The Anglo-American Rebecca Clarke achieved success as both a violist and composer at a time when female musicians faced formidable prejudice and discrimination. Today she is celebrated not only for the quality of her music, which rivals that of her more famous male contemporaries, but also for having inspired later generations of female musicians and composers to claim their rightful place at the centre of musical activity.
Clarke admired Debussy, Ravel (with whom she concertized), Vaughan Williams, and, especially, Bloch, about whom she wrote a glowing entry in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. Her shining moment as a composer, that she referred to in her self-effacing manner as her “one little whiff of success,” came in 1919 when her Viola Sonata placed second – to Bloch’s Viola Suite – in the prestigious competition sponsored by the discerning patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was forced to break the jury’s tie.
In 1921, Clarke again took second prize at Coolidge’s competition, this time for her Piano Trio, which, along with the Viola Sonata, would prove to be her most ambitious and enduring work. Today they form the bedrock of her reputation as a composer of deep passion, exquisite sensitivity and imagination, and faultless craft.
Like Ravel, Clarke left no program for her trio. But, like Ravel’s, hers invites speculation that the horrors of the Great War left their mark. If cannonades resound at the end of Ravel’s trio, in Clarke’s the guns fire at the explosive beginning. Amid ricocheting percussive dissonance rings the artillery of an incisive, repeated-note motto that appears, often transformed, in all movements. The brooding principal theme, for instance, consists of the motto extended, while the transition to the gentler secondary theme tacks on a different tail, whose rising and falling fourth – a discrete theme that scholars dub the “bugle call” – lends further credence to the trio’s militaristic overtones. The sonata-form movement ends quietly with an uneasy ceasefire.
The sensuous “Andante molto semplice” heaves in thick-textured molasses, from which occasionally erupts sparkling stardust in the piano. Unassuming melody, whose constituent motives freely migrate into the accompaniment, mingles with delicate string colours, including harmonics; against this organic tapestry, the motto sounds. This movement also ends softly.
The concluding dance-like scherzo is enlivened by pizzicato, cross-rhythmic play, and metre changes. Some episodes revel in pure instrumental colour. The music’s pulsing vitality, however, is interrupted by a quotation of the opening gunfire. The piano then dwells on the bugle call, echoed melancholically by the strings, the call fading into oblivion…until, like a sneak attack, the jovial scherzo theme bursts in and charges to an emphatic close in E-flat major. “In this way,” observes scholar Bryony Jones, “the general feeling is one of looking forward rather than back.” Nonetheless, in the scherzo itself, Jones detects English country dance themes and the modal harmony of English folk song. Thus, if indeed the trio speaks of war, this backward glance may be Clarke’s attempt to find solace – as did so many of her peers – in the English pastoral tradition.
In hindsight it is easy to hear the crashing chords, shrieking trills, and general cacophony that conclude Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio, as an aural – or at least emotional – representation of the war that France joined in early August 1914. When the war broke out, Ravel had already been working on his trio for five months but had made little progress. Suddenly he worked “with mad fury” to finish it by the end of August. Why the rush? Because the patriotic 39-year-old wanted to enlist. But at 5’4” and 100 pounds, he didn’t make the grade. “I remain here, alas, and seethe with anger,” he wrote. “I hurried to finish my trio so that I could join up. But they have found me too light by two kilograms.”
The trio’s four contrasting movements and clarity of expression place it squarely in the Classical tradition – but in that of French, rather than German, chamber music. Instrumental colour – particularly in the strings: double-octave spacing, harmonics, tremolos, pizzicato, trills – along with frequent changes in tempo, modality, and rhythmic fluidity are the key factors that generate interest and contrast. The carefully-wrought motivic development and key design of German sonata style are largely absent. In the first movement, both principal themes, inspired by the folk music of Ravel’s Basque homeland, are presented in A minor, albeit in different modal shades and over dominant and tonic pedals, respectively. In the recapitulation the same themes are made to float over remote pedals. The coda settles in C major, the relative major. Rhythm complements harmonic flexibility: from the supple, organic effect of the 3+2+3 grouping to the naturalistic, frequently fluctuating tempo.
Ravel called the second movement “Pantoum,” apparently after the Malayan pantun, a poetic form in which two distinct ideas, stated at the outset, are concurrently developed. A keen student of oriental culture and challenging formal problems, the structure evidently appealed to Ravel. He leads his two themes, one spiky, the other suave, through an intricate maze that follows the poetic form’s conventions remarkably well.
The third movement is a passacaglia, its long, meandering theme introduced by the piano bass. Ten continuous variations follow that build up to down again, with emphasis throughout on the open, perfect intervals of the fourth and fifth. In its final moments, the theme disintegrates, perhaps an ominous premonition of the breakdown of peace in Europe.
A boisterous finale, in sonata form like the first movement, drives the work to a rousing close. “The orchestral texture and the continually expanding sound result in a thrilling conclusion,” notes Roman Borys. “A pillar of the piano trio repertoire, the Ravel trio is one of the greatest chamber music works of the twentieth century.” One can’t help but wonder, too, whether the finale’s unbridled energy reflects the composer’s feverish determination to join the war effort.
Ravel didn’t give up trying to enlist and eventually was allowed to join the army as a truck driver. In one dangerous mishap, his truck broke down in a forest, not far from the front. “I did a Robinson Crusoe for ten days until someone came to rescue me,” he wrote in his May 1916 report. If adventure was what he was after, he certainly got it.