Christopher le Fleming: A Centenary Note
Urrows, David Francis, The American Organist
"The first hundred years are the hardest" is a well-worn way of congratulating a centenarian upon his or her birthday. In 2008, musicians celebrate the centenaries of Elliot Carter, Olivier Messiaen, Leroy Anderson, jazzmen Bunny Berigan and Ish Kabibble (yes, there really was such a person), and the British composer Christopher Ie Fleming. Le Fleming's maybe the least-recognized name here, but I would like to make a case for him, and for his modest output of finely crafted choral music, compositions that well deserve a wider audience than they have enjoyed.
Christopher (Kaye) le Fleming was born at Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England, on February 26, 1908. His mother was an amateur pianist, and he sang as a boy in the Minster choir. His was largely an aural education in music, as he was born with impaired vision. This led his family to prevent him from having a fully professional music education, fearing that a career in music would be an unworkable, "madcap scheme."1 Little by little, he nevertheless acquired fluency on the piano and organ, and eventually enrolled at the Royal School of Church Music, where he studied under Sir Sydney Nicholson. He made his debut as a pianist at Wigmore Hall in 1931.2
Le Fleming was a member of the generation of English composers born in the decade prior to World War I. This included Gerald Finzi (b. 1901), William Walton (b. 1902), Michael Tippett and Constant Lambert (both b. 1905), Howard Ferguson (b. 1908), and Benjamin Britten (b. 1913). While still a teenager, a friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams led in his 20s to informal lessons with the master. This was an important influence. Although le Fleming never held any important professorial posts, and contented himself with working from the mid-1930s through the 1970s at a series of highly regarded schools in southern England, he did serve as assistant director of the Rural Schools Music Association in London after the second World War. After six years in this post, he spent two further years in the 1950s with the publisher J. and W. Chester developing and expanding the firm's interest in educational music. This was an experience he found "distinctly Dickensian ... it was not unlike reading a 19th-century novel and finding that one had become a character in the story."3 One day, "taking my turn in the showroom," he recalled, "I was a trifle bemused when a customer came in to ask for some of my music and for details about the composer!"4 After leaving Chester, he returned to educational work until his retirement. He died in 1985.
I had the pleasure of knowing Christopher le Fleming during the last ten years of his life. He was a man of considerable stature and great modesty, of witty conversation but firm convictions. Although this article focuses on his church music, he told me that he always wanted to be regarded in wider terms. He also composed a body of secular choral works and a number of instrumental and orchestral pieces.
The first thing that appears to me to be important about le Fleming is his pioneering work in composing (and during his time with Chester, promoting) quality music for children. This was, of course, a by-product of his long years as a school teacher. But early in his career, he found himself veering towards something like the educational precepts of Kodaly and Orff (even if he was never explicitly an advocate of either system) and made music for young voices a priority in his own work. He despaired of the state of educational music in 1930: "There was a dearth of suitable music ... particularly in the matter of presentable words. In choosing music for my singing classes I had found the general quality of this essential ingredient to be abysmal-'Two little dickie-birds sitting on a tree' is an example . . ."5 His children's cantata, The Echoing Green, Op. 3 (1933, Chester), and a number of shorter choral songs and arrangements testify to his commitment to improve the situation.6
In this connection, it is also interesting to note that le Fleming was the very first composer to become involved with Beatrix Potter and the Peter Rabbit books. …