Robert Aitken

Born in Kentville, Nova Scotia, August 28, 1929;
now living in Toronto

Robert Aitken is unquestionably one of Canada’s most versatile, prominent and accomplished musicians. He is composer, flutist, conductor, teacher, administrator and new music champion all in one. Of the many hats he wears, the largest by far is that of flutist, followed by those of composer and teacher.

Early years

As Aitken tells it, back in 1939 when he was born, Nova Scotia did not have a single flute teacher. His first lessons took place as a child while living in Pennsylvania. During the late 1950s, he studied professionally with Nicholas Fiore at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. When he was just nineteen, he won the position of principal flute in the Vancouver Symphony, becoming the youngest principal in the orchestra’s history. While in Vancouver, he also took composition lessons from Barbara Pentland. Aitken stayed in Vancouver for only a year, moving back to Toronto in 1959 to study electronic music with Myron Schaeffer and composition with John Weinzweig. He spent 1964-1965 in Europe furthering his flute studies on a Canada Council Grant with such luminaries as Jean-Pierre Rampal in Paris and Nice, Severino Gazzelloni in Rome, André Jaunet in Zurich and Hubert Barwähser in Amsterdam. But above all, it was the legendary Marcel Moyse, with whom he studied intermittently for nine years in Vermont and in Europe, from whom Aitken absorbed the most as a flutist.

Aitken the flutist

Following his one-year stint in the Vancouver Symphony, Aitken proceeded to hold positions in the CBC Symphony (1960-1964, second flute), the Stratford Festival Orchestra (1962-1964, principal flute) and the Toronto Symphony (1965-1970, co-principal flute). Thereafter, he devoted himself to performing in chamber music and as a soloist with virtually every major orchestra in Canada as well as with many abroad. Critical praise tends to focus on his enormous range of dynamics and colors, and on his sensitivity to phrasing. Scott Paterson, writing in Classical Music Magazine in 1997, called Aitken “one of Canada’s leading flutists, one with impeccable taste and extraordinary abilities to define and mold musical concepts.” Aitken’s discography comprises over forty recordings, with repertory ranging from Bach and Telemann to numerous contemporary Canadian works, including his own.

Aitken the composer

Aitken’s catalogue of works numbers barely twenty compositions, but it is an important body of music whose significance exceeds its modest number. All of it is instrumental, mostly chamber music. With the exception of a suite for violin and piano, everything is either for solo flute or includes flute(s). His most recent premiere was Solesmes for 24 flutes, given at the National Flute Convention in New York City in August, 2009. Over a thousand flutists attended the convention. Commissions for music by Aitken have come from the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Spiral), the National Youth Orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers and other organizations.

Aitken the teacher

Aitken taught flute at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto from 1957 to 1968 and at the University of Toronto from 1960 to 1975. He also taught at the Shawnigan Summer School of the Arts from 1972 to 1981. From 1985 to 1989 he was director of the Advanced Studies in Music program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. In Germany he was a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg from 1988 to 2004. In addition, he has been engaged for short residencies and master classes in Cuba, Mexico, Iceland, New Zealand, the Philippines, China the U.S., numerous countries in Europe and of course all over Canada.

Broadening the repertory

More than fifty works have been written for Robert Aitken, not only by Canadians but by prominent composers from many other countries. Among the Canadians are John Beckwith, Norma Beecroft, Robert Fleming, Harry Freedman, Bruce Mather, Oscar Morawetz, François Morel, Barbara Pentland, R. Murray Schafer, Norman Symonds, John Weinzweig and of course himself (Berceuse for Flute and Orchestra, Concerto for Flute Orchestra, Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra and much more). Composers from the U.S. (Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Roger Reynolds), Japan (Kazuo Fukushima, Toru Takemitsu), Mexico (Manuel Enriquez), Norway (Arne Nordheim) and elsewhere have also written for Aitken. His commitment to expanding the repertory of contemporary music - for flute and otherwise - has seen him participate in premieres of music by many other composers as well, including John Cage, Lukas Foss, Jo Kondo, Nikos Mamangakis, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson and others.

Prizes and awards

Not surprisingly, Aitken has an impressive sheaf of awards, prizes and honors to his credit. He started collecting these as far back as 1969, when he won the Canada Music Citation from the Canadian League of Composers. Subsequently he received the Harold Moon Award from PRO Canada, the Canadian Music Council medal, the Roy Thomson Hall Award and the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award. In 2003, he was presented with the National Flute Association Lifetime Achievement Award in Las Vegas. He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1994 and was named a Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1997.

The Walter Carsen Prize

The latest big prize to come Aitken’s way is the $50,000 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, which he won in October of 2009. This prize is administered and presented by the Canada Council for the Arts to Canadians in recognition of the highest level of artistic excellence and a distinguished career in music, dance or theater. (Another composer on the NAC Timeline, R. Murray Schafer, is also a Carsen Prize winner.) Upon awarding the prize to Aitken, the committee noted that he “has demonstrated over a half century a tireless commitment to [the] development, performance and promotion [of Canadian music] in every corner of the globe. As a flutist, composer, interpreter and teacher, he is a distinguished innovator and continues to exert a strong influence on upcoming generations.”