Obituary: Edgar Fleet

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BLESS THE Third Programme! Filling the urgent need for medieval music in 1948, Edgar Fleet and a select group of singers leapt into the void and gave us music that was almost Gregorian. But not quite, for "Ambrosian" suggested a taste of divine nectar, and very soon a new movement was on its way. Growing quickly to a vast pool of singers, the Ambrosians began to resemble another musical catchment area, the Vienna Philharmonic, in that it provided all kinds of work, ancient and modern, light and serious, for up-and-coming professionals.

Fleet grasped the essential fact that singers of earlier times had to cultivate two different types of voice: a powerful one for use in church, and a quieter, more flexible sound for vocal chamber music where light ornamentation was the order of the day.

From the liturgy he knew so well, he could project backwards in time with an infallible sense of style. Faced with a 13th-century motet or a Mass cycle in a 14th-century rotulus (parchment roll) from the Public Record Office, he unflinchingly sight-read the hard copy, effortlessly convincing the musical world of its authenticity. Taking part in the 1959 world premiere of The Worcester Fragments in Worcester Cathedral, he drew from the plainchant an ineffably beautiful Gaude trope, just as in the same acoustic he subsequently launched the brilliant hockets of an Epiphany sequence.

One of the first to establish Monteverdi's Combattimento as a virtuoso vehicle for solo tenor, Fleet sang the composer's original ornamentation for the first time in living memory. He took part in several memorable Proms, filling the Albert Hall as effortlessly as he would sing a lute-song in the studio.

He had learned the Catholic repertory while a choirboy at Brompton Oratory, in London, adding Italian and German to his linguistic accomplishments on entering the Royal Academy of Music. A founder-member of the Ambrosians (in 1948) and of the Accademia Monteverdiana (in 1961; a chamber music consort), he explored all the known areas of music, besides introducing the modernistic harmonies of Gesualdo's mature madrigals and the later style of Pomponio Nenna and Sigismondo d'India.

Gastronomically as well as musically he was often drawn to the Abbey of Le Thoronet in Provence, or to the charms of Bellagio, Lugano, or Schloss Elmau. He helped to put Vicentino, Giaches de Wert and Cipriano de Rore firmly on the map of pre-classical vocal music, often performing a freshly prepared edition for the scholar who had transcribed it.

In 1957 he took part in the first stereo recording in London of English church music (Thomas Tomkins), the experiment being so far in advance of its time that the record had to be issued in New York on open- reel tapes. He also sang in the first English recording to use a Dolby noise-reduction unit (August 1966) in The Art of Ornamentation and Embellishment which I edited.

A reliable and inspiring chorus master, as his years with the ENO proved, he combined good discipline with authority and knew how to bring out the best in his men and women. His transatlantic and local "fixing" was little short of a miracle, for he could assemble at short notice a magnificent team of singers and players for film recordings, Promenade concerts, and foreign festivals. In matters of performance and ornamentation, I largely left him to his own excellent devices, so that the textbook flourishes of Conforto, Bovicelli and Bassano disappeared behind a cascade of notes of which Fleet alone knew the secret.

Fleet was a well-built, cheerful man whose abundant sense of humour never left him. His expertise in the plainchant he loved and cultivated from boyhood onwards gave him something unique and special which was acknowledged by all who worked with him. His personal qualities were marked by kindness, loyalty and consideration for others, his musical ones by a rock-steady reliability no matter what the circumstances.

Denis Stevens

Edgar Augustus Fleet, singer and choral director: born London 13 June 1931; married 1955 Jean Allister (one son); died London 10 April 1999.