Woman composer runs rings around Germany’s finest

Woman composer runs rings around Germany’s finest


norman lebrecht

June 09, 2014

Does the name Rebecca Clarke pluck a string?

Thought not.

She was an English viola player who struggled, against family and social prejudice, to be a composer.

In 1919 she wrote a sonata for her instrument.

It’s good. So good, so thoughtful, so engaging, that on a new recording it overwhelms a concurrent work by Paul Hindemith, at the time Germany’s fastest rising composer. Clarke went on to share a competition prize with Ernest Bloch, only to be disqualified for her sex.

The Clarke sonata is my album of the week on sinfinimusic.com. Click here to read.




  • Michael Smith says:

    Philip Dukes made an excellent recording of the viola sonata quite some time ago, which was my introduction to this composer. It would be nice to see her getting some more attention.

  • Mikey says:

    A tiny bit unfair to compare the work of a 33 year old composer with that of a 24 year old.
    Particularly when one considers that the younger composer’s work is considerably more “unique” and demonstrates a strong sense of identity.

    That said, I think the Clarke work (which I’ve known for some time) is a wonderful sonata, passionate and dramatic. Some of her other works are also quite beautiful. Others, not so much, being rather derivative and unimaginative. Which cannot be said of Hindemith’s work. You may like his music or not, however it is original, unique, and exceptionally well-written.

    • David Wilde says:

      The Clarke viola Sonata is indeed beautiful and I once played it with a violist colleague in Germany. I’m happy to share her name: my middle name is Clarke.

  • David Wilde says:

    Hindemith’s skill was phenomenal; at a dinner at the Fontainebleau Summer School that I attended Nadia Boulanger once said of him that he had a compositional technique beyond what one would have believed to be possible, and told us the following story: Hindemith was travelling from Paris to Rome with his publisher. At the start of the journey his publisher said: “Paul, you owe me a String Quartet.” “So I do”, agreed Paul: “Don’t disturb me.” And – please believe me; Mademoiselle Boulanger would never have made this up! – Hindemith produced, presumably one movement at a time, though she didn’t mention this point, a 1st violin part. Followed by a 2nd violin part. Followed by a viola part. Followed by a ‘cello part. So, as she put it; “There existed a String quartet by Hindemith with no score!” Presumably he put the score together afterwards.

  • Liane Curtis says:

    Thank you, Mr. Lebrecht, for bringing attention to this fine recording of the Viola Sonata. The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc. (of which I am President) has been working to promote Clarke and her music since 2000. We have produced an orchestration of the viola sonata, which has been performed a number of times since the 2007 premiere. We also advocate for the availability of Clarke’s many works which are still unpublished, included a very fine Violin Sonata in D major (my favorite) and a work commissioned by the great patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1923, the Rhapsody for cello and piano. Our website is here http://www.rebeccaclarke.org and an article about the problems presented by her estate manager is here http://www.fepproject.org/commentaries/rebeccaclarke.curtis.html

  • Paul Silverthorne says:

    Norman, this piece has been a staple of the viola repertoire since it was republished in the 70s. It is present in probably 1 in 4 of conservatoire final recitals. It just looks as if you’re giving a plug to Barbara’s new recording which I’m sure is excellent.
    Your story of the competition is not the one I know. I was told that it was a tie with the Bloch Suite and Mrs Sprague Coolidge was given the casting vote (the pieces being anonymous at this point). She chose the Bloch and was relieved when she saw the names as Clarke was a personal friend and it would have looked like favouritism if she’d won. Who knows what the true story is?