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RHONA CLARKE by David C F Wright

© David Wright Ph.D
This article, or any part of it, must not be reproduced in part or in whole in any way whatsoever without prior written consent of the author.



Rhona Clarke was born on the 12 January 1958 at the now-demolished Evelyn Nursing Home in Eccles Street, Dublin. She is one of seven children born into the Dublin home, 35 Charlemont Road, Clontarf, to customs officer Patrick, and his wife Theodora, née Flanagan. Her father played the violin and her mother played both the piano and the violin, the latter for the Westport Music Society.

Rhona's brothers and sisters are Cepta White (b. 1941), a housewife with two children, John (b. 1942), a telephonist, Barbara del Avendane (b. 1944) married with two children and a teacher of English, Avine Morton (b. 1946) married with three children, Fintan (b. 1947) who is a clerk and Patrick (b. 1959) who is a bus driver.

Rhona showed early ability at music and, apparently, at the age of two could sing perfectly in tune entertaining neighbours and friends. She began piano lessons with Nancy Buckley in 1964 and, when this teacher died, Rhona went to a Mrs Kelly. But in an interview with Ita Beausang, Rhona makes the point that she was not a child prodigy but, if anything, a street urchin!

Rhona's schools were Scoil Mhure National School, Marlborough Street, from 1962 to 1970, and then Maryfield College of the Cross and Passion Convent until 1975. Music was not taught at school and Rhona's academic strengths were languages (she did, at one time, consider a language degree or, failing that, a career in horticulture). Fortunately, she made the right choice. The turning point may have come when she was fourteen and joined the Lindsay Singers, a female choir under the conductorship of Ethna Barror, where Rhona sang mezzo-soprano. Already she had valued music, particularly Beethoven symphonies numbers 5, 7 and 9, as well as some of the piano sonatas. Chopin had also won her over notably the first and third Ballades, the Nocturnes and the popular third study from Op. 10. Her awakening to contemporary music was singing Elizabeth Maconchy's splendid Prayer before Birth with the Lindsay Singers which she hated at first. Having heard many choirs such as those at the Cork and Llangollen festivals this impressed her deeply.

She was never taken up with pop music, fashion or trends. It was clear that she took music seriously and wanted to take music up as a career. At the death of her father in 1974, her mother would have preferred her daughter to pursue a more lucrative career. But her mother's voice was a lonely one and Rhona has always been decisive, ambitious and possessed of insatiable curiosity.

At the age of eighteen, Rhona continued her musical studies at the College of Music, Chatham Row, Dublin with Elisabeth Costello who counted the pianist Michael O'Rourke among her many gifted pupils. Rhona joined the University Choir and remembers singing Haydn Masses and works by Seoirse Bodley. In 1976, her friend, Joe Ryan, invited her to join his Gaudite Chamber Choir. They sang mainly sixteenth-century material although their repertoire ranged from Gregorian Chant to Bruckner Motets. She was with this choir for about four years. In 1978 the University awarded her the Diploma in Music Teaching and she also won the Viennese Solo Award with a silver medal and a scholarship for playing a Beethoven sonata.

In 1980 she graduated from UCD with a Bachelor of Music degree. She was twenty two. She became choir mistress and music teacher at St Dominic's Convent, Cabra for about a year when she secured a similar post at St Paul's Secondary School in the Greenhills district of Dublin where she had sole responsibility for teaching music throughout the school of twelve to eighteen-year-olds and conducting the various school choirs.

Rhona Clarke entered the composition competition for the Feis Ceoil Award in 1982 with her Six Short Piano Pieces for children. There were eight other entrants and, although she did not expect to win, she did ... and to win a prize for her first composition was some achievement. This encouragement prompted her to take cello lessons with Margaret Fitzgerald between the years 1983 and 1985. Rhona also tried to stimulate pupils at school to take up this instrument as there was one available in the school.

It was in 1983 that she composed her haunting lullaby Suantrai Ghrainne for female singers which was commissioned by Ethna Barror and the Lindsay Singers and premiered by them at the Cork International Choir Festival in 1984. It is a setting of a poem by Maire Macant Saoi and the work, which has an Irish modalism, deservedly won the Sean O'Riada Memorial Prize. It was the composer first public success; she says that it was written almost entirely intuitively. Its telling simplicity of expression is appealing; it is tenderly evocative, touching but not sentimental, unashamedly tonal and possessing that rich nostalgic Celtic quality that communicates immediately.

Up to 1985, Ms Clarke had worked in comparative isolation but then she attended the Ennis Summer School where she heard music by Berio, Lutosławki and other European composers which generated an enthusiastic response in her. This annual school had as its directors James Wilson and John Buckley who admitted the talent of this young woman.

The first year at Ennis, Rhona completed her Trio for clarinet, cello and piano which she has withdrawn as being ' too experimental'. Ash Wednesday to words by T.S. Eliot dates from 1985. Due to copyright reasons and the inability to secure performing rights the work has yet to be heard. The following year saw a work for solo flute, Yellow and Blue. It is a work that is not laborious; it does not employ shrilling or disturbing effects; it states its material with the minimum of fuss. It was first performed in April 1987 at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin of Trinity College by Caran O'Connell.

Sisyphus for flute, clarinet and string trio, which the composer feels was the work that established her, appeared in 1986. The work is named after the character who, according to Greek legend, was punished by Zeus who condemned him to pushing a boulder up a cliff eternally. The work won the Varming Prize which is awarded every four years. Varming is a Dutch businessman and one of the founders of an engineering concern whose presence in Ireland is in the firm of Mulcahy and Reilly. The piece is in the composer's economical style and contains some brief aleatoric moments but this does not hinder the structure or the deft instrumentation. Of the three movements the first is the most convincing . Despite its tone being somewhat reserved, it is an accomplished work receiving its premiere by Concorde at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin in March 1987.

A work for solo voice and flute, Surprise, was completed in July 1986. It is a setting of a poem of Anna da Noailles. It is well-conceived and benefits from a good sense of contrast. Its first performance was given by Virginia Kerr and Deirdre Brady and was broadcast by RTE.

The following year saw the completion of Purple Dust for flute, violin and piano, named after a play by Sean O'Casey. It won the Sligo New Music Award from six finalists at St Mary's Cathedral, Sligo in October 1987. It may be similar in some ways to Sisyphus but the latter work benefits from an interesting piano part which is sometimes inside the piano. It was a worthy winner but one wonders whether a greater contrast of material and rhythm was needed.

Liadain for voice and Irish harp was commissioned by Ailish Kerrigan and first performed by her and Ann Marie Farrell in Dublin in April 1990. Liadain was a Munster poetess who loved Cuirithir, himself a poet, and the poem is concerned with God-fearing guilt and torments of aborted love. The piece is beautifully Celtic but its appeal may be restricted. The writing for the harp is superlative.

The BBC Singers were entrusted with the premiere of Psalm 148 at the Cork International Festival of 1989. The work is anchored in the tonality of D and is scored for unaccompanied chorus with optional piano or organ. Its directness of expression, buoyant rhythms and mature restraint reveal the composer's discerning mind. Although Rhona says she is not religious, her Roman Catholic upbringing surely lies behind this, successfully marrying words and music, which some experienced composers fail to do.

Dunsandle for piano trio dates from 1989. It is impressive and breaks new ground aurally and stylistically. The expert craftsmanship is not always enough to maintain any work. Incidentally, Dunsandle is an estate outside Athenry in County Galway, now in ruins.

Ms Clarke has written two Gloria settings. The Tallaght Choral Society, with funds from the Arts Council of Ireland, commissioned the first setting, a work in which the composer uses the orchestra for the first time. It is both her most adventurous and best work to date. Juxtaposed with the text of the Gloria is a translation of meditative poems by Teresa de Avila sung by a soprano with some soaring and spine-tingling effects. There is use of modal styles referring to religious music of the past and reflecting the composer's interest in Renaissance music engendered by her days in the Gaudete Chamber Choir. The work contains some lovely rhythms, has moments when the orchestration is beautifully balanced and there are some unforgettable moments. This first Gloria is now listed as Gloria Deo.

The second Gloria dates from 1989, a year later and is for unaccompanied double choir; it was first heard at a workshop at the Cork International Choral Festival with the BBC Singers. It continues in the style of Psalm 148 and hovers between the tonalities of G and D. Someone has said it is reminiscent of the slow movement of the Bartok's Piano Concerto no. 2 and the Kyrie of Britten's War Requiem. As with the psalm setting, the off-beat rhythms give this second Gloria a vital character; as in the beautiful Suantrai Ghrainne, the closeness of the harmonies give the work a warm sound and compelling unity.

There will be many who will disagree that the music is the composer and the composer is the music. In the second Gloria, Ms Clarke reveals herself to a discerning musician - but not to a mere music lover - and shows her own character in that she is usually of a calm and patient disposition. She is optimistic and friendly, though capable of outbursts of anger. She can be outgoing and dreamy. This explains one of her pastimes of walking by the sea. Her closeness to the elements is part of her temperament. She also enjoys gardening which provides a welcome relief from her active mind, insatiable curiosity and ambitious drive. For further relaxation, and when time permits, she enjoys reading such authors as Virginia Woolf, Kazi Ishiguro, the poetry of Brendan Kenneally, Herman Hesse and Collette, among others. She admires the acting of Daniel Day Lewis, Liv Ullman, Dustin Hoffman and Glenda Jackson.

A visit to New York in 1987 stimulated an interest in modern art which she believes assists her to compose and to value form, texture, colour and subject matter.

Although she has not experienced sexual discrimination she remains grateful to the pioneers of the Women's Liberation Movement for a freedom which is now taken for granted. Her opinions are both precise and concise and always delivered with courtesy. She strongly believes that each individual should live as they please provided no-one is harmed in the process.

Musically she values Bach and Mozart; recognises the highly individual genius of Beethoven; acknowledges Brahms' emotional quality; regards Wagner as the composer who made the greatest strides in harmony although she is troubled by his unbearable personality; she also admires the personal harmonic idiom of Debussy, responds to Fauré, particularly the piano quartets; she applauds the great energy in Bartók; finds difficulty coping with the strict serial works of Schönberg; admires that tautness of Webern's style but does not derive much pleasure from listening to his work. She prefers Berio, Lutosławski and George Crumb. Of British music she is indifferent to Elgar and finds some of Britten's choral music appealing whereas as she has yet to discover Tippett. Her first encounter with the music of Humphrey Searle led her spontaneously to use the term superlative genius. Among Irish composers she enjoys the energy of John Buckley, the solemnity and depth of Raymond Deane and the clarity of Brian Boydell.

She believes that if Mozart were alive today he would explore the electronic medium, although Rhona Clarke prefers this form when combined with acoustic elements or used for film and dance.

The year 1989 saw the production of two further works. The Two Songs for voice, violin and percussion to words by the Irish poet Luise Hermana and the Triptych for choir, saxophone and string quartet commissioned by the Clare County Council to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the town of Ennis where the Summer School had been held since 1982. The meaning of ‘Ennis’ is river meadow and these words are constantly repeated in the second movement, alternating between English and Irish. The finale wonderfully captures the mood of a country dance.

Ms Clarke attended a weekend course in computer music technology at Queen's University, Belfast in 1989 and the following year embarked on a successful two-year Masters course in composition. Dr Michael Alcorn was her supervisor and while he was on a year's leave Professor Adrian Thomas undertook that role. She did not work with any other composers at this time. She was particularly interested in electro-acoustic composition at this time. This lead to further study and this developed in a Ph.D. course in composition. Rhona lived in Belfast for two years in postgraduate accommodation at a time when the British Army were still on the streets. In that time she became a member of a mixed chamber choir, Capella.

She was the public relations officer for the Association of Irish Composers during 1989 and 1990.

In 1990 she wrote her String Quartet no. 1 entitled Magnificat because fragments of a magnificat chant are used throughout the piece. The work has three main contrasting sections, the first and second of which alternate several times. The first section is base on major and minor scales and uses two pieces of plainchant, a Magnificat and a Salve Regina as thematic material. The Magnificat theme is only fully stated at the end of the work where it is played by the cello.

A Great Rooted Tree is a work for orchestra which occupied her during 1990 and 1991. The title is taken from the writer, Vita Sackville-West :

There is nothing more lovely in life than the union of two people whose love for one another has grown throughout the years from a small acorn of passion to a great rooted tree.

The year 1991 also saw the appearance of The Mouse's Petition for voice, horn and two percussionists and a work for unaccompanied choir, A Song for St Cecilia's Day to the text by John Dryden.

City with No Name appeared in 1992. It is a work for tape realised in the studio at Queen's University, Belfast and first performed on 19 May 1992. Rhona explains that writing a work for tape allows the composer almost total control and this facility affords an infinite array of possibilities

Nightsong for oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, violin and double bass was completed in 1993 and has had only had a workshop performance at the time of writing.

Pied Piper for flute and tape was written in 1994 for the Sonorities Festival in Belfast and was well received.

Rorate Coeli was also written in 1994 as was the first suite Sounds for young players. A second suite appeared in 1995. Rorate Coeli was premiered in the 41st Cork International Choral Festival in May 1994 and Michaell Dervan in the Irish Times called it ‘steadfastly unilluminating’.

Ms Clarke always wanted to write a major piano work and in 1995 Gleann Da Loch appeared. It is a work that have given her much pleasure. She enjoyed the exploration of the timbre and resonance of the piano which is achieved by contrasting registers and textures, from stark unison octaves at the extremes of the instrument to monodic lines played mostly in the middle register, to chordal sequences. The resonant quality is a result of the pitch material chosen which has a strong relationship with the harmonic series. It has been played with success by Anthony Byrne but, again, the Irish Times was in two minds about the piece. Martin Adams wrote that 'the work shows a capacity to conceive a distinctive musical idea but the elaboration tends to blur the identity of the piece.’

Inside Out is written for guitar trio and was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guitar Trio who were organising a tour of Ireland. This short work is in two movements. Michael Dervan in the Irish Times in January 1996 wrote that the first movement 'never warms up and merely marks time in an idly riffy way. The second movement is more effective in a bluesier way but I'm not sure whether the hand-slapping of the wood of the guitar is a feature that would wear well on repeated hearings.'

In 1996 Ms Clarke completed music for a short film, Bovine, which was Peter McKenna's first film premiered at the Cork Film Festival on 12 October 1996.

In December 1996 she received her Ph.D. in music from Queen's. Her examiners included Nicola LeFanu and Eibhlis Farrell. Rhona went back into teaching full of new ideas.

In her extended family almost everyone was musical and this family background encouraged her to write music for the most popular instruments and a commission came which lead to The Waterford Suite of 1997, so-called because of a master class at Waterford that year organised by the Young European Strings. This led to compositions for violin and piano, viola and piano, cello and piano and two pianos. These are Jealous Pursuit for viola and piano, Prelude and Labyrinth for violin and piano, Resolution and Carousel for cello and piano and Then/Now for two pianos. It is not a suite in the usual sense.

In 1999 she composed a Mass for three part female choir and orchestra for the Dublin Secondary Schoolgirls Choir which project was funded by the Arts Council of Ireland. A Jubilate Domino for the same voices and organ dates from 2000 and the following year, Mo Phaistin Fion for SSA choir was written for the Presentation Secondary School in Fermoy.

Later she was asked to compose works for strange or unusual combinations. Monsieur Marceau is written for marimba, harpsichord and guitar and dates from 1999. It was written for the Donne in Musica Festival in Italy and the director asked for this combination of instruments. Sympathy is a splendid piece and is written for voice, flute, percussion and Irish harp and dates from 2000. It is so-called because it was dedicated to friends who had just lost a child. It was commissioned by the Tyrolean Ensemble. Hidden composed in 2001 is for clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and guitar.

Like the Welsh composer, Jeffrey Lewis, Rhona has an interest in unusual titles for her compositions. She explains that it is impossible to interpret a title. Jealous Pursuit dates from 1997, Jagged Edge for violin and cello was written in 2000 and Undercurrent, a piano quartet, appeared in 2001.

Anthony Byrne had scored a success for Rhona with Gleann Da Loch and so, in 2001, Rhona composed Beal Dearg for him in 2001. Another piano work, This Moment, dates from 2003.

Rhona Clarke is a delightful person. She is completely natural and wholly free of guile or bellicosity. She is determined but not ruthless. She has become strikingly mature and, above all, has a monastic dedication to her art.

In recent years she has become so very busy and is hard to pin down although she remains courteous and co-operative. One feels she has written a lot of music much of which is small, concise and could be termed as miniatures. Of her 23 works written between 1998 and 2003 the average length is six and a half minutes. To be fair, this is the music she is commissioned to write but, perhaps, she should now concentrate on composing a few major works and produce some substantial works which will make a great impact.

Between 1994 and 2004 she has been a part-time lecturer at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra teaching counterpoint, harmony, analysis, history and criticism. She has also taught composition and orchestration. She introduced free composition as part of second and third year courses and designed and taught an M.A. module in music and modernity. During 2003 and 2004 at the Cork School of Music she supervised B.Mus. students and at the Mary Immaculate College in Limerick she was moderator for the post graduate diploma in educational composition. She has directed music workshops for primary and secondary schools with the Opera Theatre Company, The National Chamber Choir and Limerick County Council.

And so she is too busy to compose a substantial work.

Copyright David C F Wright, 1996 and updated and copyright renewed 2005.

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