Rebecca Clarke, Piano Trio

March 24, 2019

Rebecca Clarke, 1886-1979

Piano Trio, 1921

Rebecca Clarke Slowly but surely, Rebecca Clarke is being rescued from obscurity through sporadic performances of her chamber music works. The sum of her compositions for chamber music, chorus and solo song is about 100 yet only 20 were published during her long lifetime. She composed mostly from her 20’s through her 50’s but due to various discouragements, a change of lifestyle when she married and perhaps a change of heart and mind, she ceased composing almost completely for the last 30 years of her life. Despite her pioneering professional career as a world-travelling violist and the outstanding craft and originality of her compositions, particularly during the 1920’s, it seems that she was indeed of her time: essentially under recognized and thwarted as a woman in a field dominated by men and a culture that could not quite recognize her achievements. One muses what she might have become in a more modern age. And yet there is the also the gender-blind force of cultural revolution that so quickly consigns all but a privileged minority to irrelevance. In this respect, she was also of her time, a time that rapidly changed between world wars and the onslaught of post-war modernism.

Clarke was born in England of an American father and she ultimately spent the majority of her life in the United States. She received a musical education in London at the Royal Academy of Music as the first female student of Charles Stanford who encouraged her to switch from violin to viola and join the orbit of his RAM colleague Lionel Tertis who famously established the viola as a first-rank virtuoso instrument. Clarke enjoyed collegial relationships with Frank Bridge and Ralph Vaughn-Williams among others and tt was particularly through Vaughan-Williams that Clarke came to into contact with French Impressionism that would exert a strong influence on her style.

In 1916, Clarke moved to the U.S. to pursue a performing career. Within a few years, she would compose two of her finest works, the Viola Sonata (1919) and the Piano Trio (1921), both of which were runners up in competitions held by the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music sponsored by American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. As a sign of the times, Clarke submitted the works both times under the pseudonym “Anthony Trent” and twice the judges and press were incredulous to discover that the works had been composed by a woman. It was speculated to be more plausible that “Anthony Trent” was in fact a pseudonym for either Maurice Ravel or Ernest Bloch, both an insult and a compliment to Clarke.

The Piano Trio is an extraordinary work of striking originality and craft reflecting some of the most modern influences of the time including Ravel, Bloch and Debussy with its impressionist atmosphere and a deft use of motifs in a cyclical form. It begins with a dark, dissonant and alarming theme: a series of big chords hammered on the piano like the clanging of heavy bells. The theme is a “motto” in that it will recur throughout all three movements in various transformations while retaining its rhythmic and intervallic shape. Its cramped, angular line expands into a simple “trumpet” call, clear and bright, and then onward seamlessly into a second theme with a flowing lyricism of great warmth. The first movement oscillates between the two ideas. The slow, middle movement begins with a much softer version of the motto stretched out in long, sinuous lines by the strings on top of shimmering piano figurations, almost like a misty memory of the first movement featuring, again, the angular motto morphing into the second lyrical theme now exquisitely rarefied. The vigorous rondo finale introduces a third idea: a perky, scurrying theme with an Asian folk character derived from pentatonic and whole tone scales, both lending it a spacious “gapped” quality. Between recurrences of this new energetic refrain, the two previous themes reappear in reverse order leading to a bright, affirmative conclusion. It is often suggested that Clarke’s trio of 1921 is a reflection of WWI with its violent devastation and its dual aftermath of sorrow and renewed hope.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.