There is something about the viola’s quality of sound which conjures up stirring emotions and dark-hued feelings. It has always been associated with mournful, elegiac music, and even William Walton’s extrovert concerto, a landmark in the history of the repertoire for the instrument, has more than a touch of the reflective about it, especially in the first movement. Yet it is this very quality of reflectiveness which, more than anything, leads us to associate the instrument with that early twentieth-century Englishness, the period of fin de siècle heart-on-the-sleeve so roundly written off by Elizabeth Lutyens in her memorable phrase ‘cowpat music’—a gross generalization which has found sympathy in some quarters but which recordings like the present one do much to correct.
The music recorded here covers a wide range and shows how powerful the miniature can become in the hands of skilled and imaginative craftsmen. At the heart of the programme lies the music of Rebecca Clarke whose music is being rediscovered with an enthusiasm which reflects the quality of her inspiration. That the 1980 ‘new’ Grove Dictionary should write her off in a sentence is scandalous, and it is hoped that the current revival of interest in her music will lead to a reassessment of her work which will help it to be properly recognized.
The most recent composer featured is Benjamin Britten, and his Elegy is a comparatively recent discovery. Not performed until the 1984 Aldeburgh Festival (by Nobuko Imai), it was written the day after he left Gresham’s School at the age of sixteen. He had only been there for two years and had disliked the experience. However, once he had actually taken leave of his friends and masters, he said ‘I didn’t think I should be sorry to leave’, but found that he missed them all the same. This Elegy, which he probably wrote to play himself, expresses his feelings at that time.
The viola to Vaughan Williams was, of course, as hand to glove. Of all the English voices, RVW’s wonderful ear for sonority caught the viola’s soul and gave it life. A lifelong association with the great viola player Lionel Tertis helped his awareness of the practical problems associated with the instrument, and also heightened his awareness of its possibilities. This Romance is small in scale but large in dramatic effect. An apparently innocuous, pastoral-style opening leads to a heady emotional climax before the music subsides back into the opening theme and a lengthy wind-down to the end. The piece (which is undated) was discovered amongst RVW’s effects after his death and was given its first performance in 1962 by Bernard Shore.
Percy Grainger’s fascinatingly original and attractive music has become well known in recent years and has been championed by many distinguished musicians, not least by Benjamin Britten who made a recording of a fascinating selection of works which betrayed a lively enthusiasm on the part of the younger composer. Although Grainger is regarded loosely as a ‘British’ composer, he was actually Australian by birth, came to Europe in his teens, and finally settled in America in 1914 (when he was 32). The ‘Englishness’ with which he is associated has much more to do with the fact that he was an indefatigable collector and arranger of folksongs, many of which were from the British Isles.
The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol is one such arrangement, originally made for violin or cello and piano but personally sanctioned in this version by Grainger. And how well it sits in the violist’s hands! Grainger’s extraordinary ear for perfect sonorities, his seemingly unerring sense of the rightness of the placing of notes in a chord, serves him particularly well in this carol. Two of his great musical heros were Frederick Delius and Edvard Grieg. On this occasion it is Grieg who receives the posthumous dedication: ‘Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Edvard Grieg’. Grainger was meticulous in recording on his scores all the details of composition, so we learn that this setting was begun in 1905 and completed ten years later. The tune was taken down by Miss Lucy Broadwood at Lyne, near Horsham, Sussex, in 1880 and ’81 from the singing of Christmas mummers called ‘tipteers’ or ‘tipteerers’ during their play of ‘St George, the Turk, and the Seven Champions of Christendom’. The first verse goes as follows:
O mortal man, remember well
Other verses are on the ‘God bless the master of this house’ theme. Grainger’s dark, Bourneville-chocolate harmonies are perfectly matched with the colour of the viola in this lovely setting.
The Arrival Platform Humlet is another characteristic ‘Graingerism’. Composed in the same period as the Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol it is scored for any of the following: solo viola, a group of violas, an oboe, cor anglais, bassoon, or a group of these instruments—or, further, by a solo voice or unison chorus. Grainger himself put it like this: ‘Originally conceived for middle-fiddle single, or massed middle-fiddles, or double-reed single, or massed double-reeds, or as a humlet for a single voice or chorus of voices.’ This, then, gives the clue to the extraordinary title. Grainger goes on to describe what he means: ‘Awaiting the arrival of a belated train bringing one’s sweetheart from foreign parts: great fun! The sort of thing one hums to oneself as an accompaniment to one’s tramping feet as one happily, excitedly, paces up and down the arrival platform.’ This ‘humlet’, or little hum, was apparently written in Liverpool Street and Victoria Stations, London, in 1908.
1908 was also the year in which Frank Bridge’s two pieces Pensiero and Allegro appassionato were first published in a ‘Viola Library’ series edited by Lionel Tertis. Bridge, of course, was himself a fine viola player, and his early fame was as a performer, not as a composer. Rebecca Clarke said of him: ‘He was one of the finest viola players I’ve ever heard. He could have made a career as a fine conductor but couldn’t stand orchestral musicians. He was without doubt the most talented musician I’ve ever met.’ Bridge was a founder member of the English String Quartet with whom he played until 1915, and he was widely admired as a sensitive and skilled performer. It is surprising, therefore, that his enthusiasm for the least-sung member of the string family should not have found its outlet reflected in compositional output. The two pieces recorded here are the only pieces he wrote for the instrument. Which is a pity given the obvious sympathy he shows for its characteristic sound world.
Pensiero and Allegro appassionato make a perfectly balanced pair of pieces, with the first being elegiac in mood and the second more outgoing. Both show Bridge’s mastery of technique and his real feeling for both piano- and string-writing which saw such a flowering in the magnificent cello sonata. Although the Allegro appassionato is very short and concise, it displays Bridge’s flair for the dramatic, and both pieces show his heightening awareness of the power of chromatic harmony which was to become such a feature of his later style exemplified by his piano sonata.
Bax’s Legend for viola and piano is clearly influenced by his fascination with Celtic folklore. Many of his works show his deep involvement with the myths and legends of this period in our history which created such an impressionable aura. Orchestral works such as Tintagel and The Garden of Fand reflect this in Bax’s output, as others do in a variety of works by Ireland, Howells and Moeran for instance.
The Legend has a thick, gloomy atmosphere, particularly at the start. The whole work is ideally scored for the viola and, once again, the instrument is in its element in this rather elegiac mode. Bax wrote the piece in 1928 between the third and fourth symphonies, when he was in his mid-forties.
Rebecca Clarke is one of those rather misty figures in British music to whom the cognoscenti will pay lip service as a name which is recognized but who is completely unknown to the general public, even though they are now being presented with more recordings of British music from the first half of the century than could ever have been dreamed of twenty years ago. That some of Clarke’s music is now finding its way on to disc will help the music-loving public to discover for themselves the riches, albeit miniature, contained in her output.
She was born in 1886 into the heart of the generation which spawned the flowering of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’, as it has come to be known. Initially a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was removed at the age of seventeen by her parents when she received a proposal of marriage from Percy Miles, her harmony professor! She then transferred to the Royal College of Music and became Stanford’s first female pupil. Despite the horror stories of some of Stanford’s other pupils who found him difficult and temperamental, Clarke thoroughly enjoyed her lessons with this famous guru. She was awarded a composition scholarship in her second year to continue her studies with him, and, most significantly, it was Stanford who persuaded her to take up the viola, saying, ‘You are right in the middle of the sounds and can tell how it’s all done’. When she left the College in 1910 she had some lessons with Lionel Tertis and earned her living as a viola-player in orchestras and ensembles in and around London.
Her first major success as a composer came during a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1918 when she gave the first performance of Morpheus, which was immediately acclaimed by the critics. Women composers were almost unknown at this time, and those who were making their way were regarded with great suspicion. The manuscript of this piece was therefore signed with the pseudonym ‘Anthony Trent’. Morpheus, son of Hypnos, was the Greek god of dreams. Clarke’s music is entirely apt, with its almost French impressionism (she was deeply influenced by Debussy), its wistful and romantic aura and perfectly matched solo and accompaniment. She wrote a whole series of Lullabies between 1909 and 1918, and the subject-matter of Morpheus therefore puts it into the same catagory. The Lullaby recorded here is the first, dated 1909, and is amongst the earliest of her instrumental works. The gentle, abstract idea of the rocking or singing of a child to sleep obviously appealed strongly to her romantic nature and her particular mode of expression in music.
Easily Clarke’s most impressive and well-known work is the Sonata for Viola and Piano written in 1918/19. This was entered for the Coolidge Competition that year, again under the pseudonym ‘Anthony Trent’. The prize was generous for the time at $1,000, and 73 entries were registered. The six members of the jury came to a point where they were undecided between two works. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the founder and benefactor of the competition) gave her casting vote to Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola. However, the jury was so impressed by ‘Anthony Trent’s’ work that they demanded to know the identity of the composer. Miss Coolidge said to Rebecca Clarke afterwards: ‘You should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman!’
Overnight Clarke became a cause célèbre, both in England and America. Several performances of the work were given and it was published by Chester in 1921. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was so impressed by the Viola Sonata that she commissioned a Rhapsody for cello and piano from Clarke which was performed in 1923 at the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Festival by May Mukle and Myra Hess.
The Viola Sonata is in three movements and is headed by a quotation from Alfred de Musset’s poem La Nuit de Mai:
Poète, prends ton luth; le vin de la jeunesse
The first and third movements are big-boned pieces with a clear thematic link between them, and the second is a brilliant but delicate scherzo in compound time. The language has that ambiguous quality mentioned earlier, where Debussy and Ravel (particularly of the Piano Trio) mix with the Englishness represented by modality and the flexibility of melody inspired by folksong. It is very much of its period, and the fantasy-like character of the outer movements places it firmly in the style of music favoured by English composers of the time, especially as encouraged by the Cobbett Competitions. (These stipulated the composition of a single-movement piece with a variety of moods suggestive of larger forms in the spirit of the ‘fantasy’ which was common in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.)
In 1939 Rebecca Clarke visited America, and was there when war was declared. She was denied a return visa and thus forced to stay in the USA. She worked as a nanny to a family in Connecticut for a while, but visiting New York in 1944 she met James Friskin with whom she had been a student at the Royal College of Music and who was now teaching at the Juilliard School. They were both unmarried and in their late fifties and decided to marry, which put the seal on Clarke’s decision as to whether or not to return to England. She remained in New York until her death in 1979.
Paul Spicer © 1994