About this Recording
8.111385 - MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 9: Victor Talking Machine Company Recordings (1920-1923)
English 

John McCormack (1884–1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol 9

 

Nearly a century ago, Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel witnessed a meeting of two of the world’s greatest tenors, Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. McCormack used his fluent Italian to ask his colleague, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world this morning?” Caruso’s reply was immediate and just as cordial: “Since when did you become a baritone, Mac?” The exchange spoke volumes about the two men. McCormack was acknowledging a truth that everyone knew, namely, that Caruso possessed the world’s greatest tenor voice. When the Italian immediately turned back the compliment, he was confirming McCormack’s unique position as the world’s supreme concert artist. The present set of recordings documents this tenor’s extraordinary mastery of the world of song and also demonstrates his remarkable versatility as an artist.

John McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, on 14 June l884. He was nearly twenty when he arrived in Dublin, supposedly to study for a civil service examination. Instead, he found himself drawn to singing, and by the time he joined the choir of the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, all thoughts of a civil service job had faded; music would be his true calling. Private singing lessons with Vincent O’Brien, the choir’s director, followed, and it was not long before the Dublin maestro had decided to enter the young man for the upcoming Feis Ceoil competition, an important musical event. When the nineteen year old tenor won the gold medal at that l903 Feis, it confirmed the direction of his career. Serious preparation for that career began in l905 when McCormack traveled to Milan to study with Vincenzo Sabatini (the father of the romance novelist, Rafael Sabatini). The young Irishman was an eager student, and by the end of l905 McCormack convinced his teacher that he was ready for a debut in opera. Some observers of McCormack’s career—notable among them Walter Legge—felt that this period of study was all too brief, but the debut did take place early the following year: l3 January l906 witnessed McCormack’s first appearance in opera. The place was Savona, a small town on the Gulf of Genoa; the opera was Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, and the twenty-two year old McCormack was supposed to play the part of a bachelor twice his age. As would always be the case with this opera singer, the discomfort he felt on stage and in costume would never completely disappear.

Clearly, the singer’s goal was an operatic career in Italy, but important auditions—most notably at La Scala—showed him how difficult that would be. McCormack’s Hibernian intonation, lighter and more removed from the weightier sound Italians always preferred, worked against him; it was not long before he decided that London would provide him with more opportunities. Chief among his hopes was Covent Garden, but several attempts to gain entrance there only repeated his Italian experiences. It took the direct intervention of a wealthy patron of the arts, Sir John Murray Scott, to arrange for his London opera debut, which took place on 15 October l907. The role was Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana, a part just as inappropriate as his debut role in L’Amico Fritz. At twenty-three, McCormack was the youngest principal tenor ever to sing at Covent Garden. The critics were kind, but because their praise was clearly muted, the singer knew he had more work to do. What followed was a two-year period of intense study, which included close observations of other singers at Covent Garden. All of this resulted in a vocal maturation that one English observer, after studying the recordings made by the tenor between l907 and l909, pronounced his work to be the single greatest artistic leap of any vocal artist in the history of the gramophone.

Almost immediately after his return from Italy, and still waiting for his chance at Covent Garden, McCormack sang numerous concerts in London and in the provinces. At one of these appearances, a London Boosey Ballad Concert in March 1907, his performance of Samuel Liddle’s A Farewell created a sensation (see Naxos 8.110330). So great was his success that day that Walter Legge pronounced this concert, rather than his Covent Garden debut eight months later, to be the true beginning of his career in England.

The Boosey Ballad Concert and the Covent Garden début were prophetic of the twin directions McCormack’s career would soon take. Not long after his l909 New York opera debut, as Alfredo in La traviata, he began to divide his work between opera performances and song recitals. The appearances in opera were well received, but when he increasingly appeared in recitals, public reaction was overwhelming. McCormack quickly realized that if he continued to concentrate on opera, he would always be in competition with tenors of the Caruso and Martinelli variety; if he chose the concert hall, he could reign supreme. The wisdom of his decision was confirmed by unprecedented professional and financial awards. In l9l8 a national music magazine declared him to be “the most popular singer in the world,” an accolade that was accompanied by an income of a million dollars a year. It was during this period that McCormack’s career reached another high water mark: in the course of a single year, he sold more records than Caruso, a feat unheard of during the heyday of the Great Neapolitan. The next time they met, Caruso was quick to congratulate his colleague’s singular feat. But as he turned to go, the Italian paused, smiled, and said in a tone not entirely sweet, “But please, Giovanni, not to let it happen again, yes?” Even between artists with genuine admiration for each other, competition is never far away.

The World War I years were spent in the United States, where the singer’s national popularity was such that by war’s end he and his wife decided to take American citizenship. They were not prepared for the international reaction that followed. People in the British Isles and throughout the Empire felt betrayed by this perceived act of disloyalty. During a l920 concert tour of Australia, demonstrations against him were so virulent that McCormack had to cancel the tour and return to England. It would not be until l924 that the singer dared to sing in London again. Back on the Continent, McCormack made important concert appearances in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. These years also witnessed his last appearances in opera. The performances took place in Monte Carlo, the most noteworthy being a 1923 production of a newly revised Mussorgsky opera, La foire de Sorotchintzi freshly edited for the occasion.

Three years later the singer went on a concert tour of the Orient, and in l929 he starred in his only Hollywood film, Song O’My Heart. His co-star was the young Maureen O’Sullivan, then at the beginning of her career in cinema. McCormack would remain on the concert platform until November 1938, when he took leave of his British public. During World War II he made fund-raising tours for the Red Cross, and did broadcasts for the BBC; until 1942 he continued to record for HMV. The following year he retired to Dublin, where he died at his home on 16 September l945.

The present volume of recordings takes us from the spring of 1920 to the fall of 1923 and reveals this tenor’s great versatility. For example, with O Sleep! Why Dost Thou Leave Me? from Semele we have an important moment in the McCormack discography: this is his first recording of Handel’s music. The singer was renowned as a Handel interpreter, and this single record tells us why. Note the purity of tone, the even, measured scale, and the remarkable breath control when the singer attacks the long central phrase (“my wandering love…”). Most singers who approach the aria need two breaths for this taxing moment, and some even require three. McCormack needs but one. As we listen to this remarkable recording, we are reminded of a passage in McCormack’s memoirs where he describes hearing the legendary nineteenth century baritone Sir Charles Santley in a London concert. On that occasion Santley performed Handel’s Del minacciar del vento from Ottone. Our tenor, never known for his praise of other singers, recalled how impressed he was by the technique of a man who was then past seventy; he later told a biographer that he always remembered this as a “model of Handelian singing.” Unfortunately, Santley never recorded any Handel, but when we remember that McCormack always absorbed the best of what he heard in the work of other singers, it is not impossible that this recording of O Sleep! contains some faint echo of that vanished nineteenth century Handelian style. This important Handel piece has another resonance, much closer to the singer’s own career. Coming as it does after recordings of nearly thirty songs, all popular in nature (see Naxos 8.112056), this classical piece is so unexpected its presence is almost startling. Could Josef Pasternack, who was the music director for the Victor company, and who in l9l9 had arranged for McCormack to record Se il mio nome from Il barbiere di Siviglia for him privately (a recording that has been lost), have asked the singer to preserve this Handel interpretation? If so, then the release of this important document owes much to this master musician and conductor. McCormack’s singing of this difficult Handel aria reveals yet another singular aspect of his artistry. Through sheer hard work and determination, this tenor acquired what few other singers of his time, male or female, possessed: a genuine trill. Brief though it is, this trill, coming at the end of the aria’s long opening phrase, shows us how completely this singer mastered one of the most difficult skills in all of the vocal art.

Schumann’s The Singer’s Consolation has another important place in the McCormack discography: it is his first recording of German Lieder, a part of his repertoire that would become increasingly important both in his recital programmes and his recordings. At this early stage, however, he wisely chose to sing the Schumann song in English. The song is given a fine interpretation; clearly, McCormack has absorbed the composer’s style. This lifelong interest in German music began quite early in the singer’s career, and centered on one of McCormack’s musical obsessions: the Wagnerian tenor Jean de Reszke. Lily McCormack remembers her husband during his early days in London listening “spellbound” to an operagoer’s description of de Reszke’s legendary performance of Tristan, among other roles. McCormack, unwisely, came to regard himself as a budding Wagnerian, even making two recordings (again, in English) of the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger, the first in 1915 with a violin obbligato by Fritz Kreisler, and the second the following year. The earlier version remained unpublished; the latter may be heard on Naxos (8.112018). A few years later, in a magazine interview, the singer admitted that the role of Tristan “might tempt” him but that his true ambition was to sing Walter in Die Meistersinger. The published recording of the Prize Song, along with these very public comments, amounted to calling cards for a new direction in his career, but fortunately no opera house responded to these hints. Had he assumed Wagnerian roles, McCormack would have ruined his voice.

Concert programmes from the period show McCormack singing Hugo Wolf and other Lieder composers, always in English. One wonders if his accompanist Edwin Schneider, a musician with a wide knowledge of German music, gently guided McCormack away from the heavy stage roles worthy of a de Reszke and in the direction of the more suitable world of German song, worthy of a McCormack.

The three Rachmaninov songs offered here are important documents that establish McCormack’s status as a major international recitalist of his time. McCormack and the Russian composer were good friends and close musical colleagues, and from the opening phrase of each song, we sense our tenor’s artistic sympathy for Rachmaninov’s music. “When Night Descends” is masterfully done, but when we come to “O, Cease Thy Singing Maiden Fair”, arguably the better song, McCormack surpasses himself. Vocally and artistically, he is at his peak; seldom if ever has his singing been heard to better advantage.

The third Rachmaninov item was a favorite of McCormack’s; he recorded “To the Children” no fewer than four times. His October 1922 studio recording remained unpublished; the record he made the following month, the item in our present set, survived but was not released in his lifetime. This is the version we hear now, a recording made available to the general public for the first time. It is noteworthy that two of the three Rachmaninov songs have the added benefit of Fritz Kreisler’s sympathetic obbligato.

Over the years, a minor myth of sorts evolved with respect to the April 1920 recordings of the Rachmaninov songs. It came to be believed that the composer himself provided the piano accompaniment in both cases, but in fact it is the singer’s own accompanist, Edwin Schneider, whom we hear on these records. The most likely source for this misunderstanding is the existence of an oil painting, held by the Steinway piano company, showing McCormack next to a grand piano, sheet music in hand, with Fritz Kreisler nearby, holding his violin. Rachmaninov is at the piano. It is a warm and inviting image, a small reproduction of which could be seen in Lily McCormack’s New York apartment for many years. Thus are the mistakes of history made.

A final note on the connection between McCormack and Rachmaninov’s songs: while he was studying them, the singer seriously considered singing them in Russian, then decided against the idea. When we remember his early recordings of Wagner and Schumann, all in English, we see the same artistic caution at work. Paul Worth notes that the original Russian texts of When Night Descends and O Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair were translated by McCormack and his accompanist, Edwin Schneider.

The present set contains two additional items supported by Kreisler; both items could easily be termed American art songs. The first of these is the very dramatic Kramer song The Last Hour. The recording is not only one of the best examples of the McCormack-Kreisler collaboration, it also illuminates an aspect of the tenor’s art that has not been fully appreciated. We know how uncomfortable the singer was in opera, but the skill he exhibits in this recording shows how deep his dramatic instinct really could be. Listen to the force with which he paints this dramatic scene; we can almost see the man and woman together in their imaginary situation. Only an artist with a total understanding of the dark meaning of the song’s text could do this.

The other art song is a setting of an African American text, Since You Went Away. This famous song has had more than one well-known setting; the present arrangement is the most familiar. McCormack’s African American intonation is as convincing as one could get from a European man, and the interpretation shows yet another side of McCormack’s versatility.

A final example of McCormack’s dramatic command of a song is the Merikanto song, A Fairy Story By the Fire. We are drawn into a setting with children listening to an old tale, here set to music. The fact that the text does not make total sense is beside the point; McCormack’s charm makes us forget that little problem. Just as in Rachmaninov’s To The Children, the singer infuses every phrase with a sense of parental warmth and involvement. The dramatic potential of A Fairy Story by the Fire was not lost on McCormack and his Hollywood producers when, in l929, he starred in the Fox film Song O’My Heart. One of the most engaging scenes in that film takes place when our tenor, surrounded by local children, sings the Merikanto song to them. It is a softly dramatic moment, fully illuminated by this minstrel’s native charm.

It is well established in music history that when a culture is struggling for political independence, the music of that culture becomes a potent force in the effort. This is what occurred in several parts of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, just after the turn of the twentieth century, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók realized that the genuine folk music of his country remained undiscovered among the people. He formed a close association with his fellow composer Zoltán Kodály and together they traveled throughout the countryside, using a cylinder gramophone to record hundreds of folk songs, sung by local peasants. Later, these recordings were transcribed and edited, eventually being published as settings for voice and piano. In Norway, Edvard Grieg absorbed the haunting folk melodies of his country to produce many of his own works. These are well known examples of musical impulses that supported, and sometimes even led, political movements in more than one European country. Ireland had its own examples, notably in the work of Herbert Hughes, a Northern Ireland musicologist who was almost an exact contemporary of McCormack. Hughes (1887–1937) would travel the Irish countryside, transcribing songs and folk melodies that had hitherto not been collected. McCormack would often accompany him, choosing folk material he felt reflected the culture and that also suited his own concert programmes and records. One example of the work accomplished by Hughes and interpreted by McCormack may be heard on Naxos 8.112056, where the singer’s recording of the haunting and historically important Bard of Armagh is preserved. That record was made in March l920; the present set gives us two additional Hughes arrangements, both superb examples of folk material polished for the most sophisticated musical taste and both sung by a classically trained artist who shows complete respect for the origins of that material. A Ballynure Ballad and The Next Market Day were recorded on the same day in April l920 and are unusual in that both songs were recorded on the same side of a single sided disc. They are gems of native Irish musical culture and they show the work of a tireless musicologist, interpreted by that culture’s most brilliant musical artist. These songs, then, are examples of Ireland’s contribution to the great movement that took place in Europe over a century ago and whose implications were deeply cultural and widely political.

Of course, opera and concert engagements in Europe would in no way satisfy the taste of his Irish American record buying public, so the present set gives us two items aimed directly at that public. Little Town in the Old County Down with its idealized picture of a bucolic Ireland takes us to the northern part of the country, but the second Irish song is of greater interest and takes us back to the nineteenth century. Mother in Ireland touches on more than one aspect of Gaelic history and culture. The man who wrote the words of the song was Gerald Griffin, famous during his short life (he died at thirty-nine) for his poems and most especially for his novel The Collegians. This suspenseful tale, based on the true story of the l8l9 murder in Ireland of one Eileen Scanlan, did not end with Griffin’s novel. The prolific Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault used the book for his 1859 drama The Colleen Bawn, Boucicault’s title being an Anglicized version of the Gaelic words for a young girl (a colleen) having a light or fair (bhan) complexion. Finally, the composer Julius Benedict based the leading character in his opera The Lily of Killarney on Eileen Scanlan. Thus did this obscure victim of a horrendous crime achieve a kind of immortality in words and music.

A final thought about the opening words of this song places before us a possibility regarding the use of this McCormack record. Any immigrant Irish son who had left behind a mother in Ireland would be struck by the first words of the text: “Mother in Ireland I want you to know/I’ve gone by the way that you want me to go…” Of course, because that is exactly the direction any absent parent wants a child to follow, one wonders how many copies of McCormack’s record found their way, well packaged and by boat, back to the native land. On this level, Mother in Ireland is more than a song; it is a clear message conveyed by a culture’s most important minstrel.

In McCormack’s day, there was hardly any distinction between some popular songs and public musical religiosity. A good example of this is Thanks Be to God, a song that gives us generic theology acceptable to all. The song also gives McCormack an opportunity for some full-voiced vocalism and the singer takes full advantage of that opportunity. The second religious song, Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All would not merit much comment except for the circumstances surrounding the making of this record. Correspondence exists that shows McCormack being pressed, through his brother James, to record the piece. The pressure came from a close friend of the singer, Bishop Michael Curley, also a native of McCormack’s home town of Athlone. Curley had earlier exercised an unfortunate influence over the singer when his first book of memoirs, John McCormack, His Own Life Story, was published in Boston in l9l8. As the singer’s manager Charles Wagner later observed, because the good bishop had intruded himself into the actual writing of the book, what should have been a straightforward source of information on McCormack’s early life was turned into a “sentimental and unreal account.” Not content with ruining the memoir, Curley now turned his attention to his friend’s recorded repertoire, with the result we now hear. Would that the clergyman’s musical taste had inclined more towards Bach or Mozart.

The composers of three other songs in this collection take us back to the very early days of McCormack’s career. They also remind us of the vocal style we now call Victorian singing, of which this tenor was ever the ideal interpreter. The first of these echoes of a vanished era is the once famous The Lost Chord by Sir Arthur Sullivan. McCormack’s version is stately and clarion. Almost as famous as Sullivan was WH Squire, a prolific composer of popular songs and ballads in turn of the century London. McCormack often sang Squire’s material during his early years in that city. Here, Dream Once Again captures the mood of a distant era, and as always, McCormack’s superb technique defies any time period. Every interpretation he places before us is remarkable for its utter modernity.

The final item in this little Victorian group is the song that is perhaps the one most closely identified with McCormack’s career. This is Charles Marshall’s I Hear You Calling Me. As we listen to the matchless lyrical singing of this lovely parlor ballad, we realize why it always remained his signature song. So closely was he associated with I Hear You Calling Me that his widow chose it as the title for her l948 book of memoirs.

Our collection ends with several examples of popular music, many of them tuneful melodies of the hour, and all sung with a musicianship that always compels us to listen. Notice how beautifully he shapes the phrases of Love Sends a Little Gift of Roses, and the equally humble Sometime. Even tunes that came directly from the dance floor were not beyond the skills of this most versatile of singers: Three O’Clock in the Morning comes under this heading as does Wonderful One, a hit of the time that was composed by one of the most popular band leaders of the era, Paul Whiteman. (It was Whiteman who commissioned George Gershwin’s perennially admired Rhapsody in Blue.) From Handel to the most popular ballads of the hour, McCormack always served well the music he had chosen. As we listen to the wide range of these selections, we remember the words of his accompanist of many years, the American Edwin Schneider. Writing of the tenor’s art, he pointed out something he had countless opportunities to observe. McCormack, Schneider wrote after the tenor’s death, “believed every word he sang, and that was the secret of his success.”


John Scarry


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