Clarke’s Viola Sonata

Musical Works in Context: The Forgotten English Impressionist

Born in 1886, Rebecca Clarke grew up in England learning the violin, before shifting to the viola at the request of her professors at the Royal College of Music while studying composition there in the early 1900s. One of Lionel Tertis’ students, Clarke gained renown as a violist before her compositional work came to light and popularity after moving to the United States. Often ignored as a woman composer, her works penned under a pseudonym garnering far more attention than her accredited works, she nonetheless persevered, composing primarily for chamber ensemble, her Sonata for Viola & Piano taking joint first place with Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola & Piano in a composition competition adjudicated by Elizabeth Coolidge in 1919. The circulating rumours at the time that ‘Rebecca Clarke’ had been nothing but a pseudonym for Bloch’s work, largely maintained by a dismissive press unwilling to believe that a woman had written work of such beauty, fuelled her discontent and chronic depression, which would come to impede her compositional output after the Second World War. Continuing to perform, but doing so more infrequently as time went on, Rebecca Clarke died in 1979. Largely forgotten after her death, Clarke is now revered as one of the most distinguished British composers of the early 20th century, remembered for the great artistic scope of her works alongside intricate melodic and harmonic writing.

The Sonata for Viola & Piano represents one of the composer’s better-known works, drawing on music of the French impressionists, including Ravel, with whom she was friends with, as well as the other English composers of the time, many of which she had studied with in her time in London. Written in 1919, the Sonata bears hallmarks of Clarke’s early style, filled with alternating sections of calm, melancholy and emotional turmoil.

A Commentary on Excerpts

The music opens dramatically with a lingering pentatonic chord and a cadenza-esque introduction, before launching into the exposition, expressive writing allowing the instruments to soar through the phrases. After a strong cadence, the volume fades away, a more passive melody filling the music with a sense of sorrow. The lyrical melody of the viola fades into a drone, the piano echoing the opening motifs, the intricate melodic line carried in conversation between the viola and piano. The music begins to rise, with rocking tempo, leaving the way open for a brief restatement of the melancholy section, which in turn fades quietly. An explosive upbeat carries the music into the recapitulation, the melody of the first subject returning in its full glory, the second subject then carrying forward its energy. A lingering remnant of the style of the development is heard, the piano holding the melody against whistling viola figures before coming to an end with a quiet sense of self-satisfaction, the last piano arpeggios alongside a solitary viola note ringing into the air.

This article is a programme note submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a Licentiate of Trinity College London Diploma in Viola Performance (originally written, June 2021)

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