I’ll be performing the Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata with the University of Northern Colorado Symphony Orchestra this Wednesday—exactly 99 years after the premiere of the original Sonata! This new orchestration was done by composer Ruth Lomon, and it complements the colors in the viola part, bringing new life to the piece. I’m excited to perform this new version as a part of celebrating the centennial of the three 1919 Viola Sonatas by Clarke, Bloch, and Hindemith (which I’m further commemorating with The 20/19 Project). UPDATE: Here’s an excerpt from the performance at UNCO.
Originally written for Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s composition competition in 1919, Clarke’s Viola Sonata faded into obscurity, until in 1976 Toby Apple and Emmanuel Ax performed it on WQXR as part of a program celebrating Clarke’s 90th birthday. The performance inspired violists to research more about the wonderful work, and it is now a standard part of the our repertoire.
Clarke was born in the UK in 1886. She studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London from 1907–10, but her studies stopped abruptly before she was able to finish. In Liane Curtis’s article for The Musical Times, she explains this was because Clarke “quarreled with her father, who threw her out of the house, forcing her to earn her own way as a violist.”
Clarke went on to have a vibrant career as a touring viola soloist and chamber musician in her young adulthood. According to The New Grove Dictionary, “she performed extensively in Hawaiʻi in 1918–1919.” (I’d like to think that she wrote at least some of the Viola Sonata during her time in my home state!) As a composer, both her Viola Sonata (1919) and her Piano Trio (1921) were in the final round of Coolidge’s competitions for those respective years, and Coolidge eventually commissioned Clarke in 1923 to write a cello and piano work.
Clarke’s compositional output waned after this, due to various outside forces. Today, the Viola Sonata is her most famous and frequently played work. To learn more about Clarke’s life, read Liane Curtis’s article, and to read more in depth about the Viola Sonata check out Daphne Gerling’s wonderful dissertation, Connecting histories: Identity and exoticism in Ernest Bloch, Rebecca Clarke, and Paul Hindemith's viola works of 1919.