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ClassicsOnline Home » MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 6: The Acoustic Recordings (1915-1916)
Originally trained for opera, John McCormack eventually turned to the concert platform, achieving a level of success that remains legendary to this day. This sixth volume in the Naxos McCormack Edition gives us ample opportunity to experience McCormack’s mastery of song and extraordinary versatility. The tracks include Victorian ballads, Italianate songs (a hybrid English parlour ballad placed in a classic Italian setting with all the elements of the genre, from the moon to the lagoon), Celtic songs, Continental songs with a Viennese flavour, and American songs such as The Vacant Chair which commemorates the death of a young Union Army lieutenant during the American Civil War, as well as ending on a D flat above high C, the highest note McCormack ever recorded. The one operatic item, Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, is a supreme performance of one of Mozart’s most demanding arias and the last published recording from McCormack’s operatic repertoire.
John McCormack (1884-1945)
The McCormack Edition Vol. 6
“Presumably,” Robert Tuggle writes in The Golden Age of Opera, “there were Irish tenors before John McCormack … just as there have been pale imitations ever since.” The writer’s comment defines McCormack as the very embodiment of the term “Irish tenor,” although as a vocal artist the singer stands utterly apart from any single category. Originally trained for opera, his decision to turn to the concert platform led him to a level of success that remains legendary to this day. Again, Robert Tuggle helps us realize the unique position this singer holds in performance history when he notes that, in the concert hall, McCormack was “a master unsurpassed in the history of song,” and tells us that the tenor’s audiences always acted “as though they would never have another chance to hear him.” The present volume of recordings gives us ample opportunity to experience McCormack’s mastery of song, while we also listen to his supreme moment in opera, a virtually definitive performance of one of Mozart’s most demanding arias.
John McCormack was born on 14th June 1884 in the provincial Irish town of Athlone. After primary school there, he graduated from Summerhill College in County Sligo; by 1902 he was in Dublin, supposedly to prepare for a civil service examination. The young man’s ideas were more musical, however, and he soon joined the Palestrina Choir of Dublin’s Roman Catholic cathedral, where he gained the attention of Vincent O’Brien, the director of that choir and a leading musician in the Irish capital. It was O’Brien who prepared the nineteen year old McCormack for Dublin’s important music festival, the Feis Ceoil, where his young tenor won the gold medal in May, 1903.
Winning this coveted prize not only turned McCormack into an overnight household name in Dublin, it also gave the fledging tenor a powerful feeling of confidence in his abilities. Now, for the first time, he could see that a career in music was a real possibility. It was for this reason that he seized the opportunity to sing in America the following year; his appearances in the Irish Village at the St. Louis Exposition were his first performances in the United States.
More foreign experience came to him in 1905, when he went to Milan for serious vocal studies under Maestro Vincenzo Sabatini. (The maestro’s son, Rafael, became famous as the author of Scaramouche and other romance novels.) The young Irishman was an apt pupil, and his hard work was rewarded when, on 13 January 1906, he made his début in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz at Savona’s Teatro Chiabrera. The twenty year old McCormack was supposed to impersonate a character twice his age, but, always the reluctant actor, he did not remotely succeed. Vocally he was also immature, but an opera début in Italy had taken place and the local critics had been kind. La Scala was another story, however, and when more than one audition did not open that door, McCormack realized he had to look elsewhere.
The new land of opportunity was London, where McCormack took part in many concerts and tried without success for an engagement at Covent Garden. Only the direct intervention of an influential patron of the arts, Sir John Murray Scott, led to McCormack’s 13th October 1907 début as Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana. At 23, the Irishman was the youngest principal tenor ever to sing in that opera house. London critics were muted in their praise, but the ambitious young singer had taken his place in London’s musical circles. From that first season until the outbreak of war in 1914, he sang every year at Covent Garden, taking part in such operas as Lakmé, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, La sonnambula, and, for his final London opera appearances, Boito’s Mefistofele.
When Oscar Hammerstein I came to Europe in 1909 to engage singers for his Manhattan Opera House in New York, McCormack became part of that group of artists, making his American opera début in November 1909, as Alfredo in La traviata. His vocalism was well received, but we sense his continuing discomfort on stage as we read the reviews, one critic commenting that the tenor’s acting was so ineffective he made the abominable Alfredo “almost likeable.”
Hammerstein was soon bought out by his competition, the Metropolitan Opera, and McCormack found himself singing for other houses, among them the Philadelphia and Chicago companies. Well received though he was in the opera house, McCormack was such an instant phenomenon in the recital hall he soon found himself making a complete change in the direction of his career. After his first seasons in the United States, his operatic work diminished sharply, while his concert tours became, along with his recorded output, nearly his entire professional life. The present set reports on this shift in his priorities: of the 25 selections in this volume, only one, Il mio tesoro, is an operatic aria. Significantly, it is the last published recording we have from his operatic repertoire.
McCormack’s change of career was richly rewarded, not only with an earned income of a million dollars a year, but also with a popularity that, even by today’s standards, is impressive indeed. What other concert singer could fill the largest halls in New York and Boston ten times in a single season? After only a very few years in the United States, McCormack had become the greatest concert attraction the country had ever known.
The tenor and his family remained in America throughout the war, and as that conflict was ending he and his wife decided to formalize their feelings for their adopted country: they became American citizens. It was a decision that caused the singer immense difficulty, as people throughout the British Empire viewed this change of allegiance to be an act of supreme disloyalty. McCormack was forced to cancel a 1920 concert tour of Australia, and it would not be until 1924 that he dared sing in London again. Finding a much better reception on the Continent, McCormack gave a series of memorable recitals in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, and during this same period he also made his farewell to opera. These final appearances took place on the stage at Monte Carlo, the most important production being a newly edited La Foire de Sorotchinzi of Mussorgsky given in 1923; McCormack sang the role of Gritzo.
Three years after that Monte Carlo premiere, McCormack went on a concert tour of the Far East, and in 1930 appeared in the starring rôle of one of Hollywood’s earliest sound films, Song O’My Heart. The young Maureen O’Sullivan, then on the threshold of her long cinema career, was one of his co-stars. Nearly a decade of concert tours in England and America followed, and in November 1938 the singer made his farewell to the public at London’s Albert Hall. When World War II broke out, McCormack made fund-raising tours and BBC broadcasts in support of the war effort; he would also continue to record for HMV until l942. The next year, the singer retired to his native Ireland, where on 16th September 1945 he died at his home, just outside of Dublin.
Strictly speaking, the Victorian Age ended with the death of Britain’s Queen in 1901, but many of the tastes and mores of the nineteenth century would endure until the World War I era. Some of the McCormack recordings from this period document that taste, with the present set containing some prime examples of the Victorian parlor ballads so dear to the hearts of English-speaking audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. First among these is Michael Balfe’s Come Into the Garden, Maud with its poem by Tennyson. McCormack’s unique clarity of diction, along with his peerless phrasing and beauty of tone, make this an outstanding example of what is often called “Victorian singing.” The florid demands of this now vanished vocal style are fully exemplified by McCormack’s superlative vocalism, and even while we recognize the antique quality of the music and the verse, we are struck by the utterly modern musical approach of this singer. We can only wish for such a tenor on today’s concert stage.
Other Victorian items call for a similar vocal style. Some of them cross both cultural and linguistic lines, in many cases reflecting the long standing British fascination with Italian settings and themes. No other composer better satisfied this taste for Italianate song than Paolo Tosti. In 1909, McCormack had recorded a series of Tosti songs, all in Italian; these were done in the full flood of the tenor’s desire for a second chance at establishing an opera career in Italy. That attempt was not a success, but now he was an international concert celebrity, at least in the English-speaking world; these Tosti songs would be recorded in English. Both items in the present set are fine examples from that composer. The first is a textbook example of an Italian canzone presented for English taste, the Venetian Song. It is an English parlour ballad placed in a classic Italian setting with all the elements of the genre, from the moon to the lagoon. The second Tosti song, Parted, is another hybrid of Continental melody and English words, with the song anchored even more firmly in the British tradition by the use of the Fred Weatherly text. Weatherly was the quintessential Victorian lyricist, with his settings still striking the modern ear as flowery to a fault.
World War I was not quite a year in progress when McCormack made some of the first recordings in the present set. One of these is The Trumpeter, a piece usually reserved for a lower male voice, but here well served by the clarion voice of our tenor. Although the song is not directly tied to the World War I experience, its martial tone and military text immediately take us into the reality of that terrible conflict. It may also have been the presence of the war in everyone’s life that led McCormack to record, for the third time, Ethelbert Nevin’s The Rosary with its openly emotional evocation of suffering and loss. That same composer’s Little Boy Blue conveys an even deeper experience of grief, that of the loss of a child. The present recording documents McCormack’s first approach to this song, one that he would return to throughout his career, perhaps most memorably in his 1930 Hollywood film, Song O’My Heart. One other selection from these recording sessions fits well into the mood of that era. This is God’s Hand, a prayerful attempt to find meaning in a dark time; inexplicably, it remained unpublished for many years and its inclusion in the present set represents its first availability to the general public.
There is no mistaking the war-related purpose for McCormack’s record of The Vacant Chair. This internationally famous song dates from the American Civil War and commemorates the death of a young Union Army lieutenant, one William Grout, who was remembered for his extraordinary valor in combat. His friend Henry Washburn, realizing how sorrowful the Grout family would be during their first Thanksgiving holiday after the death of the young man in battle, wrote the lyric in a moment of inspiration. The result was a living musical memorial, one that continued to touch people everywhere who had suffered grievous loss in more than one war. This recording is noteworthy for an additional reason: McCormack’s final note, a D flat above high C, is the highest note he ever recorded.
One of the most successful recording collaborations McCormack enjoyed during his career was with the violinist Fritz Kreisler. Between 1914 and 1924 they joined in several memorable sessions together; here, they give us four selections that have a light and unmistakably Continental flavour, taking us on a virtual musical tour of Europe. Their Carmé brings us to sunny Italy, while Serenata, Flirtation, and Still as the Night transport us to the world of light German (and Viennese) melody, accompanied by predictably romantic lyrics.
The ease with which McCormack and Kreisler worked together is evident in every measure of these engaging little songs, and there is one special moment that shows how totally comfortable the two artists were with each other. It comes at the end of the first verse of Moszkowski’s Serenata, where McCormack sings the violin obbligato as a brief solo for himself. It is the ultimate example of what the tenor once reported when he listened to a duet he had made with Kreisler: “Ah! I got a tone just like Fritz there!” Here in the Serenata, we listen to his own flexible instrument as it briefly and brilliantly takes over from his violinist friend.
The present set of recordings not only shows us McCormack’s versatility, it also demonstrates that here was a singer who was always investigating new material. In addition to the war-related pieces of the day, the popular ballads by Tosti, and the Continental pieces with their Viennese flavor, we notice that Forgotten is a love song of Poland, while the American poet Sidney Lanier supplied the challenging text for The Evening Song. One other American song of the time, the immensely popular Morning of Oley Speaks, has value for us beyond McCormack’s impressively full-voiced interpretation. Collectors and specialists have always lamented that the singer did not give us more than a sampling of the brilliant oratorio style of his vocal prime. However, if we listen carefully to this recording of Morning, we can hear the opening section bear witness to the tenor’s obvious talent for recitative, while the remainder of the piece fully demonstrates his mastery of the aria form as he would sing it in oratorio.
No review of McCormack’s artistic output would be complete without some attention to his own musical heritage. We think, rightly, of McCormack as an Irish tenor, but a few selections here remind us that his background was both Irish and Scottish. Turn Ye To Me is a well known Scottish melody, while The Kerry Dance is immediately identifiable by tune and title as belonging to the Emerald Isle. The other Celtic selection reflects a rather long-distance view of that culture: A Little Bit of Heaven, was closely associated with the popular Irish-American tenor Chauncey Olcott, a songster whose melodies McCormack frequently used. This song gives us a fanciful text while it caters to the fantasies of its intended audience, the Irish immigrants who would always carry with them an idealized vision of their native land. They would also respond to a heartfelt expression of that vision, and this McCormack delivered to them, as no other artist could.
In the opinion of many musicians and collectors, our final selection stands as the most significant recording of McCormack’s career. This is the Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, a legendary performance that could hardly be closer to a definitive Mozart interpretation; since its release in 1916, it has set the standard for all singers of that composer’s work. One British critic who reviewed every available recording of the aria noted that, no matter how many interpretations he heard, it was to the McCormack version he always returned. It is not only the masterful control of the challenging middle run that gains our attention (other tenors have, with varying difficulty, also overcome this hurdle in a single breath), but it is McCormack’s total understanding of the music that allows the aria to ripen as it does in his hands and win our complete admiration. Much ink has been spilled to describe the many virtues and the immense value of this recording, but the praise of a demanding German critic sums up all the accolades this interpretation has received. After a close analysis of the McCormack Il mio tesoro, the critic concludes: “There are few recordings that can be described as impeccable,” and then adds: “This record is impeccable.”
In a very real sense, all of McCormack’s recordings are impeccable. They show the brilliance of his versatility and his unfailing respect for whatever music he chose to give his public. Good in opera and supreme in song, he stands before us as an artist who did not leave a successor, but whose masterful recordings have left us models for all time.
Notes on the Song Texts
John McCormack’s legendary diction is apparent in every recording he made, but some of the antiquated and obsolete words in many of the songs and ballads he recorded are not clear to the modern listener. Tennyson’s poem Come Into the Garden, Maud, for example, contains the word “blown” which we understand to mean “blossomed.” In the famous Oley Speaks song Morning, the light falls “on cot and clod”, and it takes a little effort to understand that “cot” refers to “cottage” or house, while “clod” alludes to a lump of earth; the morning light falls on houses and the land. We notice also that in the same song McCormack gives an older pronunciation to the word “winds” (he pronounces this word the same way in Venetian Song and in Turn Ye to Me.)
It is almost inevitable that song texts dating from nearly a century ago would contain words that have left the language. In Flirtation we have two examples of this: the “swains” are the men who court the young women, while “coquetting” is the eternal act of teasing or flirting. With Turn Ye to Me we are dealing with echoes of another language, this time Scottish Gaelic. The refrain of the song is “Horo, Mhairi dhu,” which we may translate as “Oh, Mary, you dark little elf” or “Oh, little dark Mary,” in either case an endearing address, along with a likely description of the young woman’s hair.
One final text offers unusual challenges for the listener. This is the Evening Song by the American poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). Lanier’s poem contains some predictably archaic terms, such as “sallow sands” in the opening line, along with “and mark yon meeting” in the second line, each of which may be explained as “yellow sands” and “note the meeting there,” respectively. The stanza that follows presents even more challenging constructions. The “sea’s red vintage” in which the sun “melts” is the poet’s vision of a dramatically coloured sunset over water, and that description helps us understand the restatement of the image in the next line, where “Egypt’s pearl” also melts in the “rosy wine” of the sun-reddened water. When the sun has finally set, “night drinks all.” One of the poem’s final images may also give some difficulty, as we are asked to see the waves around “else unlighted sands,” sands that, aside from the light on the waves, are otherwise (“else”) “unlighted” or dark.
The author wishes to thank Mr Paul Worth for his material help in the preparation of these notes.
The McCormack Edition: Volume 6 1915-16 recordings made by The Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, NJ
DIX: The Trumpeter with Emil Keneke (?), trumpet 30th March 1915; C-15845-1 (Victor 74432)
BALFE: Come Into the Garden, Maud 30th March 1915; C-15846-1 (Victor 74434)
HADLEY: Evening Song, Op. 53, No. 3 30th March 1915; B-15838-3 (Victor 64496)
SPEAKS: Morning 30th March 1915; B-15847-1 (Victor 64498)
OLD SCOTTISH AIR: Turn Ye to Me 30th March 1915; C-15848-1 (Victor 74435)
NEVIN: The Rosary 30th March 1915; B-11825-3 (Victor 64257)
TRADITIONAL, arr. Wade: Adeste Fideles with male chorus (Harry Macdonough, tenor, Reinald Werrenrath, baritone and William F. Hooley, bass) 31st March 1915; C-15849-1 (Victor 74436)
ROOT: The Vacant Chair with male chorus (Harry Macdonough, tenor, Reinald Werrenrath, baritone and William F. Hooley, bass) 31st March 1915; B-15417-3 (Victor 64499)
SCHNEIDER: When the Dew is Falling 31st March 1915; B-15850-2 (Victor 64497)
MOSZKOWSKI: Serenata, Op. 15, No. 1 with Fritz Kreisler, violin 10th June 1915; B-16090-1 (Victor 87230)
TRADITIONAL, arr. DeCurtis Carmé with Fritz Kreisler, violin 10th June 1915; B-16091-2 (Victor 87231)
MEYER-HELMUND: Flirtation with Fritz Kreisler, violin 10th June 1915; B-16092-1 (Victor 87232)
BÖHM: Still as the Night, Op. 326, No. 27 with Fritz Kreisler, violin 10th June 1915; B-16093-2 (Victor 87233)
COWLES: Forgotten (A Love Song of Poland) 10th November 1915; B-16760-1 (Victor 64546)
NUTTING: Sing, Sing, Birds on the Wing 10th November 1915; B-16762-2 (Victor 64532)
OLD DUTCH AIR, arr. Hoffmann: God’s Hand 10th November 1915; B-16763-2 unpublished; assigned Victor 64548)
BALL: A Little Bit of Heaven 10th November 1915; B-16764-1 (Victor 64543)
TOSTI: Venetian Song 10th November 1915; B-16765-2 (Victor 64549)
KREISLER: The Old Refrain 14th January 1916; B-17008-2 (Victor 64559)
TOSTI: Parted 14th January 1916; B-17010-1 (Victor 64578)
STRELEZKI: Dreams 9th May 1916; B-17646-1 (Victor 64603)
MOZART: Don Giovanni, K. 527 Il mio tesoro 9th May 1916; C-17647-1 (Victor 74484)
MOLLOY: The Kerry Dance 9th May 1916; C-17648-1 (Victor 74485)
SCHNEIDER: Your Eyes 9th May 1916; B-17649-2 (Victor 64604)
NEVIN: Little Boy Blue with Emil Keneke, trumpet 9th May 1916; B-17650-2 (Victor 64605)
All with orchestra conducted by Walter B. Rogers except tracks 12 & 13, which are accompanied by Ludwig Schwab, piano
All tracks are sung in English except track 7 in Latin, tracks 11 and 22 in Italian