CLARKE Rebecca, Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale
After studies at the Royal College of Music (where her teachers included Stanford for composition and Lionel Tertis for the viola), Rebecca Clarke began her career as a viola player in Sir Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra, one of London’s first female professional orchestral players. After moving to the United States, Clarke completed her best-known work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, in 1919. It tied for first place (with a piece by Ernest Bloch) in a composition prize offered by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Clarke followed this with a Piano Trio in 1921. Coolidge commissioned Clarke’s Rhapsody for Cello and Piano in 1923. After returning to London in 1924, Clarke became a busy chamber music performer with less time to devote to composition. When war broke out in 1939, Clarke was in the United States visiting her brothers, one of whom was Hans Clarke, a distinguished biochemist. With the war at its height, she could not return to Britain and in the end she settled in New York. There, by chance, she met James Friskin, a pianist and composer she had known in their student days. They married in 1944 and Clarke stopped composing.
The Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale is one of her last works, written in 1941. It was dedicated to Clarke’s brother Hans and his wife Fietzchen. In an interview in 1978, Rebecca Clarke described the Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale as ‘very simple’ and admitted that she didn’t offer it to any publishers: it ‘came at a time when I was just not bothering about showing things to publishers.’ This was partly due to modesty, but it also reveals something of the obstacles Clarke had to overcome in order to achieve the recognition she deserved (it was eventually published in 2000). Writing for clarinet and viola without piano accompaniment was clearly a challenge Clarke relished and the ingenuity of the dialogue between the two instruments is testimony to her inventiveness and skill. The work is in three sections: the quiet sobriety of Prelude (marked Andante semplice) leads to an angular Allegro vigoroso followed by a rather melancholy Pastorale, marked Poco lento. The quality of the musical ideas here reveals a composer of real character whose career had been blighted by discouragement and depressive illness.
© Nigel Simone 2018