Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Note: This is Part 2 of Kara Morgan's series on the women composers from her Launch Series project with Dr. Carson Rose Schneider. If you missed part 1, check it out here.
Let’s move on to Rebecca Clarke, who first became internationally renowned as a touring virtuoso violist. She began her musical education at the Royal College of Music, where she was convinced by her teacher to turn her attentions from the violin to the viola at a time when the latter was just beginning to be recognized as a legitimate solo instrument. Regarding the switch, she is quoted as saying she wanted to “be in the middle of the sound” of the orchestra (as an alto/mezzo, I can relate!). She became one of the first-ever professional female orchestral musicians when she was selected to play in the prestigious Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Kicked out of her childhood home with no money for criticizing her abusive father’s extramarital affairs (she allegedly built a house of cards out of letters from his mistress), Clarke supported herself by playing viola and moved to the United States in 1916 to perform.
Clarke’s self-described “one little whiff of success” can be pinpointed to a short period in 1919 when she tied for first prize in a competition with Ernest Bloch, a prominent composer and the first-ever teacher of composition at Mannes School of Music. Critics of the competition speculated that “Rebecca Clarke” was a pseudonym Bloch was using to enter the competition twice and clearly could not accept that Clarke had written the prize-worthy viola sonata herself. The prize ultimately went to Bloch.
Rebecca Clarke’s career was a victim of social norms. After marrying James Friskin, a concert pianist and founding member of the Juilliard School’s faculty, she stopped composing despite his encouragement. But the outright discouragement she received as a female composer played its role in convincing Rebecca that while playing the viola was acceptably feminine in her time, composing was not. She suffered from dysthymia (also known as persistent depressive disorder), which contributed to her belief that she was not capable of taking care of her children and the children she nannied while also trying to produce music. She also stopped performing, but continued to work on arrangements for the remainder of her life. The majority of her compositions remain unpublished and in the possession of her estate.
As someone who lives with an anxiety disorder, I can relate to Rebecca’s overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. I feel that as singers, we’re often pulled between two camps: “I am a singer and must eat, live, and breathe music at all times or I’m not worthy of this art form” and “I am a singer, but I’m also X, Y, and Z and that’s great!” We can acknowledge the struggle to feel like we’re devoting enough of ourselves to our craft, but it should never stop us from producing art at all. Realizing your full potential involves enduring days of “not-enough-ness,” but every day is an opportunity to make something new and feed your creativity.