Rebecca Clarke

From New World Encyclopedia

Rebecca Clarke with viola

Rebecca Helferich Clarke (August 27, 1886 – October 13, 1979) was an English classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She is considered one of the most important British composers in the interwar period between World War I and World War II and the most distinguished British female composer of her generation.

Though she wrote little due in part to her ideas about the limited role of a female composer, her works were recognized for their compositional skill. Scholarship and interest in her work revived when she reached her ninetieth birthday in 1976.

Early life

Rebecca Clarke was born in the London borough of Harrow, England, to Joseph Thacher Clarke and Agnes Paulina Marie Amalie Helferich. She grew up a bilingual speaker of English and German, and was known as Beccle by family and friends.

Her father was interested in music, and Clarke started learning violin after sitting in on lessons that were being given to her brother, Hans Thacher Clarke, who was 15 months her junior.[1]

The paths of her life and career were strongly affected by her gender. Beginning her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was pulled out by her father after being proposed to by teacher Percy Hilder Miles (who left her his Stradivarius violin in his will). She then attended the Royal College of Music, becoming one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's first female composition students. At Stanford's urging she shifted her focus there from the violin to the viola, just as the latter was coming to be seen as a legitimate solo instrument, because then she would be "right in the middle of the sound, and can tell how it’s all done."[2]

She studied with Lionel Tertis, who was considered by some as the greatest violist of the day. When in 1913 Sir Henry Wood selected her to play in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, Clarke became one of the first female professional orchestral musicians.

Following her criticism of his extra-marital affairs, Clarke's father turned her out of the house and cut off her funds.[3] She had to leave the Royal College in 1910. Clarke supported herself through her viola playing, performing throughout Great Britain, Europe, and the United States, as a self-styled “viola player and composer.”[2] She moved to the United States in 1916 to continue her performing career.

Her compositional career peaked in a brief period, beginning with the viola sonata she entered in a 1919 competition sponsored by patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Clarke's neighbor. It tied for first prize in a field of 72 entrants with a piece by Ernest Bloch. Coolidge later declared Bloch the winner. However, the judges were so taken with the other piece that they insisted on bending the rules and revealing its composer as well. Mrs. Coolidge told Clarke later that afternoon, “You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman.”[2] The idea that a woman could write such a beautiful work was socially inconceivable. The sonata was well received and had its first performance at the Berkshire music festival in 1919.

In 1921 she again made an impressive showing, though still just failing to take the prize, with her piano trio. A 1923 rhapsody for cello and piano followed, sponsored by Coolidge, making Clarke the only female recipient of her patronage. These three works represent the height of her compositional career.

The years from 1939 to 1942 were to prove her last significant creative period. By this point Clarke was living in the United States with her brothers, and was unhappy to see them turning out, in her eyes, as badly as their father. This period of unhappiness proved nevertheless to be a fertile one, but it did not last long.

Later life and marriage

Clarke performed and wrote little after 1942. She suffered from dysthymia, a chronic form of clinical depression;[4] and the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—that she received for her work also made her reluctant to compose.

She married Juilliard piano instructor James Friskin in 1944. Clarke did not consider herself able to balance family life and composition: "I can't do it unless it's the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep." Clarke took the responsibilities of family life to be more important than composition; she stopped writing, though she continued working on arrangements until shortly before her death. She also stopped performing after her marriage. Her last composition, one of three to follow her wedding, was probably a song entitled "God Made a Tree," composed in 1954.

Clarke later sold the Stradivarius violin she had inherited, and established the May Muklé prize at the Royal Academy, named after the cellist with whom she frequently toured. The prize is still awarded annually to an outstanding cellist.[5]

After her husband's death in 1967, Clarke began writing a memoir, entitled I Had a Father Too (or the Mustard Spoon); it was completed in 1973 but never published. Clarke died in 1979 at her home in New York City, at the age of 93, and was cremated.


A 1917 program showcasing Clarke's work; her duo "Morpheus" is here credited to the pseudonym "Anthony Trent".

A large portion of Clarke's music features the viola, and takes advantage of the strengths of the instrument, as she was a professional viola performer for many years. Much of her output was written for herself and the all-female chamber ensembles she played in, including the Norah Clench Quartet, the English Ensemble, and the d'Aranyi Sisters. She also toured worldwide, particularly with cellist May Muklé. Her works were strongly influenced by several trends in twentieth century classical music. Clarke also knew many leading composers of the day, including Bloch and Ravel, to whom her work has been compared.

The impressionist music of Debussy is often mentioned in connection with her work, with lush textures and modernistic harmonies. The Viola Sonata (published in the same year as the prizewinning Bloch and also of the Hindemith Viola Sonata) is a particular example, with its pentatonic scalar opening theme, thick harmonies, emotionally intense nature, and dense, rhythmically complex texture. The Sonata remains a part of standard repertoire for the viola to this day. Morpheus, composed a year earlier, was her first expansive work, after over a decade of songs and miniatures. The Rhapsody sponsored by Coolidge, is Clarke's most ambitious work, roughly 23 minutes long, with complex musical ideas and ambiguous tonalities contributing to the varying moods of the piece. In contrast, "Midsummer Moon," written the very next year, is a light miniature, with a flutter-like solo violin line.[3]

In addition to her chamber music for strings, Clarke wrote many songs. Nearly all of Clarke's early pieces are for solo voice and piano. Her earliest works were parlor songs. She went on to build up a body of work primarily drawing from classic texts by Yeats, John Masefield, and traditional Chinese literature.

During 1939 to 1942, the last prolific period near the end of her compositional career, her style grew less dense and strongly developed, and more clear and contrapuntal. There was an emphasis on motivic elements and tonal structures, the influences of neoclassicism now appearing in her works. Dumka (1941), a recently published work for violin, viola, and piano, reflects the Eastern European folk music styles of Bartók and Martinů. The "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune," also from 1941 and premiered by Clarke herself, is based on a theme attributed to Thomas Tallis which appears throughout the work. The piece is modal in flavor, mainly the Dorian mode but venturing into the seldom-heard Phrygian mode. The Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, also composed in 1941, is another neoclassically influenced piece, written for clarinet and viola (originally for her brother and sister-in-law).[3] Ralph Vaughan Williams befriended Clarke in the 1940s, and conducted concerts featuring her music on several occasions.

Clarke's views on the social role of women—herself in particular—were incompatible with any ambition to compose music in the larger forms. Her oeuvre consists largely of short chamber pieces and songs; notably absent from her work are large-scale pieces such as symphonies, which despite her talent she never attempted to write. Some of her choral music, however, is large in conception—particularly the setting of Psalm 91, and the Chorus from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Hellas" for five part women's chorus. Both works were first recorded in 2003 shortly after their posthumous publication.

Her work was all but forgotten for a long period of time. It was revived in 1976 during a radio station celebration of her ninetieth birthday, and she has since been coming back into public awareness. In the early 2000s, revival of interest in her music continued, with more of her works being printed and recorded, and continuing efforts being made to make her works available.

Rebecca Clarke Society

The Rebecca Clarke Society was established in September 2000 to promote performance, scholarship, and awareness of the works of Rebecca Clarke. The Society also encourages female composers by sponsoring the Rebecca Clarke prize for new music by women.

Selected works

Chamber music
  • 2 Pieces: Lullaby and Grotesque for viola (or violin) and cello (1916c. 1916)
  • Morpheus for viola and piano (1917–1918)
  • Sonata for viola and piano (1919)
  • Piano Trio (1921)
  • Rhapsody for cello and piano (1923)
  • Passacaglia on an Old English Tune for viola (or cello) and piano (?1940–1941)
  • Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet (1941)
  • Shiv and the Grasshopper for voice and piano (1904); words from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  • Shy One for voice and piano (1912); words by William Butler Yeats
  • He That Dwelleth in the Secret Place (Psalm 91) for soloists and mixed chorus (1921)
  • The Seal Man for voice and piano (1922); words by John Masefield
  • The Aspidistra for voice and piano (1929); words by Claude Flight
  • The Tiger for voice and piano (1929–1933); words by William Blake
  • God Made a Tree for voice and piano (1954); words by Katherine Kendall


  1. Liane Curtis and Rebecca Clarke, A Rebecca Clarke reader (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0253343956).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Christopher Johnson, Rebecca Clarke - Life Retrieved May 27, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Michael Ponder, liner notes to album Rebecca Clarke: Midsummer Moon (Dutton Laboratories, 2000).
  4. Liane Curtis, When Virginia Woolf met Rebecca Clarke The Rebecca Clarke Society Newsletter, Fall 2003. Retrieved May 27, 2021.
  5. Martha Furman Schleifer, program notes to Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano, (Hildegard Publishing Company, 2000).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. BookBaby, 2016. ISBN 978-1483576992
  • Barkin, Elaine, and Lydia Hamessley. Audible Traces: Gender, Identity, and Music. Carciofoli Verlagshaus, 1999. ISBN 978-3905323016
  • Curtis, Liane, and Rebecca Clarke. A Rebecca Clarke reader. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0253343956
  • Kohnen, Daniela. Rebecca Clarke, Komponistin und Bratschistin: Biographie. Hänsel-Hohenhausen, 1999. ISBN 978-3826711572

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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