History Hunt: Rebecca Clarke

This week, we’re moving forward in history again to visit a composer who was a citizen of both the United Kingdom and the United States, and who once was one of the most famous composers in all of England.

Important note: References to parental abuse are made in this entry. Reader discretion is advised.

Rebecca Thatcher Clarke was born on August 27, 1886 in Harrow, Middlesex, England. Her parents were both musical and she and her three siblings learned to play instruments from a young age. Normally, this would be a very good thing, but her father’s motivation for making his children study was apparently so he could have music whenever he wanted–a selfish reason. He was an abusive father to his children and was cruel to his wife as well, something no one in Clarke’s family deserved.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Clarke had hated music because of her father, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, she spent extra time studying by copying out sheet music so she could learn how to compose.

When she was sixteen, Clarke went to the Royal Academy of Music, something very unusual for a woman at this time. Within two years, though, her father made her leave, because her theory teacher had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her. When she was about 21, she was able to go to another important music school, the Royal Conservatory of Music. There she became the first (and only) female student of composition teacher Sir Charles Stanford. It was here she switched her focus from the violin to the viola, an instrument she was very successful with throughout her life.

But once again, her father was responsible for her studies ending too soon. When Clarke was twenty-four, she’d had enough of the terrible way he was treating her mother, and so she stood up to him. After a huge argument, her father threw Clarke out of the house and refused to let her come back.

This turned out to be both a bad thing and a good thing for Clarke. On one hand, suddenly Clarke was homeless and needed to find a way to earn money–fast. On the other, her father could never again interfere in her studies or her life: she was free of him at last.

Clarke began performing on her viola to support herself, something she was very proud of being able to do. She was hired for private parties and her teachers and friends all pitched in to help her find work. After a year of performing on her own, she joined the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as its first female member. Three years after that, she left for the United States to travel and give concerts.

In 1919, when she was thirty-three, and again two years later, Clarke submitted compositions to the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge music competition. She tied for first place the first time, but unfortunately the women who was sponsoring the competition liked her opponent’s piece better. The judges were astonished to learn afterwards that they had almost awarded first place to a fairly unknown female composer! And when her piece was played for an audience, many thought they were listening to music written by famous composer Maurice Ravel–another surprise.

Even if Clarke never did come in first in the competition, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (a pianist and composer in her own right) liked her work enough to commission a piece from her in 1923. Once again, Clarke was the first woman to receive a commission from Coolidge…and, as it turned out, the only one.

That same year, Clarke went on a world tour of the countries that had a connection with Britain. When she finished the tour, she returned to England and continued performing. Three years later, she formed the all-female English Ensemble with a violinist, cellist, and pianist. She played for BBC Radio, made recordings, and continued to perform.

When World War II started, Clarke was in the United States visiting her brothers. She ended up trapped there for the wartime period, and, as when she was kicked out of her home by her father, she needed to quickly figure out how to make ends meet. To do so, she composed, worked as a governess, and even hosted her own radio program on music!

Though Clarke eventually stopped giving public performances due to arthritis and composed rarely in her later years, that didn’t mean she gave up on music entirely. In fact, she went back and fixed up some of her earlier compositions when she was 90 years old! For many people, music is a lifelong passion, and it seems that was especially the case with Rebecca Clarke.

Listen below to Passacaglia, a powerful work Clarke wrote for piano and viola, to get a good taste of her compositional brilliance:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
The Life of Rebecca Clarke on the Rebecca Clarke Society’s website
Rebecca Clarke by Joseph Stevenson
Rebecca Clarke on Naxos.com
Rebecca Clarke on Saint Paul Sunday
“And you should’ve seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman.” Composer Rebecca Clarke on BBC Radio
A Rebecca Clarke Reader ed. by Liane Curtis
Rebecca Clarke (composer) at Wikipedia.org

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