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Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke


Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) was an English composer and violist, best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She is considered one of the most important British composers in the period between World War I and World War II; she has also been described as the most distinguished British female composer of her generation. Clarke was born on the 27th August 1886 in Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, England, to Joseph Thacher Clarke, an American, and his German wife, Agnes Paulina Marie Amalie Helferich. Read more on Last.fm
Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) was an English composer and violist, best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She is considered one of the most important British composers in the period between World War I and World War II; she has also been described as the most distinguished British female composer of her generation. Clarke was born on the 27th August 1886 in Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, England, to Joseph Thacher Clarke, an American, and his German wife, Agnes Paulina Marie Amalie Helferich. Her father was interested in music, and had her take up the violin at the age of nine. She began her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1903, but was withdrawn by her father in 1905 after teacher Percy Hilder Miles proposed to her (he later left her his Stradivarius violin in his will).

She then attended the Royal College of Music from 1907 to 1910, becoming one of Charles Villiers Stanford's first female composition students. At Stanford's urging she shifted her focus from the violin to the viola, just as the latter was coming to be seen as a legitimate solo instrument. She studied with Lionel Tertis. In 1910 she composed a setting of Chinese poetry, called "Tears", in collaboration with a group of fellow students at RCM.

She also sang under the direction of Ralph Vaughan Williams in a student ensemble organised by Clarke to study and perform Palestrina's music. Following her criticism of his extra-marital affairs, Clarke's father turned her out of the house and cut off her funds. She had to leave the Royal College in 1910, and supported herself through her viola playing. Clarke became one of the first female professional orchestral musicians when she was selected by Henry Wood to play in the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1912. In 1916 she moved to the United States to continue her performing career.

A short, lyrical piece for viola and piano entitled "Morpheus", composed under the pseudonym "Anthony Trent", was premiered at her 1918 joint recital with cellist May Muklé in New York City. Reviewers praised the "Trent", largely ignoring the works credited to Clarke premiered in the same recital. Her compositional career peaked in a brief period, beginning with the viola sonata she entered in a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Clarke's neighbour and a patron of the arts. In a field of seventy-two entrants, Clarke's sonata tied for first place with a composition by Ernest Bloch.

Coolidge later declared Bloch the winner. Reporters speculated that "Rebecca Clarke" was only a pseudonym for Bloch himself, or at least that it could not have been Clarke who wrote these pieces, as the idea that a woman could write such a work was inconceivable at the time. The sonata was well received and had its first performance at the Berkshire music festival in 1919. In 1921 Clarke again made an impressive showing in Coolidge's composition competition with her piano trio, though again failed to take the prize.

A 1923 rhapsody for cello and piano followed, sponsored by Coolidge, making Clarke the only female recipient of Coolidge's patronage. These three works represent the height of Clarke's compositional career. Clarke began a career as a solo and ensemble performer in London in 1924 after completing a world tour in 1922-23. In 1927 she helped form the English Ensemble, a piano quartet that included her, Marjorie Hayward, Kathleen Long, and May Mukle. She also performed on several recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, and participated in BBC music broadcasts.

Her compositional output greatly decreased during this period. However, she continued to perform, participating in the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931 as part of the English Ensemble. Between 1927 and 1933 she was romantically involved with the British baritone John Goss, who was eight years her junior and married at the time. He had premiered several of her mature songs, two of which were dedicated to him: "June Twilight" and "The Seal Man".

Her "Tiger, Tiger", finished at the time the relationship was ending, was her last composition for solo voice until the early 1940s. At the outbreak of World War II, Clarke was in the U.S. visiting her two brothers, and was unable to obtain a visa to return to Britain. She lived for a while with her brothers' families, and then in 1942 took a position as a governess for a family in Connecticut. She composed ten works between 1939 and 1942, including her "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune".

She had first met James Friskin (a composer, concert pianist and founding member of the Juilliard School faculty) when they were both students at the Royal College of Music; they renewed their friendship after a chance meeting on a Manhattan street in 1944, and married in September of that year when both were in their late fifties. Clarke has been described by musicologist Liane Curtis as one of the most important British composers in the period between World War I and World War II, and by Stephen Banfield as the most distinguished British female composer of the inter-war generation. However, her later output was sporadic. She suffered from dysthymia, a chronic form of depression; the lack of encouragement - sometimes outright discouragement - she received for her work also made her reluctant to compose. Clarke did not consider herself able to balance her personal life and the demands of composition: "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." After her marriage, she stopped composing, despite the encouragement of her husband, although she continued working on arrangements until shortly before her death.

She also stopped performing. Clarke sold the Stradivarius she had been bequeathed, and established the May Muklé prize at the Royal Academy. The prize is still awarded annually to an outstanding cellist. After her husband's death in 1967, Clarke began writing a memoir, entitled I Had a Father Too (or the Mustard Spoon); it was completed in 1973 but never published. In it she describes her early life, marked by frequent beatings from her father and strained family relations which affected her perceptions of her proper place in life.

Clarke died on the 13th October 1979 at her home in New York City at the age of ninety-three, and was cremated. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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