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.