A Note from the Author

The material contained in this site is derived largely from Robert Fleming’s personal and professional papers held in the Music Collection of the National Library and Archives Canada; from scores, recordings, correspondence, and other documents held in the Canadian Music Centre; from letters, newspaper clippings, programs, scrapbooks, and  diaries, originally retained by his parents or his wife, Margaret Fleming; from my own recollections of my father and his work; from a personal collection of Robert Fleming memorabilia, scores, publications, and recordings; and from research work that I have conducted over the past forty years or more. The presentation of this material is informed by my own understanding of Robert Fleming’s life course, his personality and character, his intentions, and ambitions, his personal and professional relationships, his musical creations, and their significance. The content reflects a certain degree of inside knowledge and privileged understanding. The flip side of that is the possibility of bias. I am certainly aware of the hagiographic perils that such an exercise in filial devotion could entail, and shall do my best to avoid them. I welcome others’ comments and correctives. 

Berkeley Fleming, 

Sackville, New Brunswick

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Sonatina for Piano (1942) and Secrets (1942)

Provenance

Shortly after his return to Canada, not yet 18, Robert Fleming made his concert debut at Darke Hall in Regina, in 1940. This was followed by a recital tour throughout Saskatchewan.

Sonatina for Piano was dedicated to Robert Fleming’s Saskatoon-based piano teacher, Lyell Gustin. He began to study with Gustin after having travelled home to Saskatchewan for vacation, only to find that the onset of war precluded his returning to England to resume his musical education there. Other students at the renowned Gustin Studio included Edmund Assaly, Garth Beckett, Neil Chotem, Boyd MacDonald, Thelma Johannes O’Neill, and Douglas Voice. Assaly, Chotem, and O’Neill were contemporaries of Robert Fleming, and are mentioned regularly in his diaries. I heard their names frequently during my childhood.

Elaine Keillor has suggested in liner notes for a recently released CD box set, Sounds of North: Two Centuries of Canadian Piano Music, that Sonatina was the first Canadian piano composition truly in sonata form. Along with the song cycle, Secrets, Sonatina led to Robert Fleming receiving a scholarship from the CPRS (Canadian Performing Rights Society, precursor to CAPAC, later SOCAN), to support attending the Toronto Conservatory of Music, beginning in September, 1942. The CPRS scholarship was in the amount of $750, quite a substantial sum in those days, and doubtless a staggering amount for a young lad from Saskatoon to receive.

Image As one can see from the original Oxford University Press (Canada) publication of the piece, as well as from its 1974 re-issue by Gordon V. Thompson Ltd., the copyright date for Sonatina is 1943. Some sources have indicated that it was written as early as 1941. I have recently determined through careful perusal of Robert Fleming’s date books and diaries, that it was begun in 1941, but not completed until early 1942. It is also possible that there were revisions made in 1943, the year of publication. I am currently reviewing the diaries for late 1942 and early 1943 with an eye to clarifying that matter. It would appear that the only manuscript of the work available in the Library and Archives Canada is a 1941 draft, presumably of the first movement only. I have not discovered any other manuscripts of the work among those of my father’s papers retained by family members.

Robert Fleming’s 1941 and 1942 date books and diaries indicate that he “[h]ad nearly finished [the] new Sonatina (1st mov’t)” by August 29, 1941; finally completed it (meaning the first movement) on September 7, 1941; improvised a romantic Sonata for [then girlfriend] Elin (Ellie) Stephanson on September 21, 1941 that conceivably provided the impetus to press on with another movement; was working on a second movement on January 9, 1942; did considerable work on the “reel” within what he was at that time calling the third movement, on February 3, 1942; did further work on the latter part of the piece on February 19, 1942; assiduously copied the full manuscript on February 23, 24, and 25, 1942; and air mailed the work to the CPRS on February 26, 1942.

Presumably the package also included Secrets, a cycle of three songs based on poems by W.H. Davies, which musicologist Christine DeWit Keitges has reported was also part of the submission to the scholarship competition. Robert Fleming began to work on “Love, Like a Drop of Dew”, one of the songs in Secrets, on January 23, 1942, and four days later its dedication to Ellie was announced in the diary, although the dedication does not apparently appear on the original manuscript.  There is also reference in the diary to the package having been sent to the CPRS “with Ellie’s blessing”. Ellie Stephanson was also a Gustin student, and Robert Fleming reports first making her acquaintance on February 11, 1941.  My hunch is that the other two songs in the cycle had both been written prior to 1942, but I can find reference to only one of them, “Pleasure and Joy (The Rivals)”, its completion having been noted on October 8, 1941. There is no direct reference to the other song, “See Where Young Love”, in either the 1941 or the 1942 diary. Christine DeWit Keitges, who examined the manuscripts for all of Robert Fleming’s songs, held in one or both of the Library and Archives Canada and the Canadian Music Centre, indicates that “See Where Young Love” is dated 1942. Assuming confirmation that it was written by the end of February, 1942 as well, then the completion of all three songs to Robert Fleming’s satisfaction would have permitted him to include the cycle in the package that he sent off to the CPRS. It is clear that consideration of Sonatina and Secrets together led to the CPRS scholarship.

 Early on the morning of April 6, 1942, that is just over five weeks later, Robert Fleming received a telegram indicating that he had won the scholarship. His brief diary entry to that effect was followed by a separate four-page note on his own initial reaction and that of others, the significance of this achievement for him, and so forth. Not five days earlier, as expressed in another four-page addendum to his diary, he had been in the depths of despair, over uncertainties relating to the future of his relationship with Ellie, the likely vicissitudes associated with making a living as a musician, and of course the dark foreboding that he and others were feeling concerning the war, particularly after Pearl Harbor in early December, 1941. His own disquiet and confusion were likely exacerbated by his grappling with the prospect of enlisting in one of the armed services.  As one might imagine, the tone of this extended rumination was rather intense. I should add that it is very strange to read, almost 72 years later, about one’s father’s youthful yearnings, confusion, anxiety, and angst.

I hope eventually to tease out further details on the process entailed in the writing of Sonatina through family correspondence and the original score, which latter is contained in the Robert Fleming fonds d’archive at the Library and Archives Canada.

Performance

Early public performances and broadcasts of Sonatina were made by Robert Fleming himself, as well as by Thelma Johannes, in September, 1943; by Ross Pratt, a more established pianist, from Winnipeg, in mid-February, 1944; and by Robert Fleming’s piano mentor, Arthur Benjamin, in late February, 1944.  (Benjamin was by then living in Vancouver.) There was also, apparently, an early performance at Julliard, but I know not by whom, which “caused quite a stir”, according to Godfrey Ridout. Robert Fleming’s own first public performance, at least of the first movement, was at the Musical Art Club on March 10, 1942. His first broadcast of the entire piece was on a fundraising program called “Milk for Britain”, on April 17, 1942. My guess is that this was a local, or perhaps regional, broadcast. Robert Fleming also performed the work at least once while he was stationed in Montréal in 1944. An advertisement for the O’Neill, Pratt, and Benjamin performances was printed in the same issue of The Canadian Review of Music and Art as contained an Oxford University Press advertisement for the published score.  I have heard the piece played by a few music festival participants over the years; by Lorena Rattray, a Mount Allison student (just the first movement); by Valerie Tryon (via a private tape, made at a party attended by a friend); and by Diana McIntosh, in a 1974 CBC Winnipeg recording currently available through the Canadian Music Centre web site. In recent years, I have had the pleasure of attending performances by Peter Allen (at the New Brunswick Summer Music Festival in Fredericton, N.B., 2009) and by Janet Thom Hammock (in her studio in Sackville, N.B., 2013).

Secrets has been performed by a number of people over the years.  The cycle was written for tenor or baritone, but is more often performed by women. I believe that John Boyden sang the work at some point in the 1960s, and I recall hearing discussion in the 1950s of a woman in Ottawa who did so, as well. I hope eventually to have prepared a more definitive list of performances of the work. Meghan McLean, a Mount Allison student, is currently preparing the cycle for a recital in the Spring of 2014. I had the pleasure of hearing her perform two of the songs on November 20, 2013. Some years ago, another student, Kimberly Hindy, performed one of those songs and the third, on November 21, 2001, at a Mount Allison University Music Department concert presentation of The Music of Robert Fleming, for which I prepared extended introductory remarks.

Publication

I am working on developing a better understanding of the circumstances that led to the publication of Sonatina. On June 8, 1942, according to his diary, Robert Fleming met with an OUP representative named Gillman, who I believe was in Saskatoon in connection with an upcoming (June 16th) concert of Canadian compositions sponsored by the OUP. (Gillman had actually conversed with Robert Fleming the year before, as well, at a similar event, and had expressed interest in certain other pieces at that time.) After hearing Sonatina played, Gillman asked Robert Fleming if he could spend the first few days after his arrival in Toronto with him, presumably to discuss publishing possibilities. Evidently that discussion was held, because the piece was published the following year, and others were issued subsequently. One of those others was Secrets, which was published in 1945. It is, like all of the pieces mentioned in this set of notes, out of print, but it too continues to be performed.

ImageRecordings

The only commercially available recording of Sonatina is the one by Elaine Keillor alluded to earlier (Sounds of North: Two Centuries of Canadian Piano Music). Ms Keillor in effect but indirectly replaced Robert Fleming at Carleton University, where he had taught in the last few years of his life.  She also performed the work in 2011 at an Ottawa-Gatineau CAMMAC full-evening presentation on Robert Fleming, of which I have a recording. Wanda Procyshyn, accompanied by Elaine Keillor, has released a CD of Canadian song cycles (To Music – Canadian Song Cycles) that includes a performance of Secrets.

This web site is dedicated to providing an exposition of the life and work of Canadian composer Robert Fleming (1921-76).

Robert Fleming was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on November 12, 1921, and died in Ottawa, Ontario on November 28, 1976.  He moved at an early age to Saskatoon, where he studied piano, initially with his mother. Young Bob was “discovered” by Australian composer and pianist Arthur Benjamin, who was adjudicating music festivals in Western Canada in the mid-1930s. Subsequently, at age fifteen, he went to London, England to study at the Royal College of Music with Benjamin (for piano) and Herbert Howells (for composition), among others. When he arrived in London, he learned that Howells had studied music with his grandfather, Arthur Evelyn Fleming, who had been the Præcentor at Gloucester Cathedral.  After winning a Council Exhibition Prize while at the RCM, Bob returned to Canada to visit his parents, and was subsequently unable to get back to England to continue his studies there, because of the end of the “phony war”.  He then came under the tutelage of Lyell Gustin, whose studio was a major influence on a number of significant Canadian musicians. In 1942-43, he studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, holding a Canadian Performing Rights Society scholarship, won for his 1942 compositions “Sonatina for Piano” and “Secrets”. Subsequently, he won a second CPRS scholarship, for two 1943 compositions, “The Oxen” and “Rondo” . This scholarship was deferred until his wartime service as a wireless operator with the Royal Canadian Air Force was close to completion. He also garnered another CPRS award in 1943 for his nursery suite composition,  “Around the House”. This work, performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest MacMillan, was broadcast nationally by the CBC in January, 1944, and received its first performance before an audience in March, 1944, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, again under MacMillan. Fleming’s teachers at the Conservatory included Healey Willan (composition), Norman Wilks (piano), Ettore Mazzoleni (conducting), and Frederick Silvester and John Weatherseed (organ).

In 1946, Fleming was invited by Louis Applebaum to join the Music Department of the National Film Board of Canada. He became its Music Director in 1958.  During his twenty-four years with the NFB in both Ottawa, Ontario and St. Laurent, Québec, he wrote and conducted scores for about 250 films, while also composing many works outside of his regular employment, and often on commission.  From 1970 to his death in 1976, he was Associate Professor of Music at Carleton University in Ottawa, teaching courses on twentieth century music and Canadian composers.

The typically lyrical, melodious, rhythmic, and wittily inventive characteristics of Robert Fleming’s compositions reflected his sincere interest in directly communicating with his listeners. His many and varied works ranged from film scores to orchestral and band pieces, ballets such as Shadow on the Prairie (1952), instrumental works, compositions for piano, and more than one hundred songs. The song cycle, The Confession Stone (Songs of Mary) (1966), is perhaps his best-known composition, thanks to many performances by Maureen Forrester, Judith Forst, and other notables such as Jessye Norman. This work shows clearly Robert Fleming’s affection for the voice, his facility in fitting words to music, and his comfort in writing for the piano, all noted as early as 1943 by Leo Smith.

Robert Fleming also had a long association with the Anglican Church, composing over fifty hymns, such as Let There Be Light (1967); nine settings for the Eucharist, including a Mass of St. Thomas (1974); a cantata, Heirs Through Hope (1968); and various pieces for the organ. A Wreath of Carols (1980), a posthumous collection of twenty-four Christmas carols with words by Bob’s wife Margaret, is particularly well-known. His last composition, a setting of the new Canadian rite, was found at his piano at his death.

Despite his relatively brief life span, Robert Fleming was one of Canada’s most prolific composers, with about 550 works in all. These include a significant number for young musicians, an assignment that he evidently embraced with enthusiasm. His works have been performed extensively throughout North and South America, Europe, the USSR (as early as the 1940s), Australia, and New Zealand. His legacy includes an important composition prize for young composers in Canada, now administered by the Canada Council; Fleming scholarships at Carleton University;  an award in his name at the Ottawa Music Festival; and a composition prize at Mount Allison University, in honour of Robert and Margaret Fleming.