Clara Louisa Ross was born in Brighton on July 1 1858, into a prosperous family of shopkeepers at 129 St James’s Street (where lettering reading “Ross & Sons, Hosiers, Outfitters” can still be seen on the first-floor window). They initially lived above the shop, but by 1871, the family had moved to a more luxurious residence nearby, at either 9 or 10 Atlingworth Street. Clara studied music as a child, and on June 25, 1877 (following an audition before Sir Arthur Sullivan) was awarded the Bristol scholarship to study at the newly-founded National Training School for Music in London. She completed her studies in Easter 1882, leaving “with honour” in singing and with “the highest honour” in piano, and remained in Kensington throughout the 1880s, composing numerous songs (several of which were published) with piano accompaniment. On the 1891 census, she described her occupation as “composer of music”.
129 St James’s Street, Brighton, where Clara Ross spent part of her childhood. Lettering reading “Ross & Sons, Hosiers, Outfitters” can still be seen on the first-floor window. Photo: Paul Sparks.
When the mandolin started to become fashionable amongst the female aristocracy during the second half of the 1880s, Clara (who seems to have had no previous connection with the instrument) saw a new opportunity for herself, as performer, teacher, and composer. She quickly mastered the mandolin and, with her lifelong friend Mrs. Augustus Hart-Dyke (née Mercy Harris) began performing mandolin duets (sometimes accompanied by her brother Edmund on piano), before forming the all-female “Kensington Mandolinists” at the start of the 1890s. She not only led this band, but composed most of its music too, and trained the players to a high musical standard, as this review of a concert given at Queen’s Gate Hall (Harrington Road) on December 14, 1892 attests:
Miss Clara Ross has greatly distinguished herself in Kensington, and indeed elsewhere, as a very clever executant and teacher of the mandolin; and it reflects the greatest credit on her that she should have been able to get together an efficient band of some twenty young lady pupils, who divided their attentions between mandolins and guitars, the combination of the two producing a most effective result. Conducted by their able teacher, they played compositions, chiefly of her own, in which it was shown how well Miss Ross understands the effects that can be produced from these instruments… Perhaps the most appreciated number of the programme was the mandolin duet played by Miss Ross and Mrs. Hart-Dyke (Musical Standard, December 24, 1892, pp. 507-08).
The Kensington Mandolinists were subsequently renamed “Miss Clara Ross’ Ladies’ Mandolin and Guitar Band” and, over the next few years, they rehearsed fortnightly in Kensington, and performed Clara’s music at many of London’s most fashionable events. From 1890 onwards, her mandolin compositions began to be published, initially in versions for mandolin and piano issued by Phillips & Page and George White, before she entered (in 1894) into an exclusive agreement with John Alvey Turner (London’s leading publisher of music for plucked instruments) for her plucked instrument compositions. Over the next decade, Turner published forty-one of her works, the majority of which possess a musical sophistication that sets them apart from the vast quantity of mostly trivial mandolin music that was being published in Britain at this time. Her compositions were regularly singled out for praise in The Musical Herald and The Musical Standard, especially her attractively melodic Sicilienne, dedicated to “the members of Miss Clara Ross’ Ladies’ Mandoline & Guitar Band,” who performed it regularly:
On Wednesday evening at Queen’s Gate Hall, Mrs Hart-Dyke and Miss Clara Ross gave an evening concert at which their band of lady mandolinists, ‘The Kensington Mandolinists,’ was the chief attraction. We have noticed the performance of these young ladies before, and on Wednesday they again gave evidence of the good training they have received. Among other pieces they performed some clever compositions of Miss Clara Ross, one of which, ‘Sicilienne,’ is brilliant, melodious and excellently suited to the capability of the instruments (Musical Standard, December 16, 1893, p. 489).
One of the band’s most noteworthy performances was an appearance before royalty on July 3, 1893:
The Prince and Princess of Wales, who were accompanied by the Princesses Victoria and Maud, opened a bazaar at the Westminster Town Hall yesterday afternoon in aid of the funds of the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Diseases… Immediately below the platform, on which were gathered the ladies belonging to Miss Clara Ross’s Amateur Mandoline and Guitar Band, were placed two chairs of state for the Prince and Princess… On entering the hall the Royal party were received with loud cheers, and the lady orchestra played, while nurses from the institution sang, the National Anthem and ‘God bless the Prince of Wales’ (Times, July 4, 1893, p. 12).
Clara was by now in her late thirties and, despite the popularity that she was experiencing in London, she moved to the United States early in 1895, to marry a man she had first met as a student. He was Richard Atkins Griffin, an Irish operatic bass who had emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the mid-1880s, where he pursued a successful career as a singer and teacher, under the name of Riccardo Ricci. The marriage took place in Yonkers, New York State, on March 4, 1895, and the “society” page of the Pittsburgh Bulletin for March, 1895, noted that:
Mr. and Mrs. Ricci were at one time fellow students at the Royal College of Music, London, where Mrs. Ricci (then Miss Ross) made piano music her principal study. For the past few years she has devoted a good deal of time to the mandolin, and is known on the other side as one of the leading composers of mandolin music. Her mandolin and guitar orchestra, consisting of twenty amateurs (all young ladies) was quite a feature in musical circles in South Kensington, and was favoured with Royal patronage and approval.
Clara settled with her husband in Wheeling, West Virginia, and, as Clara Ross-Ricci, carved out a new (and more conventional) musical career. Back in London, mandolin compositions by her continued appearing until the early 1900s, but in America she devoted herself exclusively to the voice, as a teacher of singing and as a composer of songs and trios for women’s voices and piano. Many of these were published in the US, and — like her music for mandolin — deserve to be played, sung, and heard anew.
Following the death of Professor Ricci in 1905, Clara stayed in the United States for several decades, returning to the UK prior to WW2, to live in the Brighton area, where she died in 1954.