REBECCA CLARKE (1886 - 1979)
And when I had that one little whiff of success that I've had in my life, with the Viola Sonata, the rumour went around, I hear, that I hadn't written the stuff myself, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two little bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn't have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn't exist, there wasn't any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch!
This was Rebecca Clarke speaking in a 1976 interview about her 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Clarke had composed the work for the competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, as part of her annual chamber music festival held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The competition was organized with anonymous submissions, and 73 composers submitted entries for viola and piano, the instrumentation chosen for that year.
In an infamous moment, the six judges deadlocked between the two finalists, with Mrs Coolidge herself breaking the tie and naming Bloch's Suite for Viola as the winner and Clarke's sonata as the runner-up. The sonata was performed at the Festival and subsequently published, but in the decades following this 'whiff of success', Clarke and her music were completely forgotten. The 1976 radio broadcast celebrating Clarke's ninetieth birthday sparked the rediscovery. Since then, her Viola Sonata has become perhaps the most frequently performed major work for viola and piano, with over a dozen CD recordings, and it has recently been arranged for viola and orchestra.
Clarke was born and educated in England, but she had close ties with the United States through her American father, and her best known works were written in periods of residence in the United States. She studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Sir Charles Stanford, known as the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Her parents were both avid amateur musicians and she started on violin as a child, but at Stanford's suggestion switched to the viola, and she worked as a performing musician for many years. She was based in London from 1924, but in 1939 she was visiting her brothers in the United States when war broke out, so she wound up not returning. Following a period of work as a nanny in Connecticut, she married the pianist James Friskin in 1944 and lived in New York City until her death in 1979 at the age of 93.
Clarke only published twenty works in her lifetime, and there were extensive periods in which she wrote very little; she eventually gave up composing. She left nearly eighty pieces in manuscript in her estate.