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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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-0ZNMpmWps

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=juxhlVxCusY

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...":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnmL7GP7SP4

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.

23 comments:

corax said...

i very much agree -- it *does* count. beauty is beauty, wherever one finds it. but that sort of snobbery is used sometimes to discount the art of elly ameling, for example, who sang very little opera. but i doubt an ugly or even ordinary sound ever escaped her lips.

so too with mccormack. thank you for listening with your customary sensitivity, and explaining with your customary eloquence what you've heard.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank YOU, my dear friend, for your unfailingly perceptive and erudite observations, always a pleasure to read and contemplate.

Jing said...

Edmund - A most wise and interesting post. As you indicate, McCormack's career success was so tied to the birth of the "victrola." I wonder also, if, culturally, it came at a time when Irish-Americans were gaining a more secure foothold in the United States, and could openly and proudly celebrate their heritage. Oddly, the thought comes to me that it is interesting to compare and contrast McCormack with the Scot, Sir Harry Lauder. The latter was, of course, not a serious singer and more of a bard and showman; but he also had a vast following, thanks to recordings and the concert stage. And it is perhaps unfair that he was knighted, and McCormack wasn't, though Ireland and the Catholic Church heaped honors on him. No doubt this was due to nationalistic politics in Great Britain. I am ignorant if McCormack was ever directly associated with the cause of Irish independence.

Your selection of recordings is wonderful, revelatory, really. And I am grateful that you give McCormack his operatic due, though it is somehow hard for me to imagine him in "Cav" - definitely not a verismo singer. You may recall that, years ago, we were both impressed with his rendition of "Il Mio Tesoro" - which was quite classy. (And, as a matter of fact, you handled the challenge of that particular aria quite brilliantly yourself, Edmund!)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you my dear friend. Ah, those were the days:) I always breathed at least once in the long run, though. All that's required is an attack of stage nerves, and that particular piece of fioratura can undo one very quickly:) Great to hear from you.

Bernie said...

Thank you for the lovely post. My (Irish) dad was a great admirer of McCormack and I heard a lot of him when I was a child (and thought he was an aristocrat as he was always referred to as Count!). Such refinement and purity. A couple of years ago there was a nice anthology published I bought my mother - Icon of an Age - which comprised a dvd documentary, book and some very interesting (some hitherto unpublished)recordings.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a lovely comment. You could make yourself real popular on Youtube if you posted the unpublished recordings of McCormack!

Bernie said...

I wouldn't dare - but there are actually some interesting clips from the documentary on this Youtube channel - http://www.youtube.com/user/JMCTV

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks! I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

Sir Edmund, tanks for the article on this great artist. He sang like a nightingale. I totally agree that singer’s skills and talent are displayed in any performance, no matter if it is an aria or a pop song. Many songs are very difficult stylistically and not every good operatic singer can perform them successfully. Besides, in that era pop songs were much better and often required good voices.
McCormack is noble and masterful in both genres, his “Salut demeure” is very impressive. I love this type of romanticism, when the singer doesn’t try to be a “macho' :) Maybe now it is considered “sentimental”, but to my taste, this manner is more convincing for romantic characters and more suitable for the music.
Jing mentioned your own fine performance of “Il mio tesoro”. Is there any recording ?

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend! I absolutely agree with you when yoiu say that a singer's skills and talent are displayed in any performance. That is so true! And McCormack is proof. His way of singing is a model for any singer. One of the most brilliant aspects of his art was his absolute dedication to telling a story. His pronunciation was crystal-clear. You can understand every word, even with the Irish accent. He told stories, and he told them in music. One of the most successful performers of all time.

[Afraid any old tapes of mine are not broadcast-worthy. Jing and I go back 50 years..we were college roomates. He is overly generous in his appraisal:-) I might add that he is one hell of a good baritone himself. We did shows together and both worked the musical comedy circuit for years. Great guy, but overly generous:)

Anonymous said...

“Great guy, but overly generous:)”
I’m sure he is right:) It’s sad that your recordings are unavailable.

“One of the most brilliant aspects of his art was his absolute dedication to telling a story. His pronunciation was crystal-clear. You can understand every word, even with the Irish accent.”
This requires a lot of thinking; all those great old singers were very intelligent and worked hard on every line. Modern singers can do it too, but it seems that the general tradition of “telling a story” is gone.

Maybe this is a silly question, but does the Irish accent help to sing in English? Or it is as difficult as singing in pure English?

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That is not a silly question at al1! Quite the opposite, it is a brilliant question, and the answer is yes, it does help to sing with a strong Irish accent. Without getting into all the details, what it boils down to is that the gutteral English vowels are brought forward and pronounced in a much freer and purer way. In this way, nearly unsingable vowels like the English yuR (your) come out iuuuuur. And so on. The Irish accent is particularly strong, and always favors pure vowels over throaty ones.

LWS said...

I am relatively new to opera and there is so much to learn. This blog is an absolutely lifeline, I find your observations very interesting and informative. More than that I have found it fascinating discovering performers I have never even heard of before. Thank you very much, your efforts are most appreciated Mr. St. Austell.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed! I am very pleased to have you on board, and I greatly appreciate your comment.

Anonymous said...

John McCormack did not study with the author and novelist Rafael Sabatini. He studied with Rafael's father Vincenzo Sabatini.

Edmund St. Austell said...

OOOPS! Right you are. I made the change. Thanks for catching it. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

my dear edmund, "mi par durdir encore",the last VERSE of "the snowy breasted pearl" and the last LINE of "the 27 psalm".To me, the beauty of these is unsurpassed on record. Would his reputation have survived if he had recorded nothing else? comment please. thanks again for all the time you spend on these pages

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yours is an unusual and most interesting comment! I certainly understand what you mean. Reflecting on the passages and songs you point out, it occurs to me that they are not simply musically excellent, they treat of huge and very dramatic themes. The great aria "mi par d'udire ancora," is very emotional in its memory of love, "night of caresses," "divine memories," "love without end." It is a powerful combination of exquisite melody and the deepest kind of longing for a remembered passion. And McCormack sings it sensitively and beautifully. And in terms of sentiment, of course, "Snowy-breasted pearl" is about the most painfully sad thing ever written! "We laid her in her grave,.....so wearily I mourn for my lost, loved, ......etc. It's almost hard to listen to, it is so sad. Also, it shares with "mi par" the extreme poignancy of remembered affection and love. The 27th psalm is one of hope amidst trial, the famous theme of "I will wait upon the Lord." Taken together, the thematic material of the pieces you indicate is just overwhelming in its breadth and depth! I think this has to be part of the impact. And, importantly, McCormack does not make the fatal mistake of overdoing it! His pathos has dignity, and this elevates the thematic material, as opposed to debasing it. This is a big part of McCormack's greatness...he is at heart an Irish bard. It is the kind of grand-themed poetry that attracts and impresses itself upon the Celtic soul. I think this is where the greatness of his singing lies, and in the poignant passages you indicate, this is particularly the case. You know, I think that at the very least these passages would have established him as a very noteworthy singer, and there is no doubt that this very noteworthiness, multiplied over and over through the many recordings and concerts he made and gave, acccounts for his deserved reputation as one of the greatest singers of all time! Again, thank you for a most interesting comment.

Anonymous said...

"Ill sing thee songs of araby".My dear edmund,Mccormacks recording of this is,as an example of bel canto singing, without equal,nonpareil,nulli secundi and would you agree,definitive!!!?

Edmund St. Austell said...

100%, my friend, 100% :-)

Anonymous said...

thank you edmund,even if you dont agree i knew you were too much of a toff to walk on my dreams.jos

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha, ha! Well, be that as it may, I do actually agree with you, and I share your enthusiasm. I have been a very great McCormack fan ever since I was young. Thanks for commenting.

Gerhard Santos said...

Thanks for the interesting article, Sir Edmund!!! Have a Wonderful evening and *GOD BLESS*