We are pleased to honour Robert Fleming on the occasion of his 100th birthday commemoration. Some of his pieces have become standard repertoire in the canon of Canadian music; I am especially reminded of hearing his « Confession Stone » as one of the required works in the Eckhardt-Gramatté vocal competition, a beautiful work. I wish to send along my greetings to his family as they fondly remember their father.
Director, CMC Prairie Region
Young Composer in Wartime
Robert Fleming was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on November 12, 1921, and died in Ottawa, Ontario on November 28, 1976. His family moved to Saskatoon in 1928, shortly after he had begun to study piano. Having made a name for himself as a young pianist and singer, Bob turned to composition as well, at age 15. Encouraged by Arthur Benjamin to study in London at the Royal College of Music, he did so, between 1937 and 1939, working primarily with Benjamin himself and Herbert Howells, both significant mentors. Having returned to Canada on holiday, he was unable to resume studies at the RCM because of the onset of the war, which had been looming on the horizon for much of his time in England. Bob remained in Saskatoon and began studies at the Lyell Gustin Piano Studios, which proved to have a major formative influence on him. After receiving his LRSM (1941) and winning a Canadian Performing Rights Society scholarship (1942), he entered the Toronto Conservatory of Music, initially studying with Healey Willan (composition), Norman Wilks (piano), Frederick Silvester (organ), and Ettore Mazzoleni (conducting). He joined the RCAF as a wireless operator in early 1943 and resumed studies at the TCM in late 1945, with a second CPRS scholarship, deferred from 1943. This time he worked with Willan, Mazzoleni, and John Weatherseed (organ). While stationed in Prince Rupert, B.C., Bob had met and married Margaret Pound Woodward. Shortly after the arrival of their first of four children, he took employment at the National Film Board in Ottawa, in 1946. When the NFB was relocated to St. Laurent, Québec in 1956, the Fleming household moved to Pointe Claire, and later Ste. Anne de Bellevue. Bob continued as staff composer and Director of the Music Department at the NFB until 1970, at which time he joined the faculty at Carleton University. He continued to compose works for piano, organ, voice, choir, instrumental solo, chamber ensemble, orchestra, band, and the stage until his untimely death in 1976.
During the war, young Bob was the typical serious and driven music student, incredibly busy and striving to balance contending demands on his time and psychic energy. He was of course seeking to develop his pianistic technique, extend his approach to composition, learn the canon, and widen his cultural awareness to include literature, including poetry, the various fine arts, and the stage. He attended many memorable concerts and plays, especially in London and Toronto, and met great musicians, often through Benjamin and Willan. He practiced piano and organ regularly and for long hours, gave many recitals, and was frequently called upon to play for the troops and the general public, at wartime fundraisers, and on the radio. He performed as a soloist, in ensemble, in school and community bands, and with orchestras. During his last two years in Saskatoon, once he had completed high school, he gave piano lessons to many youngsters. He even had the opportunity to do some orchestral conducting during that period. He sang in choirs and/or served as organist and choirmaster in numerous churches and of various denominations while in Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, and Prince Rupert during the war. He managed, wherever he was, to find a good piano and a decent organ on which to play. Bob did all of this while also socializing with relatives, friends, and acquaintances throughout England and Canada, often entertaining them with his “opera act” and “Twinkle variations”; faithfully corresponding with family and close friends; and, of course, contending with serious matters of the heart. He cycled and took many long walks, alone and with friends. His solitary communing with nature often served to inspire and give focus to his compositional efforts. Although he followed world events, fulminated on the futility of war, and described and reflected upon wartime conditions, both economic and social, he studiously avoided getting involved in politics, and did so throughout his life. He fretted about when and how he should take up military duties, and in which of the services. Having almost joined the Navy Show, he instead enlisted in the RCAF. He struggled mightily thereafter with the perils of code training and sometimes cursed the ways in which his military service interfered with his compositional vocation and his love life. He worried too about whether and how he would be able to make a living as a composer, after the war. In a more positive vein, he also dreamed of extending his initial experiences with wielding the conductor’s baton, which considerably energized him.
While all of this was going on, Bob succeeded in responding to the compositional muse, and spent many hours copying manuscripts and furnishing them to friends and contacts, with an eye to getting his works performed and, in some cases, published. He entered and won or placed well in several composition competitions; was commissioned to compose works on several occasions; was encouraged by minor patrons; and was guided by a number of luminaries, including Sir Ernest MacMillan. He made many contacts, some of which helped in developing awareness of his work. His progress in composition was encouraged and facilitated by local and regional voluntary associations and by the emergence and development of many national cultural institutions in the second quarter of the twentieth century, namely the Toronto Conservatory of Music, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers’ Associations, the Canadian Performing Rights Society, the Oxford University Press, and the National Film Board.
Robert Fleming composed some 750 works over 40 years, in what was a relatively short lifetime. As he moved from late adolescence (age 17) to young adulthood (age 23) during the Second World War, his compositions were primarily songs, choral works, and piano pieces, although he did attempt some orchestral works and wrote a violin sonata during that period. Some of these pieces were performed by significant artists, in recital and by radio broadcast, during the war. Several of the compositions from this period were also published by the OUP, and some of them continue to be performed today. Following are brief excerpts from Robert Fleming’s own reflections in diary entries and related correspondence upon the publication or performance of four of his early works, Sonatina for Piano (1942), Suite for Strings (1943), Around the House (1944), and Bella Bella Sonata (1944). Some contextual information is provided for each work.
Sonatina for Piano
Written between 1941 and 1942, its first movement having been conceived at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan. The major work submitted, along with a song, for the 1942 CPRS composition scholarship competition, won by Robert Fleming. Published by OUP in 1943 and placed on record at the Leningrad Museum by Boris Berlin. Depending upon one’s criteria, arguably the first Canadian piano sonata. Early performances by Robert Fleming, Arthur Benjamin, Penelope Gillen, Thelma Johannes (O’Neill), Ross Pratt, and Geraldine Shuster (Leder), among others.
Robert Fleming on the Publication of Sonatina for Piano
By the time you receive this letter you will quite probably have received the printed copy of the Sonatina which I mailed. I think it very attractively set up. Mr. Gillman has sold a number of copies all ready (sic), and the day it came out George Coutts one of the Cons[ervatory] professors bought a copy. There are a few dimes in my pocket anyway. They gave me twelve copies for myself, which have vanished like a pad of butter on a hot frying pan. I have sent copies to Benjy, Howells, Ellie, Mrs. Massey, Mr. Jamieson, Dr. Willan, Mr. Wilkes, Mr. Sylvester, Mr. Gustin, Keith Kimball, and “home,” and kept one for myself. Now I’ve got to settle down and learn to play the blinking thing properly. (Letter to Eric and Gina Fleming, May 25, 1943)
Suite for Strings
Commissioned by Jack Montague for performance by his Youth Orchestra, for which Robert Fleming also did several arrangements around that time. Premiere conducted in Toronto by Robert Fleming, on April 28, 1943. Subsequently performed at least twice more under Montague’s direction, and broadcast once under Godfrey Ridout’s baton. Most significantly, this work was performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Benjamin in a September/October 1944 CBC/NBC radio broadcast/rebroadcast, as part of the eight-program “Canadian Music in Wartime” section organized by Jean M. Beaudet for the Inter-American University of the Air summer series, “Music of the New World”. That performance can be heard at https://pastdaily.com/2019/05/05/arthur-benjamin-and-the-cbc-vancouver-symphony-in-music-of-fleming-and-champagne-1944-past-daily-weekend-gramophone/. (The source is a CBC transcription disk, acquired by Gordon Skene, an American collector with an interest in Canadian music.) Pleased with Benjamin’s interpretation and the orchestra’s performance, Bob Fleming found himself overcome by emotion during the broadcast. Appropriately, he heard the NBC rebroadcast while chopping wood at an American outpost at White Point, B.C. to which he had been seconded briefly while stationed at Bella Bella.
Robert Fleming Concerning the 1943 Premiere
The Suite went off with great success last night. The youngsters made a fine showing, and compliments engulfed me. Dr. Willan was very pleased about my conducting, but I won’t say more. Modesty you know! Mrs. Gillman will give you more of the lurid details as she had a long talk with Willan and knows more of them herself. In fact she was so pleased with the job I did that she gave me a kiss for you mother, because she knew that that is the first thing you … [would] have done had you been there! It was my night of glory, and probably the last for the duration. Do you remember my telling you of the falling star which brightened the sky as I came out of Convo Hall in Saskatoon after conducting the Saskatoon Symphony for the first time. I wondered then, and have wondered since if this might have been a portent of things to come in the field of conducting. I love it passionately and wish I could do more. There will probably be a chance for me to do some in the Navy Show. Here’s hoping. (Letter to Eric and Gina Fleming, April 29, 1943)
Robert Fleming Concerning the Benjamin Interpretation of the Work
On tenterhooks all day.- hoping and praying that the suite would be playing in the evening. IT WAS. – I must confess that I behaved in manner unbecoming to my 22 years of existence. – Was so full of mixed emotion that I damn near cried like a baby. I was alone in the room – thank the Lord. Benjy and his orchestra made a wonderful job of the string suite.- details were perfect and I learned a lot from the performance. (Letter to Eric and Gina Fleming, September 21, 1944)
Eric Fleming Concerning the NBC Rebroadcast of the Benjamin-Conducted Performance
An airman was busy chopping down a pine tree in a lonely bush station in British Columbia. While he chopped he listened to a short wave broadcast through a loud speaker outside the camp. Suddenly he heard his name mentioned on the radio. “We now play a string suite by the young Canadian composer Robert Fleming.” The broadcast of Canadian music was coming from San Francisco and [being] directed to South America. Young Bob Fleming chopped down the tree in record time and thought furiously about the things that happen to a composer in war time. (From biographical piece concerning Robert Fleming, written in 1949 by his father at the behest of a music critic for the Ottawa Citizen, Lauretta Thistle)
Around the House
A Nursery Suite, for piano and orchestra. Sketches written in 1942, and periodically modified, with significant changes made on the recommendation of Sir Ernest MacMillan in 1944. Submitted in 1943 for a newly established CPRS prize for compositions at least 15 minutes in length, the youngest recipient of which was Robert Fleming. First performed in a January 13, 1944 broadcast by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, its premiere in concert performance was by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, at Massey Hall, March 14, 1944. MacMillan wielded the baton in both instances, and Robert Fleming was present in Massey Hall.
Robert Fleming on the Changes Recommended by Sir Ernest MacMillan
Sir Ernest and I went through the score closely, and he gave me some wonderful pointers about orchestrations. The changes he made were all for the best, and he explained every one to me logically. We did change some of the tempos though. He told me that once he started work on the suite … it fascinated him enough to make the changes all through. He did a lot of work on it, most of his alterations though are omissions of surplus orchestration. He has only made a few changes in harmony and a few extensions. The copyist made a wonderful job of the parts too. (March 2, 1944 letter to Eric and Gina Fleming)
Robert Fleming on the Premiere at Massey Hall
The 20 minutes or so which the Suite took to play, were without a doubt the most awesome and thrilling moments of my life; filled with moments of apprehension, satisfaction, reflection, surprise, and gratitude. – A glorious revelation of the fruits of a year’s hard labour, and a realization of what lies ahead for me after the war. It was all tinged with moments of regret, and not a little despair at the barriers separating me from the joy and realization of my fondest ambitions. Time alone will tell my story, and even though the years may pass before the pen is mine to use at will again, the memories of this day will keep my resolutions and hopes high and willing. All around I felt a feeling of warm response to what my music was saying, with mum, dad, Alex and Wallace and Iona near at hand with their smiles of encouragement to cheer me. The orchestra played magnificently, as tho’ every member was striving to make the performance a great success. I shall always be in Sir Ernest’s debt for this, he did a gigantic job. This was the day that I had dreamed of since early childhood. The audience’s response was spontaneous and overpowering, and I was called up four times. I remember a sea of faces, Sir Ernest waving, the orchestra clapping too, the tears in mum and Alex eyes, and dad’s warm handshake. I’m afraid that the Debussy Nocturnes meant very little to me during their performance. In the intermission, I was introduced by Gen. Potts, to Col. and Mrs. Drew, the Mayor of Toronto and others, and was cornered by reporters, autograph hunters and friends. (Excerpt from “Memories of a Day of Days, March 14/44”, actually written on March 26th concerning the March 14th performance)
Bella Bella Sonata
A violin sonata, begun as a piano work in 1943 but changed to a violin work on Arthur Benjamin’s suggestion, after he had heard Bob play a draft of the first movement. Completed in 1944 and named after the location of Robert Fleming’s RCAF posting at the time. Submitted for another CPRS prize, one of the 1944 recipients of which was, again, Robert Fleming. An April 8, 1945 CBC broadcast performance by Kathleen Parlow and Leo Barkin was rebroadcast on April 16, 1945. Bob contrived to have the rules bent so that the radio feed could be directed to a studio within the CBC station at Prince Rupert, to ensure that he heard every note, home radio reception generally being poor there.)
Robert Fleming on Kathleen Parlow’s Performance
Reception was perfect, and could not have been better even if I had been sitting beside Miss Parlow in the Studio in Toronto. Oh what a thrill it was to hear my own music coming home to me: and how wonderful it was to hear in actuality what had been, up till those minutes, merely music in my imagination. I thought the interpretation of the work came up to and at times surpassed my own conception. What lovely tone she had, full of depth and personality, and how well she approached and left the little nuances that make any work something more than ordinary. I cannot begin to sum up all the moods that hit me while it was being played, but I do know that when it was all over I felt positively limp. (Excerpt from a letter to Eric and Gina Fleming, April 16, 1945)
To mark the occasion of the 100th birthday of Canadian composer Robert Fleming (1921-76), his son Berkeley has prepared this short piece on his father’s experiences as a burgeoning young composer during the Second World War. A retired sociologist and academic administrator, Berkeley Fleming is currently writing what he hopes will be a definitive biography of his father.
LIST OF RECORDINGS
The more recent of these recordings of substantial works by Robert Fleming remain available. The CBC recordings in LP form included below were for broadcast use only.
Sonatina for Piano (1942)
- Elaine Keillor, Sounds of North: Two Centuries of Canadian Piano Music (Gala Records, 2012: Gala-108)
- Wanda Procyshyn, soprano and Elaine Keillor, To Music – Canadian Song Cycles (Carleton Sound, 2010: cscd-1013)
Four Songs on Poems by John Coulter (1946-’54)
- John Boyden and John Newmark, John Boyden (Baritone)/John Newmark (Piano) (CBC, 1967 – Stereo 248)
Shadow on the Prairie (1952)
- Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Sir Ernest MacMillan, cond.), Transcription recording of the concert suite of this ballet, for initial broadcast on Dominion Day, July 1, 1955. (CBC SB 1413-14)
Ballet Introduction (1960)
- Toronto Philharmonia Orchestra (Walter Susskind, cond.), Scored for Ballet (Columbia Masterworks, 1965 – ML or MC(S) 6163)
Three Dialogues (1964)
- Melvin Berman and Monica Gaylord, Melvin Berman Oboe/Monica Gaylord Piano (CBC/SRC, 1974 – SM 268 Stereo)
The Confession Stone (Songs of Mary) (1965)
- Maureen Forrester and John Newmark, Song Cycles (Gala Records, 2007: Gal-110)
[The Fleming song cycle was originally available as a CBC recording which was first released commercially by RCA (Canada) in 1982, on Red Seal KRL 1-0437]
- Caroline Gélinas and Olivier Godin, Confidences (ATMA Classique, 2018 – ACD2 2781)
Variations on a Timeless Theme (1967)
- William O’Meara, organist, ÀWÁRÍ Gems from Canada and Beyond (2015 – Available at CDbaby.com)
Divertimento for Organ, Two Oboes and Strings (1970)
- Gerald Wheeler, organist, Organ Plus (CBC/SRC, 1976 – SM 292)
Folk Lullabies (1970)
- Maureen Forrester and John Newmark, Maureen Forrester, Contralto/John Newmark, Piano (CBC/Radio Canada, 1971 – SM 144, Stereo)
- Maureen Forrester and John Arpin, Lullabies (Pro Arte Fanfare, 1988 – CDD 411) [excluding one of the six Fleming-arranged lullabies]
PEI Folk Songs (1973)
- Donald Bell and Dale Bartlett in Donald Bell (Baritone) Dale Bartlett (Piano) (CBC SM 259 Stereo)
Three Scenarios for Band (1974)
- University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble (Fraser Linklater, cond.), in North Winds III: Canadian Wind Band Music (University of Manitoba, 2011 – available from the Canadian Music Centre)