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Closing speech of Cork City Council's Fleischmann Centenary Celebrations by Séamas de Barra

11 December 2010
Concluding presentation by Séamas de Barra before the song recital The Fleischmanns and Munich, the final civic event of the Fleischmann Centenary celebrations, at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork Aloys Fleischmann
on 11 December 2010.

The Fleischmann Centenary Year is, to the best of my knowledge, a unique occurrence in the history of Irish music.  Never before have the career and achievements of an Irish composer been so honoured, so extensively celebrated with exhibitions, lectures, broadcasts, publications and above all, and most importantly, with widespread performances of his music. That this long overdue initiative to honour the work of an Irish composer should have been taken in Cork is, understandably, a matter of pride – and Cork City Council’s role in the celebrations, which set the pace for the many events that have taken place across the country, seems to me to be an encouraging example of what enlightened civic support for the cultural life of the city should be.

I think it is true to say that, of all the arts, music is the least immediately present in the public imagination here in Ireland.  The achievements of Irish writers are readily, and rightly, acknowledged.  The work of painters and visual artists are also widely recognized – even if, perhaps, less widely that that of writers.  But, by and large, Irish composers – however fine their work may be – remain largely unknown except to a relatively small handful of devotees.  There are various reasons why this is so, which involve, on the one hand, complex issues of national self-understanding, and on the other questions of education. 

Of all the musicians who were active in Ireland in the twentieth century, few addressed this problem of the standing of composers and the status of music in the national imagination as consistently and on as many fronts as Aloys Fleischmann.  As a composer, he set himself to explore the question of what a truly Irish art music might be like and he created a body of work that evinces a quality of imagination and a refinement of craftsmanship that place it amongst the most distinguished of the period; as an educator, he advocated the highest possible standards in the profession of music, and as Professor of Music in UCC for forty six years, he set about doing what he could to ensure that these standards were met by his graduates; as founder and conductor of the Cork Symphony Orchestra, as founder of the Cork Orchestral Society and the Cork International Choral Festival, as a musician who was actively involved with both the Cork Ballet Company and Irish National Ballet, he was selfless in devoting his energies to presenting the finest music and ballet to Irish audiences, both locally and nationally.  For these reasons alone, it is entirely appropriate that for this past year Fleischmann should have been the focus of an interest in music that he himself did so much to create.

More importantly, however, in demonstrating the full significance of Fleischmann’s work – something that may have previously been clear only to a few who were thoroughly familiar with his work – the Centenary has established as a matter of general acceptance that Cork has produced a composer whose life and work unquestionably justify celebration. Naturally, given that many of those who took part in the centenary events knew Fleischmann, either as his colleagues or, in so many cases, as his students, the celebrations often had a strong personal dimension.  But the sheer quality and importance of Fleischmann’s multi-faceted achievement compels acknowledgement that transcends enthusiasm that is rooted solely in personal or local sentiment.  Fleischmann’s career in all its aspects has come in for close examination during the past twelve months: the exposure has only reinforced the conviction that it fully merits the attention it has received.

This growing recognition of Fleischmann’s stature was forcibly brought home to me last July at the First International Conference on Irish Music and Musicians that took place in Durham University in England.  Over one hundred international delegates, scholars specialising in various aspects of Irish music, attended this landmark event in the history of Irish music, which was organized by Dr. Patrick Zuk.  Apart from a keynote address – which I had the honour of being asked to deliver – eleven other scholarly papers were presented at the conference on different aspects of Fleischmann’s work, more by far than those given on any other single figure.  If this can be taken as an indication that Fleischmann’s true stature in the recent history of music in Ireland is now readily appreciated, the events of the past year have shown beyond a doubt that his life and work are also capable of arousing interest and enthusiasm well beyond the enclaves of academic scholarship.

But I would like to emphasise that the Centenary Year has a wider significance than the honouring of a single figure. As Fleischmann himself would have been the first to insist, it should also be seen as an important step in raising general awareness of the contribution that has been made by Irish composers to the cultural life of the country. It is to be hoped that, following Cork’s lead, similar celebrations will now take place elsewhere, and that Ireland will gradually awaken to the fact that it has a tradition of art music of which it can be proud. 

One of the happy by-products of this centenary is that it has also produced a reassessment of the career of Fleischmann’s father, Aloys Fleischmann Senior (1880-1964), and provided the opportunity for some of his music to be revived.  When Máirín Quill and the Committee asked me to organize a civic event to bring the Centenary Year to a close I realized that there remained one dimension of the careers of both Fleischmanns that had as yet received little attention. This was the creative connection that both men had with their German roots. Fleischmann Senior had been a student at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich from 1896 until 1901 where he was a student of the legendary Josef von Rheinberger, one of the most acclaimed composers and teachers of his day in Germany.  Thirty years later his son, Aloys Óg, attended that same institution (renamed the State Academy after the First World War) where for two years (1932 to 1934) he studied under Joseph Haas, who was also renowned as a composer and teacher in his native land. Both Fleischmanns greatly valued the training they received in Munich and held dear the memories of their esteemed teachers. I thought it would make for an interesting programme to hear music by each of these four men side by side: two who made such important contributions to the musical life of Germany and Bavaria; and two, their respective students, who did so much for the musical life of Cork and Ireland.