Rebecca Clarke: Sonata for Viola and Piano

Remembered today as one of the finest chamber music composers of the twentieth century, Rebecca Clarke’s (1886-1979) Sonata for Viola and Piano is a staple in viola repertoire. Although her compositional output wasn’t large like some of her contemporaries, the works that were composed were praised for their integrity, artistry and complexity. Today, Clarke’s work is kept alive by The Rebecca Clarke Society, which champions the study and performance of her works.

After studying at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, Clarke became one of the first professional female orchestral musicians. Her main instruments were violin and viola, and under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College, her compositions started pushing for these instruments to take solo roles. In 1916, Clarke moved to New York to pursue her performing career, which is where she composed her Sonata for Viola and Piano. 

Surfacing in 1919, Sonata for Viola and Piano was initially entered into a competition supported by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (Clarke’s neighbour and a major patron of the arts). With a whopping 72 entries into the competition, Clarke tied first place with a composition by Ernest Bloch. What’s more is that Bloch was then declared the winner by Coolidge, with reporters speculating that ‘Rebecca Clarke’ was a pseudonym for Bloch himself. It was not believed, at the time, that a woman could write music as challenging and powerful as the sonata. Its first real premiere was the the Berkshire music festival in 1919, and the response was largely positive towards the work.

Clarke’s compositional fame revolves around these three works:

1919 – Sonata for Viola and Piano

1921 – Piano Trio

1923 – Rhapsody for Cello and Piano

After this point Clarke composed very little due to a multitude of reasons. One of the main reasons for this was that due to her performing life and personal life being so busy, she was often unable to balance composition between the two. Suffering from chronic depression, Clarke was reluctant to compose after receiving discouragement from critics at times. The demands of composition took their toll on the composer with her stating that:

“I can’t do it unless it’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep.”

With her husband, James Friskin, being a working musician and composer himself, he often encouraged Clarke to compose more, but after they wed she pretty much completely stopped composing, and subsequently performing after a while. Clarke passed away at the age on 93 at her home in New York City.

The Music

The score for Sonata for Viola and Piano has a quote on the inside page, which is taken from the poem La Nuit de mai, by French poet Alfred de Musset:

 

Poète, prends ton luth; le vin de la jeunesse – Poet, take up your lute; the wine of youth

Fermente cette nuit dans les veines de Dieu. – this night is fermenting in the veins of God.

 

The work is set into three movements:

I. Impetuoso

II. Vivace

III. Adagio

Each movement accentuates Clarke’s engaging and creative musical style. With homages to composers such as Claude Debussy, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Maurice Ravel, Sonata for Viola and Piano is deemed today as one of the best works for viola.

Movement I: Impetuoso

The opening movement is vibrant and highlights the viola as a powerful solo instrument. The cadenza-like solo fanfare is bold, and revolves around chromatic movement. There is a strong sense of syncopation throughout many of the sequences in this movement, and the relationship between the viola and piano is somewhat tumultuous at times, but it always comes back together harmoniously.

Moving slightly away from chromatic harmony at times, Clarke’s harmonic language shifts to the use of modes and the whole-tone scale. This shift in sound is most certainly from her main compositional influence – Claude Debussy. The mysterious nature of the middle section is resonant of some of Debussy’s chamber works. Clarke’s use of modes is also resonant of a fellow English composer – Ralph Vaughan Williams. These two composers were her main influences, and some of the melodic and harmonic work is certainly paying homage to these composers.

After dying away in sound the movement is resurrected back into the faster paced syncopated sequence. Overall this movement is very melodic, both in the viola and piano. The movement is marked ‘Impetuoso’, which translates into ‘lively’, ‘rash’, and even ‘spirited’, and Clarke’s first movement surely reflects this effectively.

 

Movement II – Vivace

The exciting and speedy second movement is marked ‘Vivace’. The opening piano melody is then transferred and developed into the viola part. Throughout this short movement, Clarke utilises some extended techniques on the viola which includes harmonics and pizzicato.

After the strong opening, the music begins to come down in dynamic and speed, with a lyrical section being at the centre of this movement. The tempo begins to pick up again, and the opening theme is proclaimed again many times by both the viola and piano. There is a real sense of folk-dance melodies in this movements, with the viola often resembling the sound of a fiddle. This complex and fast-paced movement highlights the viola’s flexibility as a solo instrument.

 

Movement III – Adagio

The longest and the slowest of the this three-part work, the third movement is pensive throughout. With the piano opening the movement with a simple melody, the viola enters with an echo which then carries throughout the movement. Clarke heralds back to the opening movement with the use of long flowing syncopated melodic lines. This adds another layer of mystery onto this work, which is exciting to hear this development throughout the sonata.

The dynamic begins to grow around half way through the movement, with an explosion of sound taking over. Repeated tremolos from the viola build the tension to the bigger climax slightly later on. There is deep-rooted strength in this movement, with the core of the music being taken and developed from the other two prior movements.

After returning to the syncopated movement, Clarke has one surprise left for us at the end of the movement. After one final climax, the melody shifts back to a restatement of the opening themes from the first movement. The sonata then ends with a display of virtuosity from both the viola and piano. With both parts being equal in difficulty, Clarke covers nearly the full range of both instruments, thus culminating in a display of brilliance. Clarke’s highly idiomatic writing style is one of the many tricky obstacles to get into when performing this work.

 

Final Thoughts

Clarke aimed to create a work which champions the viola – a more often than not underrepresented instrument in solo compositions. Her Sonata or Viola and Piano is a display of technical complexity, rich melodic and harmonic writing and is rightfully a staple piece in viola repertoire. Clarke’s support of the viola allows us to see the strength, flexibility and tenderness of the instrument.

Happy Reading!

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