Rebecca Clarke, celebrated viola player, forgotten composer

This spring, the Italian pianist Gioia Giusti is dedicating the music show Ha avuto un padre anch’io to Rebecca Clarke, at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence (12 March) and the Teatro Giuglielmi in Massa (30 March). It is named after Clarke’s memoir I Had a Father, too.

Because of the scepticism towards female composers, Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) sometimes published her pieces under pseudonym, but as a viola player she enjoyed world fame. Arthur Rubinstein dubbed her ‘the glorious Rebecca Clarke’, and her pioneering Viola Sonata became a repertoire piece for aspiring viola players. Today also her compositional prowess is back in the limelight.

Anyone googling Rebecca Clarke, will find over ten portrait CDs dedicated to her music. In 2022, Vinciane Bèranger recorded her works for viola, while  soprano Golda Schultz and pianist Jonathan Ware put some of her songs to disc. Two ambitious pieces for violin were published for download in February, and will become available in print soon. And Gioia Giusti honours her memory with her performances in Florence and Massa.

As is often the case, Rebecca Clarke’s current rise to fame was sparked by the efforts of female musicologists. In 2000, Liane Curtis and Jessie Ann Owens initiated the Rebecca Clarke Society, as part of their work in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

They realised numerous publications, organised world premieres of compositions that had not previously appeared in print, and initiated CD recordings. In 2004, Curtis moreover edited A Rebecca Clarke Reader, published by Indiana University Press. 


Shortly after publication of this scholarly book however, the publisher withdrew it because of a copyright infringement complaint. This was filed by the American musicologist Christopher Johnson, an in-law second cousin of Rebecca Clarke. Working closely together with the composer during the last decade of her life, he had catalogued Clarke’s oeuvre; after her demise in 1979 he became the administrator of her estate. Moreover, he obtained the copyright to all her compositions and writings. And that’s where the shoe pinched, for Johnson accused Curtis of having quoted from previously unpublished texts without his permission.

This seems like a case of spite, as Johnson had indeed initially collaborated with Curtis, granting her permission to quote from unpublished works. However, the relationship soured when Curtis, in her zeal to promote Clarke’s music, became impatient and publicly accused Johnson of negligence. ‘Why has her music still not appeared in print almost 20 years after her death?’ she hailed in 2003.

In her book, Curtis used some quotes that Johnson had previously agreed to, but he argued that she should have sought permission to do so again. After an unsavoury battle fought through lawyers, the Rebecca Clarke Society re-released the volume in 2005. In 2020, fifteen years later (!), Johnson launched his website Rebecca Clarke, Violist and Composer, from which he emerges as an enthusiastic and often witty advocate for his great-aunt.


‘We all got whipped,’ Rebecca Clarke wrote of her childhood years in her memoir I had a Father, too. She was born on 27 August 1886 in Harrow, a town north-east of London, the eldest of four children. Her mother was German, her abusive father American. At the slightest, he would burst into a rage and beat his children, while mother Agnes looked on helplessly and tried to keep the peace.

Mum played ‘creditable’ piano, dad was ‘an ardent but somewhat less than mediocre amateur cellist’, as Clarke recorded in her memoirs. Father Joseph encouraged his family members to play a string instrument like him, so that they could perform quartets together. Rebecca’s mother took up the viola, while Rebecca and her younger brother Hans became proficient on the violin. According to tradition, she once burst into tears during a performance with her family members, emotionalised by the power of music and the intimacy of making music together.


Her father supported Rebecca in her musical ambitions and in 1902 gave her permission to attend the Royal Academy of Music. There she studied violin with Hans Wesseley and harmony with Percy Miles. When, after two years, the latter proposed marriage to her years, her father was so outraged by this that he forced his daughter to leave the course. Once returned home, Rebecca Clarke began composing songs and choral works. In these, in her own words, she found ‘a refuge, an outlet and finally passion’.

But blood is thicker than water, and in 1908 Clarke enrolled at the Royal College of Music again, this time to study composition with Charles Stanford. She was his first ever female student, and also took counterpoint and fugue lessons with Frederick Bridge.

Stanford advised her to switch to the viola. After all, as a viola player, she would be ‘in the middle of the sound’ in an orchestra and learn to understand from the inside how a symphony orchestra functions. This turned out to be providential advice, as she would create a worldwide furore as a viola player. Years later Arthur Rubinstein christened her ‘the glorious Rebecca Clarke’. During her studies, she also wrote her first instrumental works, such as Lullaby for viola and piano.


Meanwhile, the domestic situation was not improving. Her father not only abused his four children mentally and physically, but also had romantic affairs with young women. When Rebecca confronted him about this in 1910, he evicted her from her home without mercy. She was 24 years old and had only 12 pounds to her name; from now on, she had to earn her own living. That was certainly no mean feat for a middle-class lady in the early 20th century, who was expected to marry neatly and make herself dependent on a husband.

Clarke, however, had a strong and independent character and decided to pursue a career as a professional viola player. In 1913, she became one of the first women to join Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Yet she would make a furore mainly as a chamber musician. She performed in Britain, Europe and the United States and made several world tours as a self-proclaimed ‘viola player and composer’. In the process, she emerged as a pioneering advocate of the instrument and, as a performer, was put on a par with such luminaries as William Primrose and Lionel Tertis.


In 1916, she moved to the United States. There, two years later, she scored high honours at Carnegie Hall with her short Morpheus for viola and piano. – Which, incidentally, she presented under the pseudonym ‘Anthony Trent’, a nod to Wyndham Martin’s novel Anthony Trent, Master Criminal, published earlier that year. She would later avidly recount how Morpheus was highly praised while her own pieces were ignored. This was not entirely true, however, as precisely her own compositions had been acclaimed most. – A sense of marketing cannot be denied her.

Eventually, she published Morpheus under her own name, thus ‘officially and unceremoniously wringing Anthony Trent’s neck’; she would never use a pseudonym again. In 1919, she submitted her ambitious Sonata for viola and piano to an anonymous composition competition. This was sponsored by well-known American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a neighbour of Clarke’s. The jury wavered between two entries – one they considered was composed ‘by a philosopher’, the other ‘by a poet’.

Coolidge decided in favour of the philosopher, and when the seal was broken it turned out to be Ernest Bloch’s Suite hébraïque. Impressed by the other piece, the jury members decided to reveal this composer’s name too. ‘You should have seen their faces when this turned out to be a woman!’, Coolidge told Clarke later that day.

Critics and audiences reacted with surprise and sometimes even indignation when they heard that the Viola Sonata had been composed not by a man but by a woman. Some even claimed that Clarke could not have written the piece and that her name must be a pseudonym of Ernest Bloch. But sour reactions notwithstanding, Clarke became an international sensation overnight thanks to her Viola Sonata in 1919,with Lionel Tertis being one its first performers. Two years later, the score was published in print by the prestigious music publisher J. & W. Chester.

Clarke became friends with Elizabeth Coolidge, for whom she composed several works. – Less obvious than it may seem, as Coolidge did not like female composers; Clarke was the only one she ever supported. In 1921, Clarke won second prize at the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Berkshire Festival with her Piano Trio. This too was soon widely performed, and is still considered a masterpiece.


The ongoing struggle against such prejudice and the realisation that many could hardly accept that a woman was composing music made Clarke increasingly insecure about her own abilities. Her father’s death in 1920 also threw her off balance. Their relationship had always remained strained and she struggled again with the message he had rubbed into her from childhood: that she always did bad things, was not worthy of love and would never be good enough. – This internalised criticism did not help her creativity, to say the least.

Gradually, Clarke became better known and by 1925, her place among ‘the elite of musicians’ (Morning Post) was so firmly established that she was able to sell out London’s Wigmore Hall with a concert devoted entirely to her own compositions. The programme included her Piano Trio, about which the Musical Times wrote: ‘It has a passionate feeling in every part and even if this had been the work of a man, one would speak of a virile enterprise.’

In 1924, Clarke returned to London, where she grew into a celebrated viola player. She played as a soloist with conductors such as George Szell and Pierre Monteux and gave recitals with celebrities such as the pianist Myra Hess, the cellist Pablo Casals and the violinist Yasha Heifetz. As an ensemble musician, she moreover made recordings for the BBC. But although by now she had made quite a name for herself as a composer, her compositional output dwindled; in fact, in the 1930s, she virtually stopped composing altogether.

This was due not only to her insecurity, but also to the constant scepticism towards composing women. Unlike her colleague Ethel Smyth, who fiercely defended her compositions and also actively campaigned for the emancipation of women, Clarke reacted to this in a passive rather than assertive way. She would later attribute her creative impasse to an unhappy love affair. Indeed, during this period she had an affair with the baritone John Goss, who premiered many of her songs, but was married to another woman.


With the outbreak of World War II, Clarke returned to the United States. Living there alternately with her two brothers and their families, she resumed composing. In 1942, she took a job as a governess, earning a meagre income. That same year, her Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet was performed at a conference of the International Society for Contemporary Music. This filled her with pride, as she was one of only three British composers represented and also the only woman.

During this period, she renewed her acquaintance with James Friskin, who was a piano teacher at the Juilliard School of Music, and who she knew from her studies at the Royal College of Music. They married in 1944, Rebecca was now 58 years old. Together with her brand-new husband, she moved to New York, where she occasionally lectured and made radio broadcasts on music, but hardly ever composed. Her last composition projects included the piano songs God Made a Tree (1954) and Down by the Salley Gardens (1955).

Around the age of 90, she acknowledged in an interview that she missed composing. She made some arrangements of earlier pieces during this time, including Cortège for solo piano and The Tiger for soprano and piano. She had composed this setting of William Blake’s poem of the same name in the early 1930s during her affair with John Goss, to whom the song is dedicated.

With pounding chords in the piano and sometimes half whispered melodic phrases, she perfectly captures the dark thrust of Blake’s verses. The song gets a brilliant rendition by Schultz and Ware on their CD. Rebecca Clarke died on 13 October 1979, at the blessed age of 93. She left some 80 compositions, which, thanks to the tireless efforts of both Liane Curtis and Christopher Johnson, are increasingly finding their way onto international concert stages.

It would be interesting to travel to Italy and find out whether the show Ha avuto un padre anch’io will also address the controversy between Clarke’s two most fervent champions….


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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4 Responses to Rebecca Clarke, celebrated viola player, forgotten composer

  1. The essential facts about Dr. Curtis and her Rebecca Clarke Society are as follows. Dr. Curtis enjoyed unlimited access to the Clarke archive for seven years, beginning in 1992, but her work proved to be full of errors and fabrications, she failed to abide by the terms of her agreements, she violated Clarke’s copyrights and those of Clarke’s publishers, she defamed me publicly, she made repeated attempts to surveil my private meetings and business correspondence, and she has mounted a systematic campaign to divide the family, offering cash inducements to relatives who might side with her against me. The Rebecca Clarke Society provided cover for Dr. Curtis’s attempt at a hostile takeover of the Clarke properties, which failed owing to Dr. Curtis’s willful misreading of the legal documents by which Clarke’s heirs had assigned all rights in those properties to me, unconditionally and without limit. Quite apart from all that, Dr. Curtis’s published writings and public remarks about Clarke are based on a conceptual system of her own invention, and have virtually no basis in fact. In some cases, Dr. Curtis has knowingly suppressed documentary evidence that contradicts her opinions. Since much of what one is likely to find in the academic literature—and virtually all of what one finds on the web, including a good deal of your recent posting—derives from Dr. Curtis’s work, it should be treated as fantasy-fiction unless it can be confirmed independently from primary sources. Dr. Curtis and her organization do not represent Rebecca Clarke, do not speak for Rebecca Clarke, and have no standing to negotiate on behalf of Rebecca Clarke. They have played no role whatsoever in the publication of Clarke’s works, which will be completed within the current calendar year. Finally, I note that you accuse me of “spite.” You are plainly familiar with my website,, and thus you know how to reach me. Instead, you chose to publish disparaging personal remarks about me without asking for comment. This, it would seem, is the very definition of spite.


    • Thea Derks says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Indeed I gratefully consulted your excellent website on Rebecca Clarke. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to Italy, hope the show was a success!


  2. If you travel to Italy for the show in Florence, you will find Christopher Johnson introducing the evening, in person, in Italian, at the request of the author and the producer—a fact that, all by itself, might suggest that something is amiss in your account of the general situation with regard to Rebecca Clarke and her works. As I am at this moment getting ready to go out the door to the airport, I cannot respond in detail, but I will do so at the first opportunity. In the meantime, you will find the only accurate, up-to-date source of information about Clarke on the web at, regardless of any feelings you may have as to the timing of its launch.


  3. Clare Shore says:

    Thank you so much for this comprehensive article on Rebecca Clarke, Thea. Prior to reading this, I had no knowledge of her family life growing up, her musical training, or her personal life as an adult. As a female composer, I am inspired!

    Liked by 1 person

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