Late in life, Clarke took up the study of astronomy. We like to think she would have been pleased that we went public with all this on the night of December 21, 2020, coinciding not only with the winter solstice but with The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which she would have been glued to her kitchen window to see, starting an hour before sunset.
We hope you have a safe and happy holiday season. Merry Whateveryoucelebrate!
In 2019, Classic 𝒇M, the British independent radio station, put Clarke’s Sonata first among “the 7 best pieces EVER written for the viola,” leading a pack comprised of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Walton’s Viola Concerto, Strauss’s Don Quixote, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, and Schumann’s Märchenbilder.
A few days ago, they ranked Clarke’s Trio as one of “the 16 best pieces EVER written for piano,” right up there with the Goldberg Variations and Rhapsody in Blue. Now, you may feel that this is stretching things just a tad far, but the writer insists, “No questions asked!”—and who are we to disagree, especially in the face of two remarkable videos of the Trio that just popped up on YouTube?
The first is a scorcher from the Berlin-based ATOS Trio, wilder and rougher than their near-definitive 2020 performance, which has graced our Video page since the day it was published. The second is an astonishingly mature account by students at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music—more deliberate than the ATOS, perhaps, but no less focused and passionate—which impressed us so much that we’ve added it to our Video page, too. Clarke’s earliest critics were bowled over by her piano-parts—especially coming from a youngish composer who was more familiar to the public as a famous string-player—and these recent performances show how right they were. Hyperbole aside, this is fabulous piano music—powerful, poetic, and brilliantly laid out for the hands.
The same point is inadvertently made in a video of a recent recital in the Oxford Lieder series, in which a faulty pickup seriously distorts the balance between singer and pianist, throwing Clarke’s keyboard-writing into altogether-too-high relief. Now, admittedly, this is seriously unfair to the artists—especially since their performance of The Seal Man, June Twilight, and Tiger, Tiger (beginning at 19:55) was so compelling that the audience in the room could barely contain itself until the final note had sounded—but we’ve been granted permission to offer it to you as a rare opportunity to experience the depth and richness of Clarke’s piano-writing directly, and to get a closeup look at several of her signature keyboard gestures: lavish exploitation of the deep bass, wide separation of the hands, and forceful deployment of the instrument as a clear-cut protagonist in the drama. All of this is most spectacularly on display in Tiger, Tiger, where the piano snarls, slashes, and slithers its way through a hair-raising apotheosis of the minor second. Be warned: the moment when that dread heart begins to beat may clasp you in its “deadly terrors” for the rest of your life.
On a somewhat lighter note, you might want to check out the latest exhibit in our Gallery, entitled “The 1911 Suffrage League ‘At Home.'” Bellona in her chariot! Winston Churchill whipped through the streets! British haute couture!
Faber & Faber just announced their acquisition of two books by Leah Broad—the “dazzling young musicologist” at Christ Church, Oxford, whose work you’ve read about in these pages several times before—the first of which is Quartet, a group biography of four “trailblazing” women who “changed British music”: Ethel Smyth, Dorothy Howell, Doreen Carwithen, and (you guessed it) Rebecca Clarke.
Word of the deal broke only day-before-yesterday—you can read The Bookseller’s breathless take on it here—and Quartet won’t be published until sometime in 2023, COVID permitting. Still…
We hasten to bring it to your attention for one very important reason: Quartet will be the first extended publication on Clarke and her music since Daniela Kohnen’s pioneering monograph, first published in 1999 (see our “Learn More” page). Dr. Broad’s book is written for a wider audience, but with equal rigor, and, of course, the range of documentary sources available to scholars—especially contemporaneous journals, trade-magazines, and the all-important concert-advertising—is exponentially larger now than it was twenty years ago. Quartet will set Clarke in the context of the professional world where she actually lived, breathed, worked, and drew her own life’s meaning.
So stick a pin in this, and we’ll keep you posted as things develop. In the meantime, check out Dr. Broad’s article on Ethel Smyth, just published in The Guardian, for a sample of her fair-minded, even-handed, thoroughly lively style, and for evidence that she is refreshingly willing to admit that great icons can be less than they claim to be—or than we might want them to be—and still be fundamentally decent, real people who are interesting and exciting to know.
Rebecca Clarke is Day Four in La Boîte à Pépites de Noël, an absolutely fabulous Advent calendar of absolutely fabulous composers who happen to be female, and she gets—what else?—an absolutely lovely performance of her Combined Carols, for string quartet, a mashup of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Adeste Fideles” that started life as a little family jape called Get ’em all over at once. Almost instantly, Clarke realized what a terrific number it was, and started shopping it around New York, which needed a little cheering up right then, because it was the dead of winter at the height of World War Two. She soon made a version for string orchestra, which became a holiday fixture on New York radio.
So since it’s the dead of whatever season you care to call this at the height of COVID, we thought we ought to rush this lovely thing right out to you, in addition to adding it to our Video page. The performance is by Quatuor Modigliani, and the smashing venue appears to be the Salon de thé at Le Château de Rosa Bonheur, up the river from Paris, and if that doesn’t improve your mood, then there’s no hope for you.
The facts in the introduction aren’t exquisitely correct (see our FAQ for the straight deal on Anthony Trent), but the animation is charming. I don’t know about you, but we can’t wait to see who they come up with after Imo, Violeta, and Mel, so we subscribed for the whole season. You could, too.