Rebecca Clarke: Sonata for Viola and Orchestra
Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (1919), orchestrated by Ruth Lomon (2006)
By Liane Curtis, (Ph. D. Musicology; President, The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.)
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was born in Harrow, England (just northwest of London). Her father was from the U.S. and her mother was German, and both were avid amateur music-makers. Rebecca started on the violin as a child, and in 1903 she was admitted to London's Royal Academy of Music. In 1907 she began to study composition with Sir Charles Stanford (the distinguished teacher of both Vaughan Williams and Holst) at the Royal College of Music. It was at Stanford's suggestion that she switched to the viola, and her career on that instrument included many highlights such as (in 1913) being one of the first women to play professionally in an orchestra. She traveled and performed in the U.S. and internationally, engaging in a round-the-world tour in 1923.
As a composer, Clarke's Viola Sonata (1919) and Piano Trio (1921), both written for competitions sponsored by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, brought her some degree of fame. Throughout the 1920s Clarke steadily wrote chamber music and songs, much of it for her fellow performers. Based in London from 1924 to 1939, she composed very little in the 1930s, but performed extensively as a violist. When World War II broke out in 1939, Clarke was visiting her brothers in the U.S. and was discouraged from going back to London by the British government; they told her she would be an "unproductive mouth." Trapped in the U.S., the next two years saw an intense return to compositional productivity, but by 1942 that was curtailed by work as a nanny in Connecticut: "My fingers are all puckered," she wrote, "from all the washing I have to do -- self, children, bedding, dishes. Hard to play well that way." In 1944, at the age of 58, she married pianist James Friskin (who taught at the Julliard School), an old friend from her Royal College days. She settled with him in New York City, where she lived until her death at age 93.
Clarke’s Viola Sonata is by far the best-known of her works, and the remarkable story of its origin has often been told. Clarke had socialized with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1918, and Clarke attended Mrs. Coolidge's first festival of chamber music, held in Pittsfield, MA in 1918. Then Mrs. Coolidge invited her personally to submit a work for her chamber music competition of the following year's festival, for a work featuring viola and piano. Submissions were anonymous.
Clarke recalled: "I chose a little scrap from [poet Alfred] De Musset that I quoted as a pseudonym. Actually, out of sentimentality, I had it printed on the copy."
Poète, prends ton luth; le vin de la jeunesse
Fermente cette nuit dans les veines de Dieu.
[Poet, take up your lute! The wine of youth
Ferments tonight in the veins of God.]
Seventy-three musicians submitted works to that year's competition. The six judges deadlocked between two works, and Mrs. Coolidge broke the tie, casting her vote for Ernest Bloch's Suite for Viola and Piano; Clarke's Sonata was runner-up. The jury asked to have the composer of the runner-up disclosed, and Mrs. Coolidge remarked "You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman!" Mrs. Coolidge decided to include Clarke's Sonata in the Festival, and it was premiered by Louis Bailly, viola, and Harold Bauer, piano, on Sept. 25, 1919. Clarke wrote in her diary, "Had a very warm reception and had to bow from platform. Overwhelmed with congratulations."
Rebecca Clarke once described her Sonata for Viola and Piano as “my one little whiff of success." Decades later, when Clarke and her music had been completely forgotten, it was this Sonata that led in her rediscovery. While Clarke wrote no music for orchestra, this richly-textured and passionate Sonata lends itself strikingly to orchestration. Violists, who have made the original version arguably the most frequently performed large solo for viola and piano, are welcoming this much-needed addition to the repertoire of music for viola and orchestra. The orchestration of the Sonata, by composer Ruth Lomon, is now bringing this acclaimed work to a new range of listeners.
Ruth Lomon, the orchestrator of Clarke’s Viola Sonata, has secured an international reputation as a composer. Since 1998, she has held an appointment of Composer/Research Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) of Brandeis University, MA, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/lomon. Her compositions include orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo works as well as multimedia.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1930, she attended le Conservatoire de Quebec and McGill University. She continued her studies with Frances Judd Cooke at the New England Conservatory of Music and with Witold Lutoslawski at Dartington College, England.
Her Odyssey for Trumpet and Orchestra was recorded on the Helicon label by Charles Schuleuter, former principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In November 2010, a gala concert of Lomon’s music was held marking her 80th birthday. A CD of the concert (as well as more information about the composer) is available at the website, www.ruthlomon.com.
The Rebecca Clarke Society invites you to visit their website at www.rebeccaclarke.org. A Rebecca Clarke Reader (2004) which includes transcribed interviews with Clarke is available on Google Books at no charge.