Clarke, Rebecca Thacher

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Rebecca Thacher Clarke

Englishwoman and modern classical composer Rebecca Thacher Clarke (1886–1979) was one of the most talented viola players of her generation and worked during the renaissance of English music that occurred between the two World Wars. Critics have called her compositions for voice and instruments far ahead of her time, as many of them employ a technique that verges on atonality. Because Clarke was reticent by nature, many of her compositions were not even discovered and performed until the late 1970s.

Early Life Dominated by Abusive Father

Born in Harrow, England, on August 27, 1886, Rebecca Thacher Clarke was the daughter of the former Agnes Helferich of Munich and Joseph Thacher Clarke of Boston. She had a sister, Vanessa, who would become a sculptor, and two brothers. Her upper-middle-class family lived in a Victorian home dominated by the tyrannical and abusive Joseph, who made his daughters virtual servants. Distant and discouraging, Clarke's father often beat the children with a two-foot steel architect's rule at the slightest sign of disobedience, including biting their nails. Their mother would stand by and cry, watching helplessly. After Mrs. Clarke died, Mr. Clarke expected his teenage daughters to run the household and became murderously angry if he felt they made any errors. Clarke would later write in her diary about one of these incidents, saying, "Never have I felt such rage and frustration. For not a word of my feeling could be expressed.… Even now I can find nothing to say of his behavior save that it was brutal."

Clarke likely developed a form of low-grade but persistent depression called "dysthymia" from these early formative experiences, or the treatment exacerbated a predisposition to the illness. She described her feelings of sorrow and hopelessness in detailed diary entries, giving insight into a condition that even today is not well understood. Clarke's mental state would come into play throughout her life, both shaping and thwarting her creative impulse, and causing her to doubt profoundly her talent as an artist. She seems to have taken her father's abuse personally and later blamed herself intensely for any professional difficulties or failures. To Clarke, her father reportedly represented a cultural authority, so his disapproval, which was apparently constant and brutal, meant that the world disapproved as well.

Clarke found refuge from the chaos of her home life in her early musical interest, which began with violin lessons in 1894, when she was eight. In 1900, she traveled to the World's Fair in Paris and heard a performance by a Javanese gamelan, an Indonesian instrumental ensemble that features gongs, drums, woodwinds, and string instruments. The experience sparked in her a desire to become a musician, and when Clarke returned to England she began petitioning her parents to let her study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. They agreed, and she began studying violin there in 1902, composing her first pieces of music (mainly solo songs with English and German texts) in 1905. Clarke's father removed her from the school in 1905 for reasons that remain unclear, although they traveled to Europe together in 1906.

In 1907, Clarke traveled to Boston alone and stayed with family friends. In 1908, she began studying musical composition at London's Royal College of Music; she was Sir Charles Stanford's first female student. Clarke remained there until completing her formal studies in 1910, publishing her first piece, Violin Sonata, in 1909. In 1908, she had made the decision to abandon the violin in favor of the viola, which is slightly larger than a violin but tuned a fifth lower. The instrument provides a deeper, richer sound, versus the higher range and tonality of the violin. Clarke was fortunate to be able to study briefly with Lionel Tertis (1876–1975), who was arguably the top viola player in the world at the time and who reportedly influenced the young musician in her choice.

Clarke immediately felt an affinity for the viola, which gave her subsequent compositions, as a 2002 review in the American Record Guide put it, "that blend of melancholy, nostalgia, and dreaminess that makes the British music written at this time the best ever composed for the instrument."

Started Professional Music Career

In 1912, Sir Henry Wood admitted Clarke to his Queen's Hall Orchestra in London at the urging of Ethyl Smith, a musician and a major influence on the young woman. Clarke, thereafter, played chamber music with a number of the most famous musicians of the 1910s and 1920s, including cellist Pablo Casals, pianist Artur Schnabel, violinist Jacques Thibaud, pianist and composer Percy Grainger, and conductor and pianist George Szell. It is important to keep in mind that as a woman trying to work in an area traditionally dominated by men—especially as one raised during Victorian times—Clarke felt that her creativity was in direct opposition to her femininity.

Clarke visited the United States again in 1916, visiting her brothers in Rochester, New York. Also that year, she toured the country with her close friend, cellist May Mukle, performing alone and in ensembles. The following year, she composed Morpheus for viola and piano, which would many years later become known as one of her finest pieces. However, the 1917 work, with its reference to the Roman god of sleep, seems to have been a metaphor for Clarke's frequent bouts of depression-related despair and her desire to be free of its pain, whether through sleep or, perhaps, even death. Reflecting her ambivalent thoughts about her career as a composer, and also aware of the sexual prejudices of the period, Clarke published the work under the pseudonym "Anthony Trent."

Clarke attended the first Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1918 by wealthy American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. As Clarke's musical talent developed, she benefited from being away from her father on travels all around the United States, playing in concerts and composing in Detroit, New York, and Hawaii. She entered her superb new Viola Sonata in the 1919 Berkshire Festival and won second place. Afterward, she played in numerous concerts and earned a teaching position in New York in 1920.

Clarke's father died the same year, but as she had never expressed anger toward him in life, nor did she in death. In fact, as with many other things, the composer blamed herself for Mr. Clarke's violent outbursts and voiced pity for him many times, since he had to deal with her, "the naughtiest" of his children.

Produced Most Work in 1920s

With her composition and release of the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano in 1920, Clarke emerged as a clear leader among the composers of the day. She submitted the work as her entry in the 1921 Berkshire Festival, receiving second place. Her other notable works that year included Epilogue for cello and piano and Chinese Puzzle for violin and piano. In 1922, Clarke embarked on a world tour but arrived back in Massachusetts in time for the 1923 Berkshire event. Mrs. Coolidge, impressed by the young woman's talent and passion for music, commissioned Clarke to compose a piece for her. Clarke finished the resulting Rhapsody for Cello and Piano later in 1923.

The 1920s would be the most productive decade of Clarke's musical life. After returning to her hometown of Harrow in 1924, she composed Midsummer Moon for violin and piano (1924), 3 Old English Songs for voice and piano (1924), and 3 Irish Country Songs for voice and piano (1926), among many others. She favored the use of English musical themes, as well as texts by William Shakespeare, William Yeats, and William Blake. Modern critics have also been impressed by Clarke's use of elements that border on atonality, a technique in which the composer avoids harmonic or melodic reference to tonal centers. (Atonality is the deliberate rejection of tonality, which mandates a clear distinction between consonant and dissonant sounds.) Atonality was only just becoming a subject of experiment with some of the more advanced composers of the time—a group to which Clarke apparently belonged.

During the last half of the 1920s, Clarke used Harrow and London as her home base and did all of her concertizing and composing there. In 1927, she began an illicit affair that would have lasting consequences for her, both emotionally and professionally. John Goss was a respected baritone singer and a married man, and Clarke's hopeless love for him seems to have had an unhealthily obsessive quality. In her diaries of 1928–1931, she lamented her inability to work because of thoughts of the singer, which combined with restlessness and chronic sorrow to produce what became a suicidal anguish at least once during this period.

Romances Put Damper on Brilliant

Clarke's dalliance with Ross, which lasted at least until 1933, all but ended her work as a composer during the 1930s. Her more modern fans would later look back on her actions as evidence that, rather than fighting the cultural bias against creative women, she acquiesced and conformed to it. In some ways, she lived a stereotype—the empty, forlorn woman waiting endlessly for the unattainable man—and let her preoccupation with Ross ruin her career, rather than resisting and learning from the creative block she was experiencing.

However, Clarke continued to play the viola and established an all-woman piano quartet, the English Ensemble, in 1928 with friends Kathleen Long, May Mukle, and Marjorie Hayward. She played with the group until 1929. In the meantime, although she was not composing much music, Clarke toured extensively, performed with numerous ensembles, and broadcast performances over BBC radio. By now, she had become known as much for her stellar viola playing as for her compositions.

Despite the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when she was stranded in New York City as fighting raged in Europe, Clarke's musical output increased dramatically. In 1941, she composed some of her last pieces of music, including Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale for clarinet and viola; Passacaglia on an Old English Tune for piano and viola; and Combined Carols for viola and piano.

Clarke took a job as a governess (nanny) for a family in Connecticut in 1942. Later that year, she was also the only female composer among 30 represented at the International Society of Contemporary Music's meeting in Berkeley, California. Her Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale debuted at the meeting, to rave reviews. Around this time, Clarke met a pianist and renowned Julliard School teacher, James Friskin, who had been a student with her at the Royal College of Music. They fell in love and married in 1944, afterward moving to the cosmopolitan island of Manhattan in New York City.

Later Years Passed Happily

Many accounts state that Clarke and Friskin had a happy marriage, and that Clarke managed to reconcile herself with her creative demons through compromise. They toured the country playing together, with Clarke as the duo's concert violinist. She virtually abandoned all efforts to compose at this point, despite gentle encouragement from her husband. She would write only three more pieces of music during the last three decades of her life, including her last song, "God Made a Tree," in 1954. In total, she had written an estimated 12 choral works, 55 songs, and 25 pieces of chamber music.

Friskin died in 1967. In 1969, Clarke began writing an autobiography and titled it I Had a Father, Too, also known as, The Mustard Spoon. She completed the book in 1973, but it would never be published. In it, she described her traumatic childhood and the love of music that would stay with her throughout her life.

Such was Clarke's reticence on the subject of her former career that when friends held a 90th birthday party for her in 1976 on New York's classical music radio station WQXR, many of them were astounded to learn that she had been an accomplished and respected composer in her youth. In fact, it was only at that point that many of Clark's compositions, some 40 and 50 years old by then, were brought to light and published for the first time. As she explained in a 1976 newspaper interview, "I never was much good at blowing my own horn." The composer died in New York at age 93 on October 13, 1976.


Commire, Anne, ed., Women in World History, The Gale Group, 2001.


"Atonality," website, (January 11, 2004).

Callus, Helen, "Clarke: Viola Sonata, Morpheus, etc.," website, (January 10, 2004).

"Clarke, Rebecca," U.S. Oxford University Press website, (December 12, 2003).

"Rebecca Clarke," Guild Music website, (December 21, 2003).

"Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979)," Royal Holloway University of London website, (December 21,2003).

"Rebecca Thacher Clarke (1886–1979)," The Gale Group Biography Resource Center website, (January 10, 2004).

"Recent Events," The Rebecca Clarke Society website, (January 10, 2004).

"Timeline," The Rebecca Clarke Society website, (January 10, 2004).

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Clarke, Rebecca Thacher

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