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ClassicsOnline Home » MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 8: The Acoustic Recordings (1918-1920)
John McCormack found extraordinary success as a concert hall artist, being declared in 1918 ‘the most popular singer in the world’ and at one stage selling more records than Caruso. The 26 recordings collected on this eighth volume of Naxos’s bestselling John McCormack Edition not only illustrate his peerless artistry, they illuminate the world of musical America during the closing months of World War I and its aftermath. Popular songs from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean give ample scope for McCormack to weave his timeless vocal magic for listeners both old and young.
By Jonathan Woolf
John McCormack (1884–1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol. 8
Writing about Rosa Ponselle, Walter Legge remarks that, in at least one respect, the great soprano reminded him of John McCormack. “Like McCormack,” that perceptive observer notes, Ponselle was “the supreme alchemist: she turned into the purest gold everything she touched…” This volume of McCormack recordings confirms Legge’s judgement. With one exception, all of the items in this set are examples of popular music dating from the period that witnessed the end of World War I. They show how a leading classical artist of the age, a true alchemist, could transform the most ordinary music of the day into material that still sounds to us like the purest gold.
John McCormack was born in Athlone, a small town in the centre of Ireland, on l4 June 1884. He was almost twenty when he arrived in Dublin to study, most unenthusiastically, for a civil service examination. He never took that examination. Instead, he joined the choir of the Irish capital’s Roman Catholic cathedral. Private singing lessons with the choir’s director, Vincent O’Brien, led to the singer’s victory in the 1903 Feis Ceoil. Because this festival was such an important musical event, the gold medal McCormack won made him an overnight celebrity. It also pointed unmistakably towards a musical career.
The next important step on this musical path came in l905 when the young singer traveled to Milan for a period of study under Vincenzo Sabatini (the father of Rafael Sabatini, the romance novelist). Soon—too soon in the opinion of some—both the maestro and his student felt he was ready for a début in opera, an event that took place in Savona, on the Gulf of Genoa, on 13 January 1906. The rôle was that of the hero in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz; the fact that the part required the twenty-two-year old tenor to look at least twice his age did not make for a convincing stage picture. McCormack’s awkwardness in costume seemed prophetic of the discomfort he would always feel on the operatic stage.
McCormack’s goal was an Italian operatic career, but that was not to be. Auditions in more than one opera house, including La Scala, were not successful; Italians were never able to respond to the weight and quality of McCormack’s voice. It did not take the fledgling tenor long to realize his situation. He soon turned to London, where his attempts to gain entrance to Covent Garden only repeated his Italian experiences. It took the direct intervention of Sir John Murray Scott, a wealthy patron of the arts, to arrange his desired London operatic début. This took place on 15 October 1907; the rôle was Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana, another inappropriate choice for the stage shy singer. At twenty-three, McCormack was the youngest principal tenor ever to sing in that opera house. The London critics were positive, if muted, in their praise and McCormack himself knew that more work lay ahead of him. What followed was a period of intense self-study, coupled with close attention to the vocal strengths and weaknesses of the other singers at Covent Garden. All of this resulted in a remarkable artistic maturation. One English musical observer who studied the recordings McCormack made between 1907 and 1909 has judged the outcome of that work to be an artistic leap without parallel in the history of the gramophone.
Shortly after his return from Italy, and while he was still waiting for his opportunity at Covent Garden, McCormack sang numerous concerts, in London and in the provinces, always to enthusiastic audiences. One of these concerts, a London Boosey Ballad Concert in March 1907, stands out as a landmark moment in his career. His performance created a sensation. Walter Legge has observed that the ovation McCormack received at this concert, rather than his Covent Garden début eight months later, marked the true beginning of his career in England.
The Boosey Ballad Concert and the Covent Garden début were predictions of the direction McCormack’s career would take, and his experiences in the United States shortly after his New York opera début (in l909, as Alfredo in La traviata) only confirmed this. His initial seasons in America were filled with opera performances in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities, and reception everywhere was good; but when he turned to recitals, the reception was overwhelming. McCormack quickly realized that if he continued to concentrate on opera, he would always be in competition with tenors of the Caruso and Martinelli variety; if he chose the concert hall, he would reign supreme. The wisdom of his decision was confirmed by unprecedented professional and financial rewards. In l9l8, a national music magazine declared him “the most popular singer in the world,” an accolade that was accompanied by an income of a million dollars a year. It was during this period that the singer’s career reached another high water mark: in a single year he sold more records than Caruso, a feat unheard of during the Great Neopolitan’s heyday. The next time the two tenors met, Caruso was quick to congratulate his colleague’s singular feat. But as he turned to go, the Italian paused, smiled, and said, in a tone not entirely sweet, “But please, Giovanni, not to let it happen again, yes?” Even among colleagues who have genuine admiration for each other, competition is never far away.
The World War I years were spent in the United States, where the tenor’s national popularity only increased with each passing season. McCormack and his wife felt so comfortable in America that, as the war was coming to an end, they decided to take American citizenship. They were not prepared for the explosive international reaction that followed. People in the British Isles and throughout the Empire felt betrayed by this perceived act of disloyalty, and it was not until 1924 that McCormack dared to sing in London again. Back in Europe after the end of the war, McCormack made important concert appearances in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. These years also witnessed his final appearances in opera, performances that took place in Monte Carlo. His most noteworthy rôle during his final 1923 season there was that of Gritzko in the newly edited La foire de Sorotchintzi of Mussorgsky.
In 1926 the singer found himself on a concert tour of the Orient; three years later he starred in the Hollywood film Song O’My Heart. His co-star was the young Maureen O’Sullivan, then at the beginning of her career in cinema. McCormack would remain on the concert platform until November 1938, when he took leave of his British public. During World War II he made fund-raising tours for the Red Cross, did broadcasts for the BBC, and, until 1942, recorded for HMV. The following year he retired to Dublin, where he died at his home on 16 September 1945.
The twenty-six recordings in this volume not only illustrate McCormack’s peerless artistry as an interpreter of song, they also illuminate the world of musical America at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century. Several of the items help us experience the country’s musical landscape during the closing months of World War I. The present recordings begin in 19l8, when American involvement in the War was at its height, and they continue until the spring of 1920, when the conflict had been over for nearly two years.
A second area of musical interest is the world of popular song, including Irish-American items that appealed greatly to McCormack’s recital audiences and record-buying public. This vast public included the thousands of Irish immigrants living throughout the United States, largely in the major cities. These were the My Irish Song of Songs is an appropriate beginning for this set, since so many of the popular pieces alluded to in this abbreviated musical anthology of song titles would appeal to McCormack’s Irish-American audiences. In fact, his complete versions of some of these items, including My Wild Irish Rose, Mother Machree, Where the River Shannon Flows, The Rosary, When Irish Eyes are Smiling, and A Little Bit of Heaven can be heard on other volumes of the Naxos McCormack releases (8.110328–31, 8.111315–16, 8.1112018). One is tempted to believe McCormack and the Victor company released this single disc as a commercial for the six songs just listed, since all of them were sold as separate McCormack records.
Just as My Irish Song of Songs reminds us of more than one example of popular Irish-American music, ’Tis an Irish Girl I Love and She’s Just Like You points to more than one location in Ireland itself, references intended to gladden the hearts of the many Irish immigrants who would immediately recognize the different counties and locations mentioned in the lyrics. The song also contains the hint of a concern that every ethnic group has when it lives within a larger culture: the fear that the children of the group will marry outside of the culture. The title of this item alone carries the promise that the Irish in America and elsewhere will indeed marry only their own kind. Of course, the actual facts of societal history, often occurring within a single generation, tell us otherwise. Two of the remaining Irish selections fall into the category of the quietly sentimental and are redolent of shamrocks and the Emerald Isle. These are the nicely sung Sweet Peggy O’Neill and That Tumble Down Shack in Athlone, a song that refers to McCormack’s own birthplace. Even though lyricist and composer never came closer to Athlone than Tin Pan Alley, every listener, Irish or not, could respond to this tender evocation of a home town left behind. That Tumble Down Shack in Athlone deserves our attention for another reason: the lovely Gaelic vowels and beautiful legato we hear in this humble little piece. It is not too much to say that as we listen to this recording we are also listening to the fruits of the tenor’s bel canto training, a classical foundation that infuses his interpretation of this song. We hear similar evidence of his Italian training in several other items in this set, chief among them the Alton Walters song Somewhere, and Haydn Wood’s Wonderful World of Romance.
One final Irish selection, however, is very far from any imaginary Ireland of story and song and remains one of the greatest songs to come out of Irish musical culture. This is the famous The Bard of Armagh, arranged here by Herbert Hughes. The song, with its haunting melody, is not only of profound musical interest, but it is also historically important because the lyrics report on one of the most painful periods in Irish history.
Seven years after the defeat of the Catholic King James II by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the Protestant parliament in Dublin passed an act that had as its goal the elimination of all Roman Catholic bishops in the country. Clergy who swore allegiance to the Crown and allowed the authorities to monitor their activities were allowed to stay; those who refused to accept the government’s terms risked exile or even execution and were forced into hiding. Around the year 1700 or so, only two Roman Catholic bishops were active in Ireland. One of them was Dr Patrick Donnelly, who ministered to his flock in South Armagh (still located today in Northern Ireland). The disguise he chose was that of a wandering minstrel and his assumed name was Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. In this disguise he travelled throughout several counties in Northern Ireland, guiding his people and earning their lasting gratitude. We are told that when he died in 1716, his many parishioners paid tribute to his devotion to them by secretly carrying his coffin at night from one town to another, before finally laying him to rest in his native parish in County Tyrone.
The words of The Bard of Armagh communicate this unfortunate history and give us insights into this distant past. First, once we realize that Phelim Brady is the bishop’s assumed name, we can understand how all the other details in the song’s text are fictitious as well. For example, as a Roman Catholic prelate, Bishop Donnelly could not marry—hence the Kathleen of the song is another part of his disguise. This fiction is maintained to the very end of the song with the final mention of his wife. Since this “young wife” is dead (a very common occurrence at the time, when many young women died giving birth), how could it be disproved that he had indeed been married? Thus is his disguise preserved to the end. The picture of Phelim Brady playing the harp, dancing, and twisting his shillelagh (a walking-stick made of blackthorn or other hard wood) and the mention of fairs and funerals, all give us a vivid impression of how Bishop Donnelly would accomplish his ministry, going from village to village in his bardic disguise.
Two further allusions open an additional window on that era. The first is the reference to “Sargeant Death”. This echo is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where, in Act 5 Scene 2 (lines l89–190), the dying Hamlet laments that he is running out of time and “this fell sargeant, Death/Is strict in his arrest…” The reference to Hamlet is a small but significant piece of evidence that points to the constant cross-pollination of poetry and other literature that took place between the two cultures, English and Irish. These connections between the two cultures are also reflected in the fact that when Sargeant Death is imagined as speaking to the dying Bard of Armagh, he speaks in the Gaelic language: he “lulls” Phelim Brady “with ‘Sweet Erin go bragh’” (Gaelic for “Ireland forever”). The fact that this single touch of the original Irish language occurs in a song with an English text points to another unfortunate fact of Irish history: the loss of that country’s native tongue; English steadily overcame the original language, a process that continues to this day. It is only fitting, then, to have the Shakespearean figure of Sargeant Death speak to the heroic Irish bishop in the language of his native land. The poetic connection seems to symbolize the troubled relationship between the two countries.
A major concern for every vocal artist during any wartime period is the use of music to support that war effort. McCormack was no exception. When the singer approached President Woodrow Wilson and hinted strongly that he would like a military commission, the president would not consent. “No, McCormack,” Wilson said, “you are needed here at home to keep the fountains of sentiment flowing.” Wilson correctly sensed that McCormack’s enormous popularity could be turned to patriotic advantage. The World War I songs in this set show how right that chief executive was.
The war was not quite over when these 1918 recording sessions took place and most of the patriotic songs were made in the Victor studios between April and September of that year. One of McCormack’s most successful efforts to keep those fountains flowing was God Be With Our Boys Tonight. In less than a month in 1918 the singer made no fewer than three recordings of this song, all three of which were released; two of them are in the present set. (His first version is to be found on Naxos 8.112018.) The song was so enormously popular one is tempted to believe the Victor company feared the stampers would wear out and interfere with the production of the record itself. This particular recording also reveals a telling aspect of McCormack’s very canny instincts when it came to the importance of individual words in a song. His treatment of this lyric proves the point. The original sheet music of God Be With Our Boys Tonight contains the words, “Only I know that time will bring our dear ones back again…” Clearly, the singer felt this was not emotional enough, and so we hear him sing his own alteration of that text: “Only I pray that God will bring our dear ones back again…” McCormack knew that in a terrible time of carnage there were few, if any, atheists in foxholes.
Other war inspired songs equalled the popularity of God Be With Our Boys Tonight. One of these was certainly Dear Old Pal of Mine, a song composed by an officer of the Canadian armed forces. To modern ears, the song might sound like any other love song, except that we know how it swept through the wartime populations of two continents. Also, the phrase “May some angel sentry guard you while I stray…” places the song clearly in the war song category. We have some idea of the popularity of McCormack’s interpretation when we learn that his royalties from the sales of this record were such that the singer named his private yacht “Pal O’Mine.”
Roses of Picardy is another item closely associated with World War I, although the song would have a long life after that conflict ended. In the case of McCormack, Roses of Picardy represents a long thread in his recording career. The present recording is his first approach to the song, but he apparently liked it so much he would record it again in 1928. The piece would even serve the World War II military effort, and the singer’s 1941 recording of it begins with an echo of the earlier conflict’s use of the melody and lyric: “Everyone remembers Colinette, Colinette with the sea blue eyes…” Aside from its extensive war service, the song is a bittersweet evocation of loneliness and separation, and McCormack’s masterful phrasing and engaging tone mark it as one of his outstanding records.
Patriotic lyrics and melodies also came from stage shows of the period, and one of the most popular of these was entitled The Better ’Ole. The title referred to soldiers on the battlefields who tried to maximize their chances of survival by finding a less dangerous foxhole—“a better ’ole” in the accent of the British Tommy of the time. The song McCormack chose from this musical play is When You Look in the Heart of a Rose. The romantic lyrics and flowing melody soften its battlefield origins and keep it clearly in the world of romance—so often the most successful venue for McCormack’s vocal gifts. The Better ’Ole was such a popular story that the same year McCormack made this record, a silent film of the story was produced in England, and in 1926 an early Vitaphone film of the play was done by Syd Chaplin, the older half-brother of Charlie Chaplin.
Two final war related items come from the pens of two of America’s most renowned popular composers, George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin. Cohan produced much musical bunting for the war effort, and many singers jumped on his bandwagon. Caruso, for example, made a legendary recording of Cohan’s Over There, an effort made even more appealing by the Italian tenor’s charmingly accented English. Of course, McCormack would never think of singing Over There; Caruso “owned” the song, just as McCormack “owned” God Be With Our Boys Tonight and Roses of Picardy. The Cohan item represented here, When You Come Back, with its military drum-rolls and jingoistic words, takes us loudly into the wartime spirit of those years; this is the homefront at full throttle. At more than one point in the song, the listener will hear a reference to one of Cohan’s most famous hits, Yankee Doodle Dandy; the songwriter always liked the public to be reminded of his earlier successes.
The second popular American composer represented here is Irving Berlin. Dream On, Little Soldier Boy is noteworthy as McCormack’s first recording of a Berlin song; inexplicably, it remained unpublished in his lifetime. Its inclusion in the present set represents the first time it is available to the record buying public. The song was included in a musical extravaganza entitled Yip! Yip! Yaphank, commissioned by an American military man. He needed to raise the then princely sum of thirty-five thousand dollars in order to construct a building on the grounds of a military base at Yaphank on Long Island, near New York City.
All of the music was composed by Irving Berlin, and the show, which played to capacity audiences in New York, included comedy routines, military drills, dancers and jugglers, and even a boxing match. Berlin himself performed the hit song from the extravaganza, Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning, an item that would reappear in the composer’s similar revue for the World War II effort, This Is the Army. Yip! Yip! Yaphank is also notable for an item Berlin decided to leave out of the production, but which was later resurrected for This Is the Army. The song the composer dropped and later restored was none other than the iconic God Bless America.
As we move away from the war and its patriotically driven songs and ballads, we find ourselves in the popular love songs of the day. Teresa del Riego’s Thank God for a Garden falls into this category, as does Your Eyes Have Told Me So. Some of the songs are not directly related to wartime and its needs, but as we listen to their themes, and feel McCormack’s emotional infusion of loss into their words and melodies, we find ourselves thinking of the conflict that had ended so recently. Beneath the Moon of Lombardy is one of those songs, as is Sometime You’ll Remember Me; separation and memory were certainly large parts of nearly everyone’s experience at that time. One additional item calls for special mention. This is Only You, notable in that it was composed by McCormack’s accompanist, Edwin Schneider.
Two final selections come from two great musical traditions, one European and one American, both deserving our attention. The first is a selection from Act II of André Messager’s romantic opera Monsieur Beaucaire; here, in translation, it is called Honour and Love, and shows McCormack’s singing at its most heroic and most tender. Messager’s opera was inspired by a story written by America’s Booth Tarkington and given its première in London in 19l9, the year before McCormack made the present recording. The piece was also adapted for the stage, the title rôle being played by the famous actor Lewis Waller. In her memoirs, Lily McCormack recalls how impressed she and her husband were by Waller’s performance, a fact that also may have drawn McCormack to the story. Other treatments of the Monsieur Beaucaire story have given it a long and varied life in the cinema: Rudolph Valentino made a silent version in 1924, and when sound was established, a 1930 musical film followed. There was even a Hollywood remake in 1946, combining the comedic talents of Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello.
The American tradition of staged musical works has never had opera as its strong suit; America’s great contribution has always been the musical. One of those musicals is represented here by the 19l9 work She’s A Good Fellow. The selection McCormack chose to record is The First Rose of Summer, the title of which is a witty reference to that immortal nineteenth century Thomas Moore song, The Last Rose of Summer. McCormack’s singing is as clear and tuneful as ever, but we have a special reason to look fondly on this song: the music is by Jerome Kern. Eight years after the success of She’s A Good Fellow, Kern would create one of the greatest works of the musical theatre, the immortal Showboat.
These, then, are the recordings McCormack made at the end of his long hiatus in the United States. The songs he chose give us more than one insight into the society of that time. We hear the patriotic songs of a country at war; we hear the nostalgia of a large immigrant population; and we hear a cross-section of the most popular music of the day. We also encounter the work of a musician who fully served all forms of the vocal art, and in serving them raised them to his own high artistic level. Each of these recordings proves Walter Legge’s observation, that this singer was indeed an alchemist, turning whatever material he touched into the purest gold.
The writer is indebted to Mr Paul Worth for his material help in the preparation of these notes.
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