Her gender and Victorian upbringing were both determining factors in the life and career of violist Rebecca Clarke. Musical activities were encouraged by her American father and German mother, but her father—a strict disciplinarian—withdrew her from the Royal Academy when she received a marriage proposal from her teacher Percy Hilder Miles. Later, having become one of Stanford’s first female composition students at the Royal College of Music, Clarke’s own interference in her father’s love affairs resulted in her ejection from the family home, and another interruption to her studies. Sexual discrimination affected her career in other ways: reporters, for example, declared that her Viola Sonata, joint first prizewinner in a composition competition in 1919, could not have been written by a woman. Clarke struggled to balance her career and home life, feeling later on that she should eschew the former in favour of the latter. Nonetheless she made a living from performing, becoming the first female appointee in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1912, after Stanford persuaded her to transfer from violin to viola. Clarke spent some years in the USA from 1916, touring and performing with her two brothers and English cellist May Mukle. Returning to London in 1924 she continued both solo and ensemble appearances, including BBC broadcasts, and in 1927 formed the English Ensemble piano quartet with Marjorie Hayward (violin), Kathleen Long (piano) and May Mukle (cello).
In her compositions Clarke’s understanding of the viola’s characteristics is strongly evident. Her Viola Sonata—forgotten for some years, along with most of her portfolio—is nowadays part of every violist’s staple repertoire.
Clarke’s recording of Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ trio with Thurston and Long is poised, agile and imbued with musical intelligence. As a stylist she is quite reserved, with moderated use of vibrato unusual for this recording date (1930). This said, the modern listener will be struck by her choice of fingerings (including portamenti up to harmonics and use of position-changing for tonal connection within passagework): today these may seem simply old-fashioned, but are quite possibly more authentic than anachronistic according to recent research. A slightly heavy off-string staccato in the finale sounds rather clumsy but Clarke’s tone is full and round, particularly in the substantial solo portions of the finale, and the performance overall is considered, careful and respectful. The recording (the only complete recorded example of Clarke as a performer) is spoilt by poor sound in places, which can mar our understanding of her playing; nonetheless much can be learnt here of the artistic sensibilities of an important figure in the development of the viola in the twentieth century.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)
Role: Classical Artist