Much of a 2019 recital commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Clarke’s death popped up on YouTube the other day, and it’s just as revelatory as it is improbable. A production of National Taiwan University’s Center for the Arts, the recital presented violist Mei-Chun Chen and pianist Hsin-I Huang in Chen’s transcriptions of three of Clarke’s most powerful and characteristic songs, along with deeply insightful performances of Morpheus and the Sonata. (More about the latter in a forthcoming post.)
Sir Charles Stanford, Clarke’s composition-teacher, steered students away from songs until they had acquired firm command of instrumental writing, lest they rely too heavily on “the crutches of suggestive poetry” and fail to learn that song-writing “demands a power, which is perhaps the hardest of all to acquire, of suggesting large and comprehensive ideas in a confined and economical space.” Something similar can happen on the receiving end: hearing flawless songs in fine performances can be so transporting that we miss the “large and comprehensive ideas” that give them their strength and energy. And this is where Chen’s transcriptions are so revealing.
Stripped of words and presented as “absolute music,” Clarke’s Tiger, Tiger reveals an elegance of form and logic every bit as relentless as the eponymous beast itself, and for that reason it becomes even more terrifying:
By contrast, The Cherry-Blossom Wand, with its feather-light text, can seem like a charming bauble that goes by in a flash. Without the words, however, its underlying sobriety instantly comes to the fore, and it begins to feel like a very large idea indeed:
But it’s The Donkey—one of Clarke’s most nakedly theatrical songs—that really drives the point home:
With the declamatory vocal line transferred to the viola, it is instantly apparent that the “shout” that ushers Jesus into Jerusalem is nothing less than the opening salvo of the Sonata, note for note, at pitch. So much for the claim that Clarke tried to hide her light under a bushel, or the corollary notion that her songs were lesser things, devoid of intellectual content, meant only for the parlor and her circle of friends!