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Monday, March 2, 2015

Father Theodore Hesburgh and My Father, Richard Tucker:  The Tenor of Notre Dame
Dr. David  N.  Tucker,  M.D.


Our readers and subscribers will recall that on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Richard Tucker, his youngest son (Henry R. Tucker), through our mutual friend Dr. James A. Drake (biographer of Richard Tucker, Rosa Ponselle, and Lily Pons), contributed a very fine article about his father's life and career.  This week, again through Dr. Drake, I am pleased to feature the following article by David N. Tucker, M.D., the middle son of Richard and Sara Tucker.

A retired eye surgeon and former adjunct professor of medicine, Dr. Tucker is co-authoring a book with Burton Spivak (an American historian with a national reputation) about David's personal relationship with his father, and David's early ambition to become a tenor and follow in his father's footsteps.

In this article, Dr. Tucker writes about his father's pre-Metropolitan cantorial career, and refers to three cantors--the legendary Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt (1882-1933), his contemporary Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940), and Herman Malamood (1932-1989), a protege of Richard Tucker who sang leading roles at the New York City Opera, at the Met, and in a number of European opera houses.

The core of Dr. Tucker's article, however, is about the personal friendship between his parents and the renowned Rev. Theodore H. Hesburgh, one of the great figures in American higher education and in the civil-rights movement, among other causes.  For more information about Father Hesburgh, who died last week at age 97, please see, the website of the University of Notre Dame.  

For an honor as significant as this one, my father could not have asked for a more beautiful day:  Sunday, June 6, 1965.  Nor could there have been a more beautiful setting:  the campus of the University of Notre Dame, blossoming with the flowers of late spring, cooled by a light summer breeze, and not a cloud in sight in the azure sky above.  

On that beautiful summer afternoon, my father, clad in a maroon academic gown, stood like a soldier at attention while two priests lowered a gold-threaded hood over his head and onto his shoulders.  At that moment, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president of the University, grasped my father's hand in his and said, "May the blessings of the Lord God be yours now and always, Doctor Richard Tucker."

Before my eyes, my father, whose need to help support his four siblings had kept him from graduating from high school, had just received the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa, from one of the most prestigious universities in the nation.  

For the remainder of the 1965 Notre Dame Commencement, during which more than a thousand undergraduate and graduate students received their degrees, my eyes stayed on my father the entire time.  Eight other national and international figures including NAACP president Roy Wilkins, and McGeorge Bundy (who was then Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, having served under President John F. Kennedy when LBJ was Vice President) also received honorary doctorates that afternoon.  But only one, Richard Tucker, was awarded the Doctor of Fine Arts honorary degree.

As significant and memorable as the Commencement was, an event of equal significance to my father, my mother, my brothers Barry and Henry, and my wife Lynda, had taken place the night before in an elegant dining room on the Notre Dame campus.  There, at a large rectangular table with Father Hesburgh seated at its head, my brothers and Lynda and I witnessed one of the most touching moments of that period in my parents' lives.

At that table were not only the honorary doctoral candidates, but also several priests including senior-ranking professors and key members of Father Hesburgh's administrative team.  As best I can recall, my brothers and my wife and I were the only relatives of the honorary-degree candidates who were present at that pre-Commencement dinner.  Also present, and seated next to my parents at the table, was Alfred C. Stepan, Sr., a highly successful Illinois industrialist and a major donor to Notre Dame, who had nominated my father for the honorary degree.

Just as Father Hesburgh became "Father Ted" to my parents, so Alfred C. Stepan, Sr., was always "Al" to the Tucker family.  His handwritten letter of nomination for my father to the president of Notre Dame was an example of the candor which characterized everything that Al Stepan undertook:

Dear Father Ted,

Richard Tucker is the best husband I know.  Richard Tucker is the best father I know.  Richard Tucker is the best tenor I know.  We would do well to consider conferring an honorary degree upon him.

Your friend,

Al Stepan

Another honorary-doctoral candidate who was at the table during the pre-Commencement dinner was Cardinal Bernand Alfrink (or, more properly in the Roman Catholic form, His Eminence Bernard Cardinal Alfrink), who was seated adjacent to my parents and next to Father Hesburgh.  Cardinal Alfrink seemed especially drawn to my father--and with Father Hesburgh's prior consent and encouragement, the Cardinal made an unforgettable gesture in my father's honor that night.

Fortunately, thanks to New York radio station WQXR and longtime announcer Martin Bookspan, who interviewed my father several times on the air, the gesture that I'm referring to was described and recorded by the recipient of that gesture:  my father, in his own words.  In this YouTube link to a 1970 interview by Martin Bookspan, beginning at the 4:16 timing mark (and concluding at 6:11), my father speaks of the Notre Dame Commencement and the friendship he formed with the Cardinal:

My father, who never lost his composure publicly, had merely smiled when the Cardinal had asked, "When are you coming?"  But Father Hesburgh, who was standing next to the Cardinal, had laughed as heartily as my father did when he retold the story to Martin Bookspan and other interviewers over the years. 

The next time my father saw Father Hesburgh was from a distance, under extremely emotional conditions, three years later--almost to the day--on Saturday, June 8, 1968.  That morning, in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the funeral Mass for Robert F. Kennedy took place.  Shortly after midnight in Los Angeles on June 5, the Senator had been mortally wounded after making a speech to an overflowing crowd of supporters for his presidential candidacy.  He lingered for almost 26 hours, and underwent extensive but unsuccessful neurosurgery.  He died at 1:44 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Thursday, June 6.  

The funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, which was televised and relayed by satellite and news film around the world, was one of the iconic events of the 20th century.  Among many memorable moments during the funeral Mass was the singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by the Senator's personal friend, Andy Williams, whom my parents also knew.  Unlike Andy Williams, however, my father did not have a close personal relationship with Robert Kennedy.  Yet for his funeral Mass, the Senator's family, through then-Cardinal Terence Cooke, asked my father to sing the Latin hymn "Panis Angelicus" during the Mass.

As perhaps many readers will know, the "Panis Angelicus" was composed in 1872 by Cesar Franck, who wrote the music (the words are from a text by St. Thomas Aquinas) for the tenor voice and the harp, cello, and organ.  Although "Panis Angelicus" has been sung by sopranos, baritones, and other singers in different vocal ranges, any artist who has ever performed the "Panis Angelicus" will confirm that it is a challenge to sing under the best of circumstances--but not during the funeral of one of the most famous men of the century, on "live" television worldwide, with almost no rehearsal, accompanied by an organist with whom he had never performed, and sung in Latin by a tenor who was not only non-Catholic but also a proud Jew whose liturgical singing had been in synagogues, not cathedrals.

But at the appointed time during the funeral Mass, my father, Hazzan Rubin Tucker ("hazzan" being a phonetic English version of a Hebrew word for "cantor," and Rubin being my father's birth name), stood at the front of the choir loft, nearly 25 feet above the pews where the Kennedy family and the overflowing congregation were seated.  At that moment, my father put his personal emotions in check and sang what I consider the most beautiful rendering of the "Panis Angelicus" that anyone will ever hear:

As I said previously, my father only glimpsed Father Hesburgh from the distance of the choir loft in St. Patrick's, where Father Ted was sitting among the numerous dignitaries who had known, supported, and marched with Robert Kennedy on behalf of civil rights and equal justice for all Americans.  Then and now, I am proud that my father was asked to sing at Robert Kennedy's funeral service, I am proud of my father for doing so, and for giving his very best, as he did invariably.  He could never tolerate less than the best.  "Good is never good enough," he would say.  "Only the best will do.  I expect the best, and I demand it from myself.  If I don't, what right would I have to expect others to give their best?"

Seven years after that funeral Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Wednesday afternoon, January 8, 1975, my father died of cardiac arrest in Michigan while on a concert tour with his friend and colleague Robert Merrill.  As historians of opera in America have duly noted, my father's funeral service was held not in a synagogue, not in a funeral-home chapel, but on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, where he had reigned for thirty years as "The American Caruso," a title suggested by Rudolf (later Sir Rudolf) Bing, the general manager of the Met during most of my father's tenure there.    

Father Hesburgh, due to his obligations as Notre Dame's president, could not attend the funeral at the Met, but he honored my father several months later by coming to New York City to celebrate a Requiem Mass in my father's memory at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  

As was his way, from what I have since learned about him, Father Ted called no public attention to the fact that he was coming to Manhattan to perform a Requiem Mass in memory of my father.  The Mass took place on 
Tuesday, October 14, 1975, but despite Father Ted's best intentions for its privacy (although anyone in the New York Archdiocese could have attended the Mass), The New York Times learned of it and published a story about it the next morning.  According to the Times, the Requiem said by Father Hesburgh "was believed to be the first memorial mass for a Jew at St. Patrick's Cathedral."

Although I was not present on that occasion (I was practicing medicine as an Ophthalmologist in Cincinnati, so I had responsibilities for performing surgeries, making hospital rounds, and examining patients), my mother told me how the Requiem had come about.  From his campus residence in South Bend, Father Hesburgh had called my mother to tell her about his intention to offer the Mass, and had urged her to be present in the cathedral with him.  She had been very reluctant, she told me, because she felt that it would be inappropriate to lend her presence to a Christian rite, even though the celebrant was Father Ted Hesburgh.  

My mother, as anyone will tell you who knew her, had an iron will.  When she made up her mind about something--no matter what the issue was, nor what anyone else (including, at times, my father) thought about it, nor what her family or her friends would think of her--she would hold her ground and stay anchored to her decisions.  Not that she wouldn't listen to another person's reasons why she should do or think differently.  She would listen, but if she didn't hear anything persuasive, she would halt the discussion with a firm "No, I disagree, and that's that."

Mother was so resolute about not attending a Catholic-Christian service that she told Father Hesburgh that she would not come to any church, not even St. Patrick's Cathedral, and not even for Father Ted, who was a friend of the family.  "How am I going to explain this to my own Jewish people?" she said repeatedly to Father Ted.  "What you did for my husband at Notre Dame was wonderful, and we love you for it, but how could I explain to my people what I was doing at St. Patrick's!"  

She told me that no matter how many times Father Ted would try to interject, "Now, Sara, let me explain," she would exclaim, "No!  Never!  He was a Jew, so am I, and I am not coming to a church!"  After a moment of silence on the other end of the telephone line, she told me, Father Ted had said simply, "Sara, our Lord Jesus was a Jew."  In that instant, she told me, she changed her mind completely.  

After he had gotten her consent, Father Hesburgh had a request for my mother:  he asked her to recommend a cantor to sing the "El Mole Rachamim" at the end of the Requiem Mass.  For those who are not familiar with it, the "El Mole Rachamim" (sometimes rendered in English as "Kel Molai" or "Chel Mole") is a Hebrew prayer sung by a cantor during a traditional Jewish funeral service.  It is a prayer intended to induce open, heartfelt, even visceral mourning among those who hear the cantor intone the prayer.  It begins slowly, solemnly, in the middle of the cantor's vocal range, and then steadily rises in pitch and intensity until the music reaches a peak.  It is at that peak, in a vocal cry at full volume, that the cantor intones the name of the deceased and thereby prompts the congregants to sob openly, to wail in grief, as the cantor continues to sing the prayer until its end.  

There have been many variations of the musical form of the "El Mole Rachamim," but the one which set the standard for cantors in America was composed and sung by Hazzan Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt in the early 1900's.  Although his unique voice, expansive vocal range, and emotive singing were not very influential in my father's cantorial development (the powerful tenor-cantor Mordechai Hershman was my father's inspiration), Yossele Rosenblatt, a contemporary of Caruso, was the best-known cantor on phonograph recordings in America.  

After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, in which so many Jewish men, women, and children perished, Cantor Rosenblatt was urged to make a special recording of the "El Mole" for the victims, survivors, and the public who had followed the ship's fate in the newspapers.  On July 29, 1913--exactly 32 days before my father was born in Brooklyn--Cantor Rosenblatt recorded El Mole Rachmin (für Titanik), as it was spelled on the label of the Victor disc.  For months after its release, the recording could be heard pouring from open windows throughout Jewish communities in every major American city:

For the Requiem by Father Hesburgh at St. Patrick's, when he asked my mother to recommend a cantor to sing "El Mole," she immediately suggested Herman Malamood, a young hazzan who, like my father, had made the transition from the bima, or pulpit, to the opera stage.  Herman, who at that time was a leading tenor at the New York City Opera, would eventually make his Metropolitan Opera debut as Canio in I Pagliacci, a role he had first sung in Philadelphia in 1970 on the rare occasion when my father was indisposed.  Herman always referred to my father as his mentor, and he considered this performance of the "Ya-Aleh," which my father recorded in 1959, to be the finest performance of this demanding cantorial masterpiece:

Herman Malamood and his lovely wife, Anna, were almost members of the Tucker family.  Herman was a trim and handsome young man with a distinctive lyric tenor voice.  He had a fine stage presence, was a competent verismo actor, and had a voice substantial enough for Pagliacci (which he sang with Cornell MacNeil as Tonio) and also for Idomeneo, in which Herman replaced Luciano Pavarotti in the title role for some Met performances of that production.  

Regrettably, very few of Herman's recordings are currently posted on YouTube.  But this "live" recording of a scene from Bellini's Norma, in a Toulouse production in which he sang Pollione to the Norma of soprano Radmila Bakočević, captures the quality of Herman Malamood's voice.  While the entire scene is compelling, Herman's singing begins at the 3:39 timing mark in this YouTube video: 

Before Herman Malamood chanted the "El Mole Rachamim" at the end of the Requiem Mass at St. Patrick's, Father Ted Hesburgh once again created an unforgettable moment for our family, and most especially for my mother.  From the altar, in perfect Hebrew, Father Ted recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning for the deceased.  As he intoned the opening of the prayer, my mother, our family, and Jewish friends who came to the Mass at my mother's request, recited in unison the traditional response from the congregation:  "May His great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity."

My mother lived ten years after my father passed away.  She continued to live in our family home in Great Neck, Long Island, and often came into Manhattan to spend time with my brothers and my sister-in-law Joan, and from time to time she flew to Cincinnati to stay with Lynda and me and our children.  

She dabbled (her word) in painting, she studied the many facets of the Modern Art movement, and she collected art works that appealed to her.  (The great Marc Chagall, whose enormous paintings adorn the front lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, could rarely resist my mother's appeals for "just one more" of his paintings or drawings.)   Regularly, too, she would have lunch with the close friends whom she and my father had known since they had gotten married in 1936.  

Amid her grief for the loss of my Dad, she continued his (and her) lifelong dedication to Jewish causes and to the state of Israel, she watched her grandchildren grow and prosper, and happily and eagerly played her role as matriarch of the ever-growing Tucker family.  She also led the creation of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, which stemmed from an informal conversation that she had with my brother Barry and Herman Krawitz, who had served as an Assistant Manager at the Metropolitan Opera during the Bing administration. 

Spurred by that conversation in the winter of 1975, she and Barry gathered their thoughts and sought expert advice to create a non-profit foundation, in my father's name, to provide financial support to promising young American singers.  The Richard Tucker Music Foundation was chartered in 1975, with my mother as its founding president and Barry, Henry, and me as founding members of its board of directors.  At the first Gala Concert in the autumn of 1975, the roster was led by Luciano Pavarotti and also included a nostalgic performance by my father's tenor colleague Giuseppe di Stefano. 
When my mother passed away in 1985, Barry succeeded her as president, and he has steadily elevated the Foundation to an unprecedented level of prestige. 

Today, through the annual Richard Tucker Gala Concerts televised by PBS, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation is not only the largest music-related organization of its kind in the nation, but also, as my mother had intended, the Foundation has played a direct role in building the careers of Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee, Stephen Costello, Ailyn Pérez, and Michael Fabbiano, among many others who have received the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. 

This past Thursday, February 26, shortly before midnight, the Richard Tucker family lost a beloved friend, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, "Father Ted," who died peacefully at the age of 97 in a residence adjacent to the University of Notre Dame.  As the University has described him on its website, he was "a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and one of the nation’s most influential figures in higher education, the Catholic Church, and national and international affairs."  

In his memory, as I feel certain that my parents would want me to do, I will close these reminiscences with the voice of my father, in a prayer which I dedicate to Father Hesburgh's memory, a prayer which expresses a transcendent human hope:

May your soul rest in peace, Father Ted.  

David N. Tucker, M.D.


JD Hobbes said...

Thank you so much for this article. What a tribute!

Steve G said...

This is a wonderful account of the greatest American tenor and his fine character as he was loved universally not only for his voice, singing but for his humanity. He knew and was loved by so many different people of different faiths and back rounds. Thanks to Edmund St Austell and Dr David Tucker we can see that here in this blog. Thank You!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Why thank you Mr. Hobbes! I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your continued support. I honestly believe that in the nearly 6 years our blog has been afloat, he have never missed an issue, and you always have an astute and penetrating observation, invariably well informed! Many, many thanks!

Steve G. said...

His Career, especially once his sons where older, included many performances in Europe and also several countries in Asia and South America. The Italians loved him because his voice had great warmth and power, besides his Italian for a non Italian was excellent.

Steve G. said...

According to the Book "Richard Tucker" by James A Drake RT raised over $200 million for a broad range of causes. The Handel medallion, The national interfaith council award, The Louis B. Brandeis medal for service to humanity, A gold medal from the city of Vienna for his cultural contributions, a gold plaque for distinguished service to Israel and the coveted order of Commendatore, Italy's highest civilian honor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I don't think Dr. Tucker will mind my mentioning that as a 12-year-old he was a member of a quartet that appeared on the Sam Levenson television show. This was prompted by publicist Thea Dispeker, who represented Richard Tucker at the time. For the show, she billed his sons Barry, David and Henry as "The Singing Tuckers," and persuaded Levenson to have them sing with their father to promote his newest recording. After a few minutes on the air, David took over the program and launched into impersonations of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. This was on "live" television, and host Sam Levenson, who enjoyed David's spontaneous impressions but had to keep the show on track, looked at the senior Tucker and said laughingly, "Richard, don't you have a new recording that we should tell our audience about?"

James A. Drake wrote:

I don't think Dr. Tucker will mind my mentioning that as a 12-year-old he was a member of a quartet that appeared on the Sam Levenson television show. This was prompted by publicist Thea Dispeker, who represented Richard Tucker at the time. For the show, she billed his sons Barry, David and Henry as "The Singing Tuckers," and persuaded Levenson to have them sing with their father to promote his newest recording. After a few minutes on the air, David took over the program and launched into impersonations of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. This was on "live" television, and host Sam Levenson, who enjoyed David's spontaneous impressions but had to keep the show on track, looked at the senior Tucker and said laughingly, "Richard, don't you have a new recording that we should tell our audience about?"

Edmund St. Austell said...

The following comment by David Tucker is posted at his request:
In an earlier version of my article, in which I spoke of the key role that Mr. Herman Krawitz played in forming the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, I made an inadvertent error that I want to correct here. Mr. Krawitz, I am very happy to report, is not only still with us but in recent years he has continued to make extraordinary contributions to the performing arts, not only in opera and other musical forms but also in ballet. He founded the Theater Arts Administration program at Yale, and was also the Executive Director of American Ballet Theater. He co-produced The Nutcracker with Baryshnikov, and also Baryshnikov on Broadway. He has also served as Chairman of New World Records, after he retired as its President. My family and I wish our friend Herman Krawitz continued health and happiness, and we will always be grateful to him for his key role in the creation of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.