Liane Curtis on the Brilliant and Elusive Art of Rebecca Clarke

May Mukle and Rebecca Clarke
A poster advertising an Aeolian Hall concert with cellist May Mukle and composer/violist Rebecca Clarke. Among the works on the program were included a piece by the latter—listed under a male pseudonym. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The prize of lasting acclaim and posthumous renown is one that has been seied by many artists and has eluded the grasp of countless more. For many of the latter, it was simply a question of talent—or lack thereof. For others, however, their inability to win widespread respect and acclaim is the result of circumstances that can appear to be random and beyond their control. It is sometimes not enough to be an artist with something strikingly original to create, in other words. Status, societal norms, and prejudices can often work against an artist. Worse if they do not have a network of supporters to rely on. In other words, talent is not enough—it is also about who you know.

It is a lesson that is heartbreakingly encapsulated in the life and music of Rebecca Clarke.

Born in England in 1886—a contemporary of Arthur Honegger, Béla Bartók, and Alban Berg—Rebecca Clarke found a voice wholly her own in an age that produced some of the most outstanding composers in classical music. Her language is tough and brawny.  Yet the steel of her art can be deeptively pliant, even tender. It is enough for a listener to hear one of her masterworks and be immediately impressed with not only the sweep and power of her post-Romantic idiom, but also with how utterly unique her music is. Here, one feels, is an artist with something compelling and startling different to share with the world. 

Yet after a brief brush of success—when her Viola Sonata tied for first place with Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano in a chamber music competition held by the American music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge—she was confronted with indifference and even hostility. Publishers refused to print her work and most musicians were not willing to acquaint themselves with it. Then the Great Depression came, followed by World War II. By then Clarke had become based in the United States, although she had wanted to return to England out of solidarity for those she left behind. But it was not meant to be. The circumstances of wartime and the real danger of a German invasion of the British Isles—to say nothing of being cruelly told that she would be regarded as only an “unproductive mouth” back home—led to her being permanently estranged from the land of her birth. Her output dwindled and by the 1950s she went virtually silent. Few people cared—if they noticed at all. 

Clarke was hampered by her adventurous harmonic language, which recalls Ravel and Scriabin.

“That is the obvious answer,” said Liane Curtis, president and founder of the Rebecca Clarke Society explained in a phone interview. “But that was not the only factor.”

Clarke’s talent had garnered respect from her peers. She also earned the favorable notice of Charles Villiers Stanford, England’s preeminent composer of the late 19th century, who went so far as to accept her as his first female student. 

“Her talent aside, she was also very shy and not very good at blowing her own horn,” said Curtis. “She was a violist and exhibited a lot of the stereotypes associated with them. So she was very modest as a composer. Clarke simply was not any good at doing any kind of self-promotion.”

In her lifetime, she struggled to be taken seriously while coping with her own feelings of inadequacy.  

It is worth noting at this point that few female composers in the early 20th century were able to achieve any kind of succees. It was only a few years prior that Gustav Mahler sharply admonished his young wife, Alma, over her own compositional ambitions, making it abundantly clear that there was only room for one composer in the household. The likes of Germaine Taillefaire and Ruth Crawford Seeger—to say nothing of Galina Ustvolskaya, Kaija Saariaho, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, or Gabriela Ortiz—had yet to appear on the horizons of music. Others, like Cécile Chaminade and Amy Beach, enjoyed periods of fame before changing tastes relegated them to footnotes in musical history. 

“She would say that being a composer made her feel like the bearded woman at the circus,” Curtis said of Clarke, who was intensely aware of the curiosity and even irritation the term “female composer” drew from many during the period. 

Adding to that, Curtis opined, is the lack of large-scale orchestral or operatic works in her catalog. Chamber music and songs dominate her work. No symphonies, cantatas, or operas flowed from her pen—exactly the genres that most of the listening public tends to gravitate towards. 

Clarke’s inner anguish and struggle as a composer, to say nothing of the music to which it was inextricably bound had been virtually forgotten in the years after the composer’s death in 1979. That is until an ambitious graduate student in North Carolina made a discovery that would shape the course of her life and the posthumous reputation of Clarke. 

Among the jobs Curtis held was staff member at Duke University’s music library. 

“I was able to get my hands on a lot of music that way,” she recalled. 

It was during one of her shifts filing away scores that she found a pair amidst the pile by a composer whose name had been hitherto unknown to her. 

“One of them was the Piano Trio. The other was the Viola Sonata and one of them included a preface that talked about her music, as well as her life. The experience of reading that preface and studying the scores opened my eyes to what a fascinating composer she was. And I soon learned that there was so much of her music then unavailable.”

After finishing graduate school, Curtis immediately turned to Clarke’s life and work as a topic of research that felt “really natural” to her. Soon after that, it became clear to her that a non-profit organization could help get the word out about Rebecca Clarke to the listening public. Thus the Rebecca Clarke Society was born. 

The society has done its part to get Clarke’s music wider attention. They have collaborated with record labels such as Dutton, Lyrita, Chandos, and Naxos to bring her music to curious listeners. They have also exhumed several previously unknown or long out-of-print scores and have had them published by Prairie Dawg Press. Curtis has also has edited a collection of essays analysing Rebecca Clarke’s music and life.

Lacunae in her biography and her body of work remain, however. An exact tally of extant scores by Clarke has yet to be made; a problem Curtis attributed to the composer’s estate, which she charactarized as being “difficult to work with.”

Nevertheless, by dint of Curtis’ own inquisitiveness and thoroughness, progress has been made. An example is provided by the discovery of the Three Pieces for two violins and piano, which was played earlier this year at Le Salon de Musiques.

“I was poking around [her effects] to see if there was anything that the estate had overlooked,” Curtis said. “I asked her grandnephew, who controls Clarke’s estate, how did he know if he had all of her papers. He got in touch with another grandnephew who lives at the apartment Clarke spent her final years in. After some searching he found the score to the Three Pieces for violin and piano. If they were able to find that score, it is possible that there are more.”

As hope lingers for more scores to be found, musical interest in Clarke is growing. Performances and recordings of her music are becoming more and more frequent. Feminist studies have converged with greater curiosity from performers and audiences about unjustly overlooked composers. Not that Curtis feels Clarke’s music is in need of any ideological cachet. 

“Her music really speaks for itself. People are very taken when they first hear the striking musical vocabulary of her work. Clarke was a very intense and passionate composer. She really had something to create and express that was unlike any other composer.”

(EDIT: An earlier version of this article stated that it was Clarke’s Piano Trio that tied with the Bloch Suite for Viola and Piano in Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s competition. Liane Curtis has reminded me that, in fact, it was Clarke’s Viola Sonata that earned the distinction. Her Piano Trio was a runner-up at a subsequent competition.)

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