About this Recording
8.110329 - MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 2: The Acoustic Recordings (1910-1911)

John McCormack (1884-1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol. 2

‘Presumably,’ Robert Tuggle writes in The Golden Age of Opera, ‘there were Irish tenors before John McCormack ... just as there have been pale imitations ever since’. It is a graceful way to express a simple truth: namely, that John McCormack is unique among the small but cherished band of Hibernian tenors. This Irishman also holds a special place among the great singers of our time. In his vocal prime he was not only one of the finest tenors on the operatic stage, but also a supreme Handel and Beethoven stylist. Later he would develop into a remarkable interpreter of German lieder. However, it was McCormack’s unique ability as an interpreter of songs in English that made him one of the greatest recitalists of all time and, for nearly three decades in the twentieth century, the most popular concert artist in the world.

Born in the small Irish town of Athlone on 14th June 1884, John McCormack seemed destined for a life in the civil service until he won the gold medal in a Dublin music festival in 1903. For the first time he realised that a singing career was possible. With the help of local supporters, he travelled in 1905 to Milan where he began his only sustained period of vocal training. This was under Vincenzo Sabatini, the father of the novelist, and by 1906 the fledgling tenor was deemed ready for his first appearance in opera, in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz in Savona, a small town on the Gulf of Genoa. The following year, after his Covent Garden début in Cavalleria rusticana, McCormack quickly gained recognition with the London public in such operas as La sonnambula, Rigoletto, Lakmé, Roméo et Juliette and Lucia di Lammermoor. His attempts to establish a career in Italy met with failure, however, and by 1909 he was forced to admit that he simply did not have the weight and quality of voice that Italian audiences demanded.

It was during these early years in London that McCormack undertook a period of further study. This time he was self-taught. The recordings he made for the Odéon company between 1906 and 1909 clearly indicate that Sabatini’s instruction, coupled with McCormack’s innate musicality and sense of language, had been a solid foundation. His ability to emulate his fellow tenors, especially Bonci and De Lucia, along with his capacity for sheer hard work, led to a rapid artistic growth that is without parallel in the history of the gramophone.

By 1909 McCormack was a fully matured artist looking for fresh opportunities, one of which presented itself when Oscar Hammerstein, at Luisa Tetrazzini’s insistence, invited McCormack to sing at his Manhattan Opera House. In November 1909 the tenor made his New York operatic début opposite Tetrazzini in La traviata. He was well received and virtually all the critics praised his singing, with one commenting indirectly on his poor acting ability by noting that this young Irishman came close to making Alfredo a likeable character.

McCormack enjoyed an advantage in the United States that few other singers could hope for: when he arrived he had an enthusiastic audience ready and waiting for him. The large number of Irish immigrants living in America may have left their native land, but their emotional ties to hearth and home were deep. In McCormack they found their ideal minstrel. From his earliest days in London, McCormack had often sung in concert and had earned a reputation as a singer of songs, a reputation that was quite separate from his work as an opera singer. In fact, it has been said that the real beginning of what would become his more important career as a recitalist dates from 1907, when McCormack first sang Samuel Liddle’s A Farewell and caused something of a minor sensation in London.

Until the beginning of the First World War, McCormack continued to be heard in opera and concert on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1914 Lilli Lehmann invited the tenor to sing his already legendary Don Ottavio in her forthcoming production of Don Giovanni in Salzburg. It was a dream destined not to come true; McCormack and his wife were on their way to Austria when war was declared. The singer spent the war years in the United States and decided to become an American citizen. It was a decision that would cause him great difficulty. The British viewed him as a traitor, and he became so unpopular in England that he was unable to give a London recital until 1924.

Following the war McCormack gave concerts in Paris, toured central Europe (giving a memorable recital in Berlin) and made what would be his final opera appearances in Monte Carlo. His 1923 creation of the rôle of Gritzko in the newly edited La foire de Sorotchintzi by Mussorgsky was his farewell to the opera stage. Three years later he would make an extended tour of the Orient, and in 1929 he answered the call of Hollywood, starring in Song O’ My Heart, the only film in which he had a leading rôle. His co-star was the young Maureen O’Sullivan, then at the beginning of her film career. After several more seasons of touring the United States and England, McCormack bade farewell to his public at London’s Albert Hall in 1938. He continued to record until 1942, and made fund-raising tours and BBC broadcasts in support of the war effort. He retired to Ireland where he died just outside Dublin on 16th September 1945.

When Calvin Childs of the Victor Company heard McCormack shortly after the singer’s arrival in America, he realised that this lyric tenor would fit extremely well into the Red Seal catalogue. The commercial potential of the singer’s nationality was also not lost on the record company’s executives. After hearing McCormack’s test records of Killarney and Fra poco a me ricovero - so successful that Victor at once upgraded them to regular issues - they approached HMV to ask if they would share the cost of buying out the singer’s contract with Odéon. The British affiliate, headed by HMV’s Fred Gaisberg, refused to do so, and McCormack never forgave that lack of faith; to the end of his career he would openly insult Gaisberg at every opportunity. HMV had ample time to regret this error of judgement, as McCormack went on to become one of the best-selling recording artists in history (one year he even outsold Caruso).

The present recording documents the second year of McCormack’s great career in the United States. It also reports on his twin careers in opera and concert, and indicates how early he began to favour the recital hall over the opera house. The recorded output for 1910 is equally divided between songs and arias, but in 1911 songs outnumber arias threefold. As an opera singer McCormack soon realised that he would never be a Caruso. He did not have to emulate the great Italian, however, for the enormous enthusiasm of his concert audiences, whose demand for encores often doubled the length of his programmes, led him virtually to abandon opera in favour of concert tours. It was a wise and profitable decision.

As a recitalist, McCormack brought his audiences into the heart of every song. Francis Robinson expressed it best when he recalled McCormack’s total immersion in the music of each song: ‘He looked the mood of the instrumental introductions’. When we realise that this was the atmosphere he created before he sang, we begin to understand the effects he could create through his art. The two different recordings of Molly Bawn give us a rare insight into McCormack’s exploration of a song’s possibilities. The first take from 1910 [Naxos 8.110328] shows a beautifully shaped vocal line, but the second version, made a year later, reveals a more polished approach to the piece. Not only has the phrasing become more fluid but the last part of the song has been reshaped.

McCormack’s single recording session with Nellie Melba was a stormy one, with tenor and soprano loudly exchanging insults, just as they did at Covent Garden and on tour in Australia. In both takes of the final trio from Faust, McCormack is barely audible (surely Dame Nellie’s revenge), and the quartet from Rigoletto displays less than effective ensemble singing. For a better insight into the tenor’s reading of Faust’s music we must turn to his almost introspective 1910 rendition of Salve, dimora, sung in his preferred Italian [Naxos 8.110328].

One striking quality of McCormack’s singing is the utter modernity of his technique. When we listen to this tenor we hear no nineteenth-century mannerisms, no trills held too long for special effect, no vibrato in the place of true emotion. Despite the timeless quality of his singing McCormack did record more than one selection that falls into the category known as ‘Victorian singing’. One of these is also one of the singer’s most famous records, the Ah! Moon of My Delight. The lush McCormack tone is heard here to its fullest advantage, with pianissimi that flow evenly and effortlessly from the rest of the voice. We are also struck by the authority and the imagination of the singer’s phrasing. Listen, for example, to the melting combination of tone and phrasing in the line ‘Turn down an empty glass...’. Something of the same lushness is also to be heard in another example of this now lost style of singing, his recording of Blumenthal’s An Evening Song.

Ever mindful of his Irish-American record buyers, McCormack was careful to include many Irish selections in the Victor Red Seal catalogue. Although some of these were closer to Tin Pan Alley than to Dublin, all were redolent of the Emerald Isle. No one could sing Thomas Moore’s Irish melodies as McCormack did. This has added significance when we realise that during this period the singer preserved almost as much Moore as he published during the rest of his recording career. The composers of such songs as Mother Machree and Macushla were clearly exploiting the long-distance sentiment of a vast Irish-American population, but they never imagined the level to which McCormack would raise their creations. In no other singer’s recording of Mother Machree is there more perfectly expressed (and perfectly controlled) emotion, and no one else has infused more beauty of tone and lavished such undeserved virtuosity than McCormack does on Macushla. Seldom, if ever, have the principles of bel canto served the world of song so beautifully and so well.

A Note on the Song Texts

Throughout his career John McCormack’s managers were repeatedly advised to save money by not printing the words to songs in the concert programmes; the singer’s diction was so clear that his audiences did not need the texts. Every record McCormack made proves this point, but words and phrases in some of his Irish songs are rather removed from modern English and require explanation. A number of these words come directly from Gaelic, while others are Anglicised spellings that retain the sounds and meanings of the ancient language. For McCormack’s Irish-American audiences and record buyers, these echoes of an Ireland filled with lore and legend were precious reminders of the culture they had left behind; for his other listeners they were beautifully produced musical sounds, exotic hints of another world they would never experience directly.

Predictably most of these old Irish words are terms of endearment. For example, in Kathleen Mavourneen, ‘Mavourneen’ means ‘my love’ or ‘my dear’, and in Mother Machree ‘Machree’ is from the Gaelic ‘mo chroldhe’- ‘of my heart’ in Irish. A similar transformation of a Gaelic word forms part of the title of the song Molly Bawn. Samuel Lover, writing in the nineteenth century, preserved the sound and meaning of the original Gaelic ‘bain’ (meaning ‘light’ or ‘fair’) by spelling it ‘bawn’ for the convenience of his many English-speaking readers.

One final title needs clarification, and Mr Padraic O’Hara has provided its meaning. Macushla is derived from the Anglicized forms of two Gaelic words, “mo chuisle”, meaning “my darling” or “my beloved”, “chuisle” being Gaelic for “pulse” or “heartbeat”. Macushla is another Irish term of endearment, but one may be forgiven for thinking it is a young woman’s name, so warmly and so intimately does McCormack sing it.

John Scarry

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