Photo Credit: Steve the Artist

Ninety-five years ago this evening, Rebecca Clarke gave a concert of her own works at London’s Wigmore Hall. As we explain in a new feature in our Gallery, this was at once a bold stroke, a big deal, and one of the defining moments in Clarke’s seven-decades-long career. To paraphrase an offhand remark she made about her old friend Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, “We think it did rather well for her.”

Nearly a century later—quite by happenstance, but almost to the day—Wigmore Hall will beam the pillars of Clarke’s program out to the world, as part of their indispensable Live Stream series. On October 29, the Gould Piano Trio steps in for the original all-star team (Adila Fachiri, May Mukle, and Myra Hess) in a program that comprises the trios of Clarke and Ravel, and the Mozart G major, K. 564. The Sonata follows on December 8, with Natalie Clein and Cédric Pescia performing Clarke’s alternate version for cello. Concerts in this series are free to view online for 30 days, but donations are welcome.

Clein’s recording of the Sonata has been widely praised—Gramophone noted “a tonal palette that ranges from thick charcoal-black to muted pastels, beautifully controlled and shaped in the service of Clarke’s ardent musical narrative”—and if the Goulds’ recording of the Trio, due out on October 30, is even a patch on their borderline-sublime survey of Stanford’s trios (here, here, and here—music that still feels startlingly original, and way more relevant to Clarke’s work than you might think), it will be very special indeed.

Life’s a banquet. Welcome home, old pal.

Nearly eighty years after its composition, and eighteen years after publication, Clarke’s Binnorie: A Ballad has just received what I believe to be its first broadcast performance, and what is certainly its first recorded performance in any medium available to the general public, and it is stunning—the piece as well as the performance. I won’t tell you any more, apart from the basic facts: the performers are Lorna Anderson, soprano, and Malcolm Martineau, piano, and you cannot do better than that; the production is by BBC Radio 3; and Binnorie comes just after the 35:00 mark, as the grand climax of a magnificent program.

The text, as Clarke set it, is here. The piece is more than two Liebestods long, and at least five times as intense, so you will need a minimum of sixteen minutes without interruption: close the door, shush your companions, turn off your devices, and allow ample time to recover, even after the presenter realizes that she’s still got a radio-show to finish and breaks her long, shocked silence. Also be prepared to abandon any illusion that you may still be harboring, to the effect that Rebecca Clarke was in any way ambivalent about asserting or expressing herself. This is surely the masterpiece among Clarke’s vocal works, and fully the equal of any of her larger instrumental works, and she does not hold back.

The program is available through November 13, 2020, and we’re hondling the BBC to perpetuate it. In the meantime, on October 27, you get another crack at Binnorie in an entirely different context, in Heather Gallagher’s video performance on Sparrow Live (details here). Either way, it’s taken all these years for this great piece to find its feet, and now that it has, don’t postpone…. well, joy isn’t the right word, but whatever it is, don’t wait.

John Faed; The Cruel Sister. Bury Art Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-cruel-sister-164136

Rebecca Clarke’s Two Movements for String Quartet seem to deepen and grow in stature with every hearing—and they’re getting lots of hearings these days, both in concert and on disc. Of the latter, Quatuor Sine Qua Non‘s performance, in an album entitled 4 for 4, just released by the Paris-based independent label Skarbo, is arguably the best ever. Before describing it, however, I need to repeat a story that Clarke told about the first time she met Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1909:

“I was playing the first performance of his early String Quartet in g minor, and he came to hear us rehearse…. It was my very first concert engagement and I was awfully nervous. What with that, and what with the Quartet being in manuscript, I played a horrible wrong note, a real howler, in one of those fine viola solos. You can imagine how I felt. Of course, I apologized abjectly, and what do you think he said? He said, ‘But you know, I’m not sure but that I don’t rather like it. Do try and remember what you did!’ He was just being kind, of course, but it made me feel a lot better, just as he meant it to.”

This is by way of saying that I hope the Quatuor Sine Qua Non and the nice folks at Skarbo will be equally kind to me for a howler I committed nearly twenty years ago, in the published edition of the Two Pieces, where I proofread measure 6 of the Adagio with my eyes instead of my brain, and passed over several A-flats and an E-flat where the harmonic sense—and the manuscript parts—plainly require A-naturals and E-natural. This set up a fabulously dissonant (if totally wrong) chord on beat 2, reading F-sharp/C/E-flat/E-natural. Previous recordings have tacitly corrected this passage, but Quatuor Sine Qua Non embraces it forthrightly, and you know, I rather like it—it’s an arresting sound, all by itself, and it balances a comparable crunch (B/E-flat/F/F) near the end of the piece, at measure 111, that is indisputably correct. In any case, the quartet plays it beautifully, in a performance that underscores how bracingly modern the piece still feels, ninety-five years after its composition. (And now that they’ve inadvertently brought it to my attention, I shall be donning sackcloth and ashes, and alerting the publisher straightway!)

You don’t have time to hear how wonderful this performance is. Everything is in its place, and in proper relationship to what surrounds it, but there is nothing careful or fussy about it. If anything, the players’ exact readings only seem to deepen the sense of meaning and emotional depth: their exquisitely-calibrated “a tempo ma poco meno mosso” at measure 79 of Comodo e amabile, for example, transforms everything that follows into something rich and strange, while their commitment to Clarke’s sometimes counterintuitive dynamic-markings brings out the Adagio‘s underlying disquiet, turning the frequent ostinati into soft, increasingly urgent drumstrokes. For all their precise observance, there’s no lack of passion, with touches of portamento rarely heard in this music that nevertheless seem just right.

The rest of the program is on the same exalted plane, and every piece is a winner. Germaine Tailleferre generally suffers benign neglect as Les Six‘s surprisingly chic kid sister, but her Quatuor à cordes will make you sit up and take notice. Florentine Mulsant’s work may be as unfamiliar to you as it was to me, but I suspect that her Quartet, Op. 47, will change all that. And Amy Beach’s Quartet for Strings is some kind of blinding masterpiece—I’ve played it five times already, and I’m still trying to figure it out, lost in its magnificent improbability. The repertoire is so compelling on its own terms that you might miss the album-title’s intended significance—take all the time you need—and in any case the whole program is beautifully played, and just as beautifully recorded.

The disc is available here and here, and you can get both disc and downloads here. While you’re at it, check out the entire Skarbo catalogue, which is fascinating, not least for the chance it offers to get to know the works of Aubert Lemeland, a composer who was born nearly fifty years after Clarke, but shared her fate in the post-World War II triumph of academic serialism.

4 for 4 (Quatuor Sine Qua Non: Sara Chenal and Virginie Turban, violins; Catherine Demonchy, viola; and Claire-Lise Démettre, cello). Includes Rebecca Clarke, Adagio and Comodo e amabile for string quartet; Tailleferre, Quatuor à cordes; Beach, Quartet for strings; and Mulsant, Quatuor à cordes № 3, Op. 47. Skarbo CD DSK4182-DDD, 2020.

A cascade of news about upcoming concerts and recordings brings this late-breaking bulletin about a fascinating online event put together by the Royal College of Music, Rebecca Clarke’s alma mater, featuring songs by three of the College’s greatest composition-teachers—Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and Mark-Anthony Turnage—paired with works by three of their most interesting students: Clarke, Madeleine Dring, and Charlotte Bray, respectively.

The concert airs on October 5, 2020, at 7:00 p.m. British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent), on the College’s YouTube and Facebook pages, where it will remain available for replay on an open-ended basis.

The RCM’s entire autumn season is free to watch online, but the College “welcomes gifts of every size to its Scholarships Fund, through which talented young musicians can access world-class education, regardless of their financial means”—just as Clarke did, after her capricious father yanked her tuition, back in 1909. What with COVID-19, any amount helps. Go here to contribute, and tell them Rebecca Clarke sent you.

Reluctant as one is to promote oneself, I stumbled into a very nice conversation with the Carrefour Chamber Music Project, of Shreveport, Louisiana, and we all thought you might enjoy having a look at the result. Plus you get to see more of my workroom than perhaps you may ever have expected to see, including my Stetson, duly acquired and hand-shaped in San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. Army Sweetheart pillow my Daddy sent my Mama while he was posted at Camp Blandings, Florida, during World War II.

Carrefour’s posting of the video is here, and we’ve added it to our Gallery here. Both postings have links to other activities of this impressive operation.

Never a dull moment, indeed! All kinds of online goodies over the next few weeks, including:

September 15: Chicago’s International Music Festival presents a smashing pair—Clarke’s Trio and Dinuk Wijeratne’s Love Triangle—performed by Janet Sung, Calum Cook, and Kuang-Hao Huang, at 5:45 p.m. Central Daylight Time (check here for your local equivalent). “Smashing,” quite literally—it’s hard to guess which of these pieces has the hardest knuckles, and one of them turned 99 years old six weeks ago.

On demand through October 6: The Archipelago Collective’s entire 2020 season, including a beautiful performance of Clarke’s Lullaby and Grotesque, can be had here for a mere $50, and educators may request free access here.

On demand through October 8: BBC’s Through the Night is rebroadcasting a riveting 2008 mini-recital of Clarke’s songs by Elizabeth Watts and Paul Turner (beginning at the 3:34:26 mark), and you need to catch it before it disappears back into the vault for another dozen years. Forget the academic canard that there was something small or in-turned about Clarke’s predilection for songs: Watts and Turner find real tragedy in Down by the Salley Gardens and A Dream, a flash of Isolde-like passion in Greeting, and very nearly the last ounce of horror in Eight O’clock. As my Alabama grandmother would have put it, this is sangin’!

October 12–November 1: Oxford Lieder offers exactly the sort of mixed grill Clarke and her buddies enjoyed serving up—in this case, voice (mezzo Caitlin Hulcup), violin (Jonathan Stone), and piano (artistic director Sholto Kynoch) in various combinations and permutations. There’s only one piece by Clarke—”The Tailor and His Mouse,” from Old English Songs, for voice and violin—but context is everything, and the program as a whole is wildly imaginative. Broadcast live from Holywell Music Room on October 12, at 17:30 British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent), and then available on demand, with the same ticket, through November 1. £10 / £5 under 35.

October 27–28: And talk about wildly imaginative programming! Cultural Wasteland presents Danse macabre: Musical Tales of Horror from Rebecca Clarke, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns, with mezzo Heather Gallagher and pianist Yukiko Oba. The ample bill of fare includes five Clarke songs: The Seal Man; A Dream; Tiger, Tiger; The Donkey; and the rarely-heard Binnorie: A Ballad, an epic tale of love, jealousy, murder, and revenge, with enough creepy effects slithering out of the piano to give you a fabulous case of the wim-wams, just in time for Halloween. All that, plus an opportunity to hear Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and Berlioz’s Le Spectre de la rose in their original forms, for voice and piano. $20 on Sparrow Live, airing Tuesday, October 27, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and then available for the next 24 hours (check here for your local equivalents, and please note that this is the correct date and time). We’ve already got our tickets. See you there. Bring popcorn.

Save the dates! On October 29, Clarke’s Trio headlines a concert in Wigmore Hall’s terrific new Live Stream series, 95 years (nearly to the day) after Clarke herself presented it there, with the Gould Trio stepping in for the original cast of characters: Adila Fachiri, May Mukle, and Myra Hess. The Sonata follows on December 8, with Natalie Clein performing Clarke’s alternate version for cello. Details to follow.

This season’s de-facto pan-European Clarke festival takes a slight breather before plunging into November and December’s full-tilt Clarkeapalooza, of which more later. Still, autumn hath its charms, and Clarke continues to find herself in interesting company.

[Apart from the first item, which you can enjoy while sheltering at home, any or all of these events may or may not happen as planned, depending on COVID-19, so check availability and local public-health requirements before setting out.]

September 10: Brexit, schmexit—the BBC is still a global operation, and Clarke was one of its earliest ornaments, so we feel no compunction whatsoever in including it as a way-station on her current Grand Tour, especially as she shuttles through under cover of darkness, at 4:04 a.m. British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent), in the form of a rebroadcast of Elizabeth Watts and Paul Turner‘s performance of A Dream, Eight O’clock, Down by the Salley Gardens, and Greeting, from back in 2008, when Watts and Turner were members of Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, and not the firmly established figures they are today. The program will be available on demand through October 8.

September 20: Les Vacances de Monsieur Haydn, or “Mr. Haydn’s Vacation”—surely Europe’s most charmingly-named music-festival (tip of the hat to Jacques Tati), and the one with the coolest logo—gives Clarke’s Trio an outing at the Cinéma le Kerlouet, in La Roche-Posay, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France. It sounds like a terrific program, also featuring Mr. Haydn’s Opus 76, No. 5, Mr. Mozart’s Sonata, K. 15, and Mr. Lucas Debargue’s Mélodies sur des poèmes de Baudelaire pour mezzo-soprano et piano, with the exciting (and still controversial) Mr. Debargue himself anchoring the proceedings at the piano.

September 22: Sweden’s acclaimed Malmö SymfoniOrkester kicks off its 2020-21 chamber-music series with a program featuring Clarke’s Morpheus and Passacaglia on an Old English Tune, performed by co-principal violist Gunnar Jedvik and pianist Jan Karlsson Korp. The concert also includes Bruch’s Eight Pieces, Op. 83, and Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” trio, with Jedvik, Korp, and clarinetist Anders Eriksson.

October 16: A mere 596 kilometers up the road from Malmö—it’s a big country—mezzo-soprano Emelie Thoor and pianist Olga Tomilina perform Clarke’s The Cloths of Heaven and Down by the Salley Gardens, in a lunchtime concert at the Konserthus recital hall in Västerås. The bill of fare includes songs by Alma Mahler, Amy Beach, and Richard Strauss, and a premiere by Joel Engström, whose rhythmic panache Clarke would have admired (not to mention those smoking glissandi!). Tickets and mouth-watering restaurant-reservations may be had here.

October 20: The tenth-anniversary season of Festival Présences Féminines offers a fascinating program by violist Isabel Villanueva and pianist François Dumont, at the Musée National de la Marine, in Toulon, France. In addition to Clarke’s « très belle sonate pour alto et piano » the program includes works by three living composers: Édith Canat de Chizy’s En bleu et or, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Suite en jazz style, and the world premiere of Golfram Khayam’s Ritornello pour alto seul.

Eighty to one hundred years after their composition, it’s striking how often—and how naturally and comfortably—Clarke’s pieces sit alongside the latest and the freshest, from whatever part of the world. Debargue and Engström are just thirty years old, Tabakova and Khayam are not much older, and Canat de Chizy is « un poulet de l’année » next to Clarke, who just turned 134. Quite a ride. She would have loved it. Stay tuned.

Leah Broad, of Christ Church, Oxford, is giving a talk about “expressions of sexual desire in Rebecca Clarke’s fabulous song The Seal Man” at this year’s conference of the Royal Musical Association, which is being held entirely online, and will be open to the general public at no charge. We cannot recommend this event more highly.

Dr. Broad stands at the forefront of a new generation of scholars who are looking at Clarke with fresh eyes and, more to the point, with scrupulous regard for the documents in the case. For The Seal Man, those documents comprise Clarke’s diaries, expository writings, and visual archive, and the complete underlying text by John Masefield, including the parts that Clarke dealt with only by implication. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Dr. Broad’s presentation is her focus on Clarke’s theatrical bent, and the physicality—here, the extreme physicality—of Clarke’s vocal expression. (We’ve seen a draft of the paper, and, trust us, there is no holding back.)

The talk leads off Session 2c, scheduled for Tuesday, September 8, 2020, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent). The program booklet is here, and the registration form is here. Anyone may register, but you must do so in advance.

If you want to refresh your memory of one of Clarke’s great signature pieces, this is a good place to start. Masefield’s original story is here.

Just in time for Clarke’s 134th birthday comes a truly fine account of her Sonata by our friends Mei-Chun Chen and Hsin-I Huang, whose performance of three of Clarke’s songs, in Chen’s transcriptions, we told you about the other day. Everything about their take on the Sonata is special, from the passionate urgency of the opening gesture…

…to the hint of burnished steel in the scherzo…

…to the grave, almost reverent, solemnity of the slow movement, and the extreme tension driving the transition to the finale, which makes you wonder if Clarke didn’t have the comparable moment in Beethoven’s Fifth at least faintly in mind:

The other thing that cries out for comment is the platform-manner on view here. Clarke was an accomplished stage-animal—she stood nearly six feet tall in her prime and, as one observer noted, “she strode onstage like a goddess”—so I think she would have appreciated the exquisite purposive control that lies behind every gesture in this performance. The bowed head at the beginning of the slow movement is eloquent. Even the page-turns are expressive.

Wherever Clarke is, we hope she’s smiling. Happy birthday, pal.

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:

[Beginning at 2:07] Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forest of the night: / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? ¶ In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire? ¶ And what shoulder and what art, / Could twist the sinews of thy heart? / And when thy heart began to beat, / What dread hand? & what dread feet? ¶ What the hammer? what the chain, / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? what dread grasp, / Dare its deadly terrors clasp! ¶ When the stars threw down their spears / And water’d heaven with their tears: / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee? ¶ Tiger Tiger burning bright, / In the forests of the night: / What immortal hand or eye, / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? (William Blake)

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:

I will pluck from my tree a cherry-blossom wand, / And carry it in my merciless hand, / So I will drive you, so bewitch your eyes, / With a beautiful thing that can never grow wise. ¶ Light are the petals that fall from the bough, / And lighter the love that I offer you now; / In a spring day shall the tale be told / Of the beautiful things that will never grow old. ¶ The blossoms shall fall in the night wind,/ And I will leave you so, to be kind: / Eternal in beauty, are short-lived flowers, /Eternal in beauty, these exquisite hours. ¶ I will pluck from my tree a cherry-blossom wand, / And carry it in my merciless hand, / So I will drive you, so bewitch your eyes, / With a beautiful thing that shall never grow wise. (Anna Wickham)

But it’s The Donkey—one of Clarke’s most nakedly theatrical songs—that really drives the point home:

When fishes flew and forests walked / And figs grew upon thorn, / Some moment when the moon was blood / Then surely I was born. ¶ With monstrous head and sickening cry / And ears like errant wings, / The devil’s walking parody / On all four-footed things. ¶ The tattered outlaw of the earth, / Of ancient crooked will; / Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, / I keep my secret still. ¶ Fools! For I also had my hour; / One far fierce hour and sweet: / There was a shout about my ears, / And palms before my feet. (G.K. Chesterton)

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!