Ensemble 360

Upper Chapel, Sheffield
Friday 8 December 2023, 1.00pm / 7.00pm

£10 UC, PIP & DLA
£5 Students & Under 35s

Book Tickets

VIEUXTEMPS Viola Sonata (23’)
CLARKE Viola Sonata (25’)

From one of the earliest works for viola and piano to one of the best loved: Vieuxtemps’s expressive and virtuosic sonata showcases the rich and sonorous tone of the instrument while the passionate and emotional expression of Rebecca Clarke’s hauntingly beautiful meditation concludes with a dramatic final movement.

Rachel Roberts is one of this country’s finest viola players, and in this concert she pairs two great works for her instrument; her appearance in the opening concert of Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2022 was described by The Spectator as ‘fiendish’ yet also ‘the most fun two string players could have together’. With the same joy and passion, here she presents two contrasting works that bring this mellifluous instrument and her phenomenal artistry to the fore.  

Ticket holders are invited to stay for a talk by Leah Broad, author of Quartet, which features the biographies of four female composers including Rebecca Clarke.  


VIEUXTEMPS Henri, Viola Sonata

Maestoso – Allegro 
Barcarolla. Andante con moto 
Finale Scherzando. Allegretto 

The Belgian violin virtuoso and composer Henri Vieuxtemps was also an outstanding viola player and he composed his Viola Sonata in 1860. The first performance was given on 21 January 1861 in London, at the St James’s Hall, played by Vieuxtemps with the distinguished English pianist Arabella Goddard (famous, among other things, for giving the first public performance in London of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata). The performance was reviewed in The Musical World whose critic praised ‘M. Vieuxtemps’s mastery of the viola’ and expressed the view that ‘of the three movements, the Andante in G minor (Barcarolla) created the most marked impression’ and noted that ‘the difficulties presented by the whole work are such that none but a performer of the first class should attempt it.’ 


Several more performances quickly followed including one at the Hanover Square Rooms (15 February 1861) and another at the St James’s Hall on 15 April, this time with Charles Hallé as Vieuxtemps’s pianist. The work was first heard in Brussels a few weeks later and when the sonata was published in 1862, it carried a dedication to King George V of Hanover, a music-loving cousin of Queen Victoria.  


© Nigel Simeone 

CLARKE Rebecca, Viola Sonata

Viola Sonata  

After studying at the Royal College of Music (composition with Charles Villiers Stanford and the viola with Lionel Tertis), Rebecca Clarke became one of the first women to work as a professional orchestral musician in London, playing in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. In 1916, she moved to America to develop her solo career and it was in the years immediately following her move that she was at her most prolific as a composer. In 1919, newspapers carried an announcement offering ‘$1,000 for Best Piano and Viola Work’ organised by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, America’s greatest patron of modern chamber music. Clarke entered her Viola Sonata and after the deliberations of the judges over a weekend in August 1919, Clarke’s work tied for first place with a Suite by Ernest Bloch. Eventually Coolidge herself broke the tie, giving the prize to Bloch. This may have been to avoid any conflict of interest: she was already a friend of Clarke’s. Still, the committee wanted to know the identity of both composers, and as Coolidge later told Clarke, ‘You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman!’ Coolidge included Clarke’s Sonata in her chamber music festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and it was first performed there on 25 September 1919, played by Louis Bailly (viola) and Harold Bauer (piano). It was an immediate success, and Clarke noted in her diary that she ‘had a very warm reception and had to bow from platform. Overwhelmed with congratulations.’ Though Clarke had success with her Piano Trio in 1921 (another Coolidge commission), her music later lapsed into neglect. It was thanks to the revival of interest in her Viola Sonata that Clarke’s music started to enjoy a richly-deserved renaissance towards the end of the twentieth century 

It is in three movements, the first and third are both imposing, while the central Scherzo is a brilliant exploration of the technical possibilities of the viola. The musical language is somewhat influenced by Debussy and Ravel as well as British music, but the sweeping character of the ideas is very much Clarke’s own, from the opening fanfare-like idea to the imposing finale. This begins with a richly expressive Adagio but leads to a faster section in which Clarke recalls material from the first movement to magnificent effect before bringing the work to a virtuoso conclusion. 

© Nigel Simeone