The Anglo-American Rebecca Clarke achieved success as both a violist and composer at a time when female musicians faced formidable prejudice and discrimination. Today she is celebrated not only for the quality of her music, which rivals that of her more famous male contemporaries, but also for having inspired later generations of female musicians and composers to claim their rightful place at the centre of musical activity.
Clarke admired Debussy, Ravel (with whom she concertized), Vaughan Williams, and, especially, Bloch, about whom she wrote a glowing entry in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. Her shining moment as a composer, that she referred to in her self-effacing manner as her “one little whiff of success,” came in 1919 when her Viola Sonata placed second – to Bloch’s Viola Suite – in the prestigious competition sponsored by the discerning patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was forced to break the jury’s tie.
In 1921, Clarke again took second prize at Coolidge’s competition, this time for her Piano Trio, which, along with the Viola Sonata, would prove to be her most ambitious and enduring work. Today they form the bedrock of her reputation as a composer of deep passion, exquisite sensitivity and imagination, and faultless craft.
Like Ravel, Clarke left no program for her trio. But, like Ravel’s, hers invites speculation that the horrors of the Great War left their mark. If cannonades resound at the end of Ravel’s trio, in Clarke’s the guns fire at the explosive beginning. Amid ricocheting percussive dissonance rings the artillery of an incisive, repeated-note motto that appears, often transformed, in all movements. The brooding principal theme, for instance, consists of the motto extended, while the transition to the gentler secondary theme tacks on a different tail, whose rising and falling fourth – a discrete theme that scholars dub the “bugle call” – lends further credence to the trio’s militaristic overtones. The sonata-form movement ends quietly with an uneasy ceasefire.
The sensuous “Andante molto semplice” heaves in thick-textured molasses, from which occasionally erupts sparkling stardust in the piano. Unassuming melody, whose constituent motives freely migrate into the accompaniment, mingles with delicate string colours, including harmonics; against this organic tapestry, the motto sounds. This movement also ends softly.
The concluding dance-like scherzo is enlivened by pizzicato, cross-rhythmic play, and metre changes. Some episodes revel in pure instrumental colour. The music’s pulsing vitality, however, is interrupted by a quotation of the opening gunfire. The piano then dwells on the bugle call, echoed melancholically by the strings, the call fading into oblivion…until, like a sneak attack, the jovial scherzo theme bursts in and charges to an emphatic close in E-flat major. “In this way,” observes scholar Bryony Jones, “the general feeling is one of looking forward rather than back.” Nonetheless, in the scherzo itself, Jones detects English country dance themes and the modal harmony of English folk song. Thus, if indeed the trio speaks of war, this backward glance may be Clarke’s attempt to find solace – as did so many of her peers – in the English pastoral tradition.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Rival