SWAP’ra, the British artistic collaborative that seeks to “build a supportive community and to effect positive change for women and parents in opera,” with the ultimate goal of fostering “an environment in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy,” has put on a mind-blowing 17-episode online festival featuring songs by a stunning array of female composers, performed by students at virtually every major music conservatory in the UK, comprising the Royal Welsh College of Music and Art, the National Opera Studio, the Guildhall School, the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, and the Royal College of Music.
For Clarke aficionados, the big news is Episode 17, from Clarke’s old stomping grounds at the Royal College, featuring four of her earliest compositions as an independent adult composer: her first setting of a Yeats poem, and three songs to old Chinese texts, all dating from around 1910, and all performed from manuscript. Tears, one of the Chinese lyrics, has been recorded before (Guild GMCD 7208), but the other songs are making their first appearances before the general public.
The festival’s overall title is Forgotten Voices, and while we gently demur on Clarke’s behalf—caught up as we are in a massive trawl through her 113 years (and counting) of press-coverage, and having her fan-mail in hand—there’s bound to be a lot here that you will find delightfully new. We’ve got our eye on the Welsh program in Episode 1, and we hear great things about the Hedwige Chrétien cycle in Episode 16, but the whole shebang is available—gloriously free!—through April 5, so we’re determined to enjoy every moment of it, at least twice. Go ye and do likewise.
The most efficient overview of the repertoire is here, complete with composer bios and selected lyrics. The programs themselves are here.
Sorry not to have clogged your in-box for nearly a month, but we gave ourselves a writing-break. So here’s a quick catch-up on several noteworthy things that came in while we were doing a deep dive into Rebecca Clarke’s childhood.
Time-sensitive, because it live-streams only until April 16, is an extraordinarily beautiful performance of Clarke’s Poem for string quartet, by the equally extraordinary Carducci Quartet, at London’s Wigmore Hall. Here again, we can see Clarke’s wisdom in leaving this piece as a freestanding item—after that, what more could possibly be said? Poem begins at 28:25, flanked by Mendelssohn 6 and Shostakovich 2, both electric. Wigmore Hall’s programming over the past year has been a major reason for staying safe and staying alive, so be sure to follow the links under the video and contribute.
Available indefinitely, and definitely worth spending time with, again and again, is a transformative interpretation of Clarke’s Trio by the NZTrio, dating back to 2019 but just recently published in support of New Zealand musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the sheer beauty and focus of the playing, this performance is chiefly remarkable for bringing out the Trio’s commonly-overlooked Romanticism, which has the unexpected effect of revealing how unified—and how bracingly modern—the Finale is. It’s certainly not the only way to play the piece, but it’s one that you probably have never heard before, and won’t soon forget. We haven’t—in fact, we’ve put it up on our Video for one-click playing, at leisure.
Finally, writing up the current rash of Seal Man recordings and live performances turned up some fascinating documentary and visual evidence, so we’ve put it all together in a new Gallery feature. Not to be a one-note or anything, but if you harbor any remaining illusion to the effect that Clarke was a dainty-dish who hung out with wet-rag pals, take a look at the cast of characters involved with The Seal Man, and—as we say in Brooklyn—fuggedaboudit!
March will be chock-a-block with superb new Clarke recordings, one of them more than 30 years in the making.
LAWO Classics leads off with The Artist’s Secret, an absolutely fascinating recital by mezzo Bettina Smith and pianist Jan Willem Nelleke that features an unusual selection of Clarke’s songs—Infant Joy, June Twilight, and Eight O’Clock—along with pieces by Anna Cramer, Henriëtte Bosmans, Borghild Holmsen, Cecile Chaminade, Marguerite Canal, Poldowski, Lili Boulanger, and Luise Greger. The three Clarke pieces form a well-nigh perfect microcosm of her vocal-solo writing, with an unexpected but absolutely convincing bit of Sprechstimme in Eight O’Clock. The whole program is rich and challenging, and if you haven’t caught up with Poldowski or Bosmans, what’s keeping you? European release and worldwide download is set for February 26, with the CD available in the Western Hemisphere on April 9.
On March 12, Divine Art releases an album of twentieth- and twenty-first-century pieces for clarinet and strings, performed by the British chamber-ensemble Gemini and its director, clarinetist Ian Mitchell. The story of how this project progressed since Ian discovered Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale in 1989 is best told by Ian himself, in the album’s lavish and highly entertaining booklet. Suffice it to say that this performance of the piece, which also features violist Yuko Inoue on a thrillingly equal basis, is one of the best ever. As an added bonus, the booklet includes the first accurate transcription of Clarke’s handwritten de-facto program-note—an important contribution to the literature, since this was one of the few times in Clarke’s life when she explained so much as a note of her music. Readers who have been searching in vain for that “long fugato section” in the Allegro will be relieved to learn that Clarke actually wrote “tiny”—crystal-clear, right down to the crossed T and the dotted I. You can pre-order here or here.
On March 19, King’s College, Cambridge, releases Proud Songsters, a survey of English solo song performed by a knockout roster of singers (Michael Chance, Tim Mead, Lawrence Zazzo, Ruairi Bowen, James Gilchrist, Andrew Staples, Gerald Finley, Ashley Riches, and Mark Stone) and Simon Lepper, one of the world’s preëminent collaborative pianists—all of whom are King’s alumni. For Clarke aficionados, the pièce de résistance is Gilchrist’s tender, propulsive, emotionally specific account of The Seal Man, nearly half-a-minute faster than his previous recording, and hair-raisingly the better for it. With Britten’s Down by the Salley Gardens (Mead), Warlock’s Sleep (Stone), and Iain Bell’s riff on “Come away, death” (Zazzo), there are interesting comparisons to be made with Clarke’s settings of the same texts, for solo voice, vocal duet, and chorus, respectively. Stephen Banfield’s booklet-essay is a useful corrective for anyone who suffers from any lingering delusion that nineteenth- or early twentieth-century English song was some sort of hothouse-flower tended by sad maidens in darkened parlors with doors tight-shut, rather than what it was—a massive industry with a large, active market. You can pre-order here or here.
We swore we wouldn’t clog your in-box with every single performance of Clarke’s Sonata that comes down the pike, but here’s one that promises to be exceptionally—well, exceptional: the collaboration of Rachel Roberts and Tim Horton, in an one-night-only event at London’s Conway Hall, livestreamed on Sunday, January 24, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent). The Clarke Sonata forms the climax of a powerful program that also features Schumann’s Märchenbilder, the extraordinary Capriccio pour alto seul (“Hommage à Paganini”) of Henri Vieuxtemps, and Brahms’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1.
Roberts and Horton have made noteworthy recordings of much of this repertoire, albeit not with one another. In fact, it’s their separate accounts of the Brahms—Roberts’s here, with Lars Vogt, and Horton’s here, in a remarkable live performance with Robin Ireland—that made us eager to see what the two of them, together, might make of the Clarke, especially in that grave, still passage that so mesmerized the piece’s earliest critics: “It is in the third movement,” wrote one, “that the composer has shown her greatest genius, for here the music is mystical and macaber [sic], in places as poignant, as moving as anything heard in the death chamber of Melisande. The beauty of the opening theme of this movement first announced by the piano alone will not soon be forgotten” (New-York Tribune, January 27, 1920). Having heard Roberts and Horton plumb the depths of Brahms’s Andante un poco Adagio, we can’t wait.
Conway Hall itself is of great interest: founded in 1887, when secular “entertainments” on the Sabbath were still controversial, the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts series is the oldest thing of its kind in Europe. As far as we know, Clarke never played there, but she would have approved wholeheartedly of the fact that the architect’s brief for the present structure on Red Lion Square, opened in 1929, required an acoustic perfectly calibrated to a string quartet.
Book your reservations here. £10.00 donation requested for those twenty-six and older, and almost certainly a bargain—and probably a blessing—at any age.
We take our holidays seriously here at rebeccaclarkecomposer.com, so our popular new feature “A Rebecca Clarke Christmas” gets folded up and put back in the closet at midnight tonight, when the traditional Twelve Days come to an end. It’ll be back in December, with fresh tinsel and some snazzy new ornaments.
In the meantime, here’s a last-minute entry in the revels—an arrangement for flute and piano of Clarke’s great Sonata of 1919, posted to YouTube just yesterday:
Now, we don’t normally hold with arrangements or transcriptions of Clarke’s works that Clarke herself didn’t make or authorize, but this one is pretty darned terrific—exciting and musical in its own right, while honoring the sound-world of the original. It’s also remarkable, and really quite valuable, for bringing out all the French elements in Clarke’s vocabulary, always present but especially eloquent in this piece. People often try to shoehorn Clarke into the “English Musical Renaissance,” where her instrumental works mostly don’t fit. In this arrangement, by contrast, her conscious debt to Debussy is readily apparent, as is her identification with the French-led cosmopolitan modernism of the early twentieth century. The scherzo suddenly seems to prefigure Poulenc, who at the time was a twenty-year-old amateur with only six short pieces to his name.
Fabulous performance, too. Violists, look to your laurels!
In 2019, Classic 𝒇M, the British independent radio station, put Clarke’s Sonata first among “the 7 best pieces EVER written for the viola,” leading a pack comprised of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Walton’s Viola Concerto, Strauss’s Don Quixote, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, and Schumann’s Märchenbilder.
A few days ago, they ranked Clarke’s Trio as one of “the 16 best pieces EVER written for piano,” right up there with the Goldberg Variations and Rhapsody in Blue. Now, you may feel that this is stretching things just a tad far, but the writer insists, “No questions asked!”—and who are we to disagree, especially in the face of two remarkable videos of the Trio that just popped up on YouTube?
The first is a scorcher from the Berlin-based ATOS Trio, wilder and rougher than their near-definitive 2020 performance, which has graced our Video page since the day it was published. The second is an astonishingly mature account by students at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music—more deliberate than the ATOS, perhaps, but no less focused and passionate—which impressed us so much that we’ve added it to our Video page, too. Clarke’s earliest critics were bowled over by her piano-parts—especially coming from a youngish composer who was more familiar to the public as a famous string-player—and these recent performances show how right they were. Hyperbole aside, this is fabulous piano music—powerful, poetic, and brilliantly laid out for the hands.
The same point is inadvertently made in a video of a recent recital in the Oxford Lieder series, in which a faulty pickup seriously distorts the balance between singer and pianist, throwing Clarke’s keyboard-writing into altogether-too-high relief. Now, admittedly, this is seriously unfair to the artists—especially since their performance of The Seal Man, June Twilight, and Tiger, Tiger (beginning at 19:55) was so compelling that the audience in the room could barely contain itself until the final note had sounded—but we’ve been granted permission to offer it to you as a rare opportunity to experience the depth and richness of Clarke’s piano-writing directly, and to get a closeup look at several of her signature keyboard gestures: lavish exploitation of the deep bass, wide separation of the hands, and forceful deployment of the instrument as a clear-cut protagonist in the drama. All of this is most spectacularly on display in Tiger, Tiger, where the piano snarls, slashes, and slithers its way through a hair-raising apotheosis of the minor second. Be warned: the moment when that dread heart begins to beat may clasp you in its “deadly terrors” for the rest of your life.
On a somewhat lighter note, you might want to check out the latest exhibit in our Gallery, entitled “The 1911 Suffrage League ‘At Home.'” Bellona in her chariot! Winston Churchill whipped through the streets! British haute couture!
Faber & Faber just announced their acquisition of two books by Leah Broad—the “dazzling young musicologist” at Christ Church, Oxford, whose work you’ve read about in these pages several times before—the first of which is Quartet, a group biography of four “trailblazing” women who “changed British music”: Ethel Smyth, Dorothy Howell, Doreen Carwithen, and (you guessed it) Rebecca Clarke.
Word of the deal broke only day-before-yesterday—you can read The Bookseller’s breathless take on it here—and Quartet won’t be published until sometime in 2023, COVID permitting. Still…
We hasten to bring it to your attention for one very important reason: Quartet will be the first extended publication on Clarke and her music since Daniela Kohnen’s pioneering monograph, first published in 1999 (see our “Learn More” page). Dr. Broad’s book is written for a wider audience, but with equal rigor, and, of course, the range of documentary sources available to scholars—especially contemporaneous journals, trade-magazines, and the all-important concert-advertising—is exponentially larger now than it was twenty years ago. Quartet will set Clarke in the context of the professional world where she actually lived, breathed, worked, and drew her own life’s meaning.
So stick a pin in this, and we’ll keep you posted as things develop. In the meantime, check out Dr. Broad’s article on Ethel Smyth, just published in The Guardian, for a sample of her fair-minded, even-handed, thoroughly lively style, and for evidence that she is refreshingly willing to admit that great icons can be less than they claim to be—or than we might want them to be—and still be fundamentally decent, real people who are interesting and exciting to know.
Rebecca Clarke is Day Four in La Boîte à Pépites de Noël, an absolutely fabulous Advent calendar of absolutely fabulous composers who happen to be female, and she gets—what else?—an absolutely lovely performance of her Combined Carols, for string quartet, a mashup of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Adeste Fideles” that started life as a little family jape called Get ’em all over at once. Almost instantly, Clarke realized what a terrific number it was, and started shopping it around New York, which needed a little cheering up right then, because it was the dead of winter at the height of World War Two. She soon made a version for string orchestra, which became a holiday fixture on New York radio.
So since it’s the dead of whatever season you care to call this at the height of COVID, we thought we ought to rush this lovely thing right out to you, in addition to adding it to our Video page. The performance is by Quatuor Modigliani, and the smashing venue appears to be the Salon de thé at Le Château de Rosa Bonheur, up the river from Paris, and if that doesn’t improve your mood, then there’s no hope for you.
The facts in the introduction aren’t exquisitely correct (see our FAQ for the straight deal on Anthony Trent), but the animation is charming. I don’t know about you, but we can’t wait to see who they come up with after Imo, Violeta, and Mel, so we subscribed for the whole season. You could, too.
When British mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately steps in at the last minute for a travel-restricted colleague, she brings backup in the form of her Mum and her Dad—and when Mum is the bewitching Dolly from the BBC’s Geordie epic When the Boat Comes In, and Dad is Inspector Lewis, that’s some serious backup. Add the brilliant pianist Simon Lepper, and you’ve got one hell of a show.
The item in question, ‘Careful the tale you tell…’, streams live in HD on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (check here for your local equivalent), and remains available for replay through New Year’s Day, 2021, as part of Wigmore Hall’s terrific Autumn 2020 Series.
The bill of fare—a rich stew of readings, narratives, stories-in-song, and songs about storytelling—ranges all the way from Tennyson to Atwood, and from Stanford to Sondheim. Along the way, it picks up John Masefield’s The Seal Man, as set by Rebecca Clarke, and since Simon Lepper was half of one of the best performances of that piece we’ve ever heard, and since he and Kitty Whately reportedly operate on a comparably exalted plane, we signed up at once, even without the added glam-factor of Mum and Dad—whose names, in case you haven’t already worked this out, are Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately.
Login required—it takes all of two minutes to set up, here. Contribution requested, and worth every penny.