Aloys Fleischmann: Obituary

13 April 1910 - 21 July 1992

This obituary was originally published in New Music News, September 1992.

THE proverbial visitor from Mars who might have dropped into Cork's North Cathedral on the morning of 23 July 1992 would be excused for wondering what kind of person had inspired such a gathering. The presence of so many civic and academic dignitaries suggested a tribute in honour of an important public figure; the beauty of the liturgy and richness of the music indicated an artistic connection; young and old from all walks of life thronged the cathedral, their attentive faces reflecting the dignity and solemnity of the occasion. Time seemed suspended as the Requiem Mass progressed, punctuated by moments of grandeur and emotion. Afterwards, the procession moved into the courtyard under a canopy of umbrellas. There was no sense of hurry as people gathered and talked, reluctant to bring the ceremony to a close. Although they mourned his passing there was palpable pride in celebrating the life of Professor Aloys Fleischmann, Freeman of Cork, of whom it may truly be said 'they will rest from their labour for their deeds will follow them.'

From the litany of his labours it is obvious that Professor Fleischmann presided like a colossus over the Irish musical landscape. As teacher, composer, conductor, academic, campaigner and organiser, he influenced successive generations from the twenties to the nineties. The words indefatigable, tireless, dynamic, extraordinary, recur in the many tributes published and broadcast since his death. Yet perhaps the most amazing aspect of his personality was his simplicity in coping with the multiplicity of his activities. Although he was constantly busy he never gave the impression of not having time for other people.

My first childhood memory of Professor Fleischmann is in the Cork Opera House, as conductor of the Cork Symphony Orchestra with the Cork Ballet Company, of which he was co-founder with Joan Denise Moriarty. His name was already familiar to me as one of my father's colleagues in 'the College'. I was also taken to concerts in the City Hall conducted by him, but on those occasions there was no ballet, to my regret.

In retrospect I realise what Herculean efforts it must have taken to combine the talents of the professionals and amateurs of varying standards who made up the Cork Symphony Orchestra. The programmes included not only standard works but also first performances of music by contemporary Irish composers. His own compositions also featured; one unforgettable experience was a performance of Clare's Dragoons for baritone, war pipes, choir and orchestra, during which Joan Denise Moriarty made a dramatic entrance into the Aula Maxima, red hair flying, playing the war pipes.

The Cork Orchestral Society, founded in 1934, was an early example of Professor Fleischmann's gift for galvanising community effort through loyal and hard-working committees. Cork business and professional people who supported the society were dubbed 'vultures for culture', but it was no mean feat in the days before sponsorship to host concerts by visiting orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony, in addition to local events. This organisational flair was to be fully realised in his mammoth task as Director of the Cork International Choral and Folk Dance Festival for 33 years from 1954 to 1987.

I first met Professor Fleischmann officially in 1953, when I became one of three first-year music students at University College Cork. At that time the music department was housed upstairs in a cluster of rooms on the ivy-clad East Quadrangle. These included a small lecture room, a practice room and, from 1956, the Bax Memorial Room. Arnold Bax, a life-long friend of the Fleischmann family, had been extern examiner in music to the National University, and had died in Cork. The punctual arrival of the Professor was heralded by his swift steps up the stone stairs. Cars were as scarce as music students, and he was a familiar sober-suited figure travelling by bicycle and later by motorcycle to and from his home on the other side of the city.

Lectures were delivered formally from a closely-typed set of notes, even when, in second year, I was the only student in the class. As in other faculties the age of specialisation had not yet dawned, and he taught the whole course (with the exception of Irish Music, for which the lecturer was Seán Neeson). He was equally at home in practical and academic subjects, embracing all aspects with enthusiasm. I recall with pleasure his distinctive voice with its slightly pedantic pronunciation, and the quizzical expression which greeted some strange progression in a harmony exercise.

His score-reading at the piano was remarkable, especially as he was by his own admission no pianist. I particularly remember his zest in presenting intricate scientific details of the course in acoustics, and his masterly classes in analysis. His unique method of analysis, in which wit and erudition were combined to reveal the innermost secrets of the music, later reached a wider public when his analyses of commissioned works became an enthralling feature of the Seminars on Contemporary Choral Music held at UCC from 1962 in conjunction with the Choral Festival.

As a working composer he encouraged creative activity among his students. Part of the examination in orchestration consisted of a concert, or 'Orchestral Evening', held in the Aula Maxima, for which the Cork Symphony Orchestra was drafted to rehearse and perform arrangements and original compositions by students. Compositions by the young Seán 0 Riada were first heard at these concerts, which were conducted by the students themselves with varying degrees of proficiency. Afterwards everyone adjourned to the college restaurant where a decorous tea was provided.

Music also played a part in university life through the activities of societies, such as the Choral Society and the University Art Society, which had been founded by Professor Fleischmann in 1931. In the 1950s the Art Society was active in organising lectures and recitals by visiting celebrities, which were attended by students and members of the public. The Choral Society gave many successful performances over the years, but on one occasion incurred sharp criticism from the Professor for putting on The Mikado instead of something more worthy of a university, such as a Monteverdi opera.

At the beginning of each academic year a massed choir was recruited from all faculties to sing at the so called 'Red' Mass, held in St. Mary's Church, Pope's Quay to celebrate the beginning of the academic year, and attended by students, staff, and civic authorities. Several rehearsals were held by Professor Fleischmann in the Aula Maxima, and any students who joined for frivolous motives soon realised their mistake, as no time was wasted and they were cajoled into singing by the conductor. Student choirs were also assembled for other ceremonial occasions in the Honan Chapel, with Professor Fleischmann directing from the Victorian harmonium.

By the time I was a post-graduate student the music department had begun to expand. The student population explosion, with a corresponding increase in the number of staff, resulted in a thriving department, in which Professor Fleischmann continued to be the driving force. His example inspired music graduates long after they had left UCC. My contacts with him continued after I left Cork to live in Dublin. On the rare occasions when his music was performed in Dublin he seemed mildly surprised to meet expatriate Corkonians who attended. I was fortunate to work as his research assistant for the Royal Irish Academy New History of Ireland and experienced his precise attention to detail and his prompt response to queries. His greatest research project, the monumental index to the published collections of Irish folk-music, completed during his terminal illness, is his final legacy to music in Ireland. His correspondence was legendary, letters from all over the world were answered by return of post, typewritten by himself with the characteristic signature at the end. Christmas cards usually featured a print of Cork or a drawing by a Cork artist.

Aloys Fleischmann the campaigner revelled in fighting indifference and apathy for the cause of music. For the man who climbed Mount Brandon on his eightieth birthday there were no insurmountable obstacles. When I heard him speak so eloquently at a public meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin, about the disbandment of RTE performance groups as a result of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, I remembered a campaign which he had fought in Cork over thirty years ago. Then, as a result of concerted efforts, the Radio Éireann String Quartet was established and based in Cork. Now the RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet was one of the groups whose future was in jeopardy. The wheel had come full circle.

It is appropriate that the survival of the Vanbrugh String Quartet has been guaranteed for the present through the generosity of the Governing Body of UCC. Indeed, the university has proved a worthy setting for Professor Fleischmann, through financial support and the provision of facilities for such events as the annual Seminar on Contemporary Choral Music. The city of Cork too has cherished her adoptive son and recognised him as 'one of her own'.

His appointment to Aosdána brought him a national platform from which to express his concerns about the future of music education in Ireland. His was not an élitist approach. After all his years in music he was a realist who took situations as he found them. He knew that music must be accessible, and of course high standards were also his aim, but he was a pragmatist. His last letter to me, written ten days before his death, made no concession to his illness. In it he referred to the importance of encouraging appreciation of music in the school curriculum. As I was away I did not receive the letter until the day after the funeral. I welcomed it as a symbol of the indomitable spirit of an incomparable man.

'To seek through the regions of the earth
For one his like, there would be
something failing
In one that should compare.'

Ita Beausang (née Hogan),
BMus 1956, MA 1958, PhD 1962


Fleischmann the composer 

Aloys Fleischmann was keenly aware of his position as one of the first group of native composers to live and work in Ireland. A whole dimension of Irish music which had, by and large, remained snugly amateur throughout the nineteenth century was revitalised by this pioneering generation. The determination of these composers to remain in Ireland at a difficult but hopeful time, and to attempt the creation of modern Irish music, virtually from nothing and often under very discouraging circumstances, is something that is fatally easy to take for granted today. Not only did they give the country the first works in its modern repertoire, but they had to prompt and provoke the gradual establishment of a performance infrastructure so that this music could be heard. Aloys Fleischmann is a crucial figure in this movement.

On looking down the list of his works one is struck by the insistence on subject matter of an Irish nature. What it meant to be an Irish composer was a question that occupied him greatly, as it did his contemporaries. How to be Irish in a larger European context -- a question that has lost none of its urgency. Particularly, how to tread a path between an anonymous cosmopolitan style and the lure of an easy internationalism on one hand, and the restricted folk-music style considered desirable by the narrower nationalist lobby on the other.

Before he had any music to show he could only assert his Irishness. He adopted an Irish pseudonym, Muiris 0 Rónáin, feeling that his German surname was inconsistent with his nationalist aspirations; he wrote songs to Irish texts; and he even persuaded Chester, who published his 1933 Piano Suite, to print all musical directions in Irish as well as in Italian! These overt gestures were necessary in helping him to define his position. But while he dropped the pseudonym and subsequently set but few Irish texts, he continued to the end of his life to compose in faith with his understanding of what it meant to be an Irish composer.

It was only natural that he and his contemporaries should look to the powerful example of Vaughan Williams and the modern English school as a model of how a nation revitalises itself musically. What is remarkable, however, is that in spite of the impressive achievements of their prestigious neighbours, some of whom were personal friends -- Bax and Moeran in particular, who had a foot on either side of the Irish sea -- there is a tough independence about so much of the music written here in the 1930s and 1940s. The folk-song style, while attractive to some, had little appeal for Fleischmann. A handful of arrangements apart, he rarely used actual folk music or folklike material in his earlier works, and virtually none at all in his later. Certain modal inflections, melodic contours, and rhythms in works like the Piano Suite and the Piano Quintet of 1938, allude only obliquely to a folk style. And a later work like The Planting Stick of 1957, in which he employs material directly derived from folk music, is quite exceptional. It is rather that Irish mythology, Irish history and literature form a constant background to his work, and from this his themes and texts are most often drawn. 'It seemed vital', he wrote, 'to delve into the Hidden Ireland, and out of the heroic tales and romances to create an idiom which would express in music some of the essence of this rich untapped literary tradition.'

Some of his earlier works express a direct patriotism, certainly never offensive, but of a vigorous innocence which is peculiarly appealing. Two of the Trí hAmhráinof 1937 are certainly overtly nationalistic. This powerful cycle has been revived and widely performed recently by Cara O'Suillivan and Patrick Zuk, and the enthusiastic response it unfailingly elicits indicates that it has lost none of its appeal. It is to this cycle, toClare's Dragoons of 1944 -- another overtly nationalistic work -- and to the special quality of their composer's Irishness, that Frederick May pays special tribute in an article he wrote in 1949 in one of the very few, if not only, instances of considered critical attention to Fleischmann's work. In this astute and generous appraisal by a fellow composer we read: '... in this work (Clare's Dragoons) as in the three Irish songs, Fleischmann has managed to do something entirely original; he has become articulate for an Ireland that is gone, or rather, he has given us in music a symbol of what Ireland, her people, her history ... mean to each one of us. He has effected in sound a crystallisation and intensification of a feeling common to all Irishmen, and in so doing he has secured for himself an honoured and a permanent place in the musical history of his country'. Many works, composed after May's article appeared, serve only to confirm his opinion, two of the finest of these, in the present writer's view, beingSongs of Colmcille of 1964 and Song of the Provinces of the following year.

Fleischmann's unique contribution to Irish ballet culminated in 1981 with The Táin, written for the Irish Ballet Company. After this impressive score he produced relatively little music. In the twelve years between his retirement from the Chair of Music at UCC and his death last July, he was constantly occupied with the huge task of completing his Index to the Sources of Irish Folk Music. In 1980, however, he was commissioned by the Choir and Orchestra of UCC, who had performed Song of the Provinces at a concert to mark his retirement, to write a new work for similar forces, including audience participation. This he did, andClonmacnoise was first performed at the Cork International Choral Festival in 1990, at a Gala Concert to mark his eightieth birthday. It was felt to be a fine occasional work, with many excellent moments, and it was very warmly received. It did not prepare the Festival audience, however, for the impact of Games, which had been commissioned by the Festival, and was also premiered a few days later. Written for mixed voice choir, harp and percussion and brilliantly performed by the BBC Singers under Simon Joly, it astonished not only by its virtuosity, but by a vigour and a vehemence, extraordinary in any circumstances, but surely exceptional in an eighty year-old man.

Aloys Fleischmann could no doubt have a left a larger legacy of music had he directed his energies more single-mindedly. That he did not is due to his understanding of the larger obligation his generation had to create the circumstances in which modern Irish music could flourish. In his teaching, in his indefatigable organising, in his willingness to sit on endless committees, in his ceaseless prompting and provoking, he had only one end in view: the increasing well-being of Irish music. We acknowledge our indebtedness, and for his vigorously-active life many of us will continue to feel a profound gratitude.

Seamas de Barra
BMus 1977, MA 1980