Monday 16 September 2019

Rebecca Clarke: A remarkable woman of music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Rebecca Clarke
Rebecca Clarke

George Hamilton

In among the 20th-century greats of English classical music - like Elgar, Delius, and Holst - you'll find the name of Rebecca Clarke.

Maybe not as well known as her contemporary, Ethel Smyth, whose involvement in the suffragette movement brought her notoriety, but equally significant as a trailblazer.

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A hundred years ago, Rebecca Clarke presented what has become recognised as her most significant contribution to the repertoire - a viola sonata that shared first prize at a major music festival.

This while living in "a society that rendered women culturally invisible" (the words of Liane Curtis, the American academic who's President of the Rebecca Clarke Society).

That was amply demonstrated in the reaction to the sonata's success. It couldn't possibly have been written by a woman, the critics scoffed.

Was it in fact the work of a man who for some perverse reason had taken on a female pseudonym, and that "Rebecca Clarke" didn't exist?

She herself chuckled at the recollection in a radio interview celebrating her 90th birthday in 1976.

It hadn't been an easy time growing up in Victorian England. Known as Beccle, she was the eldest of four children born to an American father and a German mother.

Her father was an architect who controlled his offspring with the aid of a "steel slapper", a two-foot ruler he used at work. Her mother would keep the peace by saying nothing.

The great paradox was that it was her father's love of music that got Beccle involved in the first place.

She went to the Royal Academy of Music, but that ended badly when her teacher - a composer called Percy Hilder Miles - proposed to her.

Her father went mad and took her out of school. Miles bore no grudge. When he died years later, he left her his Stradivarius violin.

Meanwhile our own Charles Villiers Stanford became involved. He was a friend of Rebecca's father, and agreed to take her on as one of his students. She was the first female on a roll that had included Holst and Vaughan Williams.

The fact that she felt she never fully deserved to be there is another clue as to why the name Rebecca Clarke is not so well known.

Then there was the recital where, embarrassed at seeing her name all over the programme, she had one of her own works marked as composed by a man, whom she named Anthony Trent. The irony was that the "Anthony Trent" work got much more favourable attention than the pieces presented under her own name.

In a further irony, her pathway into professional music was cleared by the father she despised.

When she discovered he'd been cheating on her mother, she confronted him, and he threw her out of the house. There was nothing for it but to play for a living.

She was part of a group of six women who were the first to play in a professional orchestra, and further firsts followed as she established all-women chamber music groups.

Stranded in the United States by the outbreak of World War II, she ended up staying, and the story had a happy ending. Quite by chance, on the street in Manhattan, she bumped into an old flame, a Scot by the name of James Friskin, who'd been a fellow student in London all those years before.

Romance blossomed, and they got married. They were both 58 at the time.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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