"I have always thought", Max de Schauensee wrote, "that
what Caruso was to grand opera, McCormack was to the concert platform". It
is an accurate judgment. Caruso and McCormack were the tenors who dominated the
opera house and the recital hall respectively in the opening decades of the
last century. Although John McCormack established an opera career for which he
was originally trained, he soon began to enjoy his greatest recognition on the
concert platform. The years just before World War I saw him firmly established
in England; those same years also witnessed his first seasons in the United States. As his appearances in opera diminished, his work as a recitalist increased
to the point where his reputation (and fortune) made him the most popular
singer ever heard in recital. He is, in musical history, a phenomenon without precedent.
John McCormack was born in the small Irish town of Athlone on 14 June 1884. By 1903 he was in Dublin, studying half-heartedly for a post in
the civil service, but when he won first prize in an important music festival
that same year, he found himself on the road to a singing career. Generous
local support enabled him to travel to Milan in 1905 where he studied with
Vincenzo Sabatini (whose son wrote Scaramouche and other romance novels).
The maestro's work soon made the fledgling tenor ready for his operatic debut,
which took place at Savona's Teatro Chiabrera on 13 January 1906. When, as the
hero of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, the young Irishman had to look twice
his age, it was perhaps an omen of the discomfort McCormack would always feel on
the operatic stage.
After this quiet Italian debut and some unsuccessful auditions
at La Scala, the young singer set his sights on London. Thanks to the
influential Sir John Murray Scott, McCormack made his Covent Garden debut, in Cavalleria
Rusticana on 15 October 1907; at 23, he was the youngest principal tenor
ever engaged by that opera house, but recordings made at the time clearly show
that friends in high places had counted more than sheer musical merit.
McCormack himself was under no illusions about his need for further study; his
unceasing hard work over the next two years, along with his shrewd observations
of other singers at Covent Garden, resulted in an artistic leap which has no
parallel in the history of recording. In less than three years, the McCormack instrument
was fully mature; his first Victor records, made just after his 1909 New York debut in La traviata, show a completely finished artist. (Naxos 8.110329
fully documents the first years of the tenor's American career.)
In addition to his beautifully produced voice and his superb
technique, McCormack had an important advantage over most other European
singers who came to the United States. This was the enormous population of Irish
immigrants who were only too ready and willing to welcome this ambassador of
song from their native culture. Their deep emotional ties to their Ireland of memories and dreams were the chords this minstrel would play upon, as no other
artist ever could.
Welcomed in the concert hall by adoring audiences who
clamoured for (and got) double the number of selections announced on the singer's
programmes, and faced in the opera house with direct competition from tenors of
the Caruso variety, McCormack soon realised the direction his career must take.
The wisdom of that decision is confirmed by statistics that continue to impress.
For example, what singer of the present day could fill New York's Carnegie Hall
five times in a single season? By 1918 a national music magazine could pronounce
McCormack "the most popular singer in the world", and in one year of
that same decade the Irish tenor even surpassed Caruso's legendary annual
record sales. "Please, Giovanni", the great Neapolitan warned with a twinkle
in his eye, the next time they met, "not to let it happen again". It
did not, but the Irish tenor had reached a high-water mark in his success.
McCormack spent the war years in the United States, and as that conflict was coming to an end the singer and his wife decided to make
official what had by then become a reality: they became American citizens. It
was a move that caused the singer a great deal of difficulty. People in the
British Isles, and throughout the Empire, saw him as a traitor; he was so
unpopular in England that it was not until 1924 that he dared give a concert in
London. The post-war years included memorable recitals in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, and in the early 1920s the tenor made his final appearances in opera.
These performances took place in Monte Carlo, his singing of the part of
Gritzko in the newly edited La foire de Sorotchintzi of Mussorgsky in
1923 being the most memorable production.
Three years later the singer made an extended concert tour
of the Orient, and in 1929 he starred in the Hollywood film Song o' My Heart.
Playing opposite him was the young Maureen O'Sullivan, then at the beginning of
her career. After several more seasons touring the United States and England, the tenor bade farewell to his public at London's Albert Hall in November 1938. He would
continue to make records until 1942, and he made several fund-raising tours and
BBC broadcasts in support of the war effort. McCormack retired to Ireland, where he died at his home just outside of Dublin, on 16 September 1945.
This volume of recordings continues to document the earliest
years of McCormack's success in the United States, the titles indicating his
greatly increased concert work. In 1910-1911, the singer had recorded some
sixteen operatic and other selections in Italian, and 23 different selections
in English; the present CD, covering all of 1912 and the first month of 1913,
contains six operatic arias and nineteen songs and ballads.
Our first operatic item documents an eagerly awaited moment
in American music. This was the première of Victor Herbert's much vaunted opera
Natoma, first given in Philadelphia on 25 February 1911. Herbert was one
of the composers who had responded to Antonin Dvořak's earlier call for an
American opera; in Herbert's case the results were disastrous. As Francis
Robinson has observed, Natoma "set back the cause of opera in
English almost beyond reparation". He also notes how ironic it was that
McCormack's English, "so flawless and so beautiful, should have been put
to such misuse". As unfortunate as the opera was, with its mediocre music
and ludicrous text, we are grateful to have McCormack's clarion interpretation
of Paul's aria, conducted here by Herbert himself, and recorded little more
than a year after that forgettable production. The recording is noteworthy as
the only creator record McCormack made from his career in opera.
Other operatic titles have more successful associations. For
example, Covent Garden's 1914 season featured a revival of Boito's Mefistofele,
with McCormack in the rôle of Faust and Claudia Muzio as his Margherita. Both
of the present recordings from the opera, made two years before that
production, reveal this tenor at his operatic best. His 'Giunto sul passo estremo' is a marvel of caressing legato and
beautiful tone, and we have Lily McCormack's own memory of the young tenor singing
'Dai campi, dai prati' during his student days in Italy; she thought the aria
could well have been written for his voice. It is a judgement that could stand
for both of these lovely souvenirs of McCormack's final Covent Garden season.
Three additional operas represented here are outside the
McCormack repertoire, but they give us some fine examples of his singing. The
first is Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles, and in this duet with Mario
Sammarco the sheer loveliness of his voice is matched only by the fine chemistry
that is immediately apparent with this valued Covent Garden colleague. Almost
as fine a level of chemistry is to be found in the duet with Louise Kirkby Lunn,
although, again, I gioielli della Madonna is an opera that McCormack
never encountered beyond the recording studio. To these we must add Wallace's Maritana,
an Irish opera of the Victorian period, represented here by McCormack's lush
singing of 'There is a flower that bloometh'; the tenor infuses the aria with an
intimacy that gives it the flavour of a parlour ballad.
As successful as McCormack was in some operatic rôles - his
Don Ottavio was virtually definitive - it is in the world of song that we find
this tenor at his best. With his beautifully liquid Gaelic vowels, his
expressive colouration of tone, and his always extraordinary diction, a
McCormack interpretation of a song always gives us the perfect union of text,
music, and singer. An important point about McCormack is that his technique is
utterly timeless; his recordings never contain the distracting, nineteenth-century
mannerisms heard with so many singers of the time. This is even true in the
present CD's examples of what is often called "Victorian singing". Many
of these songs are reminders of McCormack's early days in London, when much of
his concert repertoire was made up of the parlour ballads so dear to the
audiences of the time. With the coming of World War I, the Victorian era would
vanish forever, but in 1912 it was still good marketing for McCormack to
rerecord some of the titles he had done for the old Odeon company before 1910.
So it is that this CD includes such ballads as 'Like stars above', 'I know of
two bright eyes', and 'I'll sing thee songs of Araby'. McCormack's sweetness of
voice, along with his undeniably masculine utterance of tone, would make any crinolined
maiden of the time willingly surrender to the romantic urgency of such parlour
gems. Listen to the hauntingly beautiful pianissimo with which he ends 'Take, O
take those lips away', and listen also to that textbook example of Victorian
singing, 'Nirvana'. Note the McCormack magic at work, as the singer changes his
timbre at the end of the second verse: the firm tone used to describe the
priests as they "weave their mystic charms" melts without a break
into the warmth of, "I only know Nirvana within thy loving arms", all
done with a seamless vocal line and with a rich subtlety of expression.
One additional title holds a special place in McCormack's
career. This is Samuel Liddle's 'A Farewell'. The singer's interpretation of
this ballad heralded his first real success in London, no less an authority
than Walter Legge noting that McCormack's singing of this song at a Boosey
Ballad Concert in March 1907, rather than his Covent Garden debut more than a half
a year later, marked the true beginning of his career in England. This recording has all of the passion and even more polish than his original
efforts for the Odeon company; it has a very special place in the McCormack discography.
No consideration of McCormack's repertoire, in concert or on
record, would be complete without a consideration of the singer's own musical
heritage and these recording sessions show us the wide range of his work with
Irish and Irish-American songs. Thomas Moore's 'The harp that once through Tara's halls' is the most traditional example, followed by the quietly evocative old Irish
melody of 'Eileen Aroon'. Noteworthy, too, is 'The Wearing of the Green', with
its protest against historical injustice forcefully illuminated by McCormack's
tone of controlled anger. As has been said, the aria from Wallace's famous
nineteenth-century Irish opera Maritana is closer to English "Victorian
singing" than to any strictly Irish tradition. Far from the Emerald Isle
itself are such shamrock-drenched songs as 'Asthore' and 'Where the River
Shannon flows', items that clearly reflect purely imaginative views of Old Erin.
The present CD is an invaluable document of this important
singer's training and early career. The operatic arias give us insights into
the career for which McCormack originally trained, and to which he made important
contributions; the items we think of as Victorian singing recall the popular
ballads of the day, their words and melodies revealing the taste of an entire era;
and the Irish songs, both native and long distance, bring us to the very heart
of this artist's native sensibility.
One additional group strikes a major chord in McCormack's
career. It might be called the American group, and appropriately enough it
comprises the worlds of opera and song, direct echoes of McCormack's twin careers.
We have already noted the Victor Herbert opera Natoma and McCormack's
appearance in it only two years after his arrival in the United States. American song has a much greater prominence in the tenor's repertoire. 'The Rosary',
an immensely popular song by Ethelbert Nevin, is interpreted here with a fervour
that could be responded to equally by the lovesick or the pious. When we listen
to McCormack's recording of Charles Wakefield Cadman's 'At Dawning', we are
hearing another perennial favourite of the time. These first recordings of American
music tell us much about this most versatile of singers. Here, during his first
seasons in the United States, we find him successfully exploring the music of
the land where he would, within the decade, swear his allegiance and where he
would enjoy unprecedented popularity for many years to come.
Notes on the Song Texts
In concert and on record John McCormack's diction was
legendary; every recording he made demonstrates the extraordinary clarity of
his enunciation. Certain words and phrases in a number of songs, however, require
explanation for the modern listener. The pronunciation of the young woman's
name in the song 'Maire, My Girl'tells us that the Irish "Maire"
is close to the more familiar "Moira" or "Maura." The
phrase, "Were I Tyrconnell's chief or Desmond's earl" takes
the listener literally from one end of Ireland to the other, since Tyrconnell
is in Northern Ireland, in the area of County Tyrone, while Desmond was an
ancient Irish kingdom, comprising counties Cork and Kerry in the present day Republic of Ireland.
In addition to Gaelic personal and place names, the use of
Irish words and phrases in some of the songs requires translation. For example,
the direct address to 'Asthore' ("I am dreaming of you, asthore") is
not a woman's name; the word "asthore" is Irish for "dear"
or "beloved." The same term of endearment is also heard in 'Where the
River Shannon Flows'("Come and take me name, asthore"). With 'Eileen
Aroon'we have a woman's name and an intimate form of address: to the
name Eileen the writer has added the Irish word that means "a secret love."
'The Wearing of the Green' documents an important moment in
Irish history. The effect of this street ballad on the course of Irish
nationalism two centuries ago is comparable to the impact of the 'Marseillaise'
on the French Revolution or 'Dixie' during the American Civil War. The deep
sense of historical injustice that pervades the song echoes the era that
witnessed the 1798 uprising against English rule. Napper Tandy was a Dublin merchant who had joined the United Irishmen and, pursued by the authorities,
escaped to America in 1795. Three years later he was in France, where he was made a general; he then headed the abortive invasion of Ireland that same year. (He would escape once again, making his way back to France, where he died in 1803.) St. Patrick's Day is celebrated on 17 March each year, and
the song's mention of a "caubeen" refers to a little cap.
Some of the selections touch upon our literary past, beginning
with Shakespeare himself: 'Take, O Take Those Lips Away'is a text from
Act IV of Measure for Measure, and here it receives the full Victorian
treatment from the nineteenth-century composer William Sterndale Bennett. One
of the most famous 19th-century Irishmen of letters was Thomas Moore, and he is
represented here by two selections, the first one being a very famous song, 'The
Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls'. Tara was the legendary seat of Irish
kings, located in County Meath; here it aptly stands for the glory of ancient
Irish history. It is a symbol that Moore's original Irish audiences - and McCormack's
audiences in America - would immediately recognize and cherish. The second Moore text is not heard in the poet's own choice of a musical setting. This is 'A Child's
Song', identified in his collected works as being from a masque, that now
forgotten English theatrical hybrid of drama and music, and set to music by
Charles Marshall. (Marshall composed 'I Hear You Calling Me', the piece that
became McCormack's signature song throughout his career.) At the beginning of the
second verse of 'A Child's Song', the "fawn from Aden's land" seems
to put the setting in present day Southern Yemen, on the coast of the Arabian
Peninsula, an area known at the time as Aden. The mention of the "Siha's
fragrant thorn" eludes positive identification, but we may assume it is a
botanical specimen from the same area. In any event, the poem's exotic
references make it reminiscent of Moore's long poetic romance, 'Lallah Rookh',
a best-seller of the day, and one that catered to the widespread interest in
Eastern settings and themes.
One final selection deals with the work of another Irish
writer, but takes us into the twentieth century and has a near personal
connection with McCormack himself. This is 'I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby', a
piece with all the hallmarks of a classic parlour ballad, but with very Irish connections.
It was the theme song of a fair with the title of Araby, held in Dublin in 1894. One of the young Dubliners who attended the fair was the twelve-year-old James
Joyce who used his memories of that visit when he came to write one of his
short stories, entitled Araby. McCormack and Joyce knew each other, and
even sang together at a Dublin concert in 1904, when Joyce was seriously considering
a singing career for himself. Joyce chose the life of a writer, and McCormack
began his long journey through the world of music, but when we listen to this
Victorian song, it gains another dimension with its distinct echoes of the
world that produced both of these brilliant modern artists.