Rebecca Clarke

Music Period: Romantic – 20th Century
Location: UK & USA
Claim to Fame: First female student of Charles Stanford, and the first woman to be employed by a fully professional ensemble.

Rebecca Clarke was born in 1886 to a couple living in Harrow near London. Whilst growing up, her father encouraged all his family to learn to play instruments, and was himself an amateur cellist. He was particularly interested in his family learning those instruments that would enable them to play string quartets together. As a result of his enthusiasm, Rachel learnt to play the violin from the age of 8. This may have made up for his cruelty, and often, abusive nature.

In 1902, Rebecca entered the Royal Academy of Music where she studied the violin and harmony. However, after two years of study her father insisted that Rebecca leave after her harmony tutor proposed. The only thing to do was return home. Rebecca started writing songs at this time, and in 1907, she became the first female student of Charles Stanford when studying at the Royal College of Music. Whilst there, Rebecca studied counterpoint and fugue. On the recommendation of Stanford, she also took up the viola. It was during her time at the Royal College of Music that Rebecca focused on writing vocal and chamber music. The earliest works she composed date from 1909, and in the same year she published a large three-movement violin and piano sonata.

The divide at home came to a dramatic climax when Rebecca’s father banished her from the house. Rebecca was forced to end her studies and make her own living. To support herself, she became a professional viola player, and in 1912, the first women to be employed by a full professional ensemble. Rebecca performed with Henry Wood and his Queen’s Hall orchestra for the next four years. During this time, she built up a positive reputation as a chamber music performer. Rebecca played with some of the leading musicians of the twentieth century, including Myra Hess, who was a friend. Rebecca also founded the English Ensemble, and pianoforte quartet, with Majorie Hayward, May Muckle, and Kathleen Long at this time.

From 1916-1923, Rebecca was based in the USA, and travelled all over the world. Rebecca undertook a world tour in 1923 and visited the countries like China, India and Japan. Carnegie Hall in New York gave her Morhpeus for viola and piano its first performance in 1918 and it became one of her first public successes. It was one of the few pieces that Rebecca used a pseudonym, composing it under the name of Anthony Trent. Rebecca submitted her Viola Sonata into the anonymous competition at Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s Berkshire the following year and tied first place with Ernest Bloch. Elizabeth and Rebecca soon became close friends as a result. In later years, Elizabeth would recall the astonishment of the judges when they discovered that the work had been written by a woman. The Viola Sonata went on to be published in 1921, and was performed throughout Europe.

In 1923, Rebecca won second prize for her Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano at the Berkshire Festival. The work was first performed in 1922 at Wigmore Hall. The Musical Times described it as a “passionate feeling in every section and even had it been the work of a man, it would be called a virile effort”. Many saw her instrumental works start to develop after the festival. Music she wrote contained syncopated rhythms, had instrumental colour, and were modal in key. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge also commissioned a large work from Rebecca entitled Rhapsody, which was first performed at the same Berkshire Festival.

The 1920s saw Rebecca write many songs as well as her instrumental compositions. These display her strong talent for word setting. The most striking is The Seal Man (1922), with its haunting lyrics set against a shimmering piano part that symbolises the lure of the sea. Rebecca also continued to perform throughout the 1920s-30s and Wigmore Hall performed a concert of her works in 1925.

Alongside her musical contributions, Rebecca wrote several articles on chamber music. She wrote many items for the journal Music and Letters and contributed to the Cyclopedia of Chamber Music journal edited by her friend W.W. Cobbett. Rebecca was very aware of the position of those women who wanted to make their living as musicians. In 1911, she was present at the opening meeting of the Society of Women Musicians. The society performed several of her works at concerts, and Rebecca gave a talk in 1926 at the Society of Women Musicians Conference on “Some American Aspects of Music”. In her talk, Rebecca pointed to the significant part women played in the music world. Many, for instance, had founded and were running American clubs. The talk also highlighted the importance of the work Elizabeth, her friend from the Berkshire Festival, was doing in commissioning and promoting chamber music.

Rebecca wrote virtually no music in the 1930s. This was blamed on a love affair she had with a married man. She explained that the affair took all her energies away from composition, as it was something that always demanded her full attention and concentration. As WWII broke out in 1939, Rebecca was unable to return to the UK, and instead took a job as a governess. She started composing again at this stage. We see Passacaglia on an Old English Tune published in 1941 by Schirmer in New York. Then, the International Society of Contemporary Music Festival in San Francisco performed her Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola in 1942. Yet, many of her other works from this period remained unpublished.

At the age of 58, Rebecca married James Friskin, a piano teacher at the Julliard School of Music. It seems she stopped composing and performing completely after her marriage and settled in New York City. On occasion, Rebecca would lecture or broadcast on music, unable to leave the industry completely. These final years saw Rebecca write her fascinating, and yet still unpublished, account of her early life. In the lead up to her death in 1979, Rebecca admitted that she missed composing very much. She explained that there was almost nothing in the world that she found more thrilling. These words leave behind an everlasting image of the woman who made such an impact on the musical world during her lifetime, and yet, is sadly forgotten by many.

You can learn  more on Rebecca Clarke and her life here.

The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States 1629 – Present is an especially useful resource for those searching for women composers in history.

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

 

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