Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata: an unknown masterpiece (at least to me, and maybe also to you)

Women wrote music. All through history. That shouldn’t be news to you. ‘Woke’ scholars and performers talk and tweet about nothing else. Soon it will be outlawed to listen to Beethoven!

Or so the story goes. In the real world, several Beethoven symphony cycles were released this year alone. The classical music business is, after all, a business. So a lot of people must still be listening to those destinies knocking on doors and joys being oded.

It’s true that you’re a little more likely to come across recordings of works by women composers these days. Rest assured that you’re under no obligation to listen to them. But be aware that you’re severely depriving yourself if you don’t.

Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata

Rebecca Clarke: composer without conviction

The life of Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) reads like a textbook case study of what women with musical, and particularly compositional talent, had to endure.

One revealing anecdote will do. When Clarke – mainly known as a violist – organized a concert in 1918 that included 3 of her own works, she thought that would appear a bit arrogant. So she decided to attribute one of the works – Morpheus – to the wholly made-up Anthony Trent.

Can you guess what happened next? Spot on: the critics agreed that Clarke was alright, for a girl. But this Trent chap was definitely going places!

And Clarke was already not brimming with self-confidence. This article gives an excellent insight into her personality. Abused by her father during her childhood, she would suffer her whole life from a sort of imposter syndrome when it came to her creative endeavors. She lacked the strength to actively challenge the contemporary stereotypes surrounding women composers. The more her domestic tasks grew, the less she composed.

Rebecca Clarke composer
Rebecca Clarke in 1919, the year she wrote her viola sonata.

It’s no surprise that Clarke almost exclusively stuck to genres that were considered suitable for women: songs and short chamber music pieces. There are only two exceptions: her viola sonata from 1919 and her piano trio from 1921. Tellingly, she wrote both for composition contests where her name, and gender, would be hidden.

First movement

I don’t mean to belittle the songs and character pieces that make up the bulk of Clarke’s oeuvre. But a work like the viola sonata reveals that she was capable of much more. In the span of three movements, she brings an engaging story in a highly personal language – a unique blend of the musical influences that surrounded her.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering what we know about her character, the beginning of Clarke’s viola sonata sparkles with confidence. Over a sustained chord on the piano, the viola takes off forte and impetuoso with a clarion call of a melody that sounds almost improvised, but will turn out to contain the musical material for the entire movement – and beyond.

The hotheaded self-confidence of the first few notes soon begins to wane, like a balloon that rapidly deflates. The melody sinks to the lower register of the viola and settles on a gently rolling pastoral motif. Then the tension rises again, the piano joins in, and the first movement really takes off.

In the rest of the movement, those two moods – restless and pastoral – will battle it out. And eventually reach some sort of compromise. It’s especially when she’s tapping in to that second vein that Clarke’s music becomes extremely touching and original. The style is influenced by contemporary French music. Some of the judges thought the mystery composer was Ravel. But while that style can often be overly sweet and lofty (at least to my taste), Clarke fuses it with a healthy dose of English folk music which gives it warmth, and sometimes a dark edge. It’s also perfectly suited to the lower register of the viola, which features prominently in these fragments. In fact, you might consider the whole sonata as an exploration of the emotional registers of this ‘in-between’ instrument.

Second and third movement

The second movement, a scherzo in everything but its name, is all about impetuousness again. It’s a stunningly virtuosic piece – a sort of catalog of what you can do with, or to, a viola. The music takes a lot of sharp corners, in contrast to what comes next …

The beginning of the third movement is a simple unharmonized piano melody in pastoral spheres again. Beautiful minutes follow of gentle melancholy, until the viola settles on a dark murmur and the piano turns back to the motifs that opened the first movement. The finale is again a battle of the two moods, until they reach a new, but by no means final, conclusion.

Neglected and unwritten masterpieces

Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata made it to second place in the contest. It never became as popular as it clearly should be. Although it did gain a place in the repertoire, especially after there was renewed interest in Clarke’s music in the 1970s as a result of second-wave feminism.

By then, Clarke was in her nineties and had given up composition long ago. Outliving her critics, who doubtlessly went to their graves wondering why Anthony Trent never lived up to his promise.

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