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Rebecca Clarke: music’s greatest miracle

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    I never was much good at blowing my horn

    -Rebecca Clarke (Gilliland 207)

                Despite of her major contributions and compelling compositions, one cannot help but wonder why the name Rebecca Clarke seemed to remain within the pitch black outskirts of oblivion. Were impressive artists really destined to encounter death before their masterpieces receive the recognition that they truly deserve? It has been often said that music, as one of the most expressive artworks has the ability to immortalize. Music redefines the concept of time and let history unfold. Music evokes the highest degree of nostalgia that even the most prolific wordsmith find difficult to express in words. Certainly, under this context, to ignore Rebecca Clarke or to forget her memories are overt insults and grave mistakes that the music scene could ever commit. Rebecca Clarke is definitely one of music’s greatest achievements. Rebecca Clarke is yet another artist par excellence who moved and shook the seemingly patriarchal discourse of the musical arena. Her accomplishments were inevitably astounding, that the simplest descriptions and acknowledgments are simply not enough to honor her contributions.

                Trapped within the social constraints of power and gender, Rebecca Clarke represents the overwhelming struggle of women in the musical and cultural ladder. While experiencing a whirlwind romance and at the same time confronting the issues of the past, Rebecca Clarke has nonetheless proven, even within the shortest period of time, that women are not perpetually tied not bounded within the four walls of the kitchen and bedroom. Even though this versatile composer made a decision to seemingly abandon her passion, this does not in any way tarnishes her reputation. Retaliation is never synonymous to accepting defeat. Rather it is more of regaining strength and ensuring that all efforts exerted would soon reap its respective rewards.

                Rebecca Clarke’s childhood was not perfect. But neither was it characterized by overwhelming joy and fond memories that would be cherished by the lady virtuoso. With a mixed American and German blood, Rebecca Clarke had to continuously struggle to follow his father and at the same time conform to the societal structures that are embedded and practiced in England. Clarke’s memory with her American father is no less than filled with bitter experiences (Jones qtd in Briscoe 295). The term “strict” is perhaps not enough to describe Joseph Clarke. Cruel and to a certain extent, vindictive, were the words commonly associated to Rebecca’s father (Jones qtd in Briscoe 295). Joseph Clarke’s seemingly aggressive behavior was pretty much apparent with the way he treated his children. Childhood mistakes such as nail biting are enough to trigger intense rage from the family’s head (Curtis 16). Thus, being the eldest, and perhaps supported by the idea that the eldest sons and daughters are required to show a good example, it was Rebecca who had the most encounters of the “steel slapper (Curtis 16).” Evidently, Joseph Clarke’s role in Rebecca’s life created a major impact in the latter’s pursuit for musical excellence. The emotionally disturbing relationship in the family resulted to deep-seated psychological effect in Rebecca’s musical career (“Clarke, Rebecca Thacher).” Her childhood experiences also paved the way for the great composer to eventually articulate the seemingly unspoken narrative of her youth (“Clarke, Rebecca Thacher”). The book was entitled as “I had a father too” or more popularly known as “the mustard spoon (“Clarke, Rebecca Thacher”).” Unfortunately, the book was never published (“Clarke, Rebecca Thacher”).

                Despite of her childhood struggles, Rebecca Clarke soon found an ally—a companion that would somehow rescue her from filial agonies. This is no other than music itself. It is through music that Rebecca found comfort, understanding and care—three major aspects that her own family, much more her father cannot possibly provide. The year 1903 proved to be a significant event in Rebecca’s life. During this year, the young maiden entered the Royal Academy of Music (“Rebecca Clarke”). The violin became the first witness of Rebecca’s musical prowess and skills (MacArthur 91). However, her engagement in the academy was rather short-lived. Percy Miles, who was then her teacher, asked her to marry him (Pendle 248). Joseph Clarke, upon knowing the situation immediately removed her daughter from the educational institution.

                Although her formal education was temporarily stopped, Rebecca Clarke soon made a mark in history when she became the student of the renowned teacher Sir Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music (RCM) (Jones qtd in Briscoe 295). This defining moment in history can be attributed to the fact that Rebecca was the first woman to take an extensive course in composition during her time (Curtis 15). In the earlier years, a woman specializing in composition was already a notable achievement. But to study composition and at the same time go under the tutelage of Sir Charles Stanford were indeed highly exceptional. Sir Charles Stanford was highly instrumental in Rebecca’s success. It seemed like he functioned as the father figure that Rebecca was longing for. Rebecca readily admired her teacher and it was Stanford who persuaded her to switch from the violin to viola (Dibble 376).

                Pendle explained that Rebecca’s stay at RCM enabled her not only to exploit the voila, it also triggered her innate talent to formulate songs for chamber music (249). Soon enough, Rebecca Clarke was already making a noise in the music scene. Her seemingly unsurpassed skills gave her the privilege to be among the first women to play in the prestigious Queen Hall’s Orchestra (Curtis 15). Yet, it is important to note that if there is anything that would best represent or prove Rebecca’s composition capabilities, these are the awards that she won in the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music (Curtis 15).

                The said festival was then organized by Elizabeth Sprague Coolridge (Curtis 15). Yet, it is important to note that even before Coolridge spotted Rebecca, the latter was already a member of a critically-acclaimed quartet named as English Ensemble (Pendle 249). Joining the quartet was actually a result of dropping out of RCM due to yet another conflict between Rebecca and her father who finally decided to stop supporting his daughter (Jones qtd in Briscoe 295). During her first entry in the said competition, her famous work, Viola Sonata was a strong contender for the top spot (Pendle 249). Coolridge was then asked to choose between Rebecca and Eric Bloch so as to break the tie (Pendle 249). Even though Bloch was bagged the famous award, this did not stop Rebecca from making her presence felt. As a matter of fact, many were amazed if not surprised to see a woman garner the runner-up spot (Pendle 249). Other than Viola Sonata, Rebecca’s Trio, once again bagged the runner-up position in the said competition (Curtis 15). These accomplishments functioned as yet another manifestation of Rebecca’s talent and could have resulted into a more fruitful and musical career. But then again, as Curtis explained, those previous successes seemed to be the first and the last spectacle of Rebecca Clarke (15). However, despite of Rebecca’s abrupt exit in the music scene, Jezic and Wood shared that the composer made a total of 58 songs and “part-songs (159).” Perhaps the only reason behind the seemingly unpopularity of her songs is that Rebecca hardly mentioned her works (“Rebecca Clarke”)—a concrete act of humility that separated her from her contemporaries.

                Rebecca Clarke’s unexpected requiem can be attributed to the patriarchal hegemony that exists in the musical landscape. Curtis seemed to imply that Rebecca, while duly recognized, has to walk behind the shadows of male composers. There were times in which Rebecca’s name was mistaken as a pseudonym for Eric Bloch (Curtis 15). Similarly, in England, Rebecca was known as Anthony Trent, a name that she subsequently used to hide her own identity (Jezic & Wood 76). This further affirmed Rebecca’s notion of women passivity and submissiveness—something that she has readily mastered. Despite of her apparent advantage over her male counterparts, Rebecca was imprisoned by the stereotypical notions of how society dictates or imposes women behaviors (Curtis 15). Rebecca must continuously struggle to prove herself and at the same time maintain her derogatory position as a woman.

                Consequently, Rebecca’s romantic affair with John Goss contributed to the declining number of her compositions (Curtis 19). John Goss was married and younger than Rebecca (Curtis 19). The series of emotional pangs and problems embedded in the relationship has readily affected Rebecca (Curtis 19). But despite of that, she has still managed to create the song entitled as “The Tiger” for Goss (Curtis 19). The affair with Goss was indeed a bleak moment in Rebecca’s life. Yet, at the age of 58, Rebecca found love with James Friskin (MacArthur 91) who urged her to continue her passion.

                The success of Rebecca Clarke may have been cut short. Others may even perceive her from a negative light and a concrete proof of women’s weakness. But then again, her contributions and accomplishments readily signify her courage and determination to make a name in a seemingly male-dominated arena. Although she used a male pseudonym, this does not immediately translate to subordination. It is because there is the intention to share—there is the intention to show to the world that women are excellent composers too, rather than simply bury her works and hide it from the public. The mere fact that she was able to stand on her own despite of her father’s unwillingness to support her, clearly presents an intense strength that many are not capable of doing. Rebecca Clarke may be gone. But then again, her music continues to immortalize her undying legacies. Thus, modifying, Og Mandino’s quote: Rebecca Clarke is music’s greatest miracle.

    Works Cited

    Bryony , Jones. “Rebecca Clarke”  New Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Ed.             James Briscoe. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004. 295 – 297

    “Clarke, Rebecca Thacher.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale. 2005. 24 Mar. 2009 <>.

    Curtis, Liane. “A Case of Identity” The Musical Times. 137.1839 (1996): 15 -21

    Dibble, Jeremy. Charles Villiers Stanford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002

    Gilliland, Norman. Great Notes for A Year. Wisconsin: Nemo Productions, 2002

    Jezic, Dianne and Elizabeth Wood. Women Composers The Lost Tradition Found.  2nd ed.        New York: Feminist Press, 1994

    Macarthur, Sally. Feminist Aesthetics in Music. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.      Inc., 2002

    Pendle, Karin. Women and Music. 2nd ed.  Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001

    “Rebecca Clarke” 27 February 2004. Guild Music. 24 March 2009             <>

     “Rebecca Clarke” Rebecca Clarke. 24 March 2009 <>


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    Frequently Asked Questions

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    How many kids did Rebecca Clarke have?
    Together they had four children. Rebecca, born in August 1886, was the eldest. Agnes kept the peace in the household by never disagreeing with her husband. When Joseph resorted to extreme methods of discipline, she said nothing.
    What is Rebecca Clarke known for?
    Rebecca Helferich Clarke (27 August 1886 – 13 October 1979) was a British-American classical composer and violist. Internationally renowned as a viola virtuoso, she also became one of the first female professional orchestral players.
    What type of music did Rebecca Clarke composer?
    Clarke lived much of her life in the US, although she was born and educated in Great Britain. Striking for its passion and power, her music spans a range of 20th-century styles including Impressionism, post-Romantic, and neo-Classical.

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