About this Recording
8.111402 - MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 11: Victor Talking Machine Company Recordings / Gramophone Company Ltd. Recordings (1924)
English 

John McCormack (1884–1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol. 11

 

John McCormack has often been described as the most versatile of singers, and the present set of his final acoustic recordings amply illustrates this singular fact. His Mozart singing was legendary [his definitive Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni may be found on Naxos 8.111316], and thanks to his diligence and continued study, German Lieder became a constantly evolving part of his repertoire. He was also a master of the modern art song, and, not surprisingly, he was a peerless interpreter of Irish music.

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 talented director, followed, and it was not long before the Dublin maestro decided to enter the young man for the upcoming Feis Ceoil competition, an important local musical event. When the nineteen-year-old tenor won the gold medal at that l903 Feis, the direction of his career was confirmed. Serious preparation for that career began in l905 when McCormack travelled 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 1905 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: 13 January 1906 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. It would always be true with this opera singer that the discomfort he felt in costume and on stage 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. His chief hope was Covent Garden, but several attempts to gain a foothold 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 so clearly muted, the singer knew there was more work to do. What followed was a two-year period of intense study, time that included close observation of other singers at Covent Garden. After reviewing the recordings made by the tenor between 1907 and 1909, one English observer judged this vocal maturation to be the greatest artistic leap 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 [McCormack’s 1912 recording can be heard on 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 debut were prophetic of the twin directions McCormack’s career would soon take. Not long after his November 1909 New York opera debut, as Alfredo in La traviata, he began to divide his work between opera performances and song recitals. His appearances in opera were well received, but when he increased the number of his 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, but if he chose the concert hall, he could reign supreme. The wisdom of his decision was confirmed by unprecedented professional and financial awards. In 1918 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 Irish colleague’s singular feat. 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 declare 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 1920 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 1924 that the singer dared to sing in London again. On the welcoming Continent, McCormack gave important recitals in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. These years also witnessed his last appearances in opera, performances that took place in Monte Carlo. The most noteworthy production was a 1923 “creation” 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 1929 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 1945.

In December 1920 McCormack was in Paris, giving an important concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on the sixth of that month. His calling card on that occasion was a performance of his legendary Il mio tesoro. When he decided on this French venue, it was a choice almost made for him: he was still unwelcome in England, and he had just survived virulent demonstrations against him in Australia. A return to the United States would clearly have been a public admission of defeat. Only the Continent was left. Between 1920 and 1924 there would be important concerts in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, along with the Monte Carlo opera appearances. Because of World War I, he could not have achieved such a career any earlier. From the beginning of this new phase in his musical life his success was tremendous; “I got such an ovaaation!” he wrote to his manager in New York after his Il mio tesoro at the 6 December Paris concert.

Our single Mozart example in the present set does not call for the spectacular singing we have encountered in Il mio tesoro and this makes more than one point about McCormack the musician. As we listen to Ridente la calma, sung in McCormack’s flawless Italian, we are reminded of how quickly he learned his second language upon his arrival in Milan in 1905. We note that, with this charming Mozart song, there is no attempt to go beyond the composer’s intentions. As the eminent English critic Ernest Newman once observed, he never knew McCormack to produce an effect for an effect’s sake. Every recording McCormack made is a testament to this fact: this tenor always served the music never using his voice to demonstrate any inappropriate vocal gymnastics.

Almost from the beginning of his career, McCormack expressed great admiration for German music, even announcing in a 1917 magazine interview that the role of Tristan “might tempt” him. The singer went so far as to make two recordings of the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger; his second attempt was published in 1916 [Naxos 8.112018]. Fortunately for his vocal longevity, he never sang Wagner on stage. German Lieder, however, was another matter. German songs (in English) began to appear on his concert programmes during the World War I years, and he made his first Lieder recording, Schumann’s The Singer’s Consolation (in English) in 1920 [Naxos 8.111385]. His earliest recordings in German date from 1923 [Naxos 8.111401], but they were so far from being idiomatic that they all remained unpublished in his lifetime.

The following year witnessed a dramatic improvement in McCormack’s command of German Lieder. The reason for this advance was a series of vocal lessons from Sir George Henschel, one of Brahms’ favourite singers and a well-known tutor of established vocalists. McCormack’s studies with him resulted in some of the finest recordings he ever made. Two of them, Im Valdes Einsamkeit and Die Mainacht are to be found in volume 10 of this series [Naxos 8.111401]; the present set contains the remainder of his Brahms interpretations. Because of the connection to Brahms himself, McCormack’s Komm Bald and Feldeinsamkeit are of genuine historical importance. One suspects that some guidance from Henschel must also infuse McCormack’s profoundly sensitive Morgen! of Richard Strauss.

Modern art song, from more than one musical tradition, gives additional evidence of this singer’s versatility. The then modern British composer Frank Bridge is represented by a single example, O, That It Were So. McCormack’s masterful treatment of text and his control of the changes in musical mood is outstanding; one wishes for an entire suite of similar compositions from our tenor.

With the Rachmaninov items in this set, we have an even greater opportunity to judge McCormack’s work with a composer of his time. Irish tenor and Russian composer were good friends and close colleagues. In 1920 the singer had recorded two well-known Rachmaninov songs, When Night Descends and O Cease Thy Singing Maiden Fair [Naxos 8.111385]. Now, four years later, he returned to the composer’s work, with equally happy results. Here we have three exquisite Rachmaninov items, How Fair this Spot, Before My Window, and, especially dear to McCormack’s heart, To The Children. In all three, McCormack is in top vocal form, and the third song highlights the singer’s ability to explore the deep drama of a meaningful text. As in the case of McCormack’s 1920 recordings of Rachmaninov’s music, we have the supportive presence of Fritz Kreisler’s violin. Tenor and violinist had made their first recordings together in 1914 [Naxos 8.110331]. Now, a decade later, they were meeting for their final collaboration. Aside from the Rachmaninov items, we have a welcome Thomas Moore song, I Saw from the Beach, and a song by a twentieth-century Irish composer, John Larchet, Pádraic the Fiddler. Larchet (1884–1967) was music director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre from 1907 to 1934 and composed many orchestral and vocal pieces. Pádraic the Fiddler carries a tale with it. In the late 1920s, McCormack sang the song over the radio. The broadcast over, a studio assistant asked McCormack to come to the telephone; an enthusiastic Arturo Toscanini wanted to tell the singer how taken he was by the Larchet song. McCormack smiled and said, “Sorry—I’m not having any”. After a second request, he picked up the receiver and found it was indeed Toscanini.

Over the years, a minor myth of sorts evolved with respect to the 1920 and 1924 studio recordings of Rachmaninov’s songs. It came to be believed that on both occasions the composer himself provided the piano accompaniments, but in fact it is the singer’s own accompanist, Edwin Schneider, whom we hear on all of these recordings. The most likely source for this misunderstanding is 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.

No sampling of McCormack’s repertoire would be complete without a few examples of his skill in the world of popular song. Two examples of these come from successful musicals of the time, Irving Berlin’s Primrose and the Rose Marie of Oscar Hammerstein and Rudolf Friml. The Berlin melody is the famous All Alone and represents the singer’s first published performance of a Berlin song. The song from Rose Marie has also achieved a life of its own. McCormack’s interpretation passes the test for a truly classic piece of its kind; when you hear it, you do not want to hear anyone else’s version.

Much was changing as McCormack made these 1924 recordings. Most dramatically, the acoustic era was coming to an end; his Irving Berlin and Rudolf Friml songs belong to his very last acoustic session. McCormack’s voice was also changing. Walter Legge related to the present writer his memory of an important moment in McCormack’s life. One morning, when he came down from his studio, he announced to his wife that he had “lost the trick”; his high notes would not come any more. This almost certainly occurred towards the very end of the acoustic period, as Legge correctly adds to his account the suggestion that it is instructive to listen to the final acoustic recordings and then study the tenor’s earliest electrics.

This great singer left us with supreme examples of the wide range of his art, and fortunately for us he recorded most of them while he was still in his vocal prime. His influence in the world of music was immense. One cannot know how many individuals were led to the world of music by this tenor’s recordings and concert work. As an artist of the highest musical standard, he has given us a legacy to cherish. The great music critic Ernest Newman wrote, shortly after the singer’s death, “There is no one to take his place.” Those words were written some seventy years ago. They are still true today.

John Scarry


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