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THE SEAL MAN

Arguably the greatest of Clarke’s vocal works, The Seal Man is less a “song” than an extended dramatic narrative with dialogue. This is clear from its origins—the final crisis from a tale of the same title by John Masefield—and from the way Clarke promoted it. She started writing the piece, with great excitement, in November 1921, and finished it on January 24, 1922. Two days later, she played it for her friend and fellow Stanford-pupil Cecil Forsyth, and the two of them instantly thought of showing it to Reinald Werrenrath, a heroic baritone who had recently done a season at the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang opposite Caruso, Easton, and Muzio in Pagliacci, and Martinelli and Farrar in Faust and Carmen. Perhaps more to the point, Werrenrath was already famous for his work in the concert hall and the recording studio, where his theatrical skills and brilliant diction were even more thrilling than in the opera house. Nothing seems to have come of the plan, but Werrenrath’s hair-raising rendition of Kipling’s Danny Deever, set to music by Walter Damrosch, shows why Clarke and Forsyth thought of him first, and what the association might imply for performance practice.

Clarke kept revising The Seal Man for another two years, wanting to make it “simpler and better,” and in 1923 the first singer she showed it to—the San Francisco-based tenor Lawrence Strauss—snapped it up, and gave the premiere the following season. Myra Hess promoted the piece in London, where it came to the attention of baritone John Goss, who sought Clarke out and gained permission to give the U.K. premiere. It was soon picked up by Povla Frijsh, Dorothea Webb, and other eminent singers with a deep understanding of what Webb called “the dual nature of song—how the poem has inspired the music and how the music has absorbed the poem,” and for decades it was a showpiece, not only for professionals, but for ambitious graduate students and music-club members—all of which means that, however improbably, it had entered the standard repertoire, at every essential level. For highlights of the current crop of recordings, see our Discography page.

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THE 1911 SUFFRAGE LEAGUE “AT HOME”

Clarke has taken flack for allegedly failing to get in line with Ethel Smyth’s vociferous suffragism and lifelong advocacy of women composers, even though the former lasted only two years, coinciding with Smyth’s romance with one of the movement’s founders, and the latter consisted almost entirely of Smyth promoting a woman composer named Ethel Smyth. By the same token, Clarke is said to have knuckled under to conventional notions of femininity, and wasted her creative energies on frocks and jewelry when she could have been writing symphonies. Now, it’s true that Clarke was never much of a joiner, but it’s also true that she put her money—and her talents—where her mouth was, at a time when first-wave feminism and a good string of pearls were not thought to be mutually exclusive. Both points are amply illustrated in the pages of Votes for Women, the de-facto house organ of British suffragism, where Clarke is shown to have given her services in order to support Dr. Smyth’s music, and thereby to help fund The Cause, at an “At Home” hosted by Lady Meyer and Beatrice Harraden, who between them covered the cultural waterfront.

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THE WIGMORE HALL CONCERT

Clarke spent a good deal of the year 1925 planning, promoting, and executing a concert of her own works at London’s Wigmore Hall—a bold undertaking for any composer at any age, but especially for a thirty-nine-year-old whose big breakout had taken place only six years earlier. The concert was a triumph, cementing Clarke’s position as “one of the élite of musicians” (Morning Post). She repeated most of the program the following week on the then-three-year-old BBC, where she was already a star performer. Three years later, provincial newspapers were looking forward, with keen interest, to concert appearances by “Miss Rebecca Clarke (of wireless fame).”

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POLITICAL ECONOMY

A lifelong self-supporting freelancer who survived the Great Depression and two bouts of wartime scarcity, Rebecca Clarke was a great saver of useful things, including the blank backsides of solicitations from the many social- and political-action groups she supported. Much of her memoir is typed on several years’ worth of such paper, creating juxtapositions that sometimes verge on poetry. Here, for example, three magnificent women—Clarke, her mother Agnes Helferich Clarke, and the great civil-rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer—come together on the same sheet, with a cameo-appearance by Henry James. The Clarkes probably didn’t know much from butter beans and kale, but, like Hamer, they got results, especially in adversity. Be of good heart. Eyes on the prize.

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A CAREER IN PICTURES

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