Michael Fleming

Champion of church music
Click to follow

Michael Fleming, former Warden of the Royal School of Church Music, had a significant influence on the standard of Anglican church music, not only through the RSCM, but as director of music at several well-known London churches.

By the time he left St Alban's, Holborn, in 1998, after 18 years it was claimed that the choir had the most extensive repertoire of any church in the country. There he conducted the first liturgical performance, on All Souls' Day 1987 and in the composer's presence, of John Rutter's Requiem. Bryan Kelly heard his own "Like as the Hart" for the first time on a visit at St Alban's. BBC Radio 3 broadcast choral evensong from the church on several occasions in the slot normally occupied by a cathedral choir. During this time, Fleming was also organist for some years at the annual televised Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.

In the early 1980s he was able to build on Percy Dearmer's work as part of the editorial team of the New English Hymnal, for which he contributed much of the plainsong. Also included are not only his tune "Palace Green" for the hymn "Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above" but also his "Wellington" for the ancient Advent hymn "Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates". Shortly before his death he was working on the NEH supplement New English Praise, to be published in June.

He was born in 1928 in Oxford, where his father, Guy Fleming, was curate at the Anglo-Catholic St Mary Magdalen's. His grandfather, Arthur Fleming, was Precentor of Gloucester Cathedral and headmaster of the cathedral school. Michael started organ lessons at the age of 12 at St Austell in Cornwall, where he had been evacuated during the Second World War. After National Service he studied music at Durham University. Meanwhile he was organist of St Oswald's, whilst enjoying organ lessons with Francis Jackson of York Minster. "Palace Green" was composed before Fleming graduated.

On moving to Cambridge to be organist and choirmaster at St Giles, he continued his organ lessons with George Guest of St John's College. During his two years as organist of Chingford Church in Essex, his teacher was Harold Darke. In 1958 Fleming was appointed Director of Music at All Saints Margaret Street in London, where he taught in its choir school. A decade later, when the school closed, he moved to Croydon Parish Church. He also in 1968 became a full-time tutor at nearby Addington Palace, then home of the Royal School of Church Music.

After a further 10 years, he moved to St Mary's, Primrose Hill, where church music had been recovered for the Church of England by Percy Dearmer, a former vicar. But in 1980, after just two years, Fleming was recruited by the vicar of St Alban's, Holborn, John Gaskell, to be director of music there in succession to Sir Reginald Goodall and Michael Foley.

After retirement from the RSCM in 1993 he continued on the governing bodies of both the English Hymnal Company and the Church Music Society. But, in 1998, he left Holborn to become director of music at St Michael's in Croydon, having been invited to restore its once-famous musical tradition. This was not only near to his home but again in the Catholic Anglican tradition; it is now one of the very few Anglican parish churches where plainsong psalmody is sung on a regular weekly basis.

He was very much aware that the architect of St Michael's was John Loughborough Pearson and had noted that most Pearson churches still had a strong musical tradition "as if the best architecture and the best music go hand in hand". He particularly admired St Stephen's in Bournemouth, where the composer Anthony Caesar (whose music he had premiered) had been vicar.

Fleming insisted that the words of hymns should be heard. His numerous arrangements for hymns include trumpets and drums to enhance a patronal festival or Easter Day. Above all, he considered good music to be the handmaid of the liturgy and in 1999 he was awarded an MA Lambeth Degree "in recognition of his contribution to church music and liturgy".

Whilst indisposed last autumn, he continued making plans for the 125th anniversary of St Michael's this year. He had a wide circle of music contacts and had long booked Dame Gillian Weir, whom he described as the "concert organist par excellence", and James Bowman for the celebratory recitals. Meanwhile, he found Sunday mornings in hospital rather boring and longed to be able to be back climbing the 34 steps to the organ.

His funeral took place late in the evening at St Michael's on the eve of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. It was a date which he had promised he would not allow to pass unnoticed.

Leigh Hatts

Comments