Ní ón ngaoth a fuair sé é: Aloys Fleischmann, 1910–92

Aloys Fleischmann in 1958 (Photo R. Frewen)

Ní ón ngaoth a fuair sé é: Aloys Fleischmann, 1910–92

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin reviews a biography of the composer Aloys Fleischmann and remembers a seminal figure in Irish musical life.

Reading Séamas de Barra’s new work on the Irish composer Aloys Fleischmann (1910–92) brought back a flood of inspirational memories. Like the author of this first book from the new Field Day Music series on Irish composers, I too was a Fleischmann music student at University College Cork. My time there ranged from 1969 to 1973 and two years later I was back as a young colleague of the august professor. When I left for the green fields and riverbanks of the University of Limerick in 1993, I had spent all of eighteen years working beside this cultural giant of a man whose generosity directly touched so many thousands of people throughout his lifetime. His deep influence on music in Ireland continues to this day, and this meticulously researched book will be welcomed by all who wondered about the details of his life which his personal reticence protected.

Born in 1910, Aloys Fleischmann wrote at the age of twenty-one: ‘…the art of a nation must flow out of itself as naturally as a river flows out of its own source.’ Already in his mind a lifelong search towards the idea of a ‘Gaelic art music’ was germinating. Fascinating comparisons could be made between this utopian vision and Seán Ó Riada’s later search for ‘a native Irish art music’ – Fleischmann’s arena being exclusively within the classical music tradition but open to inspiration from the ‘folk’ music of Ireland; and Ó Riada’s radical experiments with traditional musicians themselves in the 1960s tracking alongside his own classical music explorations. But such a discussion is outside the scope of this book. Its clear and noble intent is to redress the neglect of Fleischmann, just as the entire series of books desires to do with other composers of his generation and later.

The young composer’s stint as a student in the State Academy of Music in Munich lasted two years. I remember Fleischmann telling us himself of how while performing sight-reading on the piano for a panel of professors the door was swept open and in walked Richard Strauss. ‘One of his examiners whispered to him to keep playing and added that it was a good omen’, writes de Barra. But he is also able to reveal how the rise of Hitler was in the air. ‘I chanced to see Hitler a few days ago as I was passing the Brown House [he wrote to his parents]. A most insignificant looking person.’ There are other chilling references to ‘the Nazi Symphony Orchestra’ and to a Nazi takeover of an orchestral concert where the President of the Academy was dragged away and Wagner’s Meistersinger overture was conducted by one of the Nazis in place of the President.

Fleischmann studied under Joseph Hass in Munich (who was a student of Reger), and Hass himself was influenced by folk music. The stage was increasingly being set for an inevitable return to Ireland by Fleischmann to commence a lifetime’s work towards realising his dream of forging a distinctive national voice in classical music. The means of achieving that were to be many and varied. Apart from the core task of writing his own music from the deepest part of his soul, the arena of music education became of central importance. Furthermore, Fleischmann was not someone who simply got good ideas. He followed them through until they were thoroughly grounded, and then most impressively he tended to stay with them for the rest of his life. The list is breathtaking: the University Arts Club was first off the blocks when he was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate at UCC; within three years he had studied in Munich and returned as Chair of Music at the University from the age of twenty-four – a position he held for a full forty-six years; the Cork Symphony Orchestra (where he made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the longest serving conductor of an orchestra in the world); his lifelong dedicated contribution to ballet in Ireland; the still thriving Cork International Choral Festival which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary three years ago; his work with Cumann Náisiúnta na gCór. These are only representative of a longer list of dedicated public service that must be seen as the outpourings of a deeply humanistic soul. Alongside all of that, there was Fleischmann the musicologist whose work Sources of Irish Traditional Music spanned a full forty years of his life, and remains the most extensive publication on this music ever published.

Twasn’t from the air he plucked it – ní ón ngaoth a fuair sé é. Both of his parents were professional musicians who themselves were deeply involved in the musical fabric of Cork city – and indeed in the cultural nationalism of the early years of the Irish Free State. In a letter from his mother, Tilly, she tells him of her attendance at a torchlight procession that greeted de Valera’s entry into Cork in 1933 in advance of a general election:

I think there must have been about 30,000 people to meet him… It was well it was dark and there was nobody with me! I cried my eyes out. It reminded me so much of 1916, Terence Mac Swiney and all those noble fellows who died for their country… I saw Dev quite close. Just a few yards away. He looked very well, God bless him…

It’s all fascinating stuff. Fleischmann the emerging Irish German cultural nationalist classical music composer with an Irish pseudonym for a time (Muiris Ó Rónáin), who was a regular visitor to the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, who insisted on having his honeymoon on the Blasket Islands (where else?), who visited Peig Sayers regularly during her final years in hospital, and yet whose view of ‘folk music’ was that ‘one cannot expect of it to succeed in or to supplant that which is in the realm of art music.’ This of course was the standard held belief of the time. Indeed, I remember as a young academic walking to an Arts Council sponsored meeting beside another great Irish composer of Fleischmann’s generation, Brian Boydell, when he turned to me and in typically straightforward and honest fashion said: ‘But of course you believe that traditional music is art music’, to which I silently and affirmatively nodded my head. We walked on in what I like to remember as a respectful silence.

Whatever one believes does not upset the essential story – this book is about the journey of one man into and out of himself. It concerns the inner tensions that build up around our beliefs and dreams, our optimisms and our hopes – and if we are musicians, then how all of that dynamic is resolved creatively. Fleischmann’s life was itself a great symphony – the symphony he himself never actually fully succeeded in writing (even if Sinfonia Votiva (1977), as de Barra intimates, comes near). But as he aged his musical mind deepened impressively. A maturity arrives in the sounds he makes in his sixties and seventies – and most surprisingly and delightfully, an incisive youthfulness makes its appearance. He himself knew this. Its first real tangible appearance may well have been in his SATB setting of a John Kinsella poem, Poet in the Suburbs (Fleischmann’s title). I was fortunate enough to be present at its premiere in Cork City Hall at the Choral Festival in April 1974. The performance by the BBC Northern Ireland singers under Stephen Wilkinson was electric in its reading and precision. I had heard enough of Fleischmann’s earlier style to know that a great change had occurred. If one accepts Vaclav Havel’s distinction between ‘optimism’ as the conviction that something will turn out well, and ‘hope’ as the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out, then for Fleischmann mere optimism had been banished and the great bird of Hope had taken its rightful place. It seems right that Poet in the Suburbs and another vital work at the very end of his life, Games (1990), should be for choir. He had found his voice through the voice. Perhaps it somehow disappointed him that what he produced in these brilliant works was not ‘audibly’ Irish. Perhaps he had to accept something about human cultural identity which stood in direct opposition to his earlier beliefs. Perhaps he found that he was, in the end, his own country, his own nation, and that his own voice echoed most truthfully from that very well-source.

Séamas de Barra tells how at an early age ‘an injury [Fleischmann] sustained to his right hand failed to deflect him from his piano practice, which he diligently continued with his left hand alone.’ During my time as an undergraduate at UCC, the professor injured his left hand while mowing the lawn. Less than a week later I was present at the back of the St Francis Xavier Hall in Dublin to witness him emerge on stage with his left hand in a sling and conduct the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra in his orchestral version of Cornucopia (1970), literally single-handedly – somehow he managed to whip the pages over, with the same hand holding the baton, without missing a beat!

What a scandal that these works are not available on commercial recordings. Of the listing of fifty-five compositions by Fleischmann only two are recorded and available and both of these were composed in the 1930s. Consider this: if the classical music community in Ireland took care of its heritage as well as the traditional music community does of its traditions, there would be a box set of the entire Fleischmann catalogue available since the 1990s at the very least. What’s the problem? Money? No. Vision? Probably. Confidence? Most likely. This Field Day Music series may well be the catalyst that sparks the flame.

Séamas de Barra’s book is an excellent example of what I call ‘outsider musicology’ (working outside of third-level institutional musicology, that is). Traditional music in Ireland has been well served by the same presence (Brendán Breathnach, Nicholas Carolan et al). Just as literacy does not displace orality but tracks a new light beside it, the increasing development of the various musicologies within the university sector need not displace this valuable and essential outsider voice. Long may it continue.

Aloys Fleischmann is a labour of love. It has that as a sub-text – to my reading at any rate. As a result it is its own cornucopia, and de Barra is generous in his treatment of a generous subject. And no wonder. Ní ón ngaoth a fuair sé é.

Séamas de Barra, Aloys Fleischmann
Dublin, Field Day Publications, 2006, 240pp

Published on 1 May 2007

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (1950–2018) was one of Ireland's best known musicians. He made over ten CD recordings of his own compositions and arrangements performed by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under his direction. As a pianist, he is widely acknowledged as having originated a unique Irish piano style out of an Irish traditional base. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin was Professor of Music at the University of Limerick where he founded the Irish World Music Centre in 1994, which has now grown into the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.

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