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Aloys Fleischmann in conversation with Tomas Ó Canainn

Taken from the Cork Review, June 1992.  

Tomás Ó Canainn,tomasocannain uilleann-piper, recently retired as Dean of Engineering at UCC, dabbles in poetry. He is author of Traditional Music in Ireland and is music reviewer for The Cork Examiner. He teaches uilleann pipes at the Cork School of Music.


TOC: Professor Fleischmann, could you tell me about your compositions — why you started, what made you want to compose, when you started.
AF: When I was five or six, my mother used to give me piano lessons and she was very severe with me — I cried a lot at those early lessons: she was displeased with my lack of progress. I used to compose and she'd write down what I composed, as I couldn't, at that time: it was just trivia, of course, but I was already trying to compose at that age.

TOC: You were doing this at the piano?
AF: Yes. Years later, when I went to college, 1 still kept it up, apart from the exercises I had to do for old Lacy, the professor of Music. I wrote a number of songs and a movement for string quartet. Bax used to come to visit and stayed with us in the mid-twenties, when I was only fourteen or fifteen. 1 had the nerve to show him some of my stuff - or rather, my mother persuaded me to show it to him. Bax, of course, was terribly shy and wouldn't hurt anybody: you can imagine what he thought of my compositions, but he was very encouraging.

TOC: When were you born?
AF: 1910. In 1925 I was fifteen - and that was the year Bax first came to Cork.

TOC: Why did he come?
AF: My mother was on the Feis Maitiu committee and when it came to deciding on an adjudicator, Bax was a big name on the English musical scene, so she said: 'why not get a real composer, for a change?' They settled on Bax, which pleased everyone, but they were astonished when he agreed to come. In many ways he was unsuitable, firstly because he had to adjudicate in every field and, secondly, he wouldn't speak - and, of course, an adjudicator who doesn't speak isn't much good. So he didn't survive long as an adjudicator at the Feis, but that's how my mother invited him first to thehouse and we.bccame very friendly. After that he came every year to our house for a fortnight or three weeks, throughout thirty years. We used to bring him to the sea, initially to a cottage we had in Oysterhaven and then subsequently to one near Glengariff. He enjoyed this immensely: I used to drive him around, and one of his great hobbies was deriving placenames. He had quite a knowledge of Irish and, using the Joyce book on placenames, had great fun with his hobby. In an article I wrote about him, 1 pointed out that some curious motif would arise, perhaps out of a placename, and it would form a sort of fugue theme - so for the rest of the day we would be relating everything to this.

TOC: Where did you go to school?
AF: I went first to kindergarten, to St. Ita's, run by Miss Mary and Miss Annie MacSwiney. I remember Terence MacSwiney as a very benign person -to children especially; he'd talk very kindly to them.After St. Ita's I went to Christian Brothers' College. I left St. Ita's, by the way, because I got into trouble for pulling girls' hair! In Christians we had Tony Curtis (Bernard Curtis' uncle) for music. He belonged to an earlier era and was always quoting big names to us from his days in London. Tonic-solfa was what he taught, not staff notation - maybe that's the reason he was known as Tony. The favourite in our class was a fellow called Lawton, who subsequently became a Jesuit and eventually head of Clongowes. Curtis thought up a sight-singing competition, using tonic-solfa, for which there was a prize. Everyone thought Lawton would win it, but I just managed to pip him.

From the age of twelve I was sent to St. Finbarr's College, Farranferris, as my father was teaching there. He thought it would look bad for me to be in Christians, while he taught in Farranferris. I must say I was thrilled with the difference in approach; it was so liberal. The brothers were very severe: one of them - one of the best teachers there - was the very devil for the cane. If youAloys leaving Cert Results missed a question, 'Line', he'd say, and you went and stood in line. At the end of the class, you'd get a wallop that would sting for ten minutes. There was another brother called 'The Bull', who'd get into frightful rages. One of the ringleaders of the class, a fellow who was always in trouble, broke open the teacher's desk, got hold of the leather, and we all trooped down to Patrick's Bridge and threw it into the river! On the whole, there was no such thing as a leather or caning in Farranferris, the majority there being boarders from rural areas, many of them sent in the hope they might enter for the Church, and so did not need the kind of discipline meted out to the tougher urban types in the Christian Brother' Schools.

I was a devil for work - a swotter - and not very popular for that reason! One day there was a practice hurling match, a challenge, and by ill-luck, what did I do but score a goal. They said I should be on the team for a coming big match against the seminary in Fermoy. I failed to hit a single ball, but I did hit the man 1 was supposed to be marking: so I was disgraced - on my one venture into sport!

But I did work hard at my studies. I remember an American in our class who was very clever and quick. He said to me: 'I'll beat you in this exam, and I'll not do a stroke of work. I bet I'll beat you.' He did nothing of the kind: I got three firsts in Ireland in the Leaving Certificate, and one second. Even that 'second' would have been a 'first', only that the fellow who got first had done the exam through Irish and, of course, had got a 10% bonus.

TOG What were the subjects?
AF: They were easy, of course: Music, German, History, and second in Latin.
In college I made a regrettable mistake in not taking Irish in First Arts: my parents thought I should do French, since I had German anyway, but Professor Mary Ryan wouldn't hear of it, since I had passed no examination in the language before, though we had a governess - a lady who came in to teach me French and some other things, apart from my schoolwork - so I had some French. I don't know why I didn't take Irish, but I took Logic as my fifth subject-we had five subjects in those days for first Arts. I don't think, still, that it was a bad thing to have done Logic.

TOG What were your five subjects?
AF: English, German, Music, History, Logic.

TOG What about your music at this time?
AF': Lacy was my mentor. He was of a Blackrock family - Frederick St. John Lacy. In his youth he got same disease and his feet never grew. He had a fine body and a fine head, but the lower half of his body was dwarf-like. He could only walk on crutches. Despite that he went to London. He had a good voice and was a very popular singer to his own accompaniment - so popular that he was made President of the prestigious Savage Club in London. He used to tell me about being host at a big dinner, when the Duke of Con-naught was his chief guest.

Once, when in London, I had an appointment with a librarian, from whom I was hiring music for my orchestra. He brought me to The Savage Club, on the walls of which were pictures of past presidents. Who did I see there but Lacy. So I said to my man, who was a member of the club: 'do you know who that president is?' (there were no names on the portraits) He checked with the secretary of the club, but nobody knew. I told him; 'that's Professor Lacy of UCC.'
Lacy was very pedantic: his lectures largely consisted of expounding Prout's book on harmony and Kitson's on counterpoint. Then you did the exercises and with enormous labour he'd play what you wrote, sighing and heaving, trying to get his hands around it. But 1 must say he was very devoted to his work and I got on well with him, gaining first honours in all the exams. One day his housekeeper let me into a big secret: 'you're going to be his heir and you'll be very well-off.' Some months later, however, the housekeeper answered the door, looking rather crestfallen, and said to me: 'I'm afraid he's fallen for one of his students and is going to marry her'.

He had retired at this time, so he must have been over seventy, though he still gave lessons. A singer of about twenty-eight fell for him completely - she worshipped him. They married and she sold off his library, an enormous one, and the College bought most of it. I had already got his job by then. Quite a number of the scores I now have derive from Lacy - I bought them from his widow.

Do you know, Tomas, the story of how music first came into UCC?

TOC: No, but I'm sure it's good!
AF: Sir Bertram Windle's wife was a singer. When they came to Cork, she wanted to continue lessons and asked who would be a good teacher. She was recommended to a man who had come back from London and was teaching singing. She went to him and was so impressed by him, his wide reading and his library that she said to her husband, who was President of UCC: 'you must create a job for this man.' So, very dutifully, he created a lectureship for St. John Lacy in 1906.

No student turned up for five years, so in 1911 Lacy went to the President and said: 'you can't expect students to come to a mere lecturer: if you make me a professor, I'm sure they'll come'. So he was made a professor, but still nobody came!

Eventually, Jeremiah O'Connor from Sunday's Well, the headmaster of the primary school there, became the first B. Mus. in 1916 or 1917. After that, there was no student until Donncha 6 Briain, another primary teacher, arrived. He was a man of radical views, who wouldn't accept anything Lacy told him. If Lacy said: 'consecutive fifths are out', Donncha would go back, get hold of a score of Palestrina and search until he'd find an example of consecutive fifths. He'd bring it to Lacy, saying: 'there now, what did I tell you?' They fought non-stop and finally Donncha walked out and became, eventually, this State's first Inspector of Music.

TOC: But he didn't get the B. Mus.?
AF: Not at all. He did something more important, though: he managed to get a completely philis-tine Department of Education to agree that forentry to the Training Colleges, intending primary teachers would have to be able to sing in tune and be able to master tonic-solfa.The good thing was that he had six inspectors working for him and they really did cover the country, inspecting all the schools.

TOC: When did you yourself start on music, as a serious study?
AF: I took Music in Leaving Certificate in 1927 and studied for B. Mus. at UCC from 1928 to 1931, then doing the MA in 1932. From 1932 to 1934 I was in Munich, at the State Academy of Music, and Munich University.

TOC: What did you do there?
AF: My father sent me there because he wanted me to succeed him as organist. My grandfather on my mother's side had been organist in the Cathedral, then my father, and he wanted me to be the third of the line, which was understandable. I took church music all right, but not organ. I was more interested in composition and conducting, to my father's grave disappointment, so I never qualified as a church musician, having specialised in composition, conducting and musicology in the University.

When I was in Munich I was very homesick and had an enormous appreciation of everything Irish, much more than 1 had before I went there. I remember doing a fair amount of free composition, quite apart from what I had to do for my professor, Joseph Haas. He was what the Germans called a Kleinmeister, a master of miniature music: he wrote a tremendous amount of cham­ber-music and songs, as well as one opera, but not much orchestral music. He was a very good teacher and a great inspiration to me.

I went through the whole rigmarole, up to fugue and five-part counterpoint, which I had done already in UCC, but he didn't do species counterpoint with his class, with the result that the fellows with me were really hopeless - they had no technique. I think species counterpoint essential for discipline. A fellow who was supposed to be one of the most talented in our class - and it was a big class of twenty, called a masterclass - wrote a motet for the Munich Cathedral Choir - that was the choir conducted by my father's friend. You should have seen the unvocal gimmicry which he expected the choir to perform - rather like the cerebral note-spinning which sometimes emerges at the seminars of our Choral Festival.

As regards composition, apart from what I submitted to Haas, I remember sitting at my piano in the hostel I stayed in, writing a suite. It was the first thing I produced that was published and it was performed at an Academy concert in 1934.

TOC: When you say a suite, what was the instrumentation?
AF: It was for piano. I remember when I was writing the slow movement, feeling suddenly, for the first time, that I was groping into a new kind of world, which I had never sensed before. It was an extraordinary experience - to be outside oneself, groping into an inner world.

TOC: And what was new about that world?
AF: What was new about it was that I didn't realise that I had the ability to explore uncharted territory - and it did mean that ideas came flowing out, almost without effort. I had a similar experience a couple of times after that, but not often, I'm afraid. Strangely enough, this was the case with the most recent work I wrote, Games, for the Choral Festival Seminar on contemporary music... you may remember it?

TOC: I do - it was a great success.

AF: The BBC Singers gave it a fine performance. That was the only work 1 ever wrote which gave me no trouble whatsoever: and you'd imagine that at the end of my days now, I'd find it harder and harder.... But this was the effect of the poetry, which I thought was marvellous.

TOC: Before this Suite for Piano in 1934, you had done other things when you were much younger. Had you done anything significant in the intervening period?
AF: Well, I told you I had written a movement for string quartet. My father, very decently, engaged four Munich professionals to play it for me.

TOC: That was while you were a student there?
AF: Yes, when my parents came to Munich to see where I'd stay and to make all the arrangements. I also wrote a motet which the Munich Cathedral Choir performed. 'Oculos Meos' was the title, I think.

TOC: For how many voices?
AF: Just for four-part choir. There was a newspaper report which wrote up a Bruckner mass and my motet and Lacy was as proud as Punch that his pupil was on the same programme as Bruckner!

It was on the boat coming back that I began to feel I was riding on the crest of a wave, as we approached Cobh, early in the morning. Ringing in my ears was that marvellous passage from Tristan - Die Irische Konigin (Irish Queen) - Iseult being a Dublin princess. I suddenly began to feel that I had a job to do here - that I should try and undertake to get a good orchestra going. I already had hopes of succeeding Lacy.

Before this, Annie Patterson, the lecturer in Irish music, had died and John Horgan, who was a solicitor and a friend of the family, said to my father: 'get that fellow back from Munich to apply for this job, because whoever gets it will get the chair eventually.' That was the advice, but I turned it down, firstly because I had no special qualifications in Irish music, and secondly, because I didn't want to interrupt my studies in Munich.

As a matter of fact, when I got back, Merriman, who was UCC President, summoned me and showed me the applications: one was from a Kanturk man who had been an avid student of Annie Patterson's. Annie O'Connor went for it too - she was the daughter of the first graduate. You remember her, do you?

TOC: Yes. Wasn't she a viola player in your orchestra?
AF: That's right. Sean Neeson was the third applicant. Merriman asked my advice, so I told him Scan Neeson was best qualified of the three. He got the job. Shortly afterwards, Lacy's time had come, because he had reached seventy. I applied, and I don't think there were any other applicants. That was in 1934, just when I had come back from Munich.

Chester had published the suite I was telling you about, and that was a big leg-up in applying for the job, apart from the fact that sections of my MA thesis had appeared in Die Zeitung fur Musikwissenschaft, the chief German journal for musicology. This had to do with the so-called Irish Anglo-Saxon neume-type. I later wrote the article in the new Grove on the Music of the Celtic Rite, and I drew largely on my thesis for that, too.

TOC: What was the situation in the Music Department then?
AF: It was just Sean Neeson and myself: Sean did an hour a week and that was it.

Fleischmann and Department Heads UCCTOC: Did you have many students?
AF: Initially, two. Very, very gradually, it expanded. At first, we were in the library, in the Aula Maxima. We were allowed in after it shut at five o'clock. My hours were 5pm to 7pm: two hours a day, including Saturday. One day we were locked in - myself and two students, who were Joan Burke and William Shanahan, the violinist. We hammered and knocked at the windowpanes, to no avail. I went into the adjoining Council Room, where there was a window, and said to Billy Shanahan: 'take off your gown, my good man, hop out that window and get us out of this.'

TOC: Did he wear a gown?
AF: Oh yes; all students wore gowns and so did I. He blanched at the idea of jumping out the window, so I took off my own gown and jumped out. It was only a six-foot drop, but I sank deep into the grass. I brought my story to the President, as a reason why we'd have to get alternative accommodation and not be locked in at night, so he said: 'go and look for some other place in the college yourself.

I spied the observatory, with its two small rooms, one filled with instruments and the other just suitable for a maximum of four students - at a squeeze! The President agreed we could use it, but when we went in, 1 discovered there was a concrete pillar in the middle of the room, so that I couldn't get the piano in. The President agreed that the pillar should be removed and it was, but then there was hell to pay from Professor McHenry, Professor of Experimental Physics. 'Do you realise what you've done?' I was asked: 'you've taken away the main part of the seismograph, which goes thirty feet down into bedrock. The joke around College was that every time a bus passed along College Road, the seismograph registered a quake of force eight on the Richter scale.

But for us a grim situation now arose. All day long, from the Women's Club and from the Men's Club opposite, there issued a continuous stream of raucous singing and piano-playing, which made it impossible for anyone to concentrate. Eventually, we got a room in the east wing of the quadrangle, in the year in which Sean O Riada signed on as a student. Here we remained for five years, until real luxury was made available at the other end of the Wing, in the shape of four rooms - Bax Room, Library, my office and a lecture room, where the College Information Office is now. As numbers expanded even further, they gave us the Rectory, where the Music Department is still housed. I felt it absolutely essential that the students have practice rooms, so they built us six of them.

We had great trouble getting the UCC organ into St. Mary's, Shanakiel - and now the place is for sale or sold! I gather that Professor Sandon, my second successor, is entirely in favour of the removal of the organ to the Aula Maxima, where it would add to the solemnity of big occasions and make possible organ recitals, organ concertos and choral concerts with organ accompaniment. Now that the College is expanding with such confidence, perhaps the day will come when it will give its main hall a new re­source, and will:—

"Let the organ blow
To the' full-voiced quire below."

Editor's note:
In the interview I did with Professor Fieischmann for the Cork Review, a short time before his death, I tried to get at the human person behind the energetic, sometimes stern looking academic and champion of music and all things cultural in Cork. Professor Fieischmann insisted on correcting the proofs of our transcribed interview when he was in hospital, though we both knew he was dying: he was keen to ensure that anything he had said could not be hurtful to others. On his death, I took the liberty of using the article as an obituary in the Cork Examiner. I feel I should now add some personal reminiscences of this great Irishman.
I first met Aloys in 1961 when I joined the staff of UCC. I had already heard of him during my days in Liverpool University, where there were a few research graduates from Cork. He was very encouraging when I sought permission to 'sit in' on some First Arts music lectures - Harmony and Counterpoint, given by himself and Irish Music, the course given by Sean Neeson. A few years later I decided to enrol for the B.Mus. degree, by which time Sean Neeson had retired and Sean 6 Riada nad taken up duty.

Students of those and subsequent days can testify that even when the Department expanded and took on more staff, Aloys still worked harder for his students than all the rest of them put together. Other staff were employed to teach us conducting or sight-singing, but the 'Prof’ included all of these and more in his own very practical lectures, almost as a by product of his system. Hundreds of students experienced his kindness when they got into difficulties with the course but it must be said that he had little time for slackers. For him, work came first and enjoyment later - if there was time for it!

It is easy for a new generation to say that he should have concentrated more on the academic aspects of music, rather than on churning out music teachers for our schools, but I have no doubt he set the right targets for the Ireland of his day. Cospelling for the good of music was just a part of what he regarded as his duty and he could do it very well, persuading bishops, priests, nuns and lay-teachers that music was vital and should be studied by them -preferably in UCC!

In public life he was a man who relished a battle for what he considered right and was not above drumming up support in the most unlikely quartets, to back him up. Yet at other times he could be quite naive, almost innocent, in his views on government, taxation, trade unions or culture. That transparent innocence often proved a formidable obstacle for his enemies, whether in the columns of the national press or on television. One thinks of his various battles with RTE and the Government on one hand and on the other, his involvement through the Choral Festival with the Earl of Rosse and the British Ambassador, something which caused considerable local resentment at the time and resulted in crowds picketing his beloved Choral Festival.

Aloys was a chivalrous man - one who always made you feel you had done him a personal favour by attending a concert or recital - and not just those of his own orchestra. "Aren't you very good to come?" was his inevitable greeting. Whenever possible he turned away praise or else re-directed it to others around him, denigrating his own contribution.

Was there any branch of music in which he was not knowledgeable? The answer is a resounding yes. He considered jazz and pop an abomination, professing to be shocked by them. Even middle-of-the-road music passed him by. In this context I remember going to Dublin with him by train the morning after a wind ensemble had played in the Aula Maxima. As an encore they had given us the Scott Joplin rag that everybody was humming and every radio station was pumping out at least a dozen times a day at the time. He asked me what their encore had been and when I told him, he expressed surprise that the audience not only enjoyed it but, wonder of wonders, he seemed to know it! For him, jazz was 'execrable': nothing more needed to be said: the subject was finished: if you pushed him further you'd get words like 'savage' and 'uncivilised'.

He was always a formal person. While I was doing the B.Mus. he insisted on addressing me in class as Dr 0 Canainn. In those days I probably handed up less harmony homework to him than the rest of the students in our small class and, as I have already pointed out, he was keen on work being done - and well done. One of my classmates, Mary O'Callaghan, decided to re-christen me 'Doctor Dolittle', which 1 thought not inappropriate. Aloys pretended to be shocked by Mary's new name for me, but I think he enjoyed it. It was only when I joined his staff after Sean 6 Riada's death that I became Tomds he gradually turned into Aloys. My wife Helen was always Bean Ui Chanainn to him, even when he visited us a short time before his death.

One small incident that occurred some twenty years ago reminds me of his determination. He was due to go to Dublin to conduct the RTE Symphony Orchestra, but decided on the evering before he was to travel that his large lawn needed to be cut and had to be done straightaway. While he was doing it, he put his hand into the rotating machinery and was seriously injured. He was taken to hospital and, notwithstanding many pleas, insisted on going to Dublin to fulfil the engagement. I think he travelled by train, but I would not have been surprised to hear that the man who conducted the RTE Symphony Orchestra that day, with one hand holding a balon and the other bandaged into his chest, had steered his one-handed way to Dublin, gear-changing with his knee! He was that sort of man, really.