Rebecca Clarke: viola virtuoso and chamber music adventurer

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Equally accomplished as a performer and composer, Rebecca Clarke took many by surprise with her finest masterpiece, as Leah Broad explains

America’s musical press in 1919 was awash with rumours about a new work – a new Viola Sonata by Rebecca Clarke.

It had just tied for first place in the prestigious Berkshire Festival Chamber Music Competition, for which all entries had to be submitted anonymously. The jurors had speculated that the Sonata had been written by Ravel. When Clarke was revealed as the composer, they were astonished.

‘You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman,’ the Festival’s patron confided to Clarke. The Sonata was hailed in the press as a work of ‘greatest genius’, compared favourably to pieces by Debussy.

Who was Rebecca Clarke?

The Sonata has remained one of Clarke’s best-known works and is now a staple of the viola repertoire. It also spearheaded the ‘rediscovery’ of her music in the 1980s.

Although famous in her day, by the time Clarke died in 1979 very few people knew she had ever been a composer at all. She was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as her husband, the pianist James Friskin. The difference between her standing at the end of her life and at the height of her career is staggering.

Her entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians read, in its entirety, ‘See James Friskin’. But in 1927, her entry in the same dictionary had been extensive, listing all her major works including the Sonata, her Piano Trio (1921) and Cello Rhapsody (1923) and a substantial quantity of songs. Like so many women composers, Clarke’s music was slowly excised from the historical record and is only now reclaiming a place in concert halls.

When was Rebecca Clarke born?

Born in 1886 in Harrow, northwest of London, to a German mother and an American father, Clarke had a difficult childhood. She was extremely close with her mother, Agnes, but had a strained and complex relationship with her father, Joseph.

In the memoir Clarke wrote in her eighties, she recalled that Joseph would beat all of his four children, ‘sometimes really painfully’. Needless to say, when Joseph instructed his daughter to take up an instrument, she did not take to it immediately.

Like many middle-class fathers of his generation, Joseph wanted to nurture family music-making, being an amateur cellist himself. When they were old enough, his children were given violin lessons – Rebecca, being ‘only a girl’, was sent to her brother Hans’s violin lessons rather than being taught individually. She hated playing the violin, and there were no indications that she would have any kind of musical career.

‘In music, she found an escape from her family life’

Despite this inauspicious start, as a teenager Clarke developed a real appreciation for the music her father forced her to play. In music, she found an escape from her family life.

At 16, with her mother accompanying her at the piano, she auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music, securing herself a place as a violin student. After just two years, however, her father removed her from the Academy after her harmony teacher proposed to her. She later attended the Royal College of Music, where she was taught composition by Charles Stanford.

All her life she viewed her studies at the College as ‘a happy time, an ecstatic time’, and under Stanford’s tutelage she developed a distinctive compositional voice. When she was composing at her best, Clarke felt ‘flooded with a wonderful feeling of potential power – a miracle that made anything seem possible’.

When did Rebecca Clarke start playing the viola?

While at the RCM, Clarke transferred from violin to viola, and became a famous performer and internationally recognised chamber musician on that instrument.

In 1913 she became one of the first six women to be hired into a professional orchestra, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Henry Wood. In the early 1920s she toured through Asia, broadcast regularly on the fledgling BBC and later formed an all-woman piano quartet called The English Ensemble, with whom she performed internationally.

What are Rebecca Clarke’s best known works?

Being a performer was vital to Clarke’s success as a composer. As she herself observed, some players showed a ‘prejudice against women’s compositions’, making it difficult for many women to get their works performed.

Clarke, however, was able to play her own works with friends and colleagues – all performers of international standing – who made up her regular chamber ensembles. She gave the New York and London premieres of the Viola Sonata herself; similarly, her Cello Rhapsody was premiered by her close friends pianist Dame Myra Hess and cellist May Mukle, who were also the instrumentalists for the premiere of Clarke’s Piano Trio, with Marjorie Hayward on violin.

Clarke wrote her early works in the 1910s and ’20s, when London was a melting pot of musical influences, full of conflicting ideas about what ‘modern’ music should sound like. Working alongside composers like Ravel (Clarke played at his London concerts during his 1928 visit) and Vaughan Williams (who was a close friend and conducted for a Palestrina Society that Clarke co-founded), Clarke’s music was similarly occupied with all the latest musical ideas.

Who were Clarke’s musical influences?

Her Trio, for example, opens with a fiery, violent blaze of dissonance that gives way to a menacing theme ground out on the cello – tension never drops for a single second. Reviewers hailed her as a ‘frank disciple of modernity’, considering Clarke one of an international modernist group.

This group included not only figures like Ravel, but also names that have since fallen into comparative obscurity, like Ernest Bloch and Bernard van Dieren. Their music was as much part of Clarke’s musical world as Debussy and Stravinsky, alongside English composers such as Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge.

Clarke was also pioneering in her programming, often pairing contemporary music with 17th-century works, in keeping with the modernist fascination with early music. Her contemporary Peter Warlock put together similar programmes that juxtaposed and complemented old and new, as would Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten after her. This interest in early music shines through in Clarke’s work, most noticeably in her Passacaglia on an Old English Tune (1941), built on a melody by Thomas Tallis.

Folk music was another source of inspiration, surfacing in her Three Old English Songs (1924) and Three Irish Country Songs (1926), both for violin and voice. So, too, was the Romantic repertoire that Clarke grew up performing; shades of Dvořák can be heard in her concert work Dumka for violin, viola and piano, and Rachmaninov in both the Passacaglia and I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still (1944), written for James Friskin and based on a Scottish folk tune.

What was Rebecca Clarke’s style?

The single most enduring connection in Clarke’s music, though, is with the French school. It’s no surprise, in some sense, that judges assumed her anonymous work to be by Ravel. They share a similar approach to harmony, form and melody.

And like Debussy before her, Clarke was captivated by the sound of the Indonesian gamelan when she heard it played at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. Her work is steeped in the Orientalist sound so beloved by turn-of-the-century French modernists, saturating her viola works like Morpheus (1916), Midsummer Moon (1924) and, of course, the Sonata.

Unusually among composers of her generation, Clarke travelled to the countries whose music inspired her – Indonesia was among the countries she visited on her 1922-1923 performance tour, and her 1919 song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ was penned while in Hawaii, perhaps attempting to emulate the sound of the Chinese musicians she heard performing there.

‘Her works have a theatricality’

It’s clear from all of Clarke’s music that she was a consummate performer; her works have a theatricality that really relishes and showcases the physicality of music-making. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her song ‘The Seal Man’ (1922), telling the story of a young woman who drowns in the ocean trying to follow her lover.

Both piano and vocal part are unashamedly dramatic, the singer alternating between sung and semi-spoken passages to differentiate between the individual characters in the song. And the piano part is virtuosic to the extent that it always threatens, like the sea, to overwhelm and overpower the vocalist. Singer and pianist have to be perfectly attuned to make this song work convincingly, creating an experience that can be truly electrifying in live performance.

Clarke is now established as one of the most important ‘women composers’ of her generation. However, as she sternly told a journalist, ‘I would sooner be regarded as a 16th-rate composer than be judged as if there were one kind of musical art for men and another for women’.

Gender prejudice during Clarke’s own lifetime pushed her out of the limelight, but her outstanding works should surely guarantee her a position as one of the most important musicians of her generation: a modernist composer, international performer and pioneer of viola composition.

When did Rebecca Clarke die?

Rebecca Clarke died in New York City on 13 October, 1979, aged 93 years old.

Excerpts from Rebecca Clarke’s memoir ‘I Had a Father Too, or The Mustard Spoon’ used by permission.

What is Rebecca Clarke’s music like?

Here are some elements that you will find in Clarke’s music.


Well into the 1920s there was little consensus about what ‘modernist’ music was or should be. Clarke was one of the composers experimenting with different directions for new music, writing pieces that incorporated an array of styles including impressionism and neo-classicism.


Clarke was composing during a British vogue for Chinoiserie, and many of her works can be considered musical Chinoiserie. More generally, she often used sonorities inspired by the Indonesian gamelan (above).

French influences

Harmonically, Clarke’s work is closely aligned with the music of such composers as Ravel and Debussy, and critics with some justification often compared her to them in her lifetime.

English musical traditions

Like her friend and contemporary Vaughan Williams, Clarke included historical English music among her influences, ranging from 16th-century Tudor polyphony to folk music.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *