Tilly Fleischmann was born in Cork on 2 April 1882 in 14 Dyke Parade. Her mother was Walburga Swertz (1854-1945) daughter of the Dachau tanner, Jakob Rössler, her father Hans Conrad Swertz (1857-1928) born in Camperbruch (today Kamp-Lintfort), Rhine Prussia, son of a primary school teacher. He had come to Cork in 1879 to take up a post as organist at St Vincent’s Church, and became organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne in 1890.
The couple had nine children. The five girls went to school in St Angela’s, where one of their teachers was Mary MacSwiney; the boys attended the Presentation College. They grew up during the period of the Land War and the Irish Party under Parnell. There was great poverty in the city and yet among the poor, much zest for life, as Tilly recalled in a :memoir written towards the end of her life:
The town was full of barefoot men, women and children; even a worker in the earlier days had no boots or stockings but there was much spectacular gaiety in life in those days. If anything happened in town a few days afterwards there would be ballads sung in the street and in the public houses. Nearly every day brought something entertaining and of course politics then took a dramatic turn and there were torchlight processions and speeches everywhere. O’Brien versus Parnell. We were stopped and threatened by groups armed with sticks: “Whose side is your father on?” We children, however, had never heard him speak of any politics. The fight became so fierce that, much to our delight, we couldn’t go to school to St Angela’s.
The eldest girl became the first professor of German at University College Cork in 1911 and the second woman in Ireland to be appointed to a professorship (Mary Ryan of UCC was the first.) Tilly was the second child. She was taught the organ by her father, and the piano at the Cork School of Music. From the age of fifteen she was sufficiently proficient to play the organ at major cathedral ceremonies while her father conducted the choir and orchestra – one such occasion was the enshrining of relics of Blessed Thadeus McCarthy brought from Italy to Cork on 12 Sep. 1897.
When Tilly was nineteen, her father decided to send her to Germany to study music. She was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich in September 1901 and studied the organ and the piano, the latter with Bernhard Stavenhagen, who was Liszt's last pupil, and then with Berthold Kellermann, also a Liszt pupil. She spent five years in Munich, living in No 11 Residenzstrasse. From the second year of studies she was invited to play at all the Academy concerts; in her final year she performed with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under Felix Mottl; that year she was invited to play for the Prince Regent and his family. She graduated in June 1905 with first class honours in both subjects. In September of that year she married Aloys Fleischmann, who had also
studied music at the Academy in Munich and was now organist in the parish church of Dachau. She had met him there in the autumn of 1901 while visiting her mother’s people. A year after her marriage, she was called back to Cork: her father had left Ireland to take up a post in Philadelphia; all eight brothers and sisters were still either at school or college, and she was the only one in a position to earn her living. Tilly persuaded her husband to come to Cork with her and take up her father's post at the cathedral in order to
support the family.
The Fleischmanns had not intended to settle in Ireland for good. In 1909 they decided that Tilly should spend some months in Munich, studying with her former professor, giving a concert and establishing contacts in the hope of their being able to return. She became pregnant three months before her departure, but decided to carry out the plan nonetheless. Their only son Aloys was born in Munich on 13 April 1910; in July she returned to Cork with the baby. They gradually adapted to life in the city, finding many good friends among people interested in the arts; she gave recitals and taught the piano; her husband gave choral recitals in the city and composed for both the secular and church choirs.
When World War I began in 1914, Ireland was under British rule with a very active nationalist movement. The Fleischmanns had friends among Ascendancy musicians, and were also friends with Terence MacSwiney and his sisters, the MacCurtains, Daniel Corkery, the Stockleys and many others involved in the new Gaelic cultural movement and later in the struggle for independence. In 1916 Aloys Fleischmann was interned as a prisoner of war, at first in Ireland, then on the Isle of Man. He was not permitted to return to Ireland until the autumn of 1920. During that time his wife acted as organist and trained the cathedral choir – directing the cathedral choir for instance at the consecration of the Honan Chapel in the university in 1916. As well as doing her husband's work, she continued her teaching, maintained her performance level, looked after her small boy, and visited her husband as often as she was allowed to. From 1906 until the 1950s Tilly Fleischmann regularly gave recitals in Cork, and occasionally in Dublin. Among them was a Franz Liszt evening in Cork in 1911 to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and one in the Dublin Abbey Theatre in 1923; she gave a Chopin recital in Cork and in Dublin for the International League in 1924, at which her husband accompanied the opera singer, Rita Wallace, who sang Chopin songs. Tilly played with the Brodsky Quartet in Cork the same year. She was probably the first musician in Ireland to perform Bax, having first heard of him in 1917. In 1926 she and Rita Wallace gave a programme of modern compositions, which included one by Bax. Tilly had Bax invited to adjudicate at the Feis Maitiú (festival) in Cork in 1929 – from then until the end of his life Bax came to stay with the Fleischmanns every year. In 1930 Tilly and the soprano Frances Allsom gave a recital in the Aberdeen Hall Dublin of works by Bax, Vaughan-Williams, Delius, Scriabine, Debussy, and Fleischmann. The University Art Society invited her to perform with the Kutcher Quartet in November 1932 and to accompany the celebrated German Lieder-singer, Elisabeth Schumann in 1934. After the establishment of Irish radio in 1926, Tilly gave a series of broadcasts from the Cork station, a number from Dublin, and in 1929 was the first Irish pianist to broadcast on the BBC. Her last recital was given at her home in 1962 for friends and pupils. After her husband's death in 1964 she gave up playing altogether.
Tilly taught the piano for sixty years. Most of her students were advanced pupils, who came from all walks of life. Among them were Fr Pat Ahern, Bridget Doolan, Muriel Murphy (who met her husband, Terence MacSwiney, at a Fleischmann recital) Geraldine Neeson, Seán Ó Riada, T.C. Smiddy. She was head of the piano section in the Cork School of Music from 1919 to 1937, when she resigned after controversy over the curriculum. She passed on the Liszt tradition of piano playing to her pupils, which she had acquired during her studies in Munich. That tradition is the subject of her book, The Tradition and Craft in Piano Playing. The book was undertaken at the suggestion of the composer, Herbert Hughes and is dedicated to Arnold Bax. An abbreviated edition was printed privately in 1986 by her former pupil Michael O’Neill and in 1991 published by Roberton of London under the title: Aspects of the Liszt Tradition. She was a corresponding member of the London Liszt Society; her reminiscences of her friend Arnold Bax were placed on the composer’s website some years ago.
She was a well organised, disciplined woman whose life centred around the arts and her composer son, professor of music at University College Cork from 1934 to 1980. After her husband’s death, when his very modest salary ceased and there was no pension, she had no alternative but to continue teaching. She spent the last years of her life sorting and classifying her own and her husband’s papers, thus preserving the documents recording the activities and impact of three generations of this immigrant family of musicians. She died of sudden heart failure on 17 October 1967, aged 85, having taught up to the day of her death.
By Tilly Fleischmann
Aspects of the Liszt Tradition ed. Michael O’Neill, Cork 1986, Aylesbury: Roberton Publications, and Theodore Presser Co Pennsylvania 1991
Some Reminiscences of Arnold Bax, The British Music Society Newsletter 86, editor Rob Barnett June 2000, thereafter placed on the Bax website by Richard Adams
On Tilly Fleischmann
Jane W. O’Dea, ‘Turning the Soul: A personal memoir of a great piano teacher’, The Spirit of Teaching Excellence, ed. David Jones, Calgary, Alberta, 1995
Séamas de Barra, ‘Bax, the Fleischmanns and Cork’ in: Journal of Music in Ireland June, 2005
Patrick Zuk, Ruth Fleischmann, Séamas de Barra, The Fleischmanns: A Remarkable Cork Family, Cork City Libraries 2010
Nicholas Motherway, ‘Tilly Fleischmann – Renowned Cork Musician and Teacher’ in: Africa – St Patrick’s Missions, Kiltegan Co Wicklow, July 2011
Ruth Fleischmann, January 2010