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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
Fermente cette nuit dans les veines de Dieu.
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.
from notes by Paul Spicer © 1994