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 


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