Sunday, July 4, 2010
John McCormack: The One and Only
I think it is fairly safe to say that John McCormack is the one great tenor who had a brilliant career singing almost exclusively in the English language. That simply does not happen. There have been excellent tenors who sang occasionally in English (Alfred Piccaver, Richard Crooks) and some whose English language work was extensive and in the great opera tenor mode (Mario Lanza), but McCormack is a special case. I can visualize the hands going up, saying "Wait a minute....McCormack sang huge numbers of sentimental Irish ballads, and operetta songs....that doesn't count!" And that is where I disagree. It does count, because McCormack never let down his vocal and stylistic seriousness for any song or arietta. He always approached anything he did with all the classical vocal training and artistic seriousness at his disposal—and that was a very considerable amount!
McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children, in 1884. He received his early education from the Marist Brothers in Athlone. Certainly one of the formative events of his youth was winning the gold medal in the 1903 singing contest in Dublin, when he would have been a mere 19 years of age. This brought much attention his way, and friends saw to it that he got the money necessary to study in Italy, where he studied with Vincenzo Sabatini. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and the couple had two children, Cyril and Gwen. He debuted at Covent Garden (Cavalleria Rusticana) in 1907. Shortly thereafter, he went to America, where in 1911 he sang the tenor lead in Victor Herbert's Natoma, opposite Mary Garden, at the Met. His singing was noted, but the opera itself failed. His next move was to Australia, where Nellie Melba had engaged him as lead tenor for the Melba Grand Opera Season. Melba was notorious for not getting along with colleagues, but McCormack seems to have been a special case. Their professional relationship, at least, went reasonably well. McCormack's opera career was short, and tended to peak fairly early, probably when was in his late 20's. It was when he turned his attention to concertizing and making recordings that his fame skyrocketed. His detailed biography is everywhere available, and easy to consult.
One of the most engaging features of McCormack's early recording was the silvery tone of his voice, which was accentuated by the acoustical recording horn then in use. Here is a good example from 1915, which I posted several weeks ago—the American Civil War Song, "The Vacant Chair." This song also contains what I believe is the highest note McCormack ever recorded—a D natural above high C, at the very end of the piece:
Such an emotional song, and so well sung! This is the essential McCormack. The tone is bright and silvery, without ever becoming shrill, and the enunciation is absolutely perfect, and I mean every –single- word! This is not only excellent vocal technique in action, it is a mark of true respect and consideration for his audience, a lesson many other singers could profitably learn! (Another of whom this can be said is Mario Lanza. It is no accident he and McCormack were among the most successful of all classical singers singing in English.) This is also a fine example of something I mentioned at the very beginning, and that is the serious vocal technique and artistry that he brought to every song he sang. It elevates what could have been a sentimental pot-boiler into a beautiful song of real and painful regard for the dreadful cost of war, one delivered at the very most intimate and personal setting—the family dinner table.
It was in the area of Celtic music however—most specifically Irish—that his singing was simply nonpareil. There has never been, and there is unlikely ever to be, a better salesman for the sentimental beauty of Irish Music than John McCormack. Here is "The Barefoot Trail," from 1920:
Again, the sentiment, the beautiful singing and enunciation, and a certain magic that is very hard to define, but has something to do with "soul," to use a currently popular critical word. He had it all.
Some attention needs to be given to the operatic part of McCormack's life, which, even if secondary, was still significant. He was essentially, in his youth, an opera singer in the Italian mode. Here is his recording, in Italian, of Faust's big aria, "Salut, demeure...":
If you wish, you can read my comments below the picture on this particular post. I do note that, while he takes the aria down half a tone, he is not the only one to do so, and his singing of it is, in the main, quite admirable.
But it is the McCormack of the wonderful Irish and English repertoire than finds a permanent place in the hearts of so many. There have been many great Italian tenors, but there was only one John McCormack.
at 5:26 PM