Aloys Fleischmann and the idea of an Irish Composer

Aloys Fleischmann in 1935

Aloys Fleischmann and the idea of an Irish Composer

Debates about the ‘Irishness’ of a composer’s music are not new in Ireland. The subject often occuppied Aloys Fleischmann, particularly as a young man in the 1930s. Séamas de Barra traces the development of his ideas and his early compositional style...

Surprisingly, when the twenty-four year old Fleischmann finally returned to Cork in 1934 from a period of study in Munich he immediately adopted a pseudonym under which, for the next ten years or so, he presented his music to the public. Although common enough for writers, it is rare for composers to do this, and one is led to speculate why Fleischmann might have felt it was necessary. The pseudonym itself – ‘Maurice Ronan’ or ‘Muiris Ó Rónáin’ (he used both the English and the Gaelic forms) – gives the best clue to his likely reasons, and what it clearly suggests is that Fleischmann wished his music to be heard unequivocally as the work of an Irishman. Partly an assertion of his own nationalist aspirations, he also hoped, I believe, that by this strategy he could ensure that the reception of his music would remain uncoloured by the kind of prejudices he felt his German surname might evoke.

Fleischmann’s family background was German of course, but his Cork roots went deeper than this bald statement might suggest. His father was born in Dachau and came to Cork in 1906 to take the post of Organist and Choirmaster in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne. His mother Tilly, however, had been born in Cork. She was the second daughter of Hans Konrad Swertz who had come to the city in 1879 as part of the influx of German musicians employed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy to revitalise church music in Ireland. Fleischmann himself was born in Munich, but this was something he always made little of. His mother, who had studied the piano and the organ at the Royal Academy of Music between 1901 and 1905, had gone back to Munich in 1909 to attend master classes and to give concerts. As the period of her confinement drew near she decided for various reasons to remain where she was, and so Aloys Óg, as he came to be called in the family, was born there in April 1910. He use to refer to this as ‘an accident’, and he certainly never thought of himself as anything but an Irishman and a Corkman.[1]

His parents’ position as prominent musicians and teachers in the city brought them into contact with people of very different social backgrounds and highly divergent political views. Among their friends were members of the Anglo-Irish gentry, but also many nationalists and republicans, among them Daniel Corkery, Seán and Geraldine Neeson, and the MacSwiney and MacCurtain families. And there seems little doubt that in so far as the Fleischmanns had any overt political sympathies, these lay with the nationalists. We get a revealing glimpse of this from a letter Tilly wrote to her son in Munich describing the dramatic torchlight procession which accompanied De Valera’s entry into Cork in January 1933, following his decision to call a snap general election that year.

[…] I think there must have been about 30,000 people to meet him. They had torchlights and tar-barrels and all the pipers bands, also working men’s bands. 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 is very questionable if Dev will get a majority – all the money and business people (all the philistines) are against him and money is powerful. He has all the poor and the thinking people with him.[2]

It was nationalism in its cultural dimension, however, that principally interested the Fleischmanns. Fleischmann Senior always remained essentially German in imaginative inclination. Nevertheless, his early involvement with the revitalisation of regional art in his native Dachau, where he earned a considerable reputation as a young man for his folk-inspired nativity plays, meant that he understood and sympathised with the revival of Gaelic culture which was underway when he arrived in Cork. There coexisted, therefore, in the intellectual and musical climate of the Fleischmann household a sympathetic interest in the aspirations of the Gaelic revival as well as a deep reverence for the great tradition of European art music. As he grew up, Aloys Óg was fully aware of the new cultural and political currents in the Ireland of the day, and these were as decisive in shaping his early imaginative development as were his musical studies. Fleischmann was fortunate enough to be able to take this double inheritance for granted as something completely natural, and what he subsequently sought as a composer was a way of combining these two spheres into one art.

A personal compositional voice
The two years in Munich, following his postgraduate work at University College Cork, were spent pursuing various courses both at Munich University and at the Royal Academy of Music, the most important of which were undoubtedly his composition studies with Joseph Haas. The training he received from Haas was in the strict discipline of counterpoint and fugue, as well as in orchestration. But although there did not appear to be much opportunity for discussing original work with his teacher, it was during these two years that Fleischmann discovered a personal compositional voice. In 1933 he completed a Suite for Piano which was performed in Munich the following year. This work is impressive both in its compositional fluency and stylistic consistency, especially when one considers that it was his first significant composition. But what is really surprising is its complete independence from the sound world of contemporary central European music. It is tersely modal and diatonic, with the unmistakable, if subtle accent of Irish folk music.

If the style of this Suite is a clear indication of how he was already focusing his creative imagination, we can also see from references in his letters that Fleischmann never seriously considered any alternative to his eventually returning to Ireland and to Cork. ‘I can’t tell you how much I now love Munich, and how I am enjoying the world of art here more and more!’ he wrote to his mother in 1932. ‘However,’ he continued, ‘I do not want to live here, in case you were to deduce that from what I say. I now see more clearly than ever – Ireland it must be’.[3] His stay in Munich actually intensified his love for Ireland and for Irish culture, and the composition of the Piano Suite appears to have been a process of discovery bound up with these feelings. ‘I remember when I was writing the slow movement’, he recalled many years later, ‘feeling suddenly that I was groping into to a new kind of world which I had never sensed before.’[4] He appears to have recognised that this ‘new kind of world’ was the source of his creativity as a composer, and also to have understood from the outset that it was inseparable from his sense of Irishness. It was as though he became convinced while in Munich that, for him, any authentic personal utterance could only be rooted in the culture of his country.

The problem with a return to Ireland was, of course, the underdeveloped state of music here in the 1930s. Clearly the creation of modern Irish music could not be attempted in a vacuum, and, as Fleischmann – and indeed others – saw it, the principal task now facing them was to effect a change in these circumstances by whatever means possible. He was appointed acting Professor of Music in University College Cork on his return in 1934. This post, which shortly afterwards was made full-time and which he held for forty-six years, he saw not merely as a job, but as a position which afforded him decisive opportunities for advancing the cause of music. The scope of this article, unfortunately, does not permit the exploration of the many ways in which he sought to do this, but it was a commitment that absorbed a great deal of his time and energy. Naturally, it affected his compositional output, and the paradox of his career as a composer was that Ireland, while allowing him to find an individual creative voice, also unfortunately prevented him from devoting more than a fraction of his time to developing it.

A new Irish art music
Shortly after his appointment, Fleischmann published three articles in which he formulated his ideas about what a new Irish art music should be like. In the first of these, which appeared in Studies in March 1935, he states his position succinctly: ‘What is needed is a Gaelic art-music which will embody all the technique that contemporary music can boast and at the same time will be rooted in the folk-music spirit, and will be as individual and genuine as that folk-music is individual and genuine.’[5]

In June 1936 he elaborated on this in an article he published in the journal Ireland To-day. ‘Surely it is a poor story if the Ireland of the present day – and a Gaelic thinking and even Gaelic speaking Ireland at that – could not begin to express herself in the language of contemporary music […]’, he wrote. ‘While welcoming the spread of traditional music […] we must remember that the task before us lies […] in making of music a medium for the expression of the life of present-day Ireland, by the use of present-day methods elsewhere.’[6]

Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair, who was the regular music correspondent for Ireland To-day, took exception to his use of the word ‘atavism’ which he had employed in connection with a too exclusive concentration on folk music, and Fleischmann published a further article in November 1936 as a rejoinder. It is difficult not to think that he and Ó Gallchobhair were at cross-purposes in this brief debate, and that fundamentally there was little difference between their positions. After all, Fleischmann was certainly not antagonistic to folk music – far from it indeed – and Ó Gallchobhair by no means suggested that Irish music neither could be nor should be anything else. Nevertheless, Fleischmann took this opportunity to explore the matter further and to restate some of his own beliefs. ‘A widespread cult of folk song’, he asserted, ‘is an excellent thing in itself, but it is also an end in itself.’7 In his view, what was necessary was for composers to be able to knead and mould it as the raw material of their music, ‘so that it became indistinguishable from the fabric into which it was wrought’. If this proved possible ‘a new school might first achieve definite results, producing an early crop of works in which the folk song, its body and spirit, would be the all pervading sap.’[7]

Fleischmann, in short, is attempting two things in these articles: as a nationalist, he is advocating a programme for the development of a Gaelic art music through the blending of the techniques of contemporary music with what he felt he could identify as the essence of Irish folk song; and, as a European, he is criticising an attitude which would simply identify ‘Irish’ music with folk song, and not allow that anything else was either desirable, necessary, or even possible. While it would be unfair to ascribe without qualification this latter view to Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair, there is some indication that views of this extreme nature were indeed held in some quarters. How influential they may have been is another question, but Fleischmann clearly felt that they should not go unchallenged. And it certainly seems likely that in adopting the pseudonym ‘Muiris Ó Rónáin’ he wished to forestall any possibility that his efforts to contribute to the creation a Gaelic art-music might be dismissed in such quarters simply because it was not the work of a proper Irishman. By this device he could hope that his work might be assessed on its intrinsic merits, without the irrelevant and distracting commentary that his surname might attract.

Trí hAmhráin
The extent of his idealistic enthusiasm became evident in 1935 when the London firm of J. & W. Chester agreed to publish the 1933 Suite for Piano and Fleischmann insisted that they print all the directions in Irish as well as in Italian. This, surprisingly, they agreed to do and the work duly appeared as Sreath do Phiano by Muiris Ó Rónáin. This gesture, like the pseudonym, can be understood as an attempt to assert his Irishness by whatever means he could whenever a suitable opportunity arose, especially as at this time he still had little actual music to show.

A similar point could also be made about his decision to choose texts in Irish for his next work, a set of three songs for voice and piano. The significance of the Trí hAmhráin in Fleischmann’s output, however, is far greater than a merely overt gesture such as this might suggest. It was in these songs that he endeavoured to show one manifestation at least of what a Gaelic art music might be like. They represent a conscious essay in the forging of an indigenous idiom, as the programme note for the first performance in 1935 – also in Irish (another gesture!) – makes clear:

Seo dhíbh iarracht le Muiris Ó Rónáin ar dhántaibh Gaedhilge d’iompódh chun ceoil go bhfuil fíor-chor amhrán na ndaoine ann. Ní h-é seo ceol an tseana nóis, ámhthach, mar a tuigtear dúinn, ach ceol ealadhanta an lae indiu go bhfuil sprid de’n tseana nós ann.

[Here is an attempt on the part of Muiris Ó Rónáin to set Irish poems to music in a way that will reflect the true nature of the people’s songs. This is not the old traditional music, however, as we understand it, but art music of today imbued with the old traditional spirit.]

Apart from his choice of language, Fleischmann’s choice of texts for this work is also a matter of some interest. The central song of the three, Bíogadh, is a setting of a translation by Micheál Ó Murchú of an unspecified French original and, although charming in itself, it is designed to be a lightweight intermezzo providing necessary textural contrast between the two weightier outer songs. The first of these, a setting of Marbhna Eoghain Ruaidh Uí Néill, a poem attributed to Carolan, is an impressive re-creation in art-song terms of the traditional lament for a dead hero. Fleischmann’s achievement here is to have created an idiom which is at once both personal and objective, and which is eminently suitable for conveying a sense of grief and loss which is deeply felt and yet remains essentially formal. Dignity and self-control are never sacrificed to intensity, and while there is a shattering climax, the music never for a moment suggests the hysterical.

The emotional progression of the work as a whole is from the hopelessness of this lament to hopefulness, and the positive theme of the concluding song is national re-awakening. The conceit of the poem – An Píobaire, also by Micheál Ó Murchú – is that Shíghle, representing Ireland, asks if anyone has heard her piper returning home. The answer is that he has indeed been heard ‘Ag gluaiseacht tríd an Tír/Agus na mílte fairis’ [Moving through the country/And thousands with him], and as the subtitle of the poem is ‘Tar éis na Cásca’ [After Easter], we may reasonably assume that the piper represents the returning spirit of freedom and the re-birth of Ireland’s sense of itself as an independent country. It is a fresh, exuberant setting, and in writing it Fleischmann was successful in attaining several very elusive goals – sincerity free of self-consciousness, simplicity without sentimentality, and an uncomplicated directness of utterance that does not in any way compromise his compositional technique. The song is undoubtedly one of Fleischmann’s most overtly nationalistic compositions. But it is no mere piece of political propaganda for all that. For Fleischmann, the poem’s identification of the return of freedom with the return of music to the land would have been irresistible. It would have appealed directly to his sense of his own mission as a composer, and the quality of his achievement in this set of songs testifies to the degree with which his creative imagination, undaunted by immediate practical difficulties, was stirred by the reviving cultural life of the country, and excited by the prospect of rich new developments.

In seeking to develop a national music for Ireland, Fleischmann would have had to consider the matter of suitable models, and it is not surprising that he should have looked to the modern English school as a persuasive example of how a nation revitalises itself musically. If an out-and-out Irish Nationalist might have found himself ideologically in a quandary over this, Fleischmann was inclined to dispose of the matter lightly. The Irish composer – he wrote in 1936 – ‘may come under the influence of some passing style […] and if English it will not bear with it the bitter associations which English influence recalls in Irish literary history of the past hundred years’.[9] He would probably have regarded the English school with interest if only because of his personal friendships with Bax and, later, with E. J. Moeran, but, apart from this, the successful efforts of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries to evolve a recognisably English style out of folk song and Tudor polyphony, without sacrificing the sophistication of the European, indeed German, symphonic tradition, can only have been an inspiration. The work of Vaughan Williams himself, moreover, will have demonstrated to Fleischmann just how far a style may be rooted in folk song and yet be capable of transcending its origins.

‘A momentous and bewildering issue’
Apart from issues of nationalism, Fleischmann and his contemporaries were also faced with a further aspect of this question of idiom, which he described as ‘a momentous and bewildering issue’.[10] He was acutely aware that there was only a tiny public for classical music in Ireland in the 1930s, let alone a public for modern music, and he wondered how far it was advisable for the contemporary young composer to ‘plunge into the principles of Schoenberg or Milhaud and let loose a series of atonal or polytonal profundities upon the astonished ears of a public acclimatised to Moore’.[11] This, he felt, would be premature and only succeed in alienating any potential audience. He personally favoured attempting to evolve an individual style out of the vocabulary ‘of a pre-war generation’, as he put it – ‘for in seeking a new tradition, uncertain of our very footing, we must make good the breach with the past before we strike out apace.’[12]

This pragmatic approach was completely compatible with his idea of a Gaelic art music indebted to folk song, which an atonal style simply could not have accommodated. It is interesting to note, however, that Fleischmann’s early music, diatonic and modal though it may largely be, owes little or nothing to the actual manner of Vaughan Williams. And if there are points of stylistic contact with English contemporaries – and John Ireland and E. J. Moeran come more readily to mind – it is more likely they are the inevitable results of a similar compositional outlook and similar compositional aims.

But the principal compositional influence on the Trí hAmhráin was, I suggest, a native one. The work is dedicated to Carl Hardebeck, who was widely recognised by his contemporaries as having successfully devised for traditional songs a harmonic background and a style of accompaniment that enhanced rather than trivialised or compromised them. Fleischmann was both familiar with, and an enthusiastic admirer of Hardebeck’s arrangements. In a tribute published in 1943, he declared that Hardebeck ‘was the first to take proper cognisance of the modal structure of the airs. Earlier arrangers had been either entirely ignorant of the modal system, regarding any characteristic progressions which arose from it as some sort of primitive aberration, or else they cloaked them to the best of their ability with a barrage of spurious modulations, in conformity with Victorian ideas of tonality.’[13] I would argue that, in composing the Trí hAmhráin, Fleischmann took Hardebeck’s arrangements as a point of departure, and this, I believe, is what the dedication implicitly acknowledges. The result is a sophisticated creative response to the traditional repertoire, and in this work both the folk idiom itself as well as what Hardebeck brought to it have been successfully assimilated into a persuasive personal style.

The Trí hAmhráin were performed again in a version with orchestra in Dublin in 1938. The singer on this occasion was the acclaimed English tenor Heddle Nash, who sang the songs in an English translation, although Fleischmann did attempt to persuade him to sing them in Irish. They made a considerable impression. That Hardebeck himself responded warmly to Fleischmann’s achievement is evident from a letter of Fleischmann Senior’s to his family after he visited Hardebeck in Dublin in the summer of 1939, and in which he sends the blind composer’s greetings ‘to the young genius who is so good at working such beautiful Irish melodies into his compositions.’[14]

Frederick May, in a subsequent article on Fleischmann’s music, summed up his reactions thus:

These songs combine a remarkable lyrical beauty with a deep intensity of feeling. The first and the third seem to spring straight from the soul of Ireland and its historic past. The lament is built up from a throbbing ground bass and evokes an unforgettable picture of a nation in mourning, while the Piper, with his wonderful tenderness and love for Ireland, […] and its mounting and evermore confident assurances of victory is something that I defy any Irishman to listen to without a strange tugging at his heartstrings, springing both from the intrinsic beauty of the music and racial memories evoked by the poem. The three songs […] undoubtedly represent one of the highlights of contemporary music in Ireland.[15]

Four years after this article appeared Fleischmann conducted the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his own music in Dublin, and May had the opportunity to hear the Trí hAmhráin again. He found his admiration for them undimmed.

Just a line to congratulate you on the concert the other night. – he wrote to the composer afterwards – I have always enjoyed those three songs for Tenor and Orchestra more than anything else of yours and this impression was confirmed and strengthened by Tuesday’s performance. […] The last [song] is the most thrilling piece of patriotic ‘art music’ we have. If the people were only more receptive it should take its place as a kind of unofficial National Anthem like Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’.[16]

E. J. Moeran also greatly admired these songs but took a somewhat more detached and hard-headedly professional view of his young friend’s idealistic enthusiasms. In a letter to Tilly Fleischmann in 1938 he acknowledged the quality of the music but thought that setting the Irish language was foolishly impractical: ‘As they now stand they haven’t the ghost of [a] chance, until this country can produce a singer of culture and musicianship they might as well be set to Fiji or Zulu texts.’ And he concludes: ‘[…] it is very sad, but I do hope Aloys will eventually become more cosmopolitan.’[17]

Steering a course
This final observation of Moeran’s clearly underlines the sharply contradictory considerations that Fleischmann found himself trying to negotiate at this period of his career, and in the face of which he was attempting to sustain a personal creative vision. On the one hand, if he attempted anything more than the arrangement of folk tunes he was not sufficiently Irish; on the other hand, if he gave way to his enthusiasm for Gaelic culture he was not sufficiently cosmopolitan. And again, if he composed music of any real complexity he was in danger of alienating a public ‘acclimatised to Moore’, while if he pragmatically avoided the latest stylistic experiments he was open to the charge of being hopelessly out of touch.

Fleischmann managed to steer a course through this, and the style he evolved in the 1930s is impressive as a convincing reconciliation of the demands of creative necessity with a clear-sighted response to these conflicting considerations. May’s generous and enthusiastic comments demonstrate how successful his contemporaries felt the results to be. There is a consistent development of this style through the Piano Quintet of 1938, The Humours of Carolan of 1942, and The Four Masters overture of 1944. And with the composition of Clare’s Dragoons in 1945 Fleischmann’s ambition to find an authentic voice for the Irish experience reached its early apogee. By this time, of course, he had become a well-established figure in Irish musical life. Consequently the outward gestures of Irishness were no longer necessary and the pseudonym became redundant. In his later work the accent of folk music became fainter as he found himself responding creatively to more recent stylistic developments, but his continued preoccupation with Irish subject matter clearly indicates that the question of what it meant to be a composer living and working in modern Ireland never lost any of its importance for him.

1. In answering a questionnaire in 1990, Fleischmann gave his location of birth as ‘Munich (an accident, when my mother was on a concert tour there)’. There is a copy of this completed questionnaire in the Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork.
2. Letter from Tilly Fleischmann to her son, 20 January 1933, Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork.
3. Letter from Aloys Fleischmann to his parents, 20 October 1932, Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork. [Translated from the German by Ruth Fleischmann.]
4. ‘Aloys Fleischmann in conversation with Tomás Ó Canainn’, The Cork Review, Tomás Ó Canainn (ed.), Cork 1992, p. 15.
5. ‘The Outlook for Music in Ireland’, Studies, Vol. XXIV No.93, March 1935, p. 124.
6. ‘Ars Nova’, Ireland To-day, Vol. 1 No. 2, July 1936, p. 45.
7. ‘Composition and the Folk Idiom’, Ireland To-day, Vol. 1 No. 6, November 1936, p. 43.
8. Ibid, p. 42.
9. Ibid, p. 44.
10. Ibid, p. 40.
11. Ibid, p. 40.
12. Ibid, p. 40.
13. Aloys Fleischmann, contribution to ‘Hardebeck’, The Capuchin Annual, 1945, p. 227.
14. Letter from Aloys Fleischmann Senior to his family, n.d., Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork. [Translated from the German by Ruth Fleischmann.] Although this letter is only headed ‘Sunday’, it must be July 30th 1939, as the opening night of T. C. Murray’s Illumination at the Abbey Theatre, for which Fleischmann had gone to Dublin, was the following night.
15. Frederick May, ‘The Music of Aloys Fleischmann’, The Father Mathew Record, Vol. 42 No. 12, December 1949, p. 6.
16. Letter from Frederick May to Aloys Fleischmann, 15 November 1952, Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork.
17. Letter from E. J. Moeran to Tilly Fleischmann, 20 April 1938, Fleischmann Papers, Archive of University College Cork.

Published on 1 September 2005

Séamas de Barra is a composer and Senior Lecturer at the Cork School of Music.

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