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Rebecca Clarke, Margaret Bonds & Sally Whitwell

<p>Welcome to Canon in She, a column that celebrates the beautiful music of composers who identify as women. In this edition, we have a violist who wrote for a variety of instruments, a resourceful African American pianist who wrote a Christmas cantata, and an Australian pianist who writes lyrical and quirky music for various instruments.</p>

Content warnings: implied abuse, racism

Welcome to Canon in She, a column that celebrates the beautiful music of composers who identify as women. In this edition, we have a violist who wrote for a variety of instruments, a resourceful African American pianist who wrote a Christmas cantata, and an Australian pianist who writes lyrical and quirky music for various instruments.

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)

Rebecca Clarke was an English and American composer and violist, mostly known for her chamber music featuring the viola. With German and American parents, Rebecca used both German and English texts in her music. Rebecca’s musical tendencies were encouraged in her family and she began violin lessons after sitting in on lessons given to her younger brother.

In 1907, Rebecca studied composition as the first female student at Stanford University. During this time, Rebecca switched from violin to viola. However, her father cut her off from financial support when she criticised his extramarital affairs and she was unable to complete her studies. Rebecca performed as a violist to support herself and was one of the first female musicians to perform in a full professional ensemble when she was admitted to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Her Viola Sonata in 1919 and Piano Trio in 1921 were both runners-up in competitions at the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music, which earned her broader recognition and a commission from the competition’s American patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Rebecca split her time between England and the United States for much of her life. She faced discouragement as a composer while in London, finding success as a solo and ensemble performer. She picked up her composing again in the United States during the Second World War, but her output dropped again when she took on work as a nanny in 1942. She still found some success in this year, however, when some of her pieces were included in the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) conference; she was the only woman included. In 1944, she married an old acquaintance from her Stanford days, James Friskin, who had by then become a member of the Juilliard piano department. Her final compositions occurred around 1954.

Rebecca wrote chiefly for the viola, but she also wrote pieces for various instruments such as solo voice, choirs, violin, piano, and clarinet. While she wrote close to a hundred works, only twenty were published in her lifetime. Pursuing publication could be a labour-intensive project from which a lot of women were discouraged, either actively by the men in their lives, the publishers, or by their circumstances.

The Rebecca Clarke Society is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting her music, aiming to “encourage and support performances, recordings and publications, and scholarship” of Rebecca’s works.

A Listening List

  • Shy One: This is the first piece by Rebecca that I ever heard. It’s based on a poem by William B. Yeats. I find the lyrics hard to pick out, so I’ll also attach a link to the Art Song Project that has them written out.
  • Sonata for Viola and Piano 1. Impetuoso: I sometimes find it hard to pay attention to instrumental music, but this one kept me listening. One of Rebecca’s most famous pieces, the first movement is sometimes energetic, sometimes moody, but always grabs me by the shirt collar and makes me listen. The other two movements can be found here and here.
  • Midsummer Moon: A shorter piece for violin and piano. It really shows off the versatility of the violin and the colours you can coax out of the instrument, from ethereal to earthy. I used to play violin, and I might have been more inclined to stick with it if I’d known there were women like Rebecca writing things like this (or maybe not; I was very lazy and never practised).
  • Ave Maria: Rebecca wrote a setting to this Latin religious text for a soprano and alto choir. This was the first of her choral works to be published.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Margaret Bonds was a pianist, composer, and teacher, and was the first black guest performer with the Chicago Symphony. She first learned piano from her mother, Estella C. Bonds, who was a piano teacher as well as the choral director and organist at the local church. Estella’s home in Chicago was a hangout for African American students and artistic and literary figures in the area.

As a teenager, she studied composition with Florence Price (who we met in a previous column). She was later admitted to Northwestern University but was not permitted to reside there or use the facilities. She found solace from the racism she experienced in Langston Hughes’ poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. She would go on to become close friends with him and set a great deal of his poetry to music. Margaret completed her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music at Northwestern University, and was already achieving renown before she finished her studies.

In her third year at university, 1932, Margaret won first place in the Wanamaker Prize for her song Sea Ghost, the same competition that earned Florence Price the opportunity to have her symphony performed. Sadly, Sea Ghost has been lost to the sands of time and historians haven’t been able to recover it. In 1933, she had the opportunity to play Florence Price’s piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She moved to New York in 1939, marrying Lawrence Richardson but keeping her maiden name (which was very controversial for the time). She studied at Juilliard Graduate School in 1940 and toured as a pianist throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, first as part of a duo and then as a soloist.

After the death of Langston Hughes, she moved to Los Angeles on her own, leaving behind her husband and her 21-year-old daughter. She worked with the Los Angeles Cultural Centre and Repertory Theatre and taught community music lessons in the basement. Margaret remained close to her mother throughout the years and, after her death, she was buried next to Estella in Chicago.

Margaret mostly wrote vocal music, but she also wrote piano pieces and larger-scale theatrical works. Like Florence, and many African American composers of this period, she was astoundingly resourceful and skilled as a musician.

A Listening List

  • Troubled Water: A piano piece based on the African American spiritual Wade in the Water.
  • The Ballad of the Brown King: A nine-movement Christmas cantata for solo vocalists and choir, and musicians such as the very prominent violinist in the first movement. It’s set to a text written by African American poet Langston Hughes in honour of the African king, Balthazar, telling the story of the Three Kings.
  • Dream Variation: The second of Three Dream Portraits, also set to Langston Hughes’ poetry.
  • He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand: An arrangement of the African American spiritual of the same name.

Sally Whitwell (1974-present)

Sally Whitwell is a Sydney-based Australian pianist, conductor, educator, and composer who works a lot with youth choirs, such as Gondwana Voices.

Sally grew up in Canberra and learned to play her grandmother’s steel-framed upright piano, taking classical lessons in the 1980s. She also studied bassoon, but piano became her primary focus. Sally completed her Bachelor of Music with Honours at the Australian National University’s School of Music in 1997. She earned a graduate diploma in accompaniment from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Accompanying other musicians is a common skill required of pianists.

Sally worked as a session musician with the ABC in the early 2000s, focusing on contemporary music, especially ones that crossed genres or were slightly quirky. She has also played with the Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra and contributed to an album put together by ABC Classic titled The Classic 100 Piano.

As a composer, Sally started working professionally after inspiration from her partner of the time, for whom she wrote a choral setting of Lord Byron’s She Walks in Beauty. A friend asked to buy it to perform with her community choir. Sally’s formal training lies mainly in music performance, not composition.

Three out of Sally’s four albums have been nominated for ARIA awards, with her Philip Glass and Michael Nyman albums winning Best Classical Album. Sally’s fourth album, I Was Flying, is a collection of her compositions, which spent five weeks in the top ten of the ARIA Core Classical Charts, as well as being nominated in 2015 for Best Classical Album.

Sally puts a lot of work into mentoring young composers and was in the midst of mentoring young queer composers for Divisi Chamber Singers’ Compose Queer initiative in 2020, which is slated to resume in 2021. This project is intended to empower queer composers to express their queerness freely in music and raise awareness of queer issues in classical music. Sally is also an outspoken feminist.

Sally’s style veers between delicately melodic, and fun and quirky. There’s something for everyone, especially if you love the sound of the piano. Sally predominantly writes for piano, solo voice, and choirs, and has also written for strings and woodwind (and ukulele with toy xylophones!). She has a soft spot for Romantic poets. Recently, she has been learning to tap dance and has been speed-composing short pieces of music, such as this one.

She is one of my favourite composers. I’ve never had the privilege to work with her directly, but she has left her mark on many of my peers.

If you want to learn more about Sally and her music, please visit her website.

A Listening List

  • Some World Far from Ours: I really love the crystalline sound of the piano in this piece. It’s set to a letter written by Percy Shelley to his friend Jane Williams about the power of her music.
  • She Walks in Beauty: This is Sally’s first composition. A choral piece set to the poetry of Lord Byron, Sally wrote this to “show my girl how much I love her”. This was the reason she began to compose, and I find that incredibly beautiful.
  • Road Trip: This is a short piece for flute and piano, based on the train commute Sally used to make between Sydney and Newcastle for a university teaching job.
  • The Insomnia Waltz: This “frustratingly meandering stopstart of a piece” began late at night when a “half of a reasonably good tune” kept harassing Sally until she got up, wrote it down, and finally went to sleep.
  • Happy Place: One of Sally’s quirkier pieces, this was written for solo voice, Soprano-Alto choir, ukuleles, and toy xylophones. It was inspired by a walk she took in her neighbourhood with her mum.
 
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