In Previous Composers of the Month

A heroine to violists everywhere, English-American Composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) is known for her significant contributions to the instrument’s repertoire and her work as one of the earliest female professional orchestral players. Clarke was born to American and German parents in Harrow, England, and began playing the violin after sitting through her younger brother’s lessons. By 1907, she became a University student at the Royal College of Music. Clarke made the switch from violin to viola, and studied with legendary violist Lionel Tertis.

During her years at the RCM, Clarke’s compositional output flourished. Unfortunately, her father cut off financial support and banished her from the family home for criticizing his extra-marital affairs. Clarke was forced to find her way without support from her abusive family, prompting her to begin playing the viola professionally.

In 1912, Rebecca Clarke was hired to play in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, a respected ensemble founded in 1895 that introduced the annual Promenade Series and provided weekly concerts. Clarke moved to New York City in 1917 and penned some of her most famous works: Morpheus, Sonata for Viola and Piano, Piano Trio, and Rhapsody for Cello and Piano.

In 1919, her famed viola sonata was entered in a major composition competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and was awarded the first place, narrowly surpassing another viola piece by Ernest Bloch. People were stunned that Clarke, as a woman, could have truly written such an exquisite work and mistakenly believed that Clarke was a pseudonym for Bloch.

Clarke returned to England in 1924, and spent the next two decades working as a performer, founding a variety of all-female ensembles. World War II ushered Clarke back to New York, where she reconnected with James Friskin, a former RCM classmate and piano professor at Juilliard. The two married in 1944, and despite James’s encouragement, Clarke essentially stopped composing and performing for the remainder of her life.

Clarke’s contemporary compositional style was rooted in impressionism and frequently compared to Debussy, Franck, or Frank Bridge. Sadly, she faced frequent criticism and discouragement, almost certainly hindering her potential and creative output. In 2000, the Rebecca Clarke Society was founded and has premiered many new pieces of her early 20th century chamber works. It’s exciting to see what will be unveiled next—what’s old is new!

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