About this Recording
8.120782 - MCCORMACK, John: Remember (1911-1928)

‘Remember’ Original 1911-1928 Recordings

In the final analysis it might be said that McCormack, however shining an example of a lost tradition,was just one among many other great singers, but in any serious evaluation of his vocal credentials it is impossible to play down the superlatives. In his heyday justly regarded in opera circles as a last outpost of bel canto, to more specifically trained American ears he embodied Longfellow’s ‘clear, sweet singer’,‘patrician’ like no other in technique and artistry – although even then the more conservative critics saw in his increasing commercial populism the debasing of an uncommon talent. McCormack, however, pandered to his audiences and, at least while youth and vigour were his, maintained the same high standard, whatever the repertoire. And on the best records (generally those made pre-1925) the McCormack constants are everywhere to be heard: articulation, clarity of diction (a clarity the Irish poet Yeats once famously denounced as ‘damnable’, as he hastily withdrew from a McCormack recital), sweetness of tone, unparalleled breath-control and mezza-voce matched, particularly in the context of popular ballads, by a remarkable power to communicate.

John McCormack was born the fourth of eleven siblings to working-class immigrant Scots parents in Athlone, on 14 June 1884. Respectably God-fearing, his upbringing was scarcely a privileged one, although music and particularly singing were actively encouraged, and after briefly considering the priesthood, at seventeen he already aspired to a career as a singer. At his father’s insistence, however, in 1902 he entered the civil service as a clerk in the post-office, but soon abandoned this to join the Palestrina Choir in Dublin’s famous Georgian Pro-Cathedral, under its noted conductor Vincent O’Brien. Inspired by this new mentor, in 1903 he won the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil (Irish National Music Festival) and by 1905, with scholarship funds, had undergone less than thorough training in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini (father of historical novelist Rafael). Moderate notices gleaned on the provincial Italian opera circuit in 1906 indicated no quick route to stardom but the next year, in London, after appearances at Boosey Ballad and National Sunday League Concerts and through the good offices of Covent Garden musical coach Sir John Murray Scott, his patron, doors were already opening.

In October 1907, at 23, McCormack was the youngest tenor ever to sing leading roles at Covent Garden and a cursory glance at that theatre’s contemporary cast-lists, which include such names as Melba,Tetrazzini, Destinn, Didur, Dinh Gilly, Muzio, Sammarco and Vanni- Marcoux, provides an insight into the calibre of his operatic partners in London (and subsequently in the USA). He appeared at Covent Garden each season until 1914, but was by 1911 already based in America. In New York, he sang in Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera season (1909) and at the rival Metropolitan made intermittent appearances (when not engaged on coast-to-coast recital tours) between 1910 and 1919. Gradually shunning opera he made the recital his stockin- trade, swiftly becoming the concert ‘equivalent’ (at least in terms of receipts) of his friend Caruso. Firmly clutching his little black book of words, he delighted his cosmopolitan audiences of thousands with every sort of song, from the classical to the commercially popular, delivering all with ‘democratic affection’ and without condescension, in a manner almost inconceivable to our modern minds, by now attuned to ‘cross-over’.

The highest-paid recitalist of his generation, through the many hundreds of records he made from 1910 onwards for the American Victor company (and its European affiliate ‘His Master’s Voice’) McCormack was to reach out to an even wider audience. Having acquired household name status he endeared himself, largely through nostalgic ballads of émigré- Celtic orientation (first published in Chicago, in 1866, When You And I Were Young, Maggie is a prime, if stage-Irish example) to the concert-going and record-buying masses on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, he fulfilled to perfection their nostalgic insistence for ‘songs their fathers and grandfathers used to sing’ and the Victorian and Edwardian gems illustrate all that is best in early McCormack on disc: the forthright delivery, the ring and elevation in the high register. All outstanding in this context are Ah, Moon Of My Delight from In A Persian Garden (the 1896 setting by Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) of selected verses from the Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát) and tenor perennials from two operas of the so-called ‘English Ring’: Then You’ll Remember Me, from The Bohemian Girl (1843) by Dublin-born violinist, singer and theatre-manager Michael William Balfe (1808-1870) and There Is A Flower That Bloometh, from Maritana (1845) by Waterford-born violinist William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865).

The Great War inspired such rallying songs as the smash hit by Ivor Novello (1893-1951) Keep The Home Fires Burning (of which McCormack’s was the first American recording) and Cradle Song 1915, a vocal conversion of a noted violin encore by his friend Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) from whose seamless bowing McCormack was wont proudly to relate that he learnt more about ‘spinning a legato’ than he was ever taught by any voice teacher, and while this is of course metaphorical, the implication of technical efficiency is clear enough – for it is this which underpins the art of both the Viennese fiddler and the great Irish tenor. In the studio they would record more than twenty sides together (some ‘unpublished’) and several of these have stayed bestsellers with an almost immortal appeal. In every case, however trite the tunes or lyrics, the duo’s captivating musicality cannot be denied and The Angel’s Serenade, a oncepopular salon item of 1867, surely ranks among the most successful. Sung here in its English translation, by one Harrison Millard, the piece was originally conceived by the Abruzziborn international ’cello virtuoso Gaetano Braga (1829-1907) as an instrumental encore. The song’s original edition was titled ‘Leggenda valacca’. The McCormack–Kreisler collaborations include the Bach–Gounod and Schubert “Ave, Marias”, while a tantalisingly short list of songs by Rachmaninov, comprising “To The Children” and “Before My Window”(Op. 26, Nos. 7 & 10) and the two gems from Op. 4, are graced by Kreisler’s ethereal obbligati.

Ensconced in the USA, McCormack the avowed populist addressed the masses, regularly featuring in almost the same breath as the Handel and Schubert Funiculì, Funiculà (by Neapolitan Luigi Denza (1846- 1922) this still-popular tenor encore dates from 1880 and the opening of the funicular to Vesuvius) next to old American numbers (notably various songs by Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) and the latest in pop songs). Several of these last he also assigned to disc, along with some more transient hits from long-forgotten Broadway musicals, several of which he recorded, among the earliest (in 1911) I’m Falling In Love With Someone, from Naughty Marietta, a contemporary Broadway musical (136 performances, 1910) from the pen of his Dublin-born friend Victor Herbert (1859-1924), the then undisputed New York operetta king. Herbert openly praised the tenor’s ‘never ending enthusiasm’ and when his ‘grand opera’ Natoma (in reality another Herbert operetta, but with more lavish sets) was premiered a month later, who else but McCormack for the tenor lead? Some may still not have realised that the McCormack discography contains other items from shows; Rose Marie, title-song of the 1924 show by Rudolf Friml (1879-1972) as well as various numbers by Irving Berlin (You Forgot To Remember was a dance-hit before this McCormack ballad-version) attest retrospectively to the range of this tenor who may still, in future decades, continue to be ‘remembered’, even by those who never heard him in the flesh.

Peter Dempsey, 2005

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