A guide to the most useful and reliable studies of Clarke and her music, with notes on interesting recordings.
Daniela Kohnen’s Rebecca Clarke, Komponistin und Bratschistin: Biographie (Frankfurt: Hänsel-Hohenhausen, 1999; 2nd ed. 2002) was the first—and, for more then two decades, the only—book-length treatment of Clarke’s life and career. Written from the special perspective of a sister violist, this monograph is far more balanced and even-handed than much that has followed it. The revised edition of 2002 corrects some errors of detail.
Written for a broader audience, but with equal rigor, Leah Broad’s Quartet (London: Faber & Faber, 2023), a group biography of Clarke, Ethel Smyth, Dorothy Howell, and Doreen Carwithen, draws on a vast range of documentary sources—especially newspapers, trade-magazines, and concert-advertising—in order to set Clarke in the context of the professional world where she lived, breathed, and worked. This is by far the most complete and accurate account of Clarke’s life and career ever published.
Sophie Fuller’s article in her Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States 1629-Present (Pandora, 1994; pp. 89-92), and Michael Ponder’s in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004, rev. 2021), each contain a few small errors, but are otherwise judicious, balanced, and realistic. Fuller paints a remarkably true-to-life picture of Clarke’s character and personality, and, unusually, gives due artistic weight to Clarke’s songs, while Ponder offers a cogent account of the development of Clarke’s style over nearly four decades.
In spite of its breathless tone and dated language, M.B. Stanfield’s article in The Strad (77/920, 1966; 297-99) is still worth reading. Based on an interview with Clarke, it paints a lively picture of her early days as an orchestral player in London, and suggests the depth of her influence as an advocate of chamber music.
Among concise accounts, Stephen Banfield’s article in the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (New York/London: W.W. Norton, 1995) stands out for its insightful comments on Clarke’s methods and style.
For the most part, articles in other standard reference-works are compromised either by significant misinformation (e.g., the Oxford Companion to Music and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, where Anthony Trent runs riot), or by speculation, unsupported assertions, and tendentious arguments (The New Grove), or by all of the above, with added self-promotion by extrinsic third parties (Wikipedia), or by fever-swamp fantasies so hallucinatory and bizarre as to suggest psychosis on the part of the writers, the editors, or both (Encyclopedia.com). Grove Music Online carries the 1999 article from The New Grove, unmodified. It gives no account of the large cache of lost or unknown works discovered in 2000, nor of the thirty-five titles published for the first time between 2001 and 2005, nor of the highly significant discoveries and publications since 2005, with the result that its works-list is deficient, and one of the article’s principal contentions─that “a complete understanding of [Clarke’s] significance will only be reached when more of her music is available for study”─has become grossly misleading. The articles in Wikipedia trace back to the same source, and are equally unreliable and out of date.
A Rebecca Clarke Reader was issued in 2004 by Indiana University Press and immediately withdrawn by the publisher for false and misleading statements, and for pervasive infringement of copyright.
Life & Career
Clarke’s memoir I Had a Father Too, or, The Mustard Spoon, available under license through this website, is the only authoritative source on her childhood, youth, and musical training.
As background to Clarke’s study of composition at the Royal College, Kevin O’Connell’s “Stanford and the gods of modern music” (Musical Times 146/1890, 2005) provides a fascinating account of Stanford as teacher and theorist, and David C.H. Wright’s The Royal College of Music and its Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 2020) offers a comprehensive artistic and social history of the institution itself. Jeremy Dibble’s C. Hubert H. Parry: His Life and Music and Sir Charles Stanford: Man and Musician (Oxford University Press, 1992 and 2002, respectively) do more than most broad-based cultural studies to portray the context within which Clarke began her work, in addition to being terrific biographies. Parry, for example, emerges as a firm supporter of whatever was “characteristic” in young composers, and Stanford as a ferocious hero of copyright. To hear just how progressive these famously conservative composers could be, listen to Parry’s English Lyrics (Hyperion CDA67044, released 1998), especially the astounding “Sleep,” or to the “Caoine” from Stanford’s Sonata, Op. 129 (Nimbus NI 6334, released 2016).
Eugène Goosens’s Overture and Beginners: A Musical Biography (London: Methuen, 1951) provides a flavorful account of the London freelance scene during Clarke’s heyday, by one of her closest associates.
On Clarke’s relationship with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, two articles are essential: Stephen Banfield’s “‘Too Much of Albion’? Mrs. Coolidge and Her British Connections” (American Music 4/1, 1986: 59-88), which also offers a thoughtful assessment of Clarke’s fortunes as a composer in England; and Cyrilla Barr’s “A Style of Her Own: The Patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge” (in Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860, ed. Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr; University of California Press, 1997), a survey of the full range of Mrs. Coolidge’s patronage that emphasizes a goal that she and Clarke held in common─to “free concerts from the deadening influence of social fashion, and to stamp them with true artistic significance and authority.” Chapter Ten of Barr’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), provides a chronicle of the Berkshire Festivals and reveals many interesting details about the backstage dickering over Clarke’s Sonata.
While Clarke and the actress Eleonora Duse never crossed paths, both saw themselves as servants of an art-form in which “each thought, each word, each slightest movement was part of a highly disciplined concept, executed with such truth and such superlative skill” that it passed for “the inspiration of the moment.” Eva Le Gallienne’s The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965; repr. Arcturus Books, 1973), from which those words are quoted, could almost serve as a spiritual biography of Clarke, besides being a thrilling read in its own right.
Calum MacDonald’s “Rebecca Clarke’s Chamber Music (I)” (Tempo, New Series 160, 1987: 15-26) is the essential study of the instrumental works Clarke composed before 1940. The promised Part II was forestalled by MacDonald’s untimely death.
David M. Bynog’s chapter on the Viola Sonata in Notes for Violists: A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2020) provides a comprehensive analysis of the piece, based on a painstaking survey of the only known manuscript, Clarke’s diaries, and other primary sources. Some of this material has been quoted elsewhere, but never with Bynog’s accuracy, nor with his fidelity to Clarke’s distinctive graphic style. The chapter includes the first publication of Pomposo, an Albumblatt for viola alone that Clarke composed in her ninetieth year.
Marin Jacobson’s Stylistic development in the choral music of Rebecca Clarke (University of Iowa, 2011; https://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/988/) combines a level-headed, even-handed, but highly imaginative use of manuscripts and other primary sources with sensible, useful technical analysis. She offers a detailed comparison of all the known manuscripts, both with one another, and with the printed editions.
Clare Watters’s “Exploring the Choral Music of Rebecca Clarke” (Journal of the IAWM 27, no. 2, 2021) offers a concise survey, with much newly-discovered detail and a useful account of the publishing-history.