Composer of the Week: Rebecca Clarke

This week’s Composer of the Week puts us in 20th-century Britain. Rebecca Clarke was an English violist and composer. In her own lifetime, Rebecca earned acclaim as a virtuoso violist. Her musical output (much of it still awaiting publication) is highly distinctive and contains some haunting works that continue to challenge viola players.

The Viola: Gem of the Orchestra

The viola is the alto member of the violin family. People often mistake this instrument for a violin because of their similar shape and manner of playing. However, the viola is a very different instrument. Its larger size and deeper tuning (down to the C below middle C), facilitate a darker, richer tone. While most people can successfully identify a violin and a cello, the viola is more obscure. There is something fitting about this, because the viola has a subtle – and indispensable – role in the orchestra. It occupies the space, spatially and musically, between the second violin and the cello. It has the effect of tempering the colors of both the treble violin and tenor cello.

Interestingly, the viola was the favorite instrument of some of history’s greatest composers. Mozart and Beethoven, arguably the two most famous composers in history, played the viola. This might be because of its integral place in the orchestra and its importance in harmonization. The viola features in several famous solo passages in the symphony repertoire, such as Richard Strauss’ inimitable Don Quixote.

Morpheus for Viola and Piano

If you want to venture into Rebecca Clarke’s world, the best place to start is her short work for viola and piano, Morpheus. The video link above contains a brilliant performance of this piece. She wrote it in 1917 AD, and gave its debut performance herself a year later in New York. The inspiration for this piece is the Greek god Morpheus, whom Ovid depicts as one of the sons of Sleep. His name derives from the Greek μορφη (shape/form), and he has tight mythological connections with sleep and dreams. We’ve spoken about how the ancients really viewed figures like this here.

As you can hear in the video, the viola is the perfect instrument for the job. The piece opens with an expansive, wistful theme draped over steady, gentle piano chords. As it develops, the piano becomes more harp-like and athletic. The composition, though short, is a challenge for both instruments, nimble yet harmonically dense. It is easy to see why this piece has become a standard in the viola repertoire.

Quintessentially English

Another aspect of Rebecca Clarke’s music that deserves mention is its unmistakable Englishness. It’s common these days to hear people mock English culture, especially English cuisine. There’s also a common misconception that England is in some way deficient in terms of artistic and musical production, in comparison to nations like France, Germany, Italy and Russia. This is, of course, nothing but a prejudice and as such, it’s easy to dispel.

There is a distinctive English style in music, which owes much to the deep hybridity of the English nation. The intertwining of the Germanic and the Celtic is what makes the English language what it is, and it underlies the unique texture of English folk music. Rebecca Clarke references this explicitly in one of her greatest works, the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune. To compose this, she borrowed a theme from the great English composer Thomas Tallis, pictured left.

Rebecca’s Legacy

Rebecca died in 1979 AD. She had spent most of her life in Britain and America. Her biography reveals a troubled life with unfulfilled dreams. Thankfully, she wrote quite prolifically at certain periods of her life, including some very interesting vocal repertoire. A particularly interesting piece is her interpretation of William Blake’s immortal poem “The Tyger” (not a spelling error, by the way). Fortunately for us, a large amount of her work remains to be published. This means that we will continue to discover more layers of this complex story.

If you are a viola player, or a violinist who is dabbling in the viola and coming to realize that the viola is a whole universe unto itself, then this great modern composer is someone you can’t afford to overlook. Her works join the relatively small but magical viola repertoire, alongside such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Bartok and Hindemith.

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