A Rebecca Clarke Christmas

The English-born child of a militant-atheist American father and a tactfully devout German Lutheran mother, Rebecca Clarke enjoyed—shall we say?—an interesting mix of holiday traditions, with the tree, the candles, the stockings, and the tangerines grandfathered in as pre-Jesus paganisms. Here’s Clarke’s account of the family’s demi-Victorian-cum-Ethical-Culture Christmas in Harrow, possibly as early as 1892, when she was six years old. Given the maid’s behavior, it may have been a merciful deliverance that, Christmas apart, the Clarke children were “raised in the strictest irreligion.”

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As an adult professional, Clarke was free to keep Christmas in her own way, mixing business with pleasure, as she saw fit. Here are pages from her earliest extant diary, showing December 23 and Christmas Eve for the years 1919 through 1923. In 1919, she was in New York, capitalizing on her stunning breakthrough as a composer at the Berkshire Festival the preceding autumn, while taking time to enjoy the lighted tree in Madison Square—the holiday must-see of the day—with her sister, the sculptor Dora Clarke. In 1920, she was in New York again, this time hanging out with the great pianist James Friskin (her future husband) and reminiscing about “those wild days on MacDougal Alley,” thus leaving a tantalizing mystery for future biographers. In 1921, the family celebrated in Detroit without having to worry about Papa, who had gone to his pagan reward the year before. In 1922, Clarke was on the first leg of her round-the-world tour, steaming southward through the Red Sea, somewhere in the vicinity of Mukkawar Island off the coast of southern Egypt, arranging carols for an “awful” ad-hoc shipboard choir that, miraculously, “sounded lovely under the stars.” Back in London in 1923, she braved the bone-rattling cold long enough to fuss over Myra Hess and the Howard family, close friends and strong supporters, with whom she shared a passion for chamber music.

We won’t bother you with the time she went caroling with Vaughan Williams and Holst, because that was on New Year’s Eve, which is slightly off our theme.

There’s been a certain amount of Grinching in the academic literature to the effect that Clarke lacked “the ability to sensitively read [her] surroundings and to respond to them inventively, a negotiation with the public sphere that, as a composer, [she] shrank from,…conceding to a view of society that rendered women culturally invisible.” In fact, Clarke was highly adept at reading her surroundings and making herself visible, especially at Christmas-time. Here’s her recipe for engaging the public sphere in 1928: (1) commission a glamour-shot of yourself from Claude Harris, one of London’s preëminent portrait-photographers, featuring your ivory shoulders and a smashing pair of earrings; (2) get it made up into a regulation-size Post Card; (3) mail the card to 97 of your nearest, dearest, and most influential friends right before Christmas; and finally (4) overprint and keep a store in reserve, for later promotional use.

And here’s a somewhat more artful approach, from 1933: (1) commission a snazzy faux-Renaissance faux-woodcut; (2) work your name into it three times; (3) print it up on card-stock, in eye-grabbing red; (4) send it off to your growing list of nearest, dearest, and most influential friends, on the theory that even if they can’t see your face, they won’t be allowed to forget your name; and (5) if they need a reminder of what you look like, send them one of the overruns from your Strategy of 1928.

We realize that we risk making Clarke sound like something of a schemer when, in fact, she was anything but. At the same time, however, she was nobody’s fool, and she knew a good thing when she saw it—or heard it, in the case of Combined Carols (or: “Get ’em all over at once”), the contrapuntal mashup of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night,” for string quartet, that she knocked out for the family’s holiday festivities in 1942, during some of the worst days of the Second World War, when everyone desperately needed a little Christmas. Immediately, she realized what a terrific piece she had, expanded it for string orchestra, and started shopping it around New York, suppressing the snarky (and potentially market-limiting) subtitle. Here’s the first of four revisions, showing the beginning of the transition from private to public use.

Clarke was a stage-animal from top to bottom and from beginning to end. She stood nearly six feet tall, and reportedly “strode on stage like a goddess.” Even in her nineties, she had a thirty-gigawatt smile that lit up the rafters, and she wore a housedress like a follow-spot. Here she is, shortly before her ninetieth birthday, in her tiny Upper West Side kitchen, defying you to notice last Christmas’s perfectly disgraceful potted poinsettia and the outside corner of the kitchen-sink. In a minute, she will offer you her fabulous orange-cake, fresh out of an oven that has been terrifying visitors since 1927, and you will be hers for life.

We can’t offer you a family-style performance of “Get ’em all over at once”—for that, we defer to Quatuor Modigliani and our new pals at La Boîte à Pépites, and the smiles on their faces will tell you everything you need to know. We have, however, reached down into Cassette Limbo and rescued a 1995 family-and-friends rendition of Clarke’s Ave Maria that was persuasive enough to get the piece published three years later—the first of her choral works ever to see print, and still one of her best-sellers—which we offer to you now, in a spirit of peace, good-will, and humility. Somewhere, we hope, she is listening, and will murmur, after the last note fades, “Well… I can certainly hear how you feel about music.”

Clarke, Ave Maria for 3 women’s voices, with
Patriot Rebecca Johnson (great-grandniece and namesake), soprano 1; Anna Fike, soprano 2;
Ann Braden Johnson (great-niece) and Anne Hallmark, altos;
Christopher Johnson (great-nephew by marriage), conductor.
Saint Paul’s Church, Carroll Street, Brooklyn, New York, December 1995.

Gift tag, 1976
Bonus track: A little stocking-stuffer, with the above personnel,
joined by Douglas Munson, tenor, and Lorentz Lossius, baritone.