About this Recording
8.120748 - McCORMACK, John: Come Back to Erin (1910-1921)



Come Back To Erin  Original 1910-1921 Recordings


‘Irish songs? … We all sang them – and got the applause!  I never could understand all this fuss about McCormack’s Irish songs … His Italian songs were much better!’             

(Cavan O’Connor)  


All great singers – and others less-than-great –  have always benefited from localised forms of hero-worship, and in the days before radio and TV McCormack’s popularity hinged largely on the fact that he was an Irishman who arrived in America at the right moment to delight mass-audiences with his Irish yarns.  Which may sound like an over-simplification or even a solecism – for his vast and cultured repertoire was soon to span arias, art-song and lieder, all of which he sang with artistry and commitment, if not always total idiomatical accuracy.  The difference between McCormack and the others, however, resided in a superior technical perfection (his fine diction and exemplary articulation were founded on the principles of bel canto) – and to these were added, fortuitously perhaps, certain other ingredients:  an outgoing, even forceful personality, an uncanny power to communicate simple emotions and, no less advantageous, connections in the right places – not least an exclusive contract to record for the prestigious Victrola and HMV Red Labels (the very records restored on this CD) which ensured that his voice would be heard in living-rooms around the world.


John Francis McCormack was born of mixed Scots-Irish extraction on 14 June 1884 in Athlone, where his father, Andrew, was a local wool-mill worker.  Respectably God-fearing, his upbringing was scarcely privileged.  At school, however, he was a bright student and was awarded various scholarships and by 1902, despite parental opposition, he already had a burning ambition to become a singer, although after failing the entrance exam to the Dublin College of Science he at first took up a clerical job in the postal service.  Through friends who already sensed the exceptional quality of his voice, however, he was introduced to his mentor and preceptor Vincent O’Brien (1871-1948), then conductor of Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral’s celebrated Palestrina Choir.  O’Brien coached the raw McCormack and under his tutelage, in May 1903, the tenor won the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil (Irish Music Festival).  His accompanist on that occasion was the Co. Down-born composer-conductor Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) and he here sings Harty’s haunting My Lagan Love, from the 1909 cycle Three Ulster Airs – settings of Songs of Uladh, a folksong collection arranged by  ‘Padraig macAodh O’Neil’ (aka Herbert Hughes!) in collaboration with ‘Seosamh macCathmhaoil’ (otherwise Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), noted Belfast-born poet, Irish folklorist, Secretary of the Irish National Literary Society and sometime Republican internee).  


By 1905 funds were raised for McCormack to undertake further study in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini.  He had, meanwhile, in London in September 1904, made his first recordings, cylinders for Edison followed a week later by discs for Fred Gaisberg’s Gramophone & Typewriter Company – predictably of Irish songs, Killarney, The Minstrel Boy and Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms, but these were vocally a far cry from the re-recordings that were to follow, beginning with the Odeons (from December 1906 onwards) and the Victors made after January 1910.  McCormack’s initial forays into opera in Italy in 1906 offered the ambitious young tenor no sure road to stardom and his earliest career was marked by struggle prior to his appearances in London at the Boosey Ballad and National Sunday League Concerts and the opportune patronage he secured which opened the door to Covent Garden and final recognition of his talent.  McCormack made his Covent Garden début in October, 1907 (as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana), at 23 the youngest tenor ever to undertake a leading role at the Royal Opera.  The roster of great singers who subsequently partnered him onstage in London (and later in America with the Chicago Opera and elsewhere) included Melba, Tetrazzini, Sammarco, Vanni-Marcoux, Destinn, Dinh Gilly, Litvinne, Raïsa, Muzio and Didur.  His reputation as an operatic tenor was high, notwithstanding his apparently ‘indifferent’ acting and despite the fact that his career in opera was virtually over by 1914.  He made his American debut (as Alfredo in La traviata) in New York, in 1909, but acclimatising quickly to life in the USA he already perceived the concert platform as a truer and certainly more lucrative metier.  On the one hand there was a vast resident Irish audience wanting to hear songs of the ‘Ould Country’ and in any case, like his contempo-rary Peter Dawson, he probably regarded opera as too much work for too little reward.


From his first recording session (for the Victor Company) in January 1910 McCormack was hailed a master balladeer.  Though expensive, his recordings – after those of Caruso – were major sellers, a boom industry for Victor which reciprocally complemented the tenor’s regular and far-reaching concert tours.  The highest-paid recitalist of his generation, his massive audiences were treated in the same breath as Handel or Scarlatti and Schubert, or Thomas Moore and Stanford, to the latest mock-Irish samples from Tin Pan Alley, while his identification with nostalgic ballads in émigré-Celtic mode endeared him to the record-buying middle-classes across the Atlantic, too.  As a communicator, or storyteller, in concert and on disc alike, McCormack was second to none.  In his natural habitat, the concert platform, his trademark ‘little black book’ in hand, he would regale his audiences with every kind of song from the elevatedly classical to the banally commercial (Ernest R. Ball’s My Wild Irish Rose or tear-jerking Mother Machree or Alma Sanders’ stage-Irish Little Town In The Old County Down are cases in point).  By 1914 already aspiring to American citizenship, but still fond of the country that had given him his first break, that year he recorded Jack Judge’s Great War anthem It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, ostensibly to back the British war-effort. 


Like his promoters McCormack was out to make money, but he delivered the populist repertoire with total sincerity and without condescension, and in a way inconceivable today even to the most dedicated devotees of crossover.


 Peter Dempsey, 2004

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