Composer Rebecca Clarke made her fair share of viola jokes, but she favored the instrument highly in her compositions and was a skilled violist herself, although she identified as a violinist first of all. In fact, it was her Sonata for Viola and Piano that first brought her prominence among the world of twentieth century composers.
In the years of women’s suffrage and throughout most of music history, women composers have hardly been given a second glance. The notion that a woman could be as skilled as her male counterpart was so unheard of that when Clarke’s Sonata first reached the ears of an audience, people assumed it had been composed by a man using a pen name, and that Ms. Clarke did not actually exist. Even more unbelievably, when it met critical acclaim, people believed Ernest Bloch himself was the composer of this allegedly pseudonymous work. In an interview with radio journalist, Robert Sherman in 1976, Clarke called it “beautifully mixed” that Bloch “should take the pseudonym of a girl” when he composed his “lesser works.”
Assuming the docile and sweet attitude of most women in the early twentieth century, Clarke did not fight for recognition or praise. It wasn’t until 1977 that she strongly asserted her compositional presence in the program notes she wrote for violist Toby Appel’s recital. Upon Appel’s request, she wrote the notes about her Sonata and proudly stated, “I take this opportunity to emphasize that I do indeed exist…and that my Viola Sonata is my own unaided work!”
Although not as feisty and assertive as suffragette and fellow composer Dame Ethel Smyth (read more about her here), Clarke understood the negative effects of discrimination, and felt firsthand just how deeply rooted the concept of inequality was. In a biting response to this discriminatory culture, Clarke set a comic poem by Claude Flight to music, and with that, she published her last song in 1930 entitled “The Aspidistra” (read more about poet and Futurist artist Claude Flight here). An aspidistra was a popular British houseplant that came to negatively symbolize Victorian conservatism and restrictive culture. The song was acclaimed in the Times (London) as an “acerbic song” that severed the last link to Victoriana, and author George Orwell in his 1935 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying further employed the symbolism of this reviled plant. The lyrics to Clarke and Flight’s song are below:
“I had an aspidistra
‘Twas growing in a pot.
“Twas old and green and dusty,
A living, lingering blot…
I took away its curtains
Which were the creature’s pride.
I took away its curtains
And the aspidistra died.“
Thus, Clarke lived and worked in turbulent times. Social limits were pushed, and there was great tension between old moralities and new. As a woman and a composer she was torn between following the common rules of femininity and asserting her prominence as a composer. In her lifetime, she mostly fell back on the standards of femininity, but fortunately her music and contribution to the arts were not wholly lost. Today, her Sonata for Viola and Piano has made its way into standard viola repertoire, and her Piano Trio is enjoyed in performances worldwide. Clarke is also a published author of numerous essays on music. These essays are fantastically written and extremely informative.
To learn more about Ms. Rebecca Clarke please visit this site. If you are interested in listening to excerpts from her 1976 interview with Robert Sherman please click here. For further reading, check out the book, A Rebecca Clarke Reader; it is available in most public libraries.