Robert Aitken | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Robert Aitken

Robert (Morris) Aitken. Flutist, composer, teacher, conductor, b Kentville, NS, 28 Aug 1939; B MUS (Toronto) 1961, M MUS composition (Toronto) 1964. Aitken studied flute as a child in Pennsylvania and 1955-9 with Nicholas Fiore at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto (RCMT).

Robert Aitken

Robert (Morris) Aitken. Flutist, composer, teacher, conductor, b Kentville, NS, 28 Aug 1939; B MUS (Toronto) 1961, M MUS composition (Toronto) 1964. Aitken studied flute as a child in Pennsylvania and 1955-9 with Nicholas Fiore at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto (RCMT). He served 1958-9 as principal flute of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (at 19 the youngest principal in the orchestra's history) and at the same time studied composition with Barbara Pentland at the University of British Columbia. After 1959, while studying electronic music with Myron Schaeffer and composition with John Weinzweig at the University of Toronto, he participated in several Marlboro (Vermont) Music Festivals. He considered Marcel Moyse, with whom he studied intermittently for nine years in Vermont and Europe, as his most significant flute teacher. However, he also studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal (Paris, Nice), Severino Gazzelloni (Rome), André Jaunet (Zurich), and Hubert Barwähser (Amsterdam) during a 1964-5 European sojourn on a Canada Council grant.

As Performer

Aitken served 1960-4 as second flute of the CBC Symphony Orchestra and 1962-4 as principal flute of the Stratford Festival Orchestra. In 1964 Aitken with his wife, the pianist Marion Ross, and the soprano Mary Morrison formed the Lyric Arts Trio. He also served 1965-70 as co-principal flute of the Toronto Symphony, after which he devoted himself to solo performances and appearances with the trio and with the harpsichordist Greta Kraus. He won third prize at the first Concours international de flûte de Paris (1971) and was a winner at the Concours international de flûte pour la musique contemporaine in 1972 at Royan, France. He performed as soloist with almost every Canadian orchestra, beginning in 1960. He performed often in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, Spain, and Germany, and in 1970 he toured Japan, Thailand, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and India. In 1970 Aitken founded, and until 1972 directed, the "Music Today" series at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and in 1971, with Norma Beecroft, he co-founded New Music Concerts, Toronto, serving thereafter as artistic director, a position he still held as of 2011.

In 1977 he recorded the complete flute works of Fukushima in Japan for Denon, one of the first albums for flute, and was one of 12 instrumentalists invited to present a series of solo recitals for Boulez' Institut de recherche et de coordination acoustique musique (IRCAM) in Paris. He chose his own program of solo flute pieces by Takemitsu, Morthensen, Fukushima, Globokar, Sigurbjörnsson, Y. Matsudaira, Heinz Holliger, and himself. The five concerts of chamber music with flute for his CBC series "Flute Through The Ages" were sold out in five days and the series won the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Award for the best classical music program broadcast in 1982. In 1987 Aitken's performance at Tage für Neue Musik in Würzburg, West Germany, was highly praised by the critic from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In 1988 he played in four different concerts at England's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, including a performance of R. Murray Schafer'sConcerto for Flute and Orchestra, which was written for him, and which he premiered in 1984. Critic Arthur Kaptainis has characterized Aitken's tone as "crisp and direct rather than plush" but added that "he has a decidedly expressive edge when compared to the dully anonymous timbre cultivated by the majority of flutists" (Globe and Mail 10 Dec 1983).

Aitken gave the premieres of numerous Canadian works, including:

Applebaum's Essay 1970, and Algoma Central 1976; Baker's Concerto 1974; Barnes's Nocturne 1963 and Sonata 1970; Beecroft'sImprovvisazioni Concertanti No. 3 1973, Piece for Bob 1975, and Collage '76 1976; Buczynski'sFour Arabesques and a Dance 1966 and Cameo 1982; Burke's Escher/Bach 1985; Collier's Waterfront, Night Thoughts 1970; Fleming's Almost Waltz 1970; Freedman'sToccata 1967 and Soliloquy 1970; Hawkins' Trio 1975; Otto Joachim'sExpansion 1963; Kemp'sTwo Folksongs 1957; Kenins'Concertante 1967; Morawetz'Suite 1974; Morel'sNuvattuq 1967; Papineau-Couture'sVerségères 1975; Pentland's Trance 1979; Schafer's Five Studies on Texts by Prudentius 1963 and The Enchantress 1972; Symonds' A Small Concerto for Flute and Others 1971; Tremblay's Traversée 1997; Weinzweig's Riffs 1974; Wuensch'sSonatina 1970 and Cameos 1970; Wyre'sSnowflake 1979; and Zuckert'sLittle Spanish Dance 1970.

In addition Aitken has participated in premieres of works by Beckwith, Garant, Heard, Hodkinson, Jaeger, Laufer, Mather, Pauk, Saint-Marcoux, Tremblay, and others (see Lyric Arts Trio, New Music Concerts), and by foreign composers including Larry Austin, Warren Benson, Attila Bozay, John Cage, Lukas Foss, Haflidi Hallgrimsson, Hikaru Hayashi, Jo Kondo, Nikos Mamangakis, Páll Pálsson, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Atli Sveinsson, and Toru Takemitsu. He also performed Canadian flute works including Schafer's concerto, his own Plainsong, and Beecroft's Tre Pezzi Brevi, in Europe.

As Composer

As composer, Aitken received commissions from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, CBC, National Youth Orchestra, Elmer Iseler Singers, and other organizations. Aitken approaches composition through his experience as a skilled solo, chamber, and orchestral player. To a broad and practical knowledge of instrumental uses he applies a keen intuition for the effective combining of sounds. In an interview (Music Scene, July-August 1969) he said, "I still compose aurally, and though I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of organization, and acknowledge, in most cases, the necessity of it, if a conflict arises between my preconception and the preference of my ear I generally give in to the ear." Consequently, though the works following his neo-classic Concerto for Twelve Solo Instruments and Orchestra (1965) are in most aspects idiosyncratic and extremely free, they appeal directly - if not conventionally - to the ear. In Kebyar (1971), one of several works written after a four-month eastern tour in 1970, Aitken entrusted parts of the score (where notation is replaced by vivid drawings) to the performers, whose improvisations reflect the meaning of the title: an explosion of spontaneous activity. The Musical Times wrote that his Plainsong (1977) "beautifully explores tone-variety in many different melodic shapes, using unusual fingerings and singing while playing" (vol 123, October 1982). In January 1989, Aitken was one of 20 composers featured in the series Sound in Silence filmed in Poland, sponsored by the Louis Vuitton Foundation and the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Aitken has frequently performed his own works, including his Berceuse for Flute and Orchestra, a commission from the Esprit Orchestra, with whom he premiered it in 1992. CBC radio later broadcast the concert on Two New Hours.

As Teacher

Aitken taught 1957-64 and 1965-8 at the RCMT and 1960-4 and 1965-75 at the University of Toronto. He also taught 1972-80 at the Shawnigan Summer School of the Arts, and in 1981, shortly after that school became the Johannesen International School of the Arts, Aitken founded and became music director of Music at Shawnigan, a three-week festival devoted to advanced chamber music study. With the Lyric Arts Trio, Aitken was artist-in-residence in 1971 at Simon Fraser University and in 1976 at the University of Saskatchewan. He was director 1985-9 of the Advanced Studies in Music program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In 1986 he taught at the Summer School of Young Composers, organized by the Polish Society for Contemporary Music, in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland, where he gave classes and performed works by Beecroft, himself, and others. He was engaged for short residencies and master classes in many countries including Cuba, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Sweden, New Zealand, and the US. He was a professor 1988-2004 at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany. His pupils included Kathryn Cernauskas, Bill McBirnie, Suzanne Shulman, Douglas Stewart, and Aitken's daughter Diane.

As Conductor

As artistic director of New Music Concerts he conducted the NMC Ensemble in much contemporary music; he also conducted the Victoria Symphony (1989), the Hamilton Philharmonic (1990), and the orchestra for Music Today (Japan 1983), and in 1987 he conducted the premiere of R. Murray Schafer's Patria I for the Canadian Opera Company. A member of the Canadian League of Composers, he received that organization's Canada Music Citation in 1969. In 1982 he received both the William Harold Moon Award from PRO Canada and the Canadian Music Council medal. He was also presented with the Roy Thomson Hall Award (1995), the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award (1996), and the Canada Council's Walter Carsen Prize (2009). He was invested in the Order of Canada in 1994 and was appointed a Chevalier de l'ordre des Artes et Lettres in 1997. In 2009 Robert Aitken was named one of 50 ambassadors of the Canadian Music Centre.


Rhapsody. 1961. Manuscript

Concerto for Twelve Solo Instruments and Orchestra. 1965 (Toronto 1968). Kerby (Caveat) 1974/B&H

Shadows I: Nekuia. 1971 (East Lansing, Michigan, 1971). Orchestra. Manuscript

Spectra for Four Chamber Groups. 1968 (Toronto 1969). Ricordi 1973

Spiral. 1975. Medium orchestra. Manuscript

Berceuse (For those who sleep before us). 1992. Flute, orchestra

Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra (Shadows V). 1999


Suite. 1960. Violin, piano. Manuscript

Quartet. 1961. Flute, oboe, viola, double-bass. Manuscript

Kebyar. 1971. Flute, clarinet, trombone, 2 double-bass. Editions Salabert 1973

Shadows II: Lalitá. 1973. Flute, 3 violoncello, 2 percussion, 2 harp. Editions Salabert 1976. NMC-001 (CD) (NMC)

Shadows III: Nira. 1974-6. Violin, flute, oboe, viola, cb, piano, harpsichord. Manuscript

Icicle. 1977. Solo flute. Edition musicales transatlantiques 1978. See Discography.

Plainsong. 1977. Solo flute. Universal 1980. See Discography.

Folia. 1981. Flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon. RCI 563/Centrediscs CMC-0482 (York Winds)

Shadows IV: My Song. 1994. 2 flutes, ensemble

Wedding Song. 1999. 2 flutes

Also Monody (K. Aitken). 1983. SATB, flute. Manuscript


Music for Flute and Electronic Tape. 1963. Manuscript, tape

Music for Hamlet. 1964. Tape

Noesis. 1963. Tape. Folk FM-3436 (University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio)


"Programming Canadian music abroad," Hello Out There! ed John Beckwith and Dorith R. Cooper, CanMus Documents 2 (Toronto 1988)


Aitken Icicle; Plainsong - Tremblay "... le sifflement des vents porteurs de l'amour..." - Fukushima - J.W. Morthenson - T. Sigurbjörnsson. Hartenberger percussion. 1978. Mel SMLP-4037/(Tremblay) RCI 565/6-ACM 12

Bach Sonatas No. 1, 2, and 3. Kraus harpsichord. 1977. Umbrella UMB-DD8/Ultrafi ULDD-8

- Brandenburg Concertos No. 2, 4, 5. CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Bernardi conductor. 1983. 2-CBC SM-5028-2

Flute concertos. CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Bernardi conductor. 1999. SMCD 5177-2 CBC Records

Beecroft Piece for Bob. Aitken flute and percussion. Collage '76. NMC Ensemble, Aitken conductor. (1982). 4-ACM 13

Chatman Wild Cat. 1981. Opus One No. 52

Complete Flute Works of Kazuo Fukushima. Y. Takahashi piano. 1977. Columbia-Denon OX-7136-ND

Elmer Iseler Conducts Canadian Music. Graham mezzo. CMCCD 6599

Flute and Harp: Doppler/Zamara - Badings - Naderman/Tulou - Mozetich. Goodman harp. 1985. BIS CD-320

Flute and Harp: Spohr - Donizetti - Krumpholtz - Hovhaness. Goodman harp. 1979. BIS LP-178

François and Charles Doppler: The Complete Music for Flute and Piano. Øien flute, Henningbraaten piano. 1978-9. 3-BIS LP-128, 145, 146/2-BIS CD-145-146

Freedman Opus Pocus. O. Armin violin, Golani viola, Schenkman violoncello. 1982-3. Centrediscs CMC-0983

French Flute Music Vol 2: Marais - Bozza - Debussy - Ferroud - Jolivet. 1980. BIS LP-178/(selections) BIS CD-184

French Flute Music Vol 3: Taffnel - Widor - Bozza - Caplet - Jolivet. McCabe piano. 1981. BIS LP-184/BIS CD-184

From the Age of Elegance: Bach - Bodinus - Telemann - Quantz. Kraus harpsichord. 1969. CBC SM-102

Gellman Mythos II. Husaruk violin, M. Goodman violin, Kudlak viola, J.-L. Morin violoncello, Garant conductor. RCI 401

- Psalm 121. Dorenfeld soprano, Aide piano. 1982. RCI 569

Jeux à Deux. Gossec - Satie - et al. Goodman harp. 1982. ERA 101

Music of Talivaldis Kenins. Aide piano. 1997. CMCCD-5997 Centrediscs

Krumpholtz - Lasala - Lauber - Inghelbrecht. Goodman harp. 1971. CBC SM-156

Kuhlau Grand Trio, Divertimento, Duo Brilliant. Øien flute, Henning Braaten piano. 1980-1. Simax PN-2004

Mozart Music for Flute and Orchestra. NACO, Mannino conductor. 1986. CBC SM-5078

Music for Heaven and Earth. McPhee - Aitken - Louie - Freedman. Esprit Orchestra, Pauk conductor. 1995. SMCD5154 CBC Records

New For Now Vol 3: Weinzweig Divertimento No. 1 - McCauley Five Miniatures - Pépin Quatre Monodies - Kenins Concertante - Freedman Soliloquy - Fleming Almost Waltz - Collier Waterfront, Night Thoughts - Glick Petite Suite - Zuckert Little Spanish Dance - Wuensch Cameos - Beecroft Tre Pezzi Brevi - Applebaum Essay No. 1. Ross piano, string orchestra conducted by the composers. 1972. 2-Dom S-69006/(McCauley) CRI SD-317/(Beecroft) 4-ACM 13

Nielsen Concerto for flute and orchestra. CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra. 1971. CBC SM-189

Ô Bali: Colin McPhee and his Legacy. New Music Concerts Ensemble, Arraymusic, Evergreen Club Gamelan. 1993. MVCD 1057

Papineau-Couture Départ - Verségères. 1988. Centrediscs CMC-3088

Pentland Trance. Goodman harp. 1979. 6-ACM 25

The Romantic Flute: Schubert - Mozart - Reinecke. McCabe piano. 1981. BIS LP-183

Schafer Concerto for Flute & Orchestra. Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Akiyama cond. SMCD 5114 CBC Records

Sveinsson Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Pálsson conductor. 1979. ITM 3

Telemann - Vivaldi - Hotteterre. Kraus harpsichord. 1968. CBC SM-62

Toward the Sea: music for flute and harp. Goodman harp. 1995. CD-650 BIS

The Virtuoso Flute: Taffanel - Kuhlau - Paganini - Saint-Saëns series - Böhm. Westenholz piano. 1980. BIS LP-166

Yuasa - Takemitsu - Fukushima - Y. Matsudaira - Y.A. Matsudaira - Noguchi flute. 1970. CBC Sony Sonc-16019-J

See also NMC and Discographies for Mary Morrison (Arcana), Elmer Iseler Singers, Loving, Lyric Arts Trio, and Rivka Golani

Further Reading