World premieres, prudentially worded

Two of Clarke’s earliest compositions just received what we believe to be their first public performances, over Clarke’s strenuous objections. Let me explain.

Clarke wrote twenty-or-so vocal pieces, mostly to German texts, while she was still just an adventurous teenager with a few terms of harmony under her belt, but no instruction or guidance in composition. She held onto those pieces for the rest of her life, all the while claiming that they were “sentimental and amateurish,” and not worth paying attention to. For years, she even pretended that they were lost. When they came into my hands, along with Clarke’s rights and the rest of her manuscripts, I found myself strongly inclined to follow her lead, on the theory that she was the best judge of her own music. I let people see them, of course, but so far as I know, nothing ever came of the various research-papers, degree recitals, or recording-projects that were floated over the years…

…until recently, when pianist Brock Tjosvold and mezzo-soprano Kyrsten Chambers Jones took a look at the German-texted songs and decided to prepare Wandrers Nachtlied and Aufblick as part of their entry in this year’s Jessie Kneisel Lieder Competition, sponsored by the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. It worked out well for everyone: Tjosvold and Jones took first and second, respectively, and the Clarke songs were featured at the Winner’s Concert, on May 22, 2021.

We can’t absolutely guarantee that these are world premieres, but it seems pretty likely—and you couldn’t ask for better advocates:

It’s hard to establish dates for most of Clarke’s amateur and student compositions, but Wandrers Nachtlied (1903?) appears to be the earliest of the lot. It’s remarkably impressive and effective, but Aufblick (1904) is the real deal—not just musically, but as an exact and complete fulfillment of Richard Dehmel’s subtly complex, ambiguous poem (in each video, click “Watch on YouTube” and then “See More” for texts and translations). Clarke, Webern, Szymanovski, and Bax all made settings of Aufblick within a few years of one another, but Clarke was the only one of the bunch who had the acuity to make a distinctly new sound before crying “Hark!”, and the only one to realize (or to care?) that Glockenchöre (plural) require more than one bell sounding at a time (lookin’ at you, Webern), and that Glockenchöre emanating from a distant cathedral should neither set off hysterics in the observer (Szymanovski), nor suggest that Isolde, in extremis, had somehow got hold of a large tam-tam (Bax). Unlike Bax and Szymanovski, Clarke did not commit the naive vulgarity of illustrating the gushing stream and twinkling stars that are explicitly and importantly not present on the occasion. Pretty good for an uninstructed eighteen-year-old.

Tjosvold and Jones’s performances are terrific, even with the unavoidable masks, and that’s doubly satisfying because all this represents a homecoming of sorts. Clarke’s family was deeply involved with Eastman, in every sense of the word. Her father was Kodak’s principal man-about-Europe, in addition to being George Eastman’s bike-buddy and preferred personal advisor on art and music—so highly favored that Eastman relied on him pick out the scores that formed the basis for what became the Sibley Music Library. Clarke’s brother Hans, a biochemist, worked for Kodak for some years, and was responsible for many important company patents. Her brother Eric managed the Eastman Theatre before moving on to the Metropolitan Opera. And at the conclusion of Clarke’s round-the-world tour in 1923, she gave a command performance of her still-sensational Viola Sonata in George Eastman’s living-room (either door to the right of the staircase), where she was delighted to see her old pal Eugene Goossens, who had “done wonders” with the brand-new Rochester Symphony Orchestra, and many of that orchestra’s musicians, who “were simply sweet.”

See what you think about those songs. Maybe Clarke was too hard on herself, after all.

Rudolph Dührkoop, Frau Richard Dehmel, Hamburg, 1906, https://sammlungonline.mkg-hamburg.de/en/object/Frau-Richard-Dehmel/AB1988.338/mkg-e00132388

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