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The Joyful Muse: Part II, The COMPOSERS, The MUSIC

Updated: 5 days ago

QSCM’s Joyful Muse Event features works created entirely by women. Jocelyn Morlock, Chen Yi, Jesse Montgomery,  and Rebecca Clarke: four women composers of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Read, listen, discover!

Rebecca Clarke(1886-1979):

Lullaby and Grotesque

for Viola (Violin) and Cello

Rebecca Clarke was raised in England by her German mother and American Father. Her Victorian style upbringing permitted and encouraged her artistic inclinations but gave little scope for public performance and recognition.  Enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music in 1903, she studied violin until 1905. At that time one of her teachers, Percy Hilder Miles, proposed marriage.  Rebecca’s domineering and abusive father responded by pulling her out of the academy.  Footnote to this episode: Miles left Rebecca his Stradivarius when he died.

Rebecca returned to study at the Royal College of Music in 1907, one of the first women to enroll.  However, when she called out her father for his ongoing extramarital affairs he drove her from his house. On her own, no longer able to afford study Rebecca left the college for work as a professional violist.  In 1912 Rebecca Clarke became  the first woman to be appointed to the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Rebecca Clarke’s professional biography tells the story of a woman pursuing her career as a musician against all cultural norms. She was received as peer and colleague by the leading lights of London’s music scene in the 20’s and performed with the likes of Dame Myra Hess. She performed as a soloist and ensemble musician in BBC broadcasts and recordings. Yet her compositional capability was given little credit. It was simply inconceivable that a woman could write great music.   

Very little of Rebecca Clarke's work saw publication. Biographers speculate that the lack of encouragement reduced her output. The onset of World War II sent her to the USA. Supported by Eleanor Coolidge she entered a prestigious competition, tying for first place with Swiss-American composer, Ernst Bloch. The press however assumed that both pieces were written by Bloch, suggesting that “Rebecca Clarke” was a pseudonym under which he covered his double entry.  The public was never informed that Clarke was the composer of the work that rivalled Bloch's for the presitigious first prize award. 

To make ends meet Rebecca took work as a nanny. She survived, but her creativity did not thrive.  Upon her death most of her writing remained unpublished. Though Clarke is recognized today as among the most important British composers of the interwar period much of her music remains unavailable to the public.  Among her published works is The Lullaby and Grotesque for Viola and Cello.    Scored originally for viola and cello, this work is characterized by English influences and the Romantic style of her formative training. At the same time the work, published in 1930, is infused with elements of new compositional techniques emerging in the composer's lifetime.

The simple rocking melody of Lullaby  is passed back and forth between violin and cello in a gentle conversational manner.  It is a loving tuneful piece, not all complicated, simple as a lullaby ought be.

Grotesque offers more complexity, incorporating elements of 20th century compositional style. Accented rhythms and short, choppy articulations, and  dissonant harmonies contribute to this more modern expression.

Both pieces point to the likelihood that as more of her works become available, Rebecca Clarke will take her place in the front row of the “great” composers of the 20th century.  Her musical expression documents the wide range of experiences, both tender and turbulent, characterizing the lives of women attempting to make their way creatively and professionally in what was and can still be very much a man’s world.To review the role of women in classical music, go back to Program Notes, Part 1


Three Bagatelles From China West 

Arr. for Violin and Cello 

Chinese-American composer Chen Yi

 ( 陳怡), born in China in 1953, was the first Chinese woman to receive a Master of Arts (M.A.) in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Entering the US in 1986 she earned her doctorate in  Musical Arts degree from Columbia University. What followed was a prestigious career marked by international awards, honours and prizes.

Dr. Chen Yi began studying classical music at age three. With the onset of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 Chen and her siblings were sent to a rural work camp.  She was permitted her violin, but only for the performance of "revolutionary songs".  Upon returning to Beijing she enrolled in the Central Conservatory of Music and spent her summers studying Chinese folk music.  

Of the Three Bagatelles  Chen Yi writes “the authentic folk music of China West has amazed and inspired me to write this piece.” She describes the origins of each movement as follows:

Movement I draws from folk music elements of the solo piece Shange Diao played on the wind instrument Lerong, as well as the musical pattern played on the small wind instrument Kouxian of the Jingpo people.

Movement II is inspired by the solo piece Nai Guo Hou played on the wind instrument Bawu,

as well as pitch material sung in the folk song Ashima of the Yi People.

Movement III comes from the folk song Dou Duo, as well as sounds of the Lusheng ensemble playing of the Miao People.


JOCELYN MORLOCK: Serpentine Paths

Canadian Jocelyn Morlock  (1969–2023) is one of Canada’s leading composers. Her music has been recorded and performed extensively nationally and through the USA and Europe. Among her stellar achievements, is the 2018 JUNO Award for Classical Composition of the year. This piece, “My Name is Amanda Todd” is about the teen from Port Coquitlam, BC, who took her own life due to cyberbullying, and demonstrates the emotionalism driving Morlock’s music. She takes her inspiration from birds, from insomnia, from a peculiar combination of both. Her writing is characterized by unusual scorings, often involving percussion, for small ensembles.

Serpentine Paths is a celebration of  sisterhood and music by Canadian women.  Featuring airy yet rhythmic melodies composition it  is at once complex, yet tuneful. Morlock evokes the way one’s path through life twists and turns.


Jessie Montgomery:

Duo for Violin and Cello

Growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Jessie Montgomery  began her violin studies at the Third Street Music School Settlement. Going on to graduate from the Julliard School  and  New York University she is a true product of a multitude of American cultural influences.  Her music  ranges from something  resembling music that written for English Consorts of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries  to the spicy  rhythms and melodic twists of the  sambambira, and Zimbabwean dance styles. The influence of  swing, techno and modern jazz improv are all part of her unique yet intuitively recognizably expression. In her official bio her work is described as  as “interweav(ing) classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social consciousness, making her an acute interpreter of twenty-first century American sound and experience.” 

Montgomery’s music is as profound in feeling  as it is complex and intriguing in its construction. Duo for Violin and Cello was written for the composer’s  friend and cellist, Adrienne Taylor. This work is structured, movement by movement around the characteristics of friendship: laughter, compassion, adventure, and sometimes, silliness. The writing employs traditional classical structures while employing  extended techniques to reach for a free improvisational form. The emotionally engaging and novel experimental aspects of Montgomery’s compositional style can be heard here. The vibrant multiculturalism of the composer's Manhattan formative influence cannot be mistaken.

(Photo credit: Jiyang Chen Photography)


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