Note-perfect memoir of Tilly Fleischmann: Tradition and Craft in Piano-Playing

Review: A beautiful volume that sheds light on the remarkable Cork woman’s life and playing and teaching techniques

Music lovers (1929): Tilly Fleischmann (centre) with Daniel Corkery (left) and Fr Pat Macswiney (right); (first row, l-r) Sean O’Faolain, Professor Stockley; (back row, l-r) Germaine Stockley, Aloys Fleischmann, Hans Marcus, Clare Engelmann and Dr Heider.

Music lovers (1929): Tilly Fleischmann (centre) with Daniel Corkery (left) and Fr Pat Macswiney (right); (first row, l-r) Sean O’Faolain, Professor Stockley; (back row, l-r) Germaine Stockley, Aloys Fleischmann, Hans Marcus, Clare Engelmann and Dr Heider.

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 16:44


Book Title:
“Tradition and Craft in Piano-Playing


Tilly Fleischmann

Caryfort Press

Guideline Price:

I would have liked to have known Tilly Fleischmann. Even as a child in Dublin I knew of her, and she was a legendary figure in the musical life of Cork. But she died in 1967 when I was only 20, so the opportunity never arose. Reading her book Tradition and Craft in Piano-Playing has brought me closer to her than ever before.

Tilly Fleischmann was born Tilly Swertz, in Cork, in 1882, the daughter of Hans Conrad Swertz, who had come to Ireland to take up an appointment as organist and choirmaster in Cork. From the age of 12 she practised the piano three to four hours a day, and her father was sufficiently confident of a musical career for her that he sent her to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Munich, in 1901. There she was fortunate to be accepted into the class of the renowned pianist and pedagogue and director of the academy, Bernhard Stavenhagen, until he retired in 1904 when she studied with another famous teacher, Berthold Kellermann. Both were students and associates of Franz Liszt in his later years, when he taught extensively and they carried on the traditions and aspirations of the world-renowned virtuoso, who had died in 1886.

Cork return

Tilly became a favoured student in Munich playing at many concerts and became so well-known that she was even invited to play for the family of the kaiser at Nymphenburg Palace. In 1905 she married a fellow student, Aloys Fleischmann, and, in 1906, she brought her husband back to Cork where he took up the position her father had just vacated at the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne. They became intensely involved in the musical life of the city and Tilly Fleischmann played many recitals, becoming the first Irish pianist to broadcast on the BBC. She was much sought after as a piano teacher and taught at the School of Music in Cork from 1919 to 1937. She was a close friend of many composers, including Arnold Bax, to whom this book is dedicated, and EJ Moeran.

It was Herbert Hughes, who wrote so many wonderful Irish folk-song arrangements, who suggested she write this book, allowing us to learn from the experiences and traditions that she absorbed during her training in Munich. She started writing the book in 1940 and, with the help of her son, Aloys jnr, who was himself such an important figure in the musical life of Cork all through his life, she completed it about 10 years later.

However she was unable to find a publisher for the book in her lifetime. Shortly before her death, as her grand-daughter Ruth Fleischmann says in her preface, she “remarked sadly to one of her students that perhaps in a hundred years’ time somebody might come across the manuscript in a drawer somewhere and might then be able to find a publisher for it”. We should be grateful to Dan Farrelly of Carysfort Press for producing a handsome volume that would have given Fleischmann such joy.

It is a book that I will keep close to me. It is divided into three main sections: “Technique and Practice”, “Interpretation” and “Interpretation and Tradition”. The first two are of interest mainly to piano teachers and aspiring pianists. The third is a treasure trove for all lovers of piano music.

In the first two sections Fleischmann talks such good sense most of the time that I found myself nodding in agreement frequently. One notable omission that worried me was that she never refers to a flexible wrist when practising and performing. I have seen so many badly taught pianists develop tendonitis, tendonosis and other ailments because of a lack of concentration on a flexible wrist.

Leon Fleisher was the most famous American pianist of the 1950s and 1960s but in 1964 developed focal dystonia in his right hand, which prevented him continuing his career as a two-handed pianist. He has played most of the left-hand repertoire since then but also became one of the most famous piano teachers in the world, as well as starting a career as a conductor.

In 1990, I was invited to be soloist with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra – with Leon Fleisher – conducting for concerts in Germany and a major American tour ending up with concerts in the Lincoln Centre in New York and the Kennedy Centre in Washington. Spending four weeks together, Leon and I developed such a good friendship that I was emboldened to ask what the cause of his right-hand ailment was. He replied that when he was a student the advice was that piano practice should be the same as weight-lifting: “No pain, no gain!”

As it turned out, this was the worst possible advice, which is why I recoiled when Fleischmann advises to play arm-octaves “without any relaxation of the wrist”.

I was also rather shocked when she advises that before a performance a cup of hot milk or tea is a good beverage, but then goes on to add “with a dash of whiskey for those who can withstand it”. Having been offered a few glasses of wine by the charming Willie Watt before a recital in Waterford in my late teens and then discovering on stage an alarming blurring of distinction between the black and white notes of the keyboard, I have never taken an alcoholic beverage in the day of a performance ever since, and advise my students accordingly.

Good vs bad practising

There are a couple of other quibbles in these first two sections – Klopfuebung with no flexible wrist and the fingering of double-third scales for example – but these are greatly outweighed by the amount of common sense and good advice that will be of great benefit to all piano teachers and pianists. She spends quite an amount of time giving excellent advice as to how to practise (so many students waste so much time on practising badly), the importance of pedalling (she quotes Liszt saying “the pedal is the soul of the piano”), how to develop sight-reading skills, rhythmic shaping and much sound advice on interpretation.


One of the most fascinating chapters is on the use of rubato, that elusive freedom – without being too free – which allows interpretation to take on a magical and mystical quality. One of the gems that are scattered through this book is Liszt’s explanation of rubato to a frustrating student on a stormy day: “Observe that tree – sometimes the wind sways it gently, sometimes violently to and fro, sometimes the whole tree is bent in motion, again it is quite still. Or look at that cornfield in the distance, over which the wind sweeps with an undulating rhythm. That is perfect rubato, the tempered movement of the corn, the reluctant yielding of the tree. But when you play rubato your corn, your tree are smitten to the ground!”

The last section of the book – on Interpretation and Tradition – is for me the most valuable, in particular the chapters on Chopin and Liszt. I was delighted that she not only gives great importance to the poetry of the exiled revolutionary Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who lived in Paris at the same time as Chopin, and its influence on the ballades of Chopin, but also allocates particular poems to each of the ballades and gives the translations too – something I had never come across before.

The chapter on Liszt is almost like sitting in on lessons of the master himself, and I will treasure these for ever. Indeed these are chapters that should be read by every lover of the piano music of Chopin and Liszt, and I would advise readers to buy this book if only for these chapters alone.

Beautiful book

It is greatly to the credit of all concerned that we now have this book published, almost 50 years after the death of Tilly Fleischmann. Her son Aloys jnr, who I admired greatly, would be so proud and most of the credit must go to her grand-daughter Ruth who never gave up on the hope of publication. She has been helped greatly by John Buckley, who has typeset beautifully the more than 300 musical examples quoted in the book, and by Gabriela Mayer, who performs the musical examples on the accompanying DVD.

A helpful introduction by Patrick Zuk places in context the importance of this treatise and gives us much helpful information on Tilly Fleischmann herself. It would make for a fascinating doctoral thesis if a student were to publish a more in-depth biography and amass more reminiscences of this remarkable woman.