Music Monday: Clarke: Viola Sonata

Chances are that, even if you're not a musician, you have a general sense that the viola is the butt of a lot of jokes. There are some historical facts that help get them off the ground, but at a certain point they got enough momentum to become A Thing and simply carry on out of their own inertia. Even if often wrapped in a layer or two of irony, the viola has a reputation (or, at the very least, a reputation for having a reputation) for being a scrappy, unimpressive instrument. This is entirely unfair. The viola is a marvelous instrument with many outstanding qualities, and it's a shame that it gets so little time in the spotlight. Fortunately, there have always been composers and performers out there working to make sure the viola is taken as seriously as it deserves.

Like Rebecca Clarke! Clarke was born in Harrow, England in 1886 to an American father and a German mother, and by all accounts had an absolutely appalling childhood. Her father was physically and emotionally abusive, frequently beating her and causing her other familial relations to be somewhat strained. She began studying at the Royal Academy of Music in 1903, but her father withdrew her in 1905 when one of her teachers, Percy Hilder Miles, proposed to her. Two years later, she began studying at the Royal College of Music instead, where another teacher, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, urged her to switch from playing violin to the viola, but after Clarke criticized her father's extramarital affairs, he threw her out of the house and cut off all financial support, forcing her to withdraw in 1910. Suddenly on her own, Clarke turned to the viola and set about making a living as an active performer, becoming the first female player in several formerly all-male ensembles.

As a move to further her performing career, she moved to the United States in 1916, and it was in this period that she enjoyed her greatest success as a composer. In 1919, she entered her viola sonata in a chamber music competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (a major American patron of concert music, largely responsible for making chamber music a high-cachet field of composition in the 20th-Century United States), and tied for first place with Ernest Bloch. Many reviewers at the time thought that “Rebecca Clarke” was a pseudonym for Bloch himself, ridiculing the notion that a woman could have composed a work of such substance and skill. Clarke would later receive a commission for another work from Coolidge, making her the only female recipient of her patronage.

Returning to England after the war, Clarke continued to perform, but composed relatively little. She suffered from chronic depression, and found it difficult to fight back against the deeply ingrained prejudices against female composers. She was visiting her brothers in the United States at the outbreak of World War II, and was unable to get a visa to return to England, so she remained here, where she would stay for the rest of her life. She had largely ceased composing by the time she took a position as a governess in 1942, and, despite his encouragement, withdrew from performing as well after her marriage to James Friskin. (Unlike many of the other relationships in her life, her relationship with Friskin seems to have been healthy, satisfying, and mutually supportive.) She died in 1979, with many of her works out of print or never published at all. (The Rebecca Clarke Society was founded in 2000 and has been working to bring her forgotten works to light; there is much work left to be done on this front.)

Keeping in mind the paucity of the repertoire for the instrument, however, it is perhaps not surprising that the viola sonata managed to escape that fate. Despite its technical and expressive challenges, it's a staple of the repertoire, and deservedly so, too. The first movement begins with a rhapsodic passage for the viola over a sustained piano chord, a passage that introduces many key motivic figures that will recur thruout the work. This then launches an impressionistic allegro, with dense, supple textures and an ever-unfolding melodic line. An emphatic cadence with wide-spaced double-stops in the viola leads into a more subdued section, one in which the piano and the viola trade off and weave together melodic lines in sensuous, ever-shifting canons. A ghostly return of the opening fanfare motif initiates what could be considered something of a development, tho the music seems more concerned with indulgent spinning out than a more normative rigorous motivic churning over, and the recapitulation seems to launch itself of its own accord, taking the final dregs of the dreamy development quite by surprise. Continually reinventing itself, the movement fades into silence in a wash of gentle undulations.

Evidently in need of a reprieve after the weightiness of the first movement, the scherzo begins full of playful, lighthearted trickery, with a theme that gleefully pushes back against the rhythmic constraints of the prevailing time signature. The viola picks up on this playfulness, deploying a wide variety of special coloristic effects, from left-hand pizzicati to rapid switches between regular notes and artificial harmonics — sending the melody line jumping dizzyingly between high and low registers. This cheeky dance subsides into a more mysterious central section, but cannot be kept at bay for long, and returns with ever more tricks and jolts up its sleeve to drive the movement to its close.

Recalling, perhaps, the opening of the work itself, the finale begins with another free-floating solo, this time for the piano instead of the viola. What follows is an extraordinary movement, with a highly customized ad-hoc structure. The music wanders in a haze of passion thru islands of activity and repose, returning often to the opening line, but in ever changing guises and moods. At its most spectral, it returns over a scratchy shuddering on the viola's lowest note, building in intensity until unexpectedly bursting out into the music that launched the sonata, almost as if re-recapitulating the first movement. A helter-skelter breakdown section ensues, interrupted by a winsome pastorale in the unlikely key of Eb minor, and the sonata ends in a blaze of pyrotechnic glory.