In 2019, Classic đť’‡M, 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, BartĂłk’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!

The Seal Man, fifth measure before the end.

Never a dull moment, indeed! All kinds of online goodies over the next few weeks, including:

September 15: Chicago’s International Music Festival presents a smashing pair—Clarke’s Trio and Dinuk Wijeratne’s Love Triangle—performed by Janet Sung, Calum Cook, and Kuang-Hao Huang, at 5:45 p.m. Central Daylight Time (check here for your local equivalent). “Smashing,” quite literally—it’s hard to guess which of these pieces has the hardest knuckles, and one of them turned 99 years old six weeks ago.

On demand through October 6: The Archipelago Collective’s entire 2020 season, including a beautiful performance of Clarke’s Lullaby and Grotesque, can be had here for a mere $50, and educators may request free access here.

On demand through October 8: BBC’s Through the Night is rebroadcasting a riveting 2008 mini-recital of Clarke’s songs by Elizabeth Watts and Paul Turner (beginning at the 3:34:26 mark), and you need to catch it before it disappears back into the vault for another dozen years. Forget the academic canard that there was something small or in-turned about Clarke’s predilection for songs: Watts and Turner find real tragedy in Down by the Salley Gardens and A Dream, a flash of Isolde-like passion in Greeting, and very nearly the last ounce of horror in Eight O’clock. As my Alabama grandmother would have put it, this is sangin’!

October 12–November 1: Oxford Lieder offers exactly the sort of mixed grill Clarke and her buddies enjoyed serving up—in this case, voice (mezzo Caitlin Hulcup), violin (Jonathan Stone), and piano (artistic director Sholto Kynoch) in various combinations and permutations. There’s only one piece by Clarke—”The Tailor and His Mouse,” from Old English Songs, for voice and violin—but context is everything, and the program as a whole is wildly imaginative. Broadcast live from Holywell Music Room on October 12, at 17:30 British Summer Time (check here for your local equivalent), and then available on demand, with the same ticket, through November 1. ÂŁ10 / ÂŁ5 under 35.

October 27–28: And talk about wildly imaginative programming! Cultural Wasteland presents Danse macabre: Musical Tales of Horror from Rebecca Clarke, Berlioz and Saint-SaĂ«ns, with mezzo Heather Gallagher and pianist Yukiko Oba. The ample bill of fare includes five Clarke songs: The Seal Man; A Dream; Tiger, Tiger; The Donkey; and the rarely-heard Binnorie: A Ballad, an epic tale of love, jealousy, murder, and revenge, with enough creepy effects slithering out of the piano to give you a fabulous case of the wim-wams, just in time for Halloween. All that, plus an opportunity to hear Saint-SaĂ«ns’s Danse macabre and Berlioz’s Le Spectre de la rose in their original forms, for voice and piano. $20 on Sparrow Live, airing Tuesday, October 27, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and then available for the next 24 hours (check here for your local equivalents, and please note that this is the correct date and time). We’ve already got our tickets. See you there. Bring popcorn.

Save the dates! On October 29, Clarke’s Trio headlines a concert in Wigmore Hall’s terrific new Live Stream series, 95 years (nearly to the day) after Clarke herself presented it there, with the Gould Trio stepping in for the original cast of characters: Adila Fachiri, May Mukle, and Myra Hess. The Sonata follows on December 8, with Natalie Clein performing Clarke’s alternate version for cello. Details to follow.

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? Â¶ What the hammer? what the chain, / In what furnace was thy brain? / What the anvil? what dread grasp, / Dare its deadly terrors clasp! Â¶ 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? Â¶ 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!