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ClassicsOnline Home » MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 10: Victor Talking Machine Company Recordings / Gramophone Company Ltd. Recordings (1923-1924)
John McCormack’s remarkable versatility is demonstrated here in prime examples of his art. His rendition of Handel’s Come, My Beloved is stylish and his virtuoso technique is on show in Lotti’s ornate Pur dicesti. He does supreme justice to Kramer’s masterly and impressionistic Swans, and this version of The Londonderry Air is his first and most poetic recording of one of the world’s most familiar folk songs. The three Brahms songs are of immense historical and musical value as McCormack received training from one of Brahms’ favourite singers, Sir George Henschel. Including two previously unreleased tracks and numerous popular songs of the day, this programme is a rich and varied serving of “the McCormack magic”.
John McCormack (1884–1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol 10
In the 1960s, Desmond Shawe-Taylor could write, “Of all the great singers of this century, John McCormack was the most versatile. Opera and oratorio, Handel and Mozart, Brahms and Wolf and Rachmaninov, Irish folk songs and ballads of simple sentiment: in all of these he was at home.” Previous releases in this Naxos series have fully documented this versatility; this penultimate volume gives us even more examples of the range of this tenor’s art. It also provides us with some historically important performances, recordings that connect us directly to the musical intentions of Johannes Brahms.
John McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, on 14 June l884. He was nearly twenty when he arrived in Dublin, supposedly to study for a civil service examination. Instead, he found himself drawn to singing, and by the time he joined the choir of the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, all thoughts of a civil service job had faded; music would be his true calling. Private singing lessons with Vincent O’Brien, the choir’s talented director, followed, and it was not long before the Dublin maestro decided to enter the young man for the upcoming Feis Ceoil competition, an important musical event. When the nineteen-year-old tenor won the gold medal at that l903 Feis, he was confirmed in the direction of his career. Serious preparation for that career began in l905 when McCormack traveled to Milan to study with Vincenzo Sabatini (the father of the romance novelist, Rafael Sabatini). The young Irishman was an eager student, and by the end of 1905 McCormack convinced his teacher that he was ready for a début in opera. Some observers of McCormack’s career—notable among them Walter Legge—felt that this period of study was all too brief, but the début did take place early the following year: 13 January 1906 witnessed McCormack’s first appearance in opera. The place was Savona, a small town on the Gulf of Genoa; the opera was Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, and the twenty-two year old McCormack was supposed to play the part of a bachelor twice his age. As would always be the case with this opera singer, the discomfort he felt on stage and in costume would never completely disappear.
Clearly, the singer’s goal was an operatic career in Italy, but important auditions—most notably at La Scala—showed him how difficult that would be. McCormack’s Hibernian intonation, lighter and more removed from the weightier sound Italians always preferred, worked against him; it was not long before he decided that London would provide him with more opportunities. His chief hope was Covent Garden, but several attempts to gain a foothold there only repeated his Italian experiences. It took the direct intervention of a wealthy patron of the arts, Sir John Murray Scott, to arrange for his London opera début, which took place on 15 October l907. The rôle was Turridu in Cavalleria rusticana, a part just as inappropriate as his début rôle in L’amico Fritz. At twenty-three, McCormack was the youngest principal tenor ever to sing at Covent Garden. The critics were kind, but because their praise was so clearly muted, the singer knew there was more work to do. What followed was a two-year period of intense work, a time that included close observation of other singers at Covent Garden. After studying the recordings made by the tenor between 1907 and 1909, one English observer judged this vocal maturation as the greatest artistic leap in the history of the gramophone.
Almost immediately after his return from Italy, and still waiting for his chance at Covent Garden, McCormack sang numerous concerts in London and in the provinces. At one of these appearances, a London Boosey Ballad Concert in March 1907, his performance of Samuel Liddle’s A Farewell created a sensation. So great was his success that day that Walter Legge pronounced this concert, rather than his Covent Garden début eight months later, to be the true beginning of his career in England.
The Boosey Ballad Concert and the Covent Garden début were prophetic of the twin directions McCormack’s career would soon take. Not long after his November 1909 New York opera début, as Alfredo in La traviata, he began to divide his work between opera performances and song recitals. His appearances in opera were well received, but when he increased the number of his recitals, public reaction was overwhelming. McCormack quickly realised that if he continued to concentrate on opera, he would always be in competition with tenors of the Caruso and Martinelli variety, but if he chose the concert hall, he could reign supreme. The wisdom of his decision was confirmed by unprecedented professional and financial awards. In 1918 a national music magazine declared him to be “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 McCormack’s career reached another high water mark: in the course of a single year, he sold more records than Caruso, a feat unheard of during the heyday of the Great Neapolitan. The next time they met, Caruso was quick to congratulate his colleague’s singular feat. 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 between artists with genuine admiration for each other, competition is never far away.
The World War I years were spent in the United States, where the singer’s national popularity was such that by war’s end he and his wife decided to take American citizenship. They were not prepared for the international reaction that followed. People in the British Isles and throughout the Empire felt betrayed by this perceived act of disloyalty. During a 1920 concert tour of Australia, demonstrations against him were so virulent that McCormack had to cancel the tour and return to England. It would not be until 1924 that the singer dared to sing in London again. On the welcoming Continent, McCormack gave important recitals in Paris, Berlin, and Prague. These years also witnessed his last appearances in opera, performances that took place in Monte Carlo. The most noteworthy production was a 1923 “creation” of a newly revised Mussorgsky opera, La foire de Sorotchintzi freshly edited for the occasion.
Three years later the singer went on a concert tour of the Orient, and in 1929 he starred in his only 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, and did broadcasts for the BBC; until 1942 he continued to record for HMV. The following year he retired to Dublin, where he died at his home on 16 September 1945.
In December 1920 McCormack was in Paris, giving an important concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on the sixth of that month. His calling card on that occasion was a performance of his legendary Il mio tesoro from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. When he chose this French venue, it was a choice almost made for him: he was still unwelcome in England, and he had just survived virulent demonstrations against him in Australia, forcing him to cancel a concert tour there. A return to the United States would clearly have been a public admission of defeat. The Continent was left. Between 1920 and 1924 there would be important concerts in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, along with the Monte Carlo opera appearances. Because of World War I, he could not have achieved such a career any earlier. From the beginning of this new phase in his musical life his success was tremendous; “I got such an ovaaation!” he wrote to his manager in New York after the 6 December Paris concert.
Recordings from the period show the singer documenting this new direction to his work. It was at this time that McCormack made his first recordings of Lieder in German, with varying results. The first of these is Widmung (Dedication) by Robert Franz. The singer’s German is too Italianate to be completely idiomatic; for this reason alone, the interpretation is disappointing. Also disappointing is Schubert’s Der Jungling an der Quelle, a recording lost for many years and only recently discovered. It is published here for the first time. McCormack takes this brief little song at too brisk a tempo. Nearly every critic who comments on McCormack’s interpretations of Schubert points out that it is a pity McCormack did not share more of the composer’s sensibility. An exception must be made for Du bist die Ruh, where our tenor’s lovely legato and expressive pianissimi serve Schubert well indeed. McCormack the musician was certainly versatile, but even he had limitations. When he stayed within those limitations, the results were nearly always exquisite.
The present set contains an important example of McCormack’s approach to older Italian material, namely Lotti’s Pur dicesti, an ornate piece dating from the eighteenth century. The music allows our tenor to display his virtuoso technique, and his perfect Italian reminds us of the fact he was completely fluent in that language. The Lotti song shows us how flexible his technique could be, and here we have trills not often encountered in male singers. When he made this recording, McCormack is reported to have said, “This will make the sopranos jealous!” He must have been thinking of Adelina Patti’s own recording of the song, made when she was over sixty years of age. It must be admitted, however, that, even considering Patti’s age, the soprano possessed not only a greater understanding of the music but also greater authority as a musician. This set offers two takes of Pur dicesti, the first showing the tenor stumbling over one of the phrases, a mistake almost unique in his recorded output.
Two other examples of Italian song bring us the music of a lesser composer, Stefano Donaudy (1879–1925), whose melodious output was very popular around the turn of the twentieth century. McCormack was especially fond of Luoghi sereni e cari and even included it in the concert sequence of his 1929 film Song O’My Heart. His recording of Donaudy’s O del mio amato ben, taken at an unusually rapid pace, is also included here.
We are fortunate to have in this series of recordings a prime example of McCormack as a Handel stylist. The singer would nearly always begin a recital with a piece by this composer, and one of his greatest efforts was Come, my beloved from the opera Atalanta (the aria is also known by its Italian title, Care selve). Desmond Shawe-Taylor serves us once again with his perceptive analysis of McCormack’s recording, a detailed description worthy of quotation in full. The record, this critic notes, is “an epitome of his virtues as a classical singer: observe the perfectly equalised flow of pure tone, the marvellous breath-control, and in particular the soft rise of an octave to the high A flat near the end. Though we may regret that a singer with such exquisite Italian should have chosen to sing this aria in translation, there are nevertheless (as always with McCormack) an extraordinary charm and clarity in his utterance of the words. Special attention is invited to the conclusion of the long-held A flat just mentioned, which is sung to the word ‘arms’: it is fascinating to note the perfect mechanism by which each of its three consonants—the lightly rolled ‘r’ the ‘m’ and the ‘s’ — is successively sounded at that inconveniently high pitch.”
From European composers to an American man of music might seem a large step, but McCormack’s unique versatility helps us bridge any perceived gap. A. Walter Kramer’s setting of Sara Teasdale’s Swans is a masterpiece. The composer takes Sara Teasdale’s poem and gives it a musical frame that evokes all the qualities of an Impressionist painting; the “chains of gold” for example, reflected in the lake, paint for us an atmosphere worthy of a Monet or a Mary Cassatt. McCormack does supreme justice to this outstanding American art song; one looks in vain for a singer of today able to demonstrate such artistry on the concert platform. Kramer (1890–1969) was quite a young man when he set the Teasdale poem to music, and for the rest of his life he remained a part of the McCormack circle. As late as the 1950s he could be seen attending Lily McCormack’s social gatherings at her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York. It is useful to point out another Kramer song in the McCormack discography: in l920 the singer recorded Kramer’s The Last Hour, a highly dramatic piece beautifully supported by Fritz Kreisler’s violin obbligato.
Not quite in the category of an art song, but a melody that has achieved its own special status is Would God I Were The Tender Apple Blossom. This recording is McCormack’s first approach to one of the world’s most familiar folk melodies, The Londonderry Air, also known by its popular title Danny Boy. The singer was never quite satisfied with the words he was given; later he would sing it using his own text, Mary Dear, but that resulted in a much less poetic version. Here, McCormack’s tone is ripe and beautiful and adds much to the Victorian atmosphere created by the words.
Two items from religious musical history are included here and deserve separate mention. These are Holy God We Praise Thy Name and the always familiar Onward Christian Soldiers. Both selections were most likely intended as two sides of a single disc, but they were never released in the singer’s lifetime. Onward Christian Soldiers is of course one of the main musical statements of the Protestant faith, and as we listen to McCormack’s version we remind ourselves that, while the singer’s father was a Roman Catholic, his mother was a Protestant. In the Ireland of that day, children of such a marriage had to be raised Catholic, but McCormack’s family would inevitably honour their other tradition. Onward Christian Soldiers, then, may well have been the singer’s tribute to his Protestant mother.
Among the most important items in the present set are two songs by Johannes Brahms, interpretations of historical dimension because of the circumstances surrounding them. One of the composer’s favoured singers was Sir George Henschel, who sang Bach’s St Matthew Passion under Brahms and who was a close personal and professional friend. In his 1919 book of memoirs, Musings and Memories of a Musician (a volume McCormack could easily have known) Henschel gives several details of his friendship with Brahms. Later, Henschel earned a wide reputation as a teacher of singing. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells us, “Many singers of established reputation…benefited by his admirable training”.
One of these established singers was McCormack. He realised that his growing interest in German Lieder was not supported by specific guidance from someone immersed in the field. Sir George Henschel was the source of the authority he needed. As early as 1922 McCormack was writing to his manager that he had arranged for lessons from Henschel, but judging by the singer’s early recordings in German, these lessons did not take place until later. Henschel had his studio in London and McCormack was staying near London awaiting the right moment for his return to the concert platform, so sometime in early 1924 seems a more likely time period for such lessons. We have noted the overly Italianate quality of his 1923 recordings in German, something McCormack himself must have sensed, for they remained unpublished in his lifetime; they are published here for the public for the first time. The Brahms items in question are Die Mainacht and In Waldeinsamkeit. It is hardly a coincidence that the first Brahms song Henschel mentions in his memoirs is Die Mainacht; he discussed the song in great detail with Brahms himself, and on at least one occasion even sang it to Brahms’s own accompaniment. We cannot know exactly what took place in Henschel’s studio as he worked with McCormack, but we can hear the artistic breakthrough that is revealed in both recordings: the phrasing, the sweeping vocal line, the very pure German projection—all of these are absolutely new in these 1924 recordings. This unprecedented vocal maturity carried over to the work of other composers in the language. On the same day he made the two Brahms songs, McCormack recorded his first Hugo Wolf, Wo find ich Trost? Wolf was to become a firm McCormack favourite, both in concert and in the recording studio. When we listen to McCormack’s Brahms, we are as close as we can hope to get to the intentions of the composer himself. For this reason alone, these two Brahms songs are of immense historical and musical value.
The selections produced by the recording sessions documented in this volume attest to McCormack’s extraordinary versatility, but no documentation of the singer would be complete without examples of what the singer always included in those sessions, namely, a generous sprinkling of popular songs of the day. This set of recordings is no exception. Such songs as Indiana Moon, When, and Bridal Dawn always pleased a record-buying public for whom Handel, Lotti, and Schubert had little or no meaning, and although Marcheta was advertised as “A Love Song of Old Mexico”, we may be certain that Victor Schertzinger never got any closer to that romantic location than Tin Pan Alley. It did not matter because no one could sing such material as McCormack sang it. Over the years more than one critic commented on this singer’s ability to make lesser material sound much higher than it really was on the musical scale. All the music he touched, great or less than great, was always transformed by what has been called “the McCormack magic”.
The writer wishes to thank Mr John Ward for his material help in the preparation of these notes.
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