Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rebecca Clarke's Viola Sonata

This month, Clef Notes looks at women composers. This week, we’re focusing on composer and violist Rebecca Clarke, an English musician from the early twentieth century.

Though her gender made a career in music difficult, Rebecca did not lose her drive to compose and perform. She was known primarily for her songs, choral works, chamber music, and solo piano pieces. She wrote around 100 pieces, however only a handful were published during her lifetime and later forgotten about.

Today, let’s listen to Rebecca’s Viola Sonata. This work tied for first prize in a competition in 1919, but the prize ended up going to Ernest Bloch. Sadly, following the competition, a reporter commented that it was impossible for a piece like the Viola Sonata to be written by a woman! Her knowledge of the viola is evident as this is a beautiful addition to its repertoire. What do you think?



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rebecca Clarke

Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979) was an English composer and performer who lived during the early twentieth century, and our next woman to spotlight this month in Clef Notes. She began her music studies early, being forced along with her siblings to perform on demand for their father. She received her first formal education from the Royal Academy of Music, but her father forced her to withdraw after he received word that one of her teachers proposed marriage.

After withdrawing from the Royal Academy of Music, Rebecca went on to become Charles Stanford’s first female student at the Royal College of Music. He encouraged her to switch her instrument from violin to viola, which she would later go on and tour internationally.

Though Rebecca was thrown out of her home in her twenties, she did not despair. Instead, she used the opportunity to focus more on her musical studies and performance schedule. Some of her notable accomplishments include becoming the first female to play with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as well as founding her own female ensemble – the English Ensemble piano quartet.


Next time, let’s look closer at one of Rebecca’s compositions – the Viola Sonata!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Wreckers

This month, Clef Notes is looking at music by women composers and this week, we explore the life and work of English composer Ethel Smyth. Known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera, Ethel Smyth was a strong woman who advocated for women’s rights and pursued a career in music during a time when such a task wasn’t so easy for a woman. Today, let’s look at one of her most successful operas, The Wreckers.

Known as Strandrecht at the time of its premiere in Leipzig in 1906, The Wreckers contained a libretto originally written in French and later translated for its German premiere. The production was well-received but after the conductor refused to compromise on the cuts he made to Ethel’s score, she took her score and left Leipzig. The opera was later performed in London. It is said that Smyth used Wagner and Sullivan as inspiration for her work. What do you think?



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ethel Smyth

It’s possible that you have not heard the name Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), although she was a respected English composer of her time known for her chamber music, orchestral works, vocal scores, and opera.

Ethel was born into a successful family who didn’t understand why she sought to follow her ambitions to become a composer. At that time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a career in this way. She studied for a period at the Leipzig Conservatory and then left to study privately. Her work met the approval of big-name composers of her time including Brahms, Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. An advocate for women’s rights, Ethel sometimes would allow her political views to seep into her work. She lost her hearing later in life, and at that point devoted herself to writing prose.


Though Ethel Smyth is respected as a woman who fought to obtain her desired career, some scholars admit that she never really found her own personal voice in her composition. Her powerful Mass in D of 1893, for instance, is said to be reminiscent of Beethoven. Her opera The Wreckers of 1906 is said to find inspiration from Wagner and Sullivan. What do you think? Join me next time as we dig a little deeper into Ethel’s successful opera. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Amy Beach's Gaelic Symphony

Last time we discussed Amy Beach and her impact on women composers to follow her lead. Living during a time when women were thought to be incapable of creating large-scale works, Amy sought to prove the theory wrong by writing many large-scale works including one we will look at today, her Gaelic Symphony (1896).

Finding inspiration in Dvorak’s New World Symphony which used plantation songs and Native American melodies, Amy decided to write something drawing from her Celtic heritage. The Gaelic Symphony contains four traditional Irish tunes as themes. Can you hear them?

In total, Amy Beach wrote over 300 works, also including many songs and piano works. Do you have a favorite? 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Happy Birthday Amy Beach!

This month, Clef Notes looks at important women composers throughout history. Let’s get started with Amy Beach (1867–1944), who celebrates her 150th birthday today! Amy grew up in Boston during an era when women were just starting to gain a few rights including the right to attend college and hold a public job. That being said, it was still quite difficult for her to break through in the music world, despite her incredible talents. 

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who studied privately early on and taught herself how to compose. By the time she turned 18, Amy was appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and publishing her early compositions. After marrying a wealthy doctor, however, she gave up her concert appearances due to his view that it was not respectable for a woman to hold such a position. He did encourage her to focus her efforts on composition, which led to a period of many outstanding works. Following his death in 1910, Amy took up touring again, performing her own works.


At the time when Amy lived, women were thought to be incapable of composing larger works (such as symphonies or concertos). Amy decided to prove this theory wrong by writing quite a few major works including her Mass in E-flat, Gaelic Symphony, Piano Concerto, and Piano Quintet. She ended up being an inspiration for many women to follow in her footsteps. Next time, we’ll look at one of her major works, the Gaelic Symphony.