Program Notes

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
Piano Trio (1921)

Notes for: July 19, 2011

British-born Rebecca Clarke was a pioneer woman composer at a time of considerable prejudice against women composers. Although trained in England, she achieved her first success in the United States after World War I. At the start of World War II, she settled in the United States, won temporary and grudging appreciation as a composer, and died largely unappreciated in New York City.

Clarke was the daughter of an American businessman assigned to Britain and a woman of German background. She initially attended the Royal Academy of Music in London, but, according to a possibly apocryphal story, she was withdrawn by her parents when, at the age of 17, she received a marriage proposal from her harmony professor. She then enrolled in the competing Royal College of Music, where she studied composition with C. V. Stanford, a prominent British composer and teacher.

Stanford persuaded her to take up the viola with Lionel Tertis, Britain’s leading violist, as her instructor. She was one of the College’s first women students, and after graduation she played the viola as a soloist and orchestral musician and in three of the earliest women’s chamber-music groups.

In 1909, Clarke began composing music for anyone who would listen. Her first major success came in 1918 when she successfully presented her viola piece Morpheus in New York’s Carnegie Hall. To facilitate its commercial sale, however, the publisher persuaded her to issue it under the male pseudonym “Anthony Trent”.

The following year, as Anthony Trent, she entered her Viola Sonata in the Berkshire Musical Festival competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. With a total of 73 entries, the judges were evenly divided between Ernest Bloch’s viola sonata and Clarke’s, and Coolidge gave her deciding vote to Bloch.

In 1921, “Anthony Trent” again entered the Berkshire competition with her Piano Trio, the work we hear this evening, and was again the runner-up. Based on that showing, Coolidge commissioned Clarke to compose under her own name a Rhapsody for Cello and Piano for the non-competitive side of the 1923 Berkshire Festival. But eventually, given the continuing disinterest of publishers, Clarke’s output of compositions declined, and with the exception of one song, she composed nothing in the last 35 years of her life.

More recently, a growing interest in women composers has generated a revival of interest in her music. This revival has been furthered by two specific events. The first was a celebration of Clarke’s 90th birthday in 1976 by a small group of enthusiasts, triggering the publication of her unpublished manuscripts. The second was the organization in 2000 of the Rebecca Clarke Society to support the performance, publication and recording of her music.

Composed at a time when Arnold Schoenberg was promoting atonality, Clarke’s Piano Trio is conservative in its harmonic language, but it is strikingly original in the ways in which she uses her musical material.

The trio is in three movements, linked together by a motto theme heard at the outset and repeated in the ensuing movements in dramatically varied forms. The first movement, moderato ma appassionato, opens with the piano’s fortissimo announcement of the motto theme - six 16th notes on B-flat leading to a C and a final B-flat – over a sustained chord in the strings. The motto theme is then picked up by the cello and the violin and brought to a climax.

A trumpet-like phrase, pianissimo, in the piano ushers in the sharply contrasting second theme, marked mysterioso. A long development follows, based mainly on the motto theme but with the second theme joining in at the climax in massive chords. The coda, perhaps the movement’s most striking passage, starts with a slow version of the motto theme played by the cello and piano canonically, that is with overlapping entrances.

In the second movement, poco lento e molto semplice, the strings are muted throughout. The violin presents the first theme accompanied by a single C struck repeatedly by the piano. Echoes of the motto theme are blended in, but played at half speed. A string passage in double stops below piano arpeggios leads to the second theme, a folk-like melody on the piano over a rocking accompaniment in the strings, another variant of the motto theme. The movement dies away with the violin recalling its opening measures.

The third movement, allegro vigoroso, begins with the piano hammering out the first theme over pizzicato chords in the strings. The heavily accented ascending and descending strain becomes increasingly wild. This is followed by a quieter passage based on the second theme of the first movement but with different harmonies and character and with echoes of the slow movement. After the development, based mainly on the movement’s first theme, the motto theme makes a final appearance, now slow and elegiac, and the trio ends with a short and animated coda.

Copyright © 2011 by Willard J. Hertz