Leslie Barklamb: Celebrating the Centenary of His Birth

VFG President, Mary Sheargold, completed her Honours degrees in both Music and Law at the University of Melbourne. In 2003, her Honours  music degree thesis was entitled “ The Influence of Leslie Barklamb on Flute Playing in Australia”.  An abridged extract of this thesis is reproduced below.


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Leslie Barklamb (right) with Sir James Galway (left)

There are two types of flute players in Victoria: those who knew Leslie Barklamb, and those who did not.

As we celebrate the centenary of his birth, I am here today to do two things. First and foremost, I am here to educate those of you, like me, who did not know Les personally. I will do this in three ways: I will tell you what I learned about who Leslie Barklamb was, not just as a flautist, but as a person; I will tell you about his vision to build a community of flute players in Victoria, and I will tell you about the legacy he left us to carry on. Secondly, I am here to remind those of you who did know Les, and who loved him dearly, about his philosophies, his vision, and his humanity.

Who was Leslie Barklamb? Born in Benalla in 1905, Leslie Raymond Barklamb began piccolo lessons with his father as a young boy. Clearly gifted, he graduated to a simple system flute by the outbreak of World War I. In 1917 he auditioned for lessons with the famous John Amadio, who accepted Les as a pupil until his 1919 departure overseas. From here, he studied chiefly with Alfred Weston-Pett.

By 1924 he was playing regularly in Alberto Zelman’s Victorian Symphony Orchestra, and played Principal Flute in orchestras touring with Dame Nellie Melba and Anna Pavlova. However, the honour of being given these opportunities did not register with the young man. Only one year before his death, Les said that he was mad with himself for not being more involved with such orchestras. He was “only a kid” and thought it wasn’t very important, so he didn’t take much notice of it. It was one of his greatest regrets. His orchestral career spanned four decades. Being one of only two professionals to play in both Zelman’s orchestra and Bernard Heinze’s rival orchestra at the University of Melbourne, he was also a founding member of the ABC’s Studio Orchestra, which went on to become the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as we know it today.

Les was also a leading figure in the unionisation of musicians in Melbourne. He established the Orchestral Committee and the Provident Fund in Heinze’s orchestra, and one of his greatest achievements there was raising enough revenue to allow sick musicians to receive up to sixteen weeks of pay whilst they recuperated. Between 1955 and 1958, Les realised that his left hand was not functioning in the way it had previously. After a series of unsuccessful operations and failing to be appointed Principal Flute in the Melbourne Symphony in 1959, he decided to change his career path and focus on teaching.

In 1964, he became the first wind player to be appointed a permanent member of staff at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium. He was appointed as Senior Lecturer, in a part time capacity, by Professor George Loughlin. This was a logical step for him, as he had been teaching flute there since 1929, the year after he graduated. After a forty-five year association, he resigned from teaching at the Con in 1974, and went to teach at the Victorian College of the Arts as well as Scotch College and Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Burwood. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of flute playing, especially within the University of Melbourne, he was awarded an honorary Master of Music degree in July 1976. In the conferring ceremony, now Professor Max Cooke aptly summarised Les’s aptitude for teaching:

“At a time when practical music was treated largely as a physical exercise, a non-intellectual skill, he brought a serious approach to the art of flute teaching. Through his personal sensitivity and his broad knowledge of music, he was able to advise and assist students in many ways relating to their careers. His remarkable foresight and complete dedication to their future advancement indicated that he was especially endowed for this purpose”.

In fact, Les never really stopped teaching. Nariida Coleman and Annette Sloan recall taking students to see him whilst he was in a nursing home. Over his phenomenal teaching career that lasted more than sixty five years, he taught myriad students who went on to very successful flute-related careers, be it as teachers or as performers. These students included John Wion, Douglas Whittaker, Peter Andry, Linda Vogt, Owen Fisenden, James Carson, Professor David Cubbin, Margaret Crawford, Fred Shade, Judith Hall, and Alison Rosser. Leslie Barklamb was more than a flute player, and more than a flute teacher.

He was also a dedicated family man, raising three sons with his wife Jessie. He was a Freemason and also an elder in his Presbyterian Church, and he fostered the Christian values of loyalty, sharing and generosity in all those he touched. Building a United Flute Community Part of his sharing nature led him to have a great interest in forming a flute society, where players from all walks of life could come together to discuss ideas about playing the flute. After a failed attempt in the 1930s due to the lack of involvement from professional players, it seemed that a society was not what Australian flautists wanted. Determined as always, Les returned from a meeting of an unofficial society in Sydney and wanted to make another attempt at forming a group in Melbourne. He admired groups like the New York Flute Club and others in the United States because all members were involved and were sharing their ideas about playing very openly. In 1969, he was given the opportunity to make it happen. Two of his most successful students, John Wion (Principal Flute, New York City Opera) and Douglas Whittaker (formerly in London, playing with orchestras including the London Symphony) were in Australia for different solo commitments. Les wrote to them and asked if they would like to be part of a special concert he would hold in their honour. They both agreed and, after contacting the members of the Melbourne Symphony and other students around Australia, Linda Vogt and David Cubbin in particular, he organised a concert in Melba Hall for July 27th 1969.

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Les got a small committee together and shared his ideas about forming a society. The Melba Hall concert was to act as a catalyst for bringing the idea into the public eye and for seeking expressions of interest. Though different sources quote different numbers, an educated guess suggests that approximately 350 people received hand-written invitations to the concert and, on the day, 296 of those people came. The entry fee was a flute – of any description. There were high pitch flutes, low pitch flutes, fifes, piccolos and recorders amongst them. At the end of the concert, everyone had a piece of paper and was asked to answer three questions: Would you be interested in more events like this? Would you like a flute society in Melbourne? Would you join that society if it was formed? Annette Sloan collected all the papers and states that she cannot remember seeing one “no” at all.

Les poured much energy in his later life to the success of the Victorian Flute Guild. He was elected President and remained in that capacity for over ten years. On his resignation, he stayed on the committee as Emeritus President. After its formation, similar societies appeared in every major Australian city and, in 1981, the Australian Flute Association was formed. He was invited to be Patron of that association along with Sir Charles Mackerras. Leslie Barklamb’s Legacy The Reverend John Bodycomb remembers Les saying: “If you live long enough, you’re bound to get older sooner or later.”

Leslie Barklamb died in Melbourne on September 17th 1993, aged 88. It is really as a philosopher and as a community man that Les Barklamb had the greatest impact in Australia. Perhaps influenced by his strong ties with the Church, he fostered a sense of community amongst flute players that has been unparalleled. He believed that anyone who wished to learn the flute should be able to do so. This did not mean they had to go on and become professional players, but he was keen that more people should be playing the flute for the sheer enjoyment of it. The fact that the flute is the second most highly examined instrument by the AMEB, after piano, clearly shows that Australian flute teachers are committed to giving their students great opportunities to enjoy flute playing, even if it is only in an amateur capacity.

Les was deeply committed to the Dandenong Eisteddfod, and frequently organised for his students to perform for the various musical societies around metropolitan Melbourne. He worked tirelessly to build up a reputation not only for himself, but for all flute players in Australia. He is remembered by three scholarships bearing his name. The first, and most prestigious, is awarded for the annual Victorian Flute Guild solo competition. The second is awarded by the AMEB to the most successful diploma candidate in Victoria, and the third is awarded at the Dandenong Festival. The foundation of the Victorian Flute Guild and its subsequent success are unrivalled for a society belonging to any other instrument or family of instruments in Australia today. Les went to great lengths to ensure that the integrity of that body was never compromised.

Today, the Flute Guild still runs many of the same events it was running thirty six years ago: the Leslie Barklamb Scholarship, workshop days for young students, the Victorian Flute Ensemble and also monthly Flute-Ins, where flautists come together just to play music. At his 80th birthday party, organised by the Flute Guild, players from all over Australia gathered to celebrate this man. He was recognised as the Father of the Flute in Australia, a title he truly deserves. As Alison Rosser so eloquently said: “As well as the paternal interest in all his students and their career developments, Les has shown, through his work with the Victorian Flute Guild, the ability to share with all flautists his musical ideas and philosophy of life in general. By demonstrating humility and fostering a sense of humour, Les sets an example to us all. Students cannot help but feel a part of his “Australian flute family”.  The birth of his flute family came from the very first flute-in held at the concert in Melba Hall in 1969. 296 un-tuned flutes somehow came back into tune as they sight-read Bach Chorales. This was not to be judged as a feat of musical achievement: it was to be recognised as the ideal way for flute players to come together and enjoy making music. His impact on uniting Australian flute players is clearly unparalleled. Had he not persisted with the attempts, we would all have lost. One hundred years after the birth of the Father of the Flute, the Victorian flute community works together to carry on his legacy.

Leslie Barklamb’s dream was fulfilled: he brought us together as friends, not just as flute players.

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Leslie Barklamb conducting the VFG flute ensemble 1969

By Mary Sheargold