Aloys Fleischmann was a Bavarian church musician and composer who emigrated to Cork in 1906, where he became organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne. He was a native of Dachau, a picturesque market town and artists’ colony twelve miles north of Munich. His father was a shoemaker, who took an active part in municipal affairs, organised trade exhibitions documenting the local craft heritage and was a founding member of the Dachau Liedertafel Choir. Aloys, an only child, had seven years of schooling. He began composing as a boy, was admitted at sixteen to the Royal Academy of Music in Munich for a two-year preparatory course, and having been accepted for the full programme of studies, subsequently studied the organ and composition under Josef Rheinberger. He graduated in September 1901 with highest marks in all subjects.
After his appointment at the age of twenty-one as organist and choirmaster to the parish church of St Jakob in his home town, he set up a choir school providing free musical training to all the children in the two primary schools. He later founded a school of music in which friends from the Munich court orchestra gave free tuition and a Munich firm allowed his students to buy instruments at minimal cost. He revived an old Dachau drama tradition, putting on a nativity play every year for which he arranged or composed the music, three renowned painters providing designs for costumes and scenery, the Munich court orchestra and choir supporting the local musicians, the undertaking financed by artisans, merchants and the town council. The plays were acclaimed in Munich, reviewed all over Germany and even in New York.
Fleischmann’s remarkable career in Dachau came to an abrupt end in 1906. The previous year he had married Tilly Swertz, a girl from Cork who had just graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in Munich. She had relatives in Dachau, as her father had previously been organist there before he took a post in Cork in 1879. In 1906 Tilly’s father unexpectedly moved to Philadelphia, leaving a family of nine in Cork to be provided for. His son-in-law undertook the task for the sake of his wife.
Ireland was still under British rule in 1906, but major reforms had been achieved by various nationalist organisations; these successes had inspired a revival of interest in the Irish language and Gaelic heritage, the vigorous cultural movement paving the way for independence. The Fleischmanns soon found friends among these circles: among them Daniel Corkery, Terence MacSwiney, the MacDonnells of Bandon. Fleischmann implemented the reform of church music prescribed by the pope in 1903 with a new repertoire of plainchant and seventeenth century polyphonic music and the training of a boys’ choir in place of the women who had sung in Swertz’s mixed choir. The cause which Fleischmann took up in Dachau of giving the children of the poor the chance of a sound musical training was continued in Cork: the North Parish from which the cathedral choir-boys were recruited was one of the poorest in the city. He soon brought the new choir to a high degree of excellence. His wife gave piano recitals and taught; he gave concerts with secular choirs. As in Dachau, music bridged class differences but in Cork also political ones: they made friends among the gentry, the military, the merchant families of the city, as well as among those working in the language and literary movement. Terence MacSwiney was a frequent guest in the house and translated texts of Fleischmann’s choral compositions. Fleischmann had not intended to remain in Cork once the Swertz children had finished their education. In the autumn of 1909 his wife went to Munich to give a concert and assess the prospect of their being able to return to Germany. Their only son Aloys was born in Munich in April 1910. In July 1910 the family came back to Cork.
When the first world war began in 1914, influential Anglo-Irish friends protected Fleischmann, but from 1916 to 1919 he was interned as an enemy alien: first in Oldcastle Co Meath, then on the Isle of Man, then deported to Germany and not allowed to return to Cork until the autumn of 1920. Fleischmann was separated from his wife and child for nearly five years, living in a state of enforced inactivity while she did his work as well as her own; the man of solitary disposition used to roaming the countryside was locked up with hundreds and then thousands of strangers. Though for four years he could not play his instruments the organ and piano, music remained to him: he had a choir and orchestra in the camps, for which he wrote ten works. Letters had to be short, were censored and camp conditions could not be described: a grim picture emerged nonetheless; in his letters home the loneliness, anxiety, despair were evident but kept under control to comfort his wife; a letter written forty years later revealed the inner discipline which kept him alive.
In the Free State, Fleischmann’s field of activity was extended. He taught for nearly twenty years in the School of Music and for nearly forty in the diocesan seminary, St Finbarr’s College Farranferris – among his students were his son, Aloys junior, Seán Ó Riada, and most of the priests of the diocese, including the present bishop of Cork. He secured the purchase of a splendid Walcker organ for the cathedral; he broadcast on the newly established national radio, occasionally on the BBC World Service and gave frequent recitals in the Honan Chapel of the university. He and his choir were known and respected throughout the city and beyond; he and his wife had the recognition and friendship of musicians such as Carl Hardebeck, Herbert Hughes, Richard Terry, Arnold Bax. He composed about four hundred works. His choral works were performed by the cathedral choir and the secular choirs he conducted, his Lieder by his friends Germaine Stockley and Rita Wallace.
He visited Germany frequently during the summer months, regularly visiting his mother in Dachau. When she died in 1928, his inheritance allowed him to send his talented son to pursue post-graduate studies in Munich from 1932-34. To his disappointment, Aloys junior decided to specialise in conducting and composition rather than in church music. His son was appointed at the age of 24 to the chair of Music in University College Cork. He proceeded to set up organisations to promote music in the city, as his father had done in his youth, founding the Cork Symphony Orchestra in 1934, the Cork Orchestral Society in 1938, and making plans to establish a Festival of Cork along the lines of that of Salzburg.
Fleischmann last visited Germany in 1936. With the beginning of the war in 1939 all communications were severed, and for ten years he was cut off from his home town and from his friends and could receive no letters, books, music or newspapers. In 1945 came the anguish over the fate of his country, and the shame of his beloved Dachau now being a byword for Nazi atrocities. He did not return after the war as he could not bear to see the destruction which the country had brought upon itself. But he always felt an exile in Ireland, and never took out Irish citizenship.
The Fleischmanns lived to see their son continue their work for music in Cork and establish cultural links with continental Europe to an extent inconceivable in the first half of the century. During the national festival of the Tóstal in the 1950s, the Cork Orchestral Society brought orchestras of world standing to visit Cork, among them the Vienna Philharmonic and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestras, and soloists such as Claudio Arrau and Yehudi Menuhin. The annual Cork International Choral Festival, founded in 1954 to promote choral singing in Ireland, brought hundreds of continental singers to the city. Fleischmann senior served on the Festival’s artistic advisory board from 1954-1962 when numerous choirs were founded in the villages and towns of Munster, whose standards rapidly improved through competing with choirs from all over the country and listening to the best from the continent. Among these choirs were several founded by former members of the cathedral choir and by Fleischmann students.
Fleischmann worked with dedication for over sixty years to give ordinary people access to their own creativity through music: for him appreciation, understanding and practice of the arts were the gateway to spirituality and thus a means of coming to terms with the suffering of life. He continued at the cathedral until he was eighty-one: his German savings had become worthless after the war and neither he or his wife had a pension. For two years he was an invalid in the Incurable Hospital, where he died on 3 January 1964.
Further reading on Aloys Fleischmann senior:
Cunningham, Joseph, ‘The Herr and Cork’s Most Famous Choir’ in The Holly Bough, Christmas 1994
Schlosser, Birgit, Aloys Fleischmann: Die Nacht der Wunder-ein Dachauer Weihnachsspiel und sein Kontext, MA thesis submitted to the Institute of Musicology at the University of Munich, 2004.
de Barra, Séamas, Aloys Fleischmann, Dublin, Field Day Publications, 2006
Cunningham, Joseph, Fleischmann, Ruth, ‘Aloys Georg Fleischmann (1880-1964): The Contribution of a German Musician to Irish Choral Music Sacred and Secular’ in J. Fischer and G. Holfter (Eds.), Creative Influences – Selected Irish-German Biographies, Trier, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009, pp. 38-50
Zuk, Patrick, Fleischmann, Ruth, de Barra, Séamas, The Fleischmanns: A Remarkable Cork Family, Cork City Libraries 2010
Cunningham, Joseph, Fleischmann Ruth, de Barra, Séamas, Aloys Fleischmann (1880-1964) Immigrant Musician in Ireland, Cork University Press, 2010
Ruth Fleischmann, July 2011