With respect to the violin and cello, the viola may be said to have qualities which it may share with the traditional “British” attitude. There is a certain amount of understatement in the viola: it can be played with as much virtuosity as the violin and it can sing as beautifully as the cello, but frequently it favours a more reserved style. And if one thinks of the melancholic colours of the British fogs – particularly those typical of the beginning of the twentieth century – or, by way of contrast, if one has the gorgeous nuances of the autumn in mind, these images seem to resonate with the touching and warm timbres of the viola.
Besides these subjective feelings, which may or may not be shared by the reader, it is an objective fact that the Renaissance and early Baroque tradition of the consort of viols – a typically British ensemble – was revived in a historical perspective at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the study and performance of those ancient masterpieces invited many contemporaneous musicians to take inspiration from this quintessentially British heritage, and thus caused a proportionally vivid interest in the viola on the part of the British composers.
Clearly, this interest was further sparked by the fact that some of the greatest British composers of the era were viola players themselves. This is the case with Rebecca Clarke and with Frank Bridge, two of the composers represented here, while Ralph Vaughan Williams – who played the violin – left valuable works in the viola repertoire.
Rebecca Clarke and Frank Bridge probably used to play side by side as fellow members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, an ensemble conducted by Henry Wood; Clarke was one of the first female professional orchestra musicians, and her friendship with Bridge continued also at a later time.
Clarke had been born in a musical family, even though her childhood had been marked by the presence of a violent father. He was an American, while his wife was German; therefore, Rebecca grew up in a multicultural context and was encouraged in her musical activities. However, and possibly due precisely to her father’s behaviour, for her entire life she doubted her own value and talent, and composed relatively few works, only a bunch of which were published during her lifetime.
Her gifts, however, had been noted very early by one of the greatest British musicians of the era, i.e. Charles Villiers Stanford, who admitted her, as his first female student, to his class of composition at the Royal College of Music. Stanford rightfully guessed that Clarke’s sensitivity and personality were better suited to the viola than to the violin (which had been her favourite instrument up to that time). Allegedly, he told her: “You are right in the middle of the sounds and can tell how it’s all done”. Indeed, she found her voice by playing the viola and began composing for this instrument.
Some of her works found their way in her recital programmes, but the prejudices of the time were against women composers. On one occasion, she feared that there could be too many “Clarkes” on the programme (counting her pieces and her performances), and so she used a male pseudonym as the composer of the piece she liked least among those she had written. To her chagrin, the reviewers showed enthusiasm for the piece by “Anthony Trent”, while they virtually ignored her “official” works.
The turning point of her compositional life was represented by the Sonata for viola and piano, written when she was approximately thirty years old; here too, however, gender prejudices weighed on her career. She sent the piece to a composition contest where the works were judged anonymously. The jury’s opinions were divided about whether her piece or one by Ernest Bloch (his famous Suite for Viola) should be awarded the first prize. In the end, Bloch won and Clarke came second; however, when the composers’ names were disclosed, the realization that the second prize had been won by a woman caused a sensation. As Clarke herself narrates, it, “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, that somebody had done it for me. And I even got one or two little bits of press clippings saying that it was impossible, that I couldn’t have written it myself. And the funniest of all was that I had a clipping once which said that I didn’t exist, there wasn’t any such person as Rebecca Clarke, that it was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch!”.
In the following years, Clarke continued her activity as a composer and as a performing musician, also founding some all-female chamber ensembles, including one with cellist May Mukle. For her, Clarke created a cello version of her Passacaglia, signed “With love, Becca”. In spite of this, there is some mystery surrounding the dedication of the original version for viola, marked “for BB”. While Clarke explicitly declared the piece to be a homage to one of her nieces, it has been argued that “BB” may have referred to Benjamin Britten, or perhaps to Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge who had recently passed away.
This work dates in fact from 1941, and is the only published piece from Clarke’s output during wartime. The declaration of war had forced her to remain in the US, where she had gone to visit her siblings; when the war was over, she eventually decided to stay in America. In 1944, in fact, she had casually encountered James Friskin, a pianist who had been her fellow student at the Royal College of Music; they fell in love with each other and were married shortly thereafter, both being already in their fifties.
For her husband-to-be, Clarke composed I’ll Bid my Heart be Still, written during their short engagement. The tune is defined as coming from an “Old Scottish Border Melody”, but the piece is a tender, intimate and confidential discourse between (Clarke’s) viola and (Friskin’s) piano. It may therefore represent a promise of fidelity, while the two instrument’s melodic lines intertwine with each other. Moments of expressive intensity are not missing, portraying the couple’s deep relationship, but the overall mood is one of quiet calm.
If this short piece is built on an ancient Scottish tune, the Passacaglia is structured around an “Old English Tune”. It is in fact a sacred chant, a Veni Creator Spiritus which was at the time attributed to Thomas Tallis; however, the most significant aspect is that it had been included in The English Hymnal, the collection of tunes edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In 1926, Vaughan Williams had composed his own Six Studies in English Folk Song, whose original version was for the cello and whose dedicatee was, once more, May Mukle. Her sensitivity and refinement had elicited in the composer the confident belief that his pieces would be “treated with love” by the performer. These six miniatures weave the threads of the ancient tunes Vaughan Williams knew so well into the fabric of a modern modal idiom, evoking the British choral tradition while reinterpreting it creatively.
In turn, the two pieces by Clarke’s colleague and friend Frank Bridge are refreshingly idiomatic in their treatment of the viola. They mirror their composer’s intimate knowledge of the instrument: in Clarke’s words, Bridge “was one of the finest viola players I’ve ever heard. He could have made a career as a fine conductor but couldn’t stand orchestral musicians. He was without doubt the most talented musician I’ve ever met”. Similar to Clarke, Bridge has not encountered the recognition he deserved; however, his Pensiero and his Allegro appassionato constitute a balanced and intriguing pair displaying the full palette of the emotional gamut: from the reflective and thoughtful to the impassioned and enthralling, and throughout the pieces the complex equilibrium between viola and piano is never lost.
As previously said, Bridge died while the Second World War was still raging; on the contrary, Rebecca Clarke died a nonagenarian, at the eve of the Eighties. It was in fact her ninetieth birthday which sparked a renewed interest in her and in her music. Following her marriage, her compositional activity had virtually ceased, and her fame and name seemed to have been almost forgotten, in spite of the efforts of her great patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who always believed in Clarke’s skill, gifts and potential. The celebration for the composer’s birthday, and in particular a radio broadcast, attracted once more the attention of a larger audience and, following her death, a high number of her manuscripts was found and studied.
This album, therefore, represents a welcome tribute to Clarke, but also an equally welcome attempt to contextualise her output and style within the larger framework of the British chamber music school of the first half of the twentieth century. The collective picture these works form together embodies, in fact, a rich tradition, a fecund creativity, and a poetic world deserving knowledge, appreciation and recognition.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Fabio Napoletano: He was born in Milan in 1985. He held his debut solo piano recital at the age of fourteen. As soloist and chamber musician he performed in various cities in Italy (Milan, Genoa, Venice, Turin), France (Paris) and Slovenia (Ljubljana) playing in renowned concert halls such as Sala Verdi del Conservatorio di Milano, Auditorium Gaber, Centre culturel de Serbie (Paris) and at Festival Satie.
Fundamental for his musical education, he studied with Daniela Ghigino, Paul Badura-Skoda and with Maestro Konstantin Bogino.
Vittorio Benaglia: He was born in 1999, he currently studies with Anna Serova and Alexander Zemtsov. He has performed as soloist in some of the most prestigious concert halls such as Carnegie Hall in New York, Wiener Saal of Mozarteum in Salzburg and Madinat Theatre in Dubai. He collaborated with artists and ensembles like David Geringas, Anna Serova, Marco Rizzi, Vittorio Ceccanti, Hugo Ticciati, Conductus Ensemble, Divertimento Ensemble and Cesar Franck Quartet.
He plays on a 1986 viola made by his grandfather, luthier Udino Lazzarin.
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Although born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams considered himself a Londoner. The youngest of three children, he grew up at his mother’s family home, Leith Hill Place, Surrey, and most of his life was spent in the Dorking and Leith Hill area or in London. The move from Down Ampney came as early as 1875, on the death of his father, the Rev. Arthur Vaughan Williams. On both sides of the family there was distinction and independence. The Vaughan Williamses were a family of eminent lawyers: Sir Edward Vaughan Williams, the first Judge of Common Pleas, was the composer’s grandfather. His maternal grandparents were Josiah Wedgwood III and a sister of Charles Darwin.
Encouraged to take an active interest in music, the young boy received his first lessons from a Wedgwood aunt, who not only taught him the piano but took him through The Child’s Introduction to Thorough Bass and Stainer’s Harmony. By the time he went to preparatory school, at Rottingdean, Sussex, he had some acquaintance with the violin as well as with the piano and organ. During three years at Charterhouse (1887–90) he switched from the violin to the viola, played in the school orchestra and, but for family misgivings, would possibly have decided on an orchestral career. There followed a period of two years at the RCM, then three at Trinity College, Cambridge (MusB 1894, BA in history 1895), and a further year or so at the RCM: a substantial period of study, during which his teachers of composition were Parry, Wood and Stanford.
Even as a schoolboy Vaughan Williams had been drawn increasingly to composition, and on going up to Cambridge he knew very well what he wanted to become. But progress was slow; Wood did not believe he would ever make a composer, and a Darwin cousin, Gwen Raverat, writing of her Cambridge childhood, recalled ‘overhearing scraps of conversation about “that foolish young man, Ralph Vaughan Williams”, who would go on working at music when “he was so hopelessly bad at it”’. In later years the composer himself remarked on his ‘amateurish technique’, which he said had dogged him all his life; but his early groping had much to do with a deep dissatisfaction with the English musical scene and an inability to see his own path. He knew that he must strive for the highest professional standards; hence his return to the RCM and his subsequent studying with Bruch in Berlin (1897) and Ravel in Paris (1908). At the same time he recognized that, creatively, salvation would be found, not in imitating foreign models, but in a regenerative use of native resources. This led him to English folksong, to Elizabethan and Jacobean music, and to a philosophy of musical citizenship, which he both practised and preached (see especially his essay ‘Who Wants the English Composer?’ and National Music). These interests and ideals he shared with Holst, whom he met at the RCM in 1895. The close friendship that at once developed is notable because the two composers subjected their work in progress to each other’s criticism. These ‘field-days’, as they called them, lasted until Holst’s death in 1934, and Vaughan Williams missed them keenly in the years that followed.
It is a part of Vaughan Williams’s strength and importance that he cannot be adequately discussed in narrowly musical terms. His outlook was human and social. He never forgot that music was for people; he was interested in every situation, however humble, for which music was needed; and his feeling for genuinely popular traditions amounted to a reverence that was almost religious: the most obvious comparison is with Bartók and Kodály in Hungary. Two points immediately follow: throughout a public life of more than 60 years, Vaughan Williams engaged in a wide range of musical activities, sometimes of a kind that many lesser composers would have considered beneath them; and at every stage in his development the extensive list of works shows different levels of composition, from the simplest occasional pieces to the most visionary personal expressions.
‘Visionary’ is a word much used in discussing Vaughan Williams’s music, and it has often been assumed that the vision is theistic and specifically Christian. The reality is more complex. ‘He was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge’, wrote Ursula Vaughan Williams, ‘though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian’. He was a first-generation atheist with a profound sense of the past, which means a disappointed theist. Moreover, in the popular traditions of the English church, as in folksong, he was aware of the common aspirations of generations of ordinary men and women with whom he felt a deep, contemplative sympathy. And so there is in his work a fundamental tension between traditional concepts of belief and morality and a modern spiritual anguish which is also visionary.
It was not until 1909–10 that a personal voice fully emerged in Vaughan Williams’s music: On Wenlock Edge and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis are reliable points of reference. By then he had gained experience in a number of directions; he had worked as a church organist – perhaps the only appointment he was glad to give up – had taken the FRCO and MusD, and had launched out as writer, lecturer, music editor and folksong collector. He was editing Welcome Songs for the Purcell Society, but far more important was his selecting of the tunes for The English Hymnal (1906), a task to which he devoted many months, rediscovering old tunes and weeding out Victoriana. Some tunes, including the justly celebrated Sine nomine (‘For all the saints’), he wrote himself; he adapted more than 40 from folksongs. Since collecting his first folksong, Bushes and Briars, in 1903, he had become one of the foremost activists in the movement, notably in Norfolk, Essex and Sussex. In all he collected over 800 songs and variants, the vast majority before 1910. Another important development was the Leith Hill Musical Festival: from its inception in 1905 until 1953 Vaughan Williams was principal conductor, and his performances of Bach, particularly of the St Matthew Passion, became national events. His Bach was noted for its dramatic and spiritual qualities; he had little time for the school of ‘authenticity’.
By 1914 he had behind him a considerable body of work, including two symphonies, and a growing reputation for independence and strength of character. Although nearly 42, he felt bound to involve himself in the war. He served as a wagon orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps in France and on the Salonika front, and later returned to France as an artillery officer. Soon after the armistice he was made director of music for the First Army of the British Expeditionary Force, with responsibility for organizing amateur music-making among the troops. The impact of the war on his imagination was deep and lasting but did not express itself in an obvious protest or change of style; rather it is felt in a more intense inwardness.