Rebecca Clarke was born in Harrow, England to German and American parents in 1886. According to her unpublished memoir, her childhood was marked by her father’s cruelty. Still, despite the tension at home, Rebecca’s musical talents were encouraged to flourish.
In 1903, Rebecca began studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music, but was withdrawn by her father two years later when her teacher proposed to her. In 1907, she took a composition course at the Royal College of Music, becoming one of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female composition students. It was during this period that she switched her focus from the violin to the viola, as she believed it provided better opportunities for a solo career. Rebecca was forced to leave the Royal College of Music in 1910 after her father banished her from home for criticizing his romantic affairs.
To support herself, Clarke embarked on an active performing career as a violist. Her talents were in high demand, and by 1912 she became one of the first female musicians in a fully professional (and formerly male) ensemble when Henry Wood admitted her to the Queen’s Hall orchestra. In 1916, she began a US residency that included extensive travel and concertizing, including performances with cellist May Mukle in Hawaii in 1918-1919 and on a round-the-world tour of the British colonies in 1923.
During these years, Clarke achieved what she called her “one little whiff of success” as a composer with her “Viola Sonata” (1919) and “Piano Trio” (1921), both runners-up in competitions that were part of the Berkshire (Mass.) Festival of Chamber Music, sponsored by the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Rebecca tied for first out of 72 total entrants in 1919, but the man she tied with was eventually declared the winner. Her pieces, submitted anonymously as required by the Festival rules, were rumored to have been composed by Joseph Maurice Ravel or Ernest Bloch before Clarke’s authorship was fully accepted. Despite the naysaying, Rebecca chose to reenter the competition in 1921 but was again denied a prize. Still, Elizabeth was so impressed by Rebecca’s work that she sponsored Rebecca to write a rhapsody for cello and piano. This made Rebecca the only woman ever to receive patronage from Elizabeth, and marked the height of her career as a composer.
"Rebecca Clarke is now recognized as one of the most important British composers in the period between the world wars. Striking for its passion and power, her music spans a range of 20th-century styles including Impressionism, post-Romantic, and neo-Classical. Although she wrote nearly 100 works (including songs, choral works, chamber pieces and music for solo piano), only 20 pieces were published in her lifetime, and by the time of her death in 1979, at age 93, all of these were long out of print." –Dr. Liane Curtis, Brandeis University
Rebecca’s time as a touring musician was eventually ended by the outbreak of World War II. She found herself stuck in America and proceeded to find work as a governess in Connecticut while living with her brothers. Since she was no longer playing professionally, Rebecca used this time to delve back into composing, writing 10 original pieces from 1939-1942.
While she was on the east coast, Rebecca reconnected with James Friskin, a classmate of hers from the Royal College of Music. By now, James was an accomplished pianist and a faculty member at Julliard. The two married in 1944.
Although James was supportive of Rebecca’s work, their marriage marked the end of her career as a composer. Rebecca suffered from chronic depression and struggled to balance composing with the other aspects of her life. She wrote, "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." These difficulties were exacerbated by the lack of attention– as well as overt disapproval– she received in response to her work. Still, she continued to contribute to the field however she could, working on arrangements and establishing the May Mukle prize at the Royal Academy of Music in honor of her friend and former ensemble-mate. The prize is still awarded annually to an outstanding cellist.
Rebecca passed away in her New York City home in 1979. She had written nearly 100 pieces during her 93 years, but only 20 were ever published during her lifetime– and most did not remain in print for long. Broader recognition for Rebecca’s work did not occur until the early 21st-century, thanks to the efforts of music historians and organizations like the Rebecca Clarke Society, founded by Brandeis University's Liane Curtis and Jessie Ann Owens. Since her death, Rebecca has been identified as one of the most distinguished composers of the inter-war generation.
Clarke is perhaps unique among composers in the western canon because she created no large-scale works. Her catalogue comprises 52 songs, 11 choral works, 21 chamber pieces, the “Piano Trio”, and the “Viola Sonata”. Much of her work features the viola, her instrument of choice, and many of the pieces were written for herself and the all-female chamber ensembles with which she performed.
Her music spans a range of 20th-century styles, including Impressionism and post-Romantic. Her use of thick, modernistic harmonies, intense emotionality, and rhythmic complexity has been compared to Claude Debussy, Frank Bridge, and Arnold Bax. Towards the end of her composing career, Rebecca’s pieces tended more towards neoclassicism as she emphasized counterpoint and tonal structures associated with that genre.
Much of Rebecca’s catalogue remains unpublished or out of print, but Cappella Clausura is thrilled to be championing some of her choral works, including the extraordinary “He That Dwelleth”, and “My Spirit Like Charmed Bark” as part of our upcoming 2021-2022 season.
Check out a performance of Rebecca's "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune" by Amber Archibald and Jamie Namkung:
Want to learn more about Rebecca’s life and work? Check out the Rebecca Clarke Society online.
Let us know what you found most interesting about Rebecca’s life in the comments, and check back next week for our final article on Ethel Smyth! Feel free to check out our previous articles on Fanny Mendelssohn and Vittoria Aleotti as well.
“Do You Know Her” is Cappella Clausura’s newest educational initiative. With this series, we hope to expose our audiences to a range of female composers throughout history and celebrate their often overlooked achievements. By the end of August, we’ll have shown a spotlight on four remarkable women from history.