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Rebecca Clarke was born into a musical family in 1886. Her father played cello and her mother, viola. Clarke and her brother were given violins so they could form a family string quartet. She studied violin at the Royal Academy of Music. After turning down a proposal from a professor there, she went on to continue her education at the Royal College of Music in London, where she was the first female composition student. At the time she was studying violin, but her composition professor, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford encouraged her to make the switch to Viola, both for her musical career and for 20th century Viola compositions.
Clarke admired the English composers who studied with Stanford in the decade before she began her formal education with him. The list includes Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Her works are heavily influenced by British composers of the time, often compared to Debussy. Unable to afford completing her education, Clarke set out to begin her musical career in London. By this time all-female chamber ensembles had already begun to become popular and she became one of the first professional female orchestra players.
The majority of her music was written for the all-female chamber music ensemble she played in and were strongly influenced by the trends in 20th century classical music. The majority of Clarke’s works feature the Viola, as she was a professional musician for many years.
The Viola Sonata was written in 1919 for a competition in which she placed second after Ernest Bloch, because it was not believed that a woman could write such an astounding piece of music. In the article “’ But Do Not Quite Forget’: The Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1921) and the Viola Sonata (1919) Compared,” by Bryony Jones, identifies a cyclic approach to motifs, string techniques, military motifs and harmonic language combining different tonalities. This shows the influence of Debussy and Ravel in Clarke’s composition and the effect of the First World War as seen in the military motifs.
The impressionistic qualities, lush textures and modernistic harmonies, of Debussy are often mentioned in connection with Clarke’s works. The Viola Sonata, which was published the same year as the Bloch and Hindemith Viola Sonatas, is an example of impressionism. It opens with a pentatonic theme, lush harmonies, emotionally intense nature and dense, rhythmically complex texture.
The First Movement, Impetuoso, begins with a fanfare from the viola, before becoming a harmonic melody. As is to be expected from a 20th century sonata the piece does not adhere to the typical key structures of a classical sonata. This piece is very chromatic at times, referencing Debussy’s use of modes, diatonic keys and the octatonic and whole-tone scale. The modal introduction from m.1-12 are an improvise-like line from the viola over a held chord from the piano. The intorduction stays in E dorian until the start of the main theme at m.13. The use of modes and folk-song influences throughout the movement has become a practice strongly associated with British music. The introduction has two main functions: to present the two motives and to establish the mode.
The first motive invokes a military character with a dotted rhythm and open fifth interval. The second motive exemplifies whole-tone intervals. Meanwhile the piano opens with an ff chord, confirming E as the pitch center. The chord is sustained throughout the entire introduction with no re-articualtion. This allows the violist to establish their sound before playing together with the pianist. The harmonic form of Clarke’s writing is very similar to that of Debussy. The modal introduction leads into a sequence of seventh and ninth chords moving in minor thirds in m.13.
The second motive which first appears in m.2 generally signifies a whole-tone area in the movement. The tonal switch form introduction to main theme is emphasized by the half-step drop in the vioal from E to E-flat in m.13, with the piano confirming the new pitch over an fm7 chord. This half-step motion blurs the distance between the two keys, highlighting the change process rather than the contrast between the two keys.
The quick dynamic swells and drops and the constant directional shifts in the viola line case a slight sense on instability, recorded by the enharmonic pitches. The G-flat in m.14 descends to F, and in the following measure is notated as F-sharp to ascend to G-sharp. This slows to progress of the phrase, cuasing it to repeat a measure before continuing on. This results in two five-bar phrases (mm.13–17, 18–22).
The Second part of the main theme (mm.23–30), exoands the range, creating a sense of relief from the instability in the first part of the theme. The harmony settles, and the piano texture relaxes with only a few eight notes against the running triplets. The Regular phrase structure returns with two four-bar phrases.
At m.31, the ciola’s opening theme comes back to transition once again. The phrase buils up to a fpp in m.37, where the character of the second theme is prepared. The piano moves in parallel triads, falling a whole step to the G major triad that begins the second theme. The feeling of descenfing motion is promintent, continuing throught the half-step motion of the melody in m.39, played by the piano right hand.
The ‘subordinate’ theme (mm.39–55) refuses to be contolled by the main theme and should be more accurately reffered to as the second theme. It arrives in a new tonal area, G. the new theme keeps some similarities to the main theme in the descending lines and smooth articulation, beginging with a measure-long slur.
The mood of the second theme is a large contrast to the first. The piano is marked p, and plays the theme alone covering a narrow range. The end of this theme (mm.67–74) emphasizes the falling half-step figure, first fragmenting the second theme into two two-bar segments and then descending by half-steps from G in m.71 down to C in m.73.
The development is less chromatically saturated than the preceding sections. Beginning at m.75, the A-flat and G clashes, suggesting the G phrygian mode. The unique presentation of motive x by the piano, emphasizing the half-step dissonance and marked pp, misterioso, will reappear at m.106. The development expands the first two motives from the introduction, first in a military like character in the mm. 88–89 crescendo and then again at m.90. The piano suggests a reference to the main theme by moving octotonicaly in minor thirds (mm.90–102) between G and A-flat then up to B-flat and D-flat.
The development ends in an unexpected way, descending half steps in the piano beginning in m.101. At m.106, the register expands to an ambiguous +6 chord and a recollection fo the original theme, played by the piano in octaves.
Throught the closing section, the materil of the second theme is varied, with no reprise of the main theme material and only a brief sample of the first motive, heard at m.162 on G and D. The motive changes to a tritione (A to D-sharp). The coda (mm.167–185) is marked by a new variation of the second theme, remaining with the original rhythm. The half-steps of the second theme have expanded to a major arpeggio, emphasizing the change form falling to the second bar and contracting to the third continues and is further developed up to m.181, where the harmony finally comes to rest on E major. Signifying the importance of the key of the return of the second theme.
By providing the expected sonata form functions the sonata stays true to its roots. However, Clarke moves into new territories by using two similar themes and recollection defining the preceding introduction and main theme in an unexpected way.
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