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Rebecca Clarke: impostor syndrome and potential power

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

I first came across the music of Rebecca Clarke when I learnt her piece ‘Morpheus’ for viola and piano. It is a beautiful folky, impressionistic piece evoking sleep, at times full of the movement and excitement of a dream, while at the beginning and at its close serenely still and meditative. I remember announcing proudly each time I performed it that it was by an ‘early twentieth century British female viola player’, but of all of those qualifiers I think I was probably more excited that she was a viola player than that she was a woman! Returning to this piece and its composer 5 years later, armed with my newfound knowledge of ‘The Western Canon’ and a newly founded Female Composers Festival, I’m a bit more interested in the woman part now, and specifically in looking at how this might have affected her musical training, performing career, and composing.

To present a very literal account of Rebecca Clarke’s musical education, one could say she was thwarted at every stage by men. She began her studies at the Royal Academy of Music, but had to drop out slightly ludicrously when her harmony teacher proposed marriage, and then later had to leave the Royal College of Music, where she was studying composition with Stanford, when her father banished her from the family home. She moved to London, and later to America, earning her living as a professional viola player, and was surrounded by talented female musicians such as Myra Hess and May Mukle, as well as her powerful female patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge - during this period Clarke’s compositional output and performing career flourished. In 1944 she married James Friskin, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography observes succinctly that ‘marriage marked the end of her playing and compositional career’. Clarke’s entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians read simply ‘Clarke, Rebecca, see James Friskin’.

Rebecca Clarke was self-conscious, reluctant to self-promote and seemed more often amused than frustrated by sexist responses to her work. The only girl studying composition with Stanford at RCM, she remarked ‘that I was the only woman he had accepted was a source of great pride to me, though I knew full well that I never really deserved it’. An often-told Rebecca Clarke anecdote is that when giving a concert of all her own compositions, she felt so embarrassed to have her name in the programme so many times that she invented the name ‘Anthony Trent’, and in an interview she comments ‘although the piece by Anthony Trent was not particularly good, it had much more attention paid to it than the pieces I had written, I mean in my own name, which was rather a joke.’ She goes on with the same slightly amused tone - ‘and when I had that one little whiff of success that I’ve had in my life, with the viola Sonata, the rumour went around, I hear, that I hadn’t written the stuff myself’. Some people thought Rebecca Clarke was a pseudonym for Bloch, or Ravel, and her patron recounted the jury’s reaction when the anonymous composers were revealed - ‘and you should have seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman!’.

Reviews of her music and performing are similarly amusing and infuriating in equal measure. The Daily Mail wondered at her ability to play a piano trio without collapsing - ‘Miss Clarke is fully the equal of several of the known young men of music. She launched out on her piano trio in a spacious way and carried the enterprise through without flagging.’ - while another reviewer commented on her ‘remarkable alertness and quite masculine vigour’. Even when they compliment her, in the same breath they patronise her and wonder at her ability to compose and perform despite being a woman - ‘Women composers usually write songs well, and with one or two outstanding exceptions do little else. Rebecca Clarke reverses the process. Her instrumental compositions are full of music and poetry of thought expressed with real technique and intellectual control.’ As we mentioned in the first post on this blog (linkto: this is typical of the ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ paradox from which female composers have often suffered. Judith Tick explains that when women composed in the smaller genres, they were demonstrating their inadequacy and inability to write in the larger forms, but when they wrote in the larger forms, they were allegedly ‘forsaking their identities as women’ and attempting to be men.

Though we cannot blame these reviewers for simply reflecting the prevailing attitudes of the time, it’s not hard to see why Clarke was discouraged from composing. Unlike her contemporary Ethyl Smyth, who was outspoken about feminism and a key figure in the suffragette movement, Clarke was never politically outspoken, and never seemed compelled to fight for a more unbiased acceptance of her identity as a composer (‘I was never very good at blowing my own horn!’), choosing to write more songs than any other form, as this was considered most suitable for women. That is not to say that she completely shied away from the 'masculine' forms - her few pieces in larger forms (the Viola Sonata, Piano Trio and Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet) - are some of her most celebrated. Nor is it to say that she didn’t ever try to stand up for women's rights, only that when she did she did so carefully, with her characteristic self-deprecation. This fascinating letter to her patron Elizabeth Coolidge reminds us of the precarious place of women musicians in the 1920s and 30s:

‘I have been wondering if when you said you were undecided about the cellist for the cello recital next year, you had ever thought about the possibility of having a woman! I can’t help feeling, and I believe you do too, that a great cause is served in putting the work of women executants on an equal footing with that of men - that is, only when it really is equal, I mean, of course. This would make such a splendid opportunity, for the woman I am thinking of is an exceptionally fine example, as everyone knows she is one of the very finest artists on any instrument, quite irrespective of sex’.

Continued lack of support and encouragement, self-doubt, difficulties with publishing and depression eventually led Clarke to give up composing and performing completely in later life. This decision is sometimes hard to understand, when it is clear that composing was such an important and powerful experience for her:

'Every now and then, in the middle of struggling with some problem, everything would fall into place with a suddenness almost like switching on an electric light. It may sound pretentious...but at these moments, though I had no illusions whatever about the value of my work, I was flooded with a wonderful feeling of potential power - a miracle made anything seem possible. Every composer, or writer, or painter too for that matter, however obscure, is surely familiar with this sensation. It is a glorious one. I know of almost nothing equal to it.’

Clarke herself almost cannot seem to explain why she gave up composing, in this later radio interview from 1976, when she was almost 90 years old:

Clarke: I didnt - I seemed to lose my interest in - I - I can’t really quite tell you all about it.

Sherman: And even then it didn’t make you want to go back and do other things?

Clarke: I wanted to, but I couldn’t. [...] I had lots of sketches of things. I know and I miss it, very much. Because there is nothing in the world - do you compose? There is nothing in the world more thrilling, or practically nothing. But you can’t do it unless - at least I can’t; maybe that’s where a woman’s different - I can’t do it unless it’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake and the last thing I think of every night before I go to sleep’ .

100 years after Clarke composed her Viola Sonata, and just over 100 since some women in this country were given the vote, there are fewer social barriers for women composers, and there is no longer the same pressure to choose between marriage and a career. There are however some areas which remain fairly unchanged: back in 1907 Rebecca Clarke was the only woman studying composition at RCM; today in Cambridge, girls are still overwhelmingly outnumbered by boys in the composition option in the Tripos, the auditionees for the main conducting scholarships are almost 100% male, and the curriculum we study does not even acknowledge the existence of women composers until the 20th century. For Rebecca Clarke, being so outnumbered in the musical world that she so loved fuelled an impostor syndrome that would eventually silence her creative voice completely. I hope that today rather than silencing us, these stories and statistics might makes us speak up, sing and play a little louder, and start to inhabit and take up the space from which women have been excluded in music-making and musicology, until a Cambridge Female Composers Festival is no longer necessary.


Rebecca Clarke's 'Dumka' for violin, viola and piano will be performed by Leora Cohen, Claire Watters and Lucy Walker on 18th February at 1.30pm in Christ's College Chapel, as part of a joint string recital also featuring music by Imogen Holst and Kate Whitely. Free admission, with a retiring collection for Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre.


Curtis, Clarke, Curtis, Liane, & Clarke, Rebecca. (2004). A Rebecca Clarke reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Curtis, Liane. "Rebecca Clarke and Sonata Form: Questions of Gender and Genre." The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 3 (1997): 393-429.

Curtis, Liane. "Clarke [Friskin], Rebecca." Grove Music Online. January 01, 2001. Oxford University Press,. Date of access 13 Feb. 2019, <>

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