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