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View from the Archive

In our school archives, we recently came across records of the composer Rebecca Clarke – one of the first female players in a professional orchestra.

Our archivist, Jo Coates, shines a light on another of our trailblazing alumnae.

‘Recently, BBC Radio 3 has been championing female composers, encouraging listeners to (re)discover the works of Amy Beech, Florence Price, Lili Boulanger or indeed, Rebecca Clarke. So it was a joy to find out that one of these pioneering musicians was in fact a former South Hampstead pupil. Born in Harrow, Clarke attended South Hampstead between 1898 and 1901, and left aged 16.

Today, Rebecca Clarke is being celebrated as part of the vital renaissance of English music that took place between the two world wars.  After leaving South Hampstead, she attended the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Sir Charles Stanford. She was his first female student. Unfortunately, she was forced to leave the Royal Academy early; her father disapproved of a relationship she had and refused to pay the fees. Undeterred, she had a long career as a professional viola player. In 1912, she was one of the first women to be admitted to the famous Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

However, her main focus was on chamber music and on composition. She achieved fame as a composer with her viola sonata (1919) and piano trio (1921) written for competitions in the US, where she began to establish her reputation. Throughout the 1920s, she wrote a steady stream of chamber music and songs, much of it for her fellow performers. In 1939, she emigrated to the US where she continued to compose. In 1944, she married pianist James Fiskin, at the age of 58. They settled in New York where she lived until her death at the age of 93.

In 2017, Clarke was named Composer of the Week on Radio 3. Leah Broad’s recently published book, Quartet: How Four Women Changed the Musical World, recognises Clarke’s legacy, alongside three other female composers; the book was listed as one of the New Statesman’s top ten non-fiction books of 2023.’

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