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Mendy Smith

Who Was She Anyway?

April 30, 2008 at 6:00 AM

After some comments I recieved on the Rebecca Clarke Sonata recording, I realized that I really did not understand her as a person, composer nor violist. This understanding is I now realized is critical to be able to play any piece by any composer well.

After some research, this is what I discovered and interpreted:

Rebecca Clarke's Sonata was "re-discovered" in 1976, the same year my little sister was born, and two years before I picked up the viola for the first time. She passed away the year after I began learning how to play this behemoth of an instrument.

She had a difficult relationship (understatement of the year) with her father and was kicked out of the house (and moved herself out of the country) just years before she composed this piece. She composed this piece a year after WWI was over. Being bilingual with German must have been difficult during WWI. This was also the time when women finally won the right to vote, and large numbers of women finally entered the work-force for the first time. The beginnings of the "woman's rights movement". She suffered from Dysthymia, "a mood disorder characterized by chronic mildly depressed or irritable mood often accompanied by other symptoms such as eating and sleeping disturbances, fatigue, and poor self-esteem".

It seems that she struggled to be recognized as a serious musician and composer for her entire life. I found a quote from her in 1977 that reads "I take this opportunity to emphasize that I do indeed exist... and that my Viola Sonata is my own unaided work!" This speaks volumes to her challenges to be recognized as a legitimate composer, even in 1977 after her music was "re-discovered".

What I'm starting to understand is why this piece jumps from an agressive to an almost submissive tone and back again. I think that some of this may be from her own questions in her role as a woman in society, as a serious musician & composer, her dysthymia, the events happening in the world during the time this piece was composed, and her own troubled life before moving to the US.

The piece starts "Impetuoso", very much "in-your-face" like she has something to prove to the world. A "here I am, take notice of me!" statement, broken up by "even though you now know that I exist, I am still a mystery to you". On the second page there seems to be a theme of extreme unhappiness before she explodes once again in apparent frustrations. She repeats the same mix of emotions on page 3. Then on page 4, the tone changes radically. The piano and viola parts seem to switch roles to some extent. The viola plays a series of 32nd note arpeggios of sorts, still quite mysterious. The first movement ends with a lingering memory of the sadness of the piece.

It is like there is this radical emotional shift between pent-up anger, depression and wishful thinking that she doesn't truly believe will ever really come to realization.

I think I'm starting to "get it". What is even more scary is that I can relate to this maybe a little too well.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 30, 2008 at 11:13 AM
Have you seen this link? http://www.rebeccaclarke.org/
From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 1, 2008 at 6:37 AM
Karen - Yes I have. It also turns out that my teacher met her nephew (I think that is the right relation) at the last viola congress. Anyway, her living relative spoke quite a bit about her life and experiences. Joel is disappointed that she stopped composing after she got married in the early'40's. Her music is quite comfortable to play on the viola, unlike many other composers. It makes sense since she was primarily a violist.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 1, 2008 at 10:33 AM
If you see the piece as expressing pent-up anger and depression how does that affect your approach to it? Sometimes I'm not sure I want to get inside those kinds of emotions. (Other times a piece will speak to where I'm at)

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