Rebecca Clarke


Born: August 27, 1886 Died: October 13, 1979
Rebecca Thacher Clarke was a pioneering female musician and composer of the early twentieth century. Her father, Joseph Clarke (an American living in England), was a cruel domestic tyrant whose abusive behavior was a major influence in his daughter's life. All four Clarke children learned to play instruments expressly to perform chamber music on demand for thier father. This became Rebecca's introduction to music, which she augmented by copying scores out by hand, increasing her knowledge of theory and composition.

She was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1903, but her father withdrew her when her harmony teacher, Percy Miles, proposed marriage. Her father objected entirely to her interest in composition, but nevertheless grudgingly sent some of her songs to Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who accepted her at the Royal College of Music as his first female student. Stanford suggested she switch her performing instrument from violin to viola in order to gain a better feel for the function of inner voices.

At the age of 24, Rebecca's father threw her out of the house after she built a "house of cards" out of letters from his mistress (who living with the family, installed in her own wing of the house) in the entrance hallway. Liberated, Clarke completed her education, played in orchestras, and joined the Norah Clench String Quartet. In 1912, conductor Sir Henry Wood hired her as a violist in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, previously an all-male ensemble.

After two years' residence in the United States (1916 - 1918, while she and her brothers concertized), she toured the Hawaiian islands and undertook a world tour of British colonies in partnership with cellist May Muklé, a lifelong friend.

The best-known of her works are the Viola Sonata (1919) and the Trio for Piano and Strings (1921), both written for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge chamber music competition. The Sonata tied for first place, but Mrs. Coolidge broke the tie in favor of the other work, by Ernest Bloch. (Interestingly, many listeners at the competition thought Clarke's Sonata was by Ravel -- identities of the composers were not revealed until afterwards.) The Sonata enjoyed a certain vogue as a result, but the Trio remained unpublished as did a major proportion of her work. The style revealed is similar to that of other British composers such as Arnold Bax -- harmonically rich and emotional, often with unexpected strength.

Clarke continued to play professionally in the 1920s and 1930s, eventually founding the all-female English Ensemble along with Muklé. She appeared often on the BBC and on recordings, but the onset of arthritis began to affect her performance. When World War II broke out, she remained in America, living with her brothers. She supported herself through composition and, when needed, worked as a nanny; she also hosted a program on music on a New York radio station.

In 1944 she married James Friskin, a former RCM student who became a Juilliard School faculty member; afterwards she ceased composing altogether. "I found that I could never work when I was in love," she once told her family. Her great-grand-niece Patriot Rebecca Johnson concludes, "I think that she finally had a safe, secure, and happy family life, and so the driving need to let out the unhappy emotions caused by her childhood surroundings and adult miseries was no longer there."

In 1976, her old radio station, WQXR, honored her 90th birthday with a program of her music, sparking interest in her works. A Rebecca Clarke Society supervises publication of her music; she may yet emerge as a major post-Romantic voice.

There are 36 Rebecca Clarke recordings available.

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