Women Composers: Let’s Talk about Rebecca Clarke

“I found that I could never work when I was in love.” -Rebecca Clarke on composition 

It’s time to talk about one of the greatest untapped potentials in all of compositional history. Born August 27, 1886 to Joseph Clarke and Agnes Helferich in Harrow England; this is Rebecca Clarke.

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Rebecca Clarke began her studies at Royal Academy of Music in 1903 studying with Percy Hilder Miles, but was removed in 1905 by her father when Miles proposed marriage. Miles eventually left her his Stradivarius when he died. She became on of the first female composition students enrolled at the Royal College of Music in 1907. There, she studied with Sir Charles Villiers Standford, a composition teacher to famous composers such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In 1910, she left the Royal College and played viola to support herself. She became one of the first female orchestral musicians, in fact the first female appointee in Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1912.

This woman almost had the opposite track of contemporary American composer, Amy Beach. In 1916, Clarke moved to the US and played viola to support herself. Using this skill, she toured with friend and cellist, May Muklé in Hawaii and then around the British Colonies. (Rebecca Clarke ended up selling the Stradivarius left for her by Percy Hilder Miles to create a May Muklé prize at the Royal Academy) Clarke moved back to London in 1924, helped establish the English Ensemble (a professional quintet of women instrumentalists) and worked as a soloist and ensemble musician for BBC. After such a full life, she eventually stopped composing in 1954.

What we know of her demeanor is colored by her long lasting relationship with dysthmia, a chronic form of depression. According to the New World Encyclopedia, the struggle of being a composer deepened her depression. In her memoir, I had a Father Too (or the Mustard Spoon), she discusses her abusive father’s affect on all of the Clarke children and how it seeped into her compositional career.

Clarke’s Compositional Style

-Note: This post is going to focus mostly on Rebecca Clarke’s art song compositional style-

“Every now and then everything would suddenly fall into place… at these moments I was flooded with a wonderful feeling of potential power… Every composer… however obscure, is surely familiar with this sensation. It is a glorious one.”

For Rebecca Clarke, composing required complete absorption and concentration, once saying “I can’t do it unless it’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleepin a 1976 interview. Clarke’s works are made up of a multitudinous variety of texts: poetry, plays (Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare), books excerpts (The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling), and prose. She also was inspired by a myriad of  vocal styles including parlor songs and traditional folksong.

Her art songs are filled with many different compositional techniques including changing meter (to keep the flow of the text), lots of playing with minor thirds, and a harmonic structure playing with fourths and fifths.

Clarke was basically a sponge, soaking in all the information and influence of her contemporaries and preceding composers. Her lifespan crossed through a few eras of music history including the unbridled Post-Romanticism and into the reactionary movement of Neo-Classicism. She was a contemporary of Debussy (never officially met him), Ravel, Holst and Vaughan Williams which means she partook in movements such as expressionism, impressionism, exoticism, and the like. In an interview with Clarke, she says that although its influence cannot be heard in his music, Vaughan Williams “thought he had to get a little French polish” and took lessons from Maurice Ravel. Clarke had performed in a couple orchestra concerts under Ravel’s direction, learning from him in rehearsals. Clarke actually sang in a small ensemble under the direction of Vaughan Williams while at Royal College, often including new works!   Holst had once offered to give her lessons, but at the time she was to be en route to America to finish a commission for American patron of music, Eleanor Coolidge.
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The Viola Sonata Nightmare

One of the most famous incidents surrounding Rebecca Clarke would be an infamous 1919 composition competition held by Eleanor Coolidge. The prize at the time was $1000, equivalent to almost $15,000 in 2018. Clarke submitted her famous Viola Sonata, but found that the judges and attendees had all assumed her entry had been entered by a man using a false name! It was thought that perhaps Ravel or even the man who had tied for first place, Ernest Bloch, had entered a piece under a pseudonym.


Why Rebecca Clarke Matters

It is simple. People could not believe a woman could write such excellent music. It didn’t matter her education, her success as a composer, or her notability in the music world.

Music by women composers should be celebrated. Women in this field had to be persistent. Clarke experienced lots of trouble trying to publish music, especially her piano trio. Her published repertory is filled with so many compositional accomplishments, however it is incredibly small. Over half of her works remain unpublished in the possession of her kin. However through efforts made by groups such as the Rebecca Clarke Society, more of her music is still being introduced to the public. In 2002, the society premiered some of her choral music and the Lafayette String Quartet played “Poem”, a piece that had only existed as a manuscript in the UC Berkeley library.

UPDATE (March 2019): A wonderful colleague, Logan Contreras, has created a SEARCHABLE database for art songs by WOMEN COMPOSERS. Please check out the brand new, amazingly accessible Kassia Database here.

Vocal Repertoire for Recital

English Songs

Thomas Campion: Come, O Come my Life’s Delight

Khayyám: The moving finger writes,  from the Rubaiyát 

William Blake: Infant Joy, Cradle Song, Tiger Tiger


A.E. Housman: Eight o’Clock

Ella Young: Greeting

Three Old English Songs (Voice/Violin)

John Dowland: Weep you no more sad fountains


Three Irish Country Songs (Voice/Violin)

A. Wickham: The Cherry-Blosson Wand

John Masefield: June twilight, The Seal Man

WB Yeats: A Dream, The folly of being comforted, Shy One, The Cloths of Heaven, Down by the Salley Gardens

Shakespeare: Three Old English Songs,

Rudyard Kipling: Shiv and the Grasshopper, from the Jungle Book

Old Chinese Words: The Color of Life, Return of Spring, Tears

German Songs

Goethe: Wandrers Nachtlied

Dehmel: Aufblick, Klage, Stimme im Dunkeln, Nach einem Regen

Four Songs by Rebecca Clarke

As you examine these four songs by Clarke, notice the appreciation she had for the singer, the text, and the atmospheric way she sets the music.

A Dream, text by WB Yeats

This poem, originally titled A Dream of Death, uses a first person narrative to describe what’s being seen. Yeats uses nature to add depth to the lines of poetry, a cypress being an image of mourning, a yew tree, often found in church yards. Clarke writes a very sparse piano line, leaving the voice and text very exposed. She colors certain words like “wond’ring” and “beautiful” with fuller chords, focusing on the aspects of beauty in the words instead of the death and dark imagery.

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand;
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
And, wond’ring, planted by her solitude
A cypress and a yew:
I came, and wrote upon a cross of wood,
Man had no more to do:
“She was more beautiful than thy first love,
This lady by the trees:”
And gazed upon the mournful stars above,
And heard the mournful breeze.


Eight O’Clock, text by A.E. Housman

The meaning of this song requires little explanation. It features a condemned man on the gallows listening to the clock chime until his turn has come.

Clarke has made the “ticking” of the clock very apparent musically in the left hand of the piano, in dissonant chords. Only after the clock has tolled the death hour, and played out disjointedly, does the music resolve softly in a rolling major chords. In just a short song, Clarke has evoked anxiety, nervousness, fear, and peace.

He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.

Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.



The Seal Man, text by John Masefield

This text is from the short story of the same name by John Masefield. It’s based on the Celtic legend of Selkies, or Silkies. These are shape changing sea fairies that would appear often as grey seal and change into human form by casting off their seal skin. They would come onto the beach during full moons and lure humans to their death. This settings omits the ending of the story where the seal man weeps over the death of the woman. Clarke makes the woman the subject instead of the man. This legend is the gender reversal of the Greek Sirens, beautiful women who would lure sailors to their death.

And he came by her cabin to the west of the road, calling.
There was a strong love came up in her at that,
and she put down her sewing on the table, and “Mother,” she says,
“There’s no lock, and no key, and no bolt, and no door.
There’s no iron, nor no stone, nor anything at all
will keep me this night from the man I love.”
And she went out into the moonlight to him,
there by the bush where the flow’rs is pretty, beyond the river.
And he says to her: “You are all of the beauty of the world,
will you come where I go, over the waves of the sea?”
And she says to him: “My treasure and my strength,” she says,
“I would follow you on the frozen hills, my feet bleeding.”
Then they went down into the sea together,
and the moon made a track [upon]1 the sea, and they walked down it;
it was like a flame before them. There was no fear at all on her;
only a great love like the love of the Old Ones,
that was stronger than the touch of the fool.
She had a little white throat, and little cheeks like flowers,
and she went down into the sea with her man,
who wasn’t a man at all.
She was drowned, of course.
It’s like he never thought that she wouldn’t bear the sea like himself.
She was drowned, drowned.


Greeting, text by Ella Young

Ella Young was an Irish poet, Celtic mythologist, and a contemporary of Rebecca Clarke. She was a part of the Irish Literary Revival movement and the occult with other poets such as W.B. Yeats and William Sharp. As a lecturer at UC Berkeley, Young would give lectures in the purple robes of a druid, often talking of mythical creatures and the benefits of communicating with nature.

When a person reads the words of this song, the famed verse-like quality of Irish lyric poetry and the images of nature that might have been significantly important to Young come through. Clarke paints the song with “rolling waves and buoyant melody” and makes use of frequent meter changes as to enhance the meaning or ease the flow of the words.

Over the wave-patterned sea-floor
Over the long sunburnt ridge of the world,
I bid the winds seek you.
I bid them cry to you
Night and morning
A name you loved once;
I bid them bring to you
Dreams, and strange imaginings, and sleep.


About the Author:

Soprano Sarah-lynn Bennett, originally from Auburn, Washington, received her Bachelor of Music Degree in Vocal Performance from Pacific Lutheran University where she studied with Cyndia Sieden. During her studies there, she covered the role of Suor Angelica, as well as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In 2015, Bennett toured Northern Europe with the Choir of the West as a featured soloist, competing in the Anton Bruckner competition in Linz, Austria, where they were awarded the Anton Bruckner Prize for Outstanding Ensemble. While at Pacific Lutheran, Ms. Bennett sang for several distinguished artists and teachers, including Stephanie Blythe, Markus Brück, and Marni Nixon.

Ms. Bennett is a first-year masters student at the the University of Missouri – Kansas City, where she studies with Dr. Aidan Soder, and is active in the Conservatory’s opera program.  The sole vocal winner of the Conservatory’s 2018 Concerto/Aria Competition, Ms. Bennett’s performance of American composer Charles Griffes’ Three Poems of Fiona Macleod highlights her interest in impressionism and orientalism.   Ms. Bennett’s operatic performances this year include the Sandman in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, La Princesse in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, and the cover of Elle in Poulenc’s La voix humaine. IMG_6097_preview.jpg

One Comment Add yours

  1. Piper Foulon says:

    Sarah-Lynn! Pardon if this is a repeat comment, my computer is acting up. But I am so excited about this series. Good for you for writing about the important contributions of female creators and musicians, as well as highlighting the uneven playing field they faced in their lives. Well written and well researched. Thank you!!


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