Photo Credit: Steve the Artist

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!

On BBC Radio 3’s Record Review next weekend, host Andrew McGregor and Natasha Loges, Head of Postgraduate Programmes and Reader in Musicology at the Royal College of Music, will name five indispensable recordings by Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger, Caterina Assandra, Fanny Mendelssohn, and a mystery-composer yet to be announced, and explain why you need to hear them. The program airs on Saturday, August 15, 2020, at 9:00 a.m. British Summer Time, and becomes available for streaming around noontime that same day (check here for your local equivalents).

We won’t know the repertoire until then, apart from the fact that Clarke will be represented by the Trio—plenty of rich possibilities there! Clarke, Mendelssohn, and Boulanger need no introduction, of course, but if Assandra’s name is the least bit unfamiliar to you, you ought to seize this opportunity to experience her exquisite concertato-style motets.

The program will be available for streaming-on-demand through Friday, September 18. Enjoy!

[Update: The mystery-composer turned out to be Minna Keal, and the indispensable recording of Clarke’s Trio was Chandos’s 2019 release by the Neave Trio. The other parts of the program were fascinating, too, in part because George Crumb’s delicious take on Chagall’s “The Painter,” from Metamorphoses (Book I): Ten Fantasy Pieces (after celebrated paintings) for amplified piano, composed just the other day, suggests that the world may finally have caught up with Rebecca Clarke’s extraordinary piano-writing. The section about Clarke begins at 1:06:30.]

Princes Street Gardens Attractions | Edinburgh Tourist

The Edinburgh International Festival—like everything else this year, largely shuttered due to COVID-19—offers a brilliant workaround: a series of specially-filmed recitals by leading soloists and chamber ensembles from around the world, beamed out from The Hub on Castlehill on the Festival’s YouTube channel, with new performances every Monday to Friday from August 10 through August 28, at 1:00 p.m. British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent).

Clarke was a frequent musical visitor to Edinburgh, and a welcome one at that. On this pass, her Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, for clarinet and viola, figures as the centerpiece of a program that also includes Glazunov’s Reverie Orientale and Weber’s Clarinet Quintet. Glazunov was a somewhat improbable enthusiasm of Clarke’s composition teacher, Sir Charles Stanford, so here’s a rare opportunity to hear the two of them side by side. The concert, by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, begins streaming on August 14.

The series as a whole looks terrific, with appearances by Angela Hewitt, Malcolm Martineau, Mark Padmore, Paul Lewis, and other notables, and a substantial array of works by women, including Nadia Boulanger, Sally Beamish, Judith Weir, Anna Meredith, Isabella Leonarda, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Pauline Viardot, and Clara Schumann. Padmore and Lewis’s recital, on August 26, pairs songs by Schumann with a little something called Dichterliebe, which seems to have been written by somebody with whom she shares a surname—husband? brother? cousin? Whatever.

A comprehensive schedule and roster are here.

[Update: The concert was absolutely glorious, including the finest performance of Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale that you are ever likely to hear. The complete program is here and here.]

Europe is putting on a de-facto Rebecca Clarke Festival, starting in August 2020 and extending well into 2021—and much of it focuses on some of the less-familiar items in the Clarke repertoire, or presents fixtures in new guises. Here are a few upcoming items of exceptional interest:

Streaming August 7, 2020, at 18:00 Central European Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent): A rare performance of Clarke’s Sonata in her own alternative version for cello, along with Ravel’s Kaddisch, Fauré’s Élégie, and the Debussy cello sonata, in a free online recital by Francesco Dillon and Gioia Giusti, from this year’s Musica sulle Apuane festival—an event that should be as moving as it is spectacular. The festival takes place in one of the most staggering physical sites in the world—the Apuan Alps, a UNESCO Global Geopark in northwestern Tuscany—and this particular program will be given in the open air, at the hilltop Sacrario di Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where the victims of one of the most horrific civilian massacres of World War II are memorialized. The Ravel and Fauré pieces—and perhaps the slow-movement of the Clarke—acknowledge the massacre’s anniversary, which falls later in the week.

August 13: The Katrina Chamber Music Festival, which boasts another spectacular location—the Åland Islands, midway between Stockholm and Helsinki—celebrates various Twenties with a fascinating program featuring Clarke’s Trio (1921), alongside songs by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1820s), a Greek melody by Gurdzjeff, Pedro Laurenz’s Berreti (arranged by Astor Piazzola), and Amy Beach’s String Quartet Op. 89 (all 1920s), and Terry Riley’s Tango Ladeado (2020). The players in the Clarke are Cecilia Zilliacus, Kati Raitinen, and Anna Laakso.

August 18: Piano Salon Christophori, the coolest concert-venue in Berlin, presents an all-Clarke recital by Anna Krzyżak (viola), Ignacy Siarkowski (clarinet), and Aleksandra Czerniecka (piano), including the Sonata, I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still, and Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale in their original instrumentations, along with Dumka and the viola Lullaby in Siarkowski’s arrangements with clarinet. Clarke was a copious self-arranger, so my guess is that she would have been quite pleased by all this, especially if it allowed her to assess Dumka‘s klezmer-worthiness. (And don’t take my word for the awesome coolness of the venue—check out this and this and this.)

August 25: Spain’s venerable Festival Internacional de Santander presents the Ensemble Instrumental de Cantabria (ENSEIC) in a tantalizing program called “Espuma de luz y sombra (Del dolor y la esperanza),” in which the opening movement of Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, for clarinet and viola, falls somewhere between pain and hope, along with works by Purcell, Turina, Britten, Sanz Vélez, Shostakovich, Anónimo (s. XVI), Villa-Lobos, Vásquez, Falla, and Elgar (arr. Turina). “Espuma” means froth, or foam, and you might be deeply puzzled by what a “foam of light and shadow” might sound like, unless you’re a high-test food-maven and catch the reference to one of the great Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià’s most distinctive inventions—an almost weightless combination of flavored custard and whipped cream meant to “provoke, surprise, and delight the diner.” Should be quite an evening.

September 4: Nimrod Guez and Bernd Glemser place Clarke’s Sonata in broad historical context during this year’s Chamber Music Week at the Evangelisches Seminar Maulbronn, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where the likes of Kepler, Hölderlin, Mörike, and Hesse have been going to school since 1556, and where Glemser is Artist in Residence. Maulbronn Kammermusikwoche is one of those world-class events that wears its eminence lightly—exactly the kind of thing Clarke rejoiced in—so she might have been doubly pleased to figure with Bach, Brahms, and Shostakovich in the festival’s first-ever viola program.

September 12: Denmark’s Aarhuskammermusikfestival offers an evening of “English Impressionists,” featuring Clarke’s June Twilight and The Cloths of Heaven, sung by mezzo-soprano Kirsten Voss Petersen, and the Sonata, played by Daniel Eklund, all with Oscar Micaelsson as pianist. The program also includes Bridge’s cello sonata and songs with viola and piano, and Bax’s Elegiac Trio. The performers—all recent graduates of the Royal Danish Academy, Copenhagen—are exactly the kind of young professionals Clarke delighted in and fostered. With advocates like these, surely, her future is in good hands.

More coming. Stay tuned.

If we called your attention to every performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata, your inbox would fill up every ten minutes, and you’d drop us at once, so let’s not go there.

We do, however, need to alert you to the fact that the Sonata will be the lead-item in one of the most interesting events in this summer’s Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival: a viola-centric program that also features a fascinating array of pieces by Ulysses Kay, Luciano Berio, and Paul Hindemith, all of whom taught and/or studied at Tanglewood, which is just down the road from the site of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s Berkshire Festival, where Clarke made her first big international splash as a composer, slightly more than a century ago, with—you guessed it—the Sonata.

The program, part of Tanglewood’s BSO Musicians in Recital series, debuts on July 31, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. EDT, and remains available through August 7.

Clarke and Mrs. Coolidge were famous innovators—Clarke as one of the earliest evangelists of the viola, and Mrs. Coolidge as a visionary programmer whose chamber-music festival was celebrated as the first thing of its kind ever given in the United States—so we imagine both of them would have been keenly interested in a concert that sets Clarke’s Sonata next to Kay’s Sonatine (1939), in what seems to be its world premiere, and then follows up with Berio’s Naturale, for viola, percussion, and recorded voice (1984), and finally circles back to 1919, with Hindemith’s Sonata, Op. 11, No. 4.

The performers—all members of the BSO—are violists Mary Ferrillo, Steven Laraia, and Daniel Getz; percussionist Kyle Brightwell; and pianist Brett Hodgdon. Ferrillo and Hodgdon do the honors in the Clarke.

Information, program-notes, and virtual tickets are available here.

See you, as it were, on the “The Lawn”!

Ordinarily, we would have acted like a reasonably sober composer-website and led off with a slightly less lurid, more informative headline, but “Rebecca Clarke, Viola-Player and Composer—Meeting All Your Family’s Rebecca Clarke Tchotchke Needs Since 2020!” ran a little long, even for the debut of our new Shop page.

Be that as it may, if you ever feel moved to regale yourself, or those you love, with Rebecca Clarke socks, leggings, miniskirts, iPhone cases, laptop skins, greeting cards, throw-pillows, bathmats, or a host of other useful and amusing products, then Arty Margit is your go-to place. The brainchild of Margit van der Zwan, a cellist and artist based in Manchester, England, Arty Margit sells a vast line of composer-related products through Etsy and Redbubble, covering just about everyone who’s great and cool, from Hildegard of Bingen to Arvo Pärt and Kaija Saariaho, in really snazzy designs and terrific colors.

Margit’s design for Rebecca Clarke—based on one of Clarke’s most striking publicity-shots, by Louis Langfier, of 23 Old Bond Street, W., London, dating from around 1923—brings out the strong profile and commanding presence of a highly public figure who stood nearly six feet tall in her prime, and reportedly “strode on stage like a goddess.”

And lest you think there’s anything even slightly out-of-character about this, remember that Clarke was a committed clotheshorse who swanned through everything from Vogue, to the style-page of The Sphere (“The Empire’s Illustrated Weekly”), to “Pall Mall”’s syndicated gossip-column, to the front page (above the fold) of Honolulu’s Pacific Commercial Advertiser, and was known to pop off lines like, “Oh, no, darlings!”—this to her goggle-eyed nieces—“You must save your white gowns until after you’ve come back from the South of France!”

You might want to start with Arty Margit’s basic print, sold here, but after that the sky’s the limit, with everything from travel-mugs to a (regrettably) up-to-the-minute face-mask, sold here (and be sure to scroll down the page and click on the arrow following “Available on +48 products”).

We’re not sure what Clarke would have made of all this, but she was never one for postponing joy, so why should you? Besides, it’s not every day you get to patronize an artist who has actually played the Kit Kat Klub.

LOST FOR NEARLY A CENTURY, A BEAUTIFUL “NEW” DUET JOINS THE REPERTOIRE

A first edition of Rebecca Clarke’s Irish Melody (Emer’s Farewell to Cucullain), the third of her duets for viola (or violin) and cello, has just been announced by Gems Music Publications, with release to follow almost immediately. 

This is a genuine “discovery,” and for once that term is merited in every way. The piece slipped from memory during Clarke’s lifetime, leaving only a few faint traces—a single, tantalizing newspaper-review in 1918, and two entries in Clarke’s diaries for 1927. It turned up again in 2015, out of the blue, in the form of a manuscript in the private collection of the late John White, longtime professor of viola at the Royal Academy of Music, London, along with the only known manuscripts of Clarke’s other duets for viola and cello, the famous Lullaby and Grotesque (Oxford University Press, 1930; rev. ed. 2002). White’s wife Carol realized instantly that she was seeing something new and unusual, and brought it to our attention. It is largely through her efforts that Irish Melody has been brought back to life, and can now be put before the public in an Urtext edition by Kenneth Martinson and yours truly.

It’s a honey of a piece—fully the equal of its better-known peers—a full-throated arrangement of the tune familiar to most of us as “Londonderry Air,” or as “Danny Boy,” but with a startling and deeply moving twist: like many of Clarke’s pieces with poetic or literary titles (Morpheus, or Passacaglia on an Old English Tune, for example), it encrypts a passionate back-story. The Gems edition lays all this out, while explaining the piece’s fascinating background and performance-history.

Through July 31, customers who buy the piece with at least one other title will be offered a free PDF download as soon as their order ships. Either way, you won’t be sorry: it’s absolutely gorgeous; it’s almost infinitely useful in concert, either as a stand-alone or in various combinations with the other duets; and your audiences—like Clarke’s at the first known performance, in a high-school auditorium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, back in the summer of 1918—will be “strong in their appreciation.”

JULY 19thSAVE THE DATE!

Because of COVID-19, Berkshire Choral International, the venerable summer institute based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is unable to offer amateur singers its usual feast of professional-level choral immersion experiences this summer, but that won’t stop the annual faculty-and-staff recital from going on as scheduled, on Sunday, July 19, at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (US), with party to follow. Both events will be virtual—the recital via BCI’s YouTube channel, the party via Zoom—and you’re invited.

We’re passing the word for three reasons: first, because we wholeheartedly endorse BCI’s mission, to “enhance the skills of amateur choral singers and to promote a wider appreciation of choral singing and its tradition”; second, because we have worked with several of BCI’s world-class conductors and can vouch for the pleasure and educational value of their company; and finally, because the recital features Laura Strickling’s riveting, tightly focused account of Rebecca Clarke’s The Seal Man.

You may already have watched this performance on our Video page, but it’ll be good to see it in the context of a fascinating program that also features works by Handel, Schumann, Debussy, Respighi, Poulenc, Copland, and Schoenberg. Plus, our Video page lacks an after-party, so it’s all gain.

Direct links to follow. In the meantime, the best course is to sign up for BCI’s YouTube channel, and catch the trailer for the recital here. A complete list of performers and works can be found here.

OUT TODAY! A BEAUTIFUL CD THAT PUTS THE SONATA IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT

Just as we launch our new Rebecca Clarke discography, there comes Silhouettes, a gorgeous new release from Channel Classics that situates Clarke’s Viola Sonata (1919) right where it belongs—in close relationship with the cosmopolitan European modernism centered in Paris in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when Maurice Ravel was still a hot new thing out near the cutting edge, and Clarke was in a position not only to play much of his chamber music before the ink on it was quite dry, but to play some of it under his own wayward baton, and to read his Tarot—to alarming effect—at the after-concert party.

For Dana Zemtsov, the violist on Silhouettes, which releases today worldwide, the Sonata breathes a French atmosphere—“It has this French smell,” she says, in a charming “making of” video—and in the hands of Zemtsov and pianist Anna Fedorova, it most assuredly does, sitting comfortably, as if at home, at the head of a substantial, richly varied program of French and French-influenced works by Debussy, Milhaud, Enescu, and Arne Werkman.

For all the attempts to shoehorn Clarke into the “English Musical Renaissance,” she never quite fit there. In fact, she was in thrall to Debussy, and she worshipped Pelléas—early in her career as a jobbing violist, she blew two week’s rent on a copy of the vocal score, then hot off the presses, as a birthday present to herself. The inspiration showed plainly in her own work, as most of the Sonata’s earliest critics saw at once: “Its style is the happiest combination of British and French,” one rejoiced, while another was blown away by the opening of the final movement, where Clarke showed “her greatest genius, for here the music is mystical and macabre, in places as poignant, as moving as anything heard in the death chamber of Mélisande.” And then there’s the famous story of the 1919 Coolidge competition, where the Sonata—entered anonymously, as required—deadlocked for the prize, and when the seals were broken, the judges were astounded to learn that the piece that they thought to be “the work of a poet,” whom several of them assumed was Maurice Ravel, was not only by a woman, but by an Englishwoman at that.

Zemtsov and Fedorova’s performance of the Sonata is outstanding—by turns sensitive, passionate, and dry-eyed, as needed—with just the right touch of portamento in the lyrical passages, and real wit in the scherzo. The contrapuntal equality of the two instruments has rarely been brought out so beautifully. And you will never again be able to hear Clarke’s music without noticing at once the debt she owed to Debussy’s Faune, especially to that little falling-fourth pattern at rehearsal no. 4, which lurks in so many of Clarke’s lyrical second subjects. Even in a field awash in fine recordings, Silhouettes is truly special.

Silhouettes (Dana Zemtsov, viola / Anna Fedorova, piano). Includes Rebecca Clarke, Sonata for Viola and Piano; Debussy, La plus que lente, Clair de lune, Beau soir; Werkman, Suite for Viola and Piano; Milhaud, Sonata No. 1 for Viola and Piano, Op. 240; Enescu, Concert Piece for Viola and Piano. Channel Classics CD CCS 42320, 2020.