Amaryllis Fleming

Excerpted and abridged from "Living to the Full," by Tully Potter
in The Strad magazine, December 1999, pp 1301 to 1305.

Amaryllis Fleming was born on December 10, 1925, and died in 1999 on July 27. She has been represented by some in the media as a "flame-haired femmefatale who happened to play the cello," but she was actually an excellent cellist, both as a performer and as a teacher.

Her youth was emotionally difficult. Amaryllis' mother was Eve Fleming, a Chelsea hostess and the widow of a war hero, and the god-daughter of a princess. Eve had studied the violin with the sisters Adila Fachiri and Jelly d'Aranyi. She had three children: Amaryllis, Peter and Ian. Peter became a well-known travel writer and Ian created James Bond (007).

Amaryllis had an unhappy relationship with her mother, who even told her falsely that she was not her real mother. But at the age of 23 she was informed by the painter Augustus John that she was his daughter, and that Eve was indeed her mother.

She started playing the piano at three and at nine asked if she could learn the violin, but Amaryllis' mother directed her to study the cello. In 1987 she was sent to Downe House school in Berkshire as a boarder, but travelled to London for occasional lessons with John Snowden at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where she made speedy progress. At 15 she made her first radio broadcast on the BBC's Children's Hour.

By the time she left school in 1941, her mother had moved to Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire. Amaryllis played in the Oxford Amateur Orchestra whose conductor, Thomas Armstrong, suggested she go back to Downe House to complete her education. She acquiesced but later looked back on her time at school as 'six ghastly years, the unhappi- est days in my life. I was always playing the cello at the wrong time and always getting ticked off because I was always late for everything. You see, while I was playing I never heard the bells.'

At 17 she won a scholarship to study full-time at the RCM with Ivor James. In in 1944 she played the Elgar Concerto with the augmented Newbury String Players.

She also studied with Pierre Fournier in Paris, who offered her free tuition, and became a close personal friend. 'He opened my eyes to the immense possibilities of colour, nuance and phrasing,' Fleming told the writer Margaret Campbell, 'particularly in regard to bowing technique which enabled me to acquire a palette of far greater variety.' She also studied with Guilhermina Suggia, Gaspar Cassado and Enrico Mainardi. In Prades she studied the Schumann Concerto with Casals.

In 1953 she made her Proms debut playing the Elgar with the Halle' Orchestra. By this time she rated alongside Anthony Pini as one of the top British cellists.

In the late 1950's Fleming purchased first a Guarneri and then a 1717 Stradivari. She became the major advocate after Piatigorsky of the new Walton Concerto and premiered a number of works, including the Tre Pezzi by Matyas Seiber, which she played at the Cheltenham Festival with Barbirolli conducting, and the sonatas by Arnold Cooke and Peter Racine Fricker.

By the early 1960s she at last felt ready for the Bach Suites. Acquiring a facsimile of the Anna Magdalena Bach manuscript, she had a small 1610 Amati cello refitted with five strings - as it had originally been made - so that she could play the Sixth Suite as written. 'She was very much ahead of her time in Bach,' says her pupil Jane Salmon of the Schubert Ensemble of London. 'She was interested in making it really dance, before the period instrument movement.' Moncrieff describes Fleming's Bach as 'life enhancing'.

As she grew older, and less interested in concertizing, she also fell under the shadow of the fame of Jacqueline du Pre, the rising young cello star. Fleming concentrated on chamber music, but still made a few solo appearances. In 1968 she played Dvorak's First Concerto at the Wigmore Hall, where her lovely tone could be heard to full effect. That same year she formed the Fleming String Trio with the violist Kenneth Essex and the violinist Granville Jones (replaced, after his death in a car crash, by Emanuel Hurwitz).

A stroke in 1993 left her weakened. She fought her way back to health and concentrated on her teaching. 'She was an extraordinary teacher, with a prodigious memory for how a student had played one or two years earlier,' says Michal Kaznowski of the Maggini Quartet. 'A lesson with her was fundamental in changing my bowing arm.'

Salmon found her 'very supportive and broad-minded' and Nicholas Roberts, son of Bernard, said 'She was incredibly positive and you could get nothing past her because she had the most amazing ear. You would get an absolute roasting but it would be done with gales of laughter. She had a sparkling sense of humour and would always keep you buoyant. She had the utmost integrity - there was a musical reason for everything she did.'

Indeed Fleming once told an interviewer: 'Playing the cello is part emotion, part intellectual and part move- ment. Its all-consuming.'

After a trip to Bhutan in the early 90s Fleming became interested in Buddhism. In 1997 she had an audience withthe Dalai Lama, and weeks before her death she dragged herself from a clinic near Reading - where she was recuperating from major surgery - to have another meeting with him in London. 'She was still the same flamboyant, extrovert person, the same engaging personality, but her focus changed,' says Salmon. 'She had always had this tremendous seriousness - and of course she had her fighting spirit to the end.

Fleming was all but ignored by the record companies, but it is possible that BBC tapes of her piano trio exist. The BBC made studio recordings of her playing all six Bach Suites. 'She was such a perfectionist that she made very few records,' says Salmon.

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