During his first eight years in Toronto Clarke rose to musical prominence. Under the influence of McCaul he programmed some of the first Toronto performances of Beethoven and Mozart symphonies in 1846 and 1847. He submitted an 8-part anthem, 'Arise, O Lord God, Forget Not the Poor,' to King's College (Toronto) in 1846 and received for it the first B MUS degree issued by a Canadian university. Though not on the staff of the college, he may have been employed as an adjunct teacher. He was the organist at St James' Cathedral for the year prior to its destruction by fire in 1849. At about the same time Clarke taught at the Toronto Normal School and the Toronto Academy, a boys' school. His compositions were published by Nordheimer and in the Anglo-American Magazine, and won three prizes offered by King's College in 1848.
Fortune reversed itself about 1853. A Mr R.G. Paige, who had appeared with his daughters in one of Clarke's concerts, won such popular favour that the Toronto Vocal Music Society appointed him conductor in Clarke's place in 1853, an action that split the membership and destroyed the society. In the same year Clarke's application for a teaching position at Trinity College was turned down in favour of G.W. Strathy's, while a year later the Daily Leader of Toronto (31 May 1854) attacked Clarke's songs as being 'below mediocrity' and 'sadly deficient in both design and originality,' and argued, rather unfairly, that 'the meretricious drapery of the accompaniment' served to hide poor melody.
Whether Clarke received a musical doctorate (the first to be granted by a Canadian university) is likely to remain a mystery (see Degrees). The University of Toronto's program for commencement, 1 Jul 1856, listed Clarke among those who were to receive degrees. On the copy now in the University Archives, however, Clarke's name is crossed out and a delete symbol is marked in the margin, suggesting a last-minute withdrawal. Other university records and a number of respectable dictionaries credit him with the doctorate, yet even after 1856 Clarke identified himself only as a B MUS. After his death it was asserted, incorrectly, that he held a doctorate from Oxford.
Despite the apparent reverses in fortune which affected his career Clarke seems to have been held in high respect. In his first Toronto advertisement (British Colonist, 11 Nov 1845) he called himself a piano teacher with 20 years' experience and a pupil of Domenico Crivelli, a voice teacher at the RAM in London. Clarke was an exponent of Johann Bernard Logier's system of piano teaching which, despite its pitfalls, represented progress in its emphasis on class instruction. Thus it probably was not incompetence but only illness, intrigue, or bad luck that caused Clarke, between his Philharmonic Society concert in May 1855 and the early 1870s, to play a very minor role in the musical life of Toronto. If he was absent from the city for a while, he certainly had returned by 1861; yet no record exists of any conducting, church, or teaching appointment after 1855. In 1861 Clarke edited, with John Carter and G.W. Strathy, A Selection of Chants and Tunes for the Church of England's Toronto diocese (Toronto 1861). The same year he directed a gala concert to celebrate the opening of Toronto's first streetcar line and a performance of selections from Il Trovatore, both in the newly opened Yorkville Town Hall. The directories for the 1860s list him as a music teacher; it was only with the revival of the Philharmonic Society in 1872 that Clarke rose again to prominence, and failing health soon curtailed his activity.
Clarke is not only the earliest musician in Canada who has found his way into the standard music dictionaries (which, unfortunately, perpetuate as many errors as truths), but also the first musician in English-speaking Canada to have written and published a sizable number of compositions. In addition to the Parochial Psalmody and A Selection of Chants and Tunes which he co-edited, his compilations include The Choir (Glasgow? 1835, a selection of choruses, anthems, etc, co-edited with A. Thomson) and Canadian Church Psalmody (Toronto 1845, with two Te Deums and seven other pieces by Clarke). Before emigrating from Scotland Clarke had published songs in such publications as Border Garland (ca 1829), The Western Garland (ca 1832), The Harmonicon (1832, 1833), and Chameleon (1833). The most interesting of these, 'Away to Loch Long' (in the Chameleon), is a through-composed song with an interesting accompaniment, displaying rhythmic and harmonic variety. This song suggests that the simplicity of Clarke's other vocal pieces was deliberate, not involuntary. Echoing tendencies of his time, Clarke strove, both in Scotland and in Canada, to write 'for the people' and to build a national literature. His Canadian titles provide a mirror of the country - 'The Wild Stream Leaps' (performed 1851); 'The Maple Leaf' (Nordheimer ca 1852); 'The Trapper's Song' (Anglo-American Magazine, September 1852); 'A Forest Home' (ibid, October 1852); 'A Canadian Christmas Carol' (ibid, January 1853); and, above all, his Lays of the Maple Leaf, or Songs of Canada (Nordheimer 1853), a cycle of seven songs for solo voice, duet, and chorus, which won immediate acclaim and deserves a modern revival.
Only three instrumental pieces have been traced, The Janus Minuet (Musical Times, New York, 25 Apr 1852), a contrived piece that sounds alike when played forward or backward, the Burlington Polka (1851), and the sprightly Favorite Toronto Air, 'arranged as a Rondo for the piano forte,' and dedicated to Mrs John McCaul (Nordheimer, before 1853). These three pieces, along with seven of Clarke's songs and choral compositions, have been reprinted in CMH vols 1, 2, 3, and 5. Favorite Toronto Air has been recorded by Elaine Keillor. Clifford Ford's piano piece A Little Fantasy on J.P. Clarke's Ballad 'Summer and Winter' (1986) is printed in Musical Canada. A younger contemporary of Clarke reported that 'during the latter portion of his career he composed a number of chamber trios and quartettes of an original and pleasing character, and constructed on the best classical models' ('Music in Toronto,' The Mail, 21 Dec 1878). That instrumental rather than vocal works are meant is suggested by the same writer's report that in his later years Clarke played second violin or viola in chamber ensembles.
See also Inventions and devices.
See also Hugh Clarke (his son).
Author Helmut Kallmann
Kallmann, Helmut. 'James Paton Clarke - Canada's first Mus. Bac'. CMB, 1, Spring-Summer 1970
Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 10
'Toronto's pre-confederation music societies'