many professional female musicians for decades to come. While her most famous pieces are her viola sonata — below you can watch Clarke’s Viola Sonata played by Richard O’Neil and a Piano Trio (1921). You can read a list of her other notable compositions here. 

Musical Messages from the Past and the Future 

The Rebecca Clarke Society is dedicated to keeping the music of this incredible woman alive. One of the most notable things about Rebecca’s life is that it spanned both the 19th and the 20th centuries, with the latter known for the beginning of the digital age. As a result, you can read transcripts and even listen to live recordings of Rebecca Clarke in some of the multiple interviews she gave over the latter-third of her life. These messages feel like both a gift from the past as well as insight to the future. 

She is gracious and funny and has the remarkable ability to maintain a sense of humor about serious and potentially offensive experiences. For example, in a 1976 interview with radio journalist Robert Sherman, Clarke chuckles as she recounts how amused she was that people didn’t believe she’d composed her famous viola sonata: 

“...the rumor 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 — I don’t know if I’ve still got them, I doubt it – 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.” 

One of the most amusing things to her about that was the idea that any male composer of the time would even think about using a female pseudonym. That in itself seemed to her as if it would be proof that Rebecca Clarke indeed authored the composition. Over time, Clarke ceased composing anything more than sketches, focusing more on her performance career. 

She reported that while she missed composing, the reality is that true success as a composer is only possible when you eat, sleep, and breathe composition. Over the course of her life, the combination of her interest in having a personal life, including her musician husband James Friskin who she’d met at the Juilliard School of Music, as well as her battle with lifelong depressive episodes, took full-time composition off the table for her. 

The majority of Rebecca Clarke’s compositions remain the property of her estate and admirers and supporters of her works, like the Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc., believe that, “...a complete understanding of her significance will only be reached when more of her music is available for study.” 

We look forward to learning more about this remarkable violist and composer as those works become available to the public.

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