CD 1 (71:00)
|1.||A Nation Once Again (Traditional)||3:03|
|(Lx 1565-1) 44364|
|2.||God Save Ireland (Root)||2:59|
|(Lx 1566-1) 44363|
|3.||The Boys of Wexford (Darley)||3:11|
|(Lx 1567-1) 44366|
|4.||The Croppy Boy (Traditional)||2:56|
|(Lx 1568-1) 44367|
|5.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry)||2:58|
|(Lx 1569-1) 44368|
|6.||The Snowy Breasted Pearl (Traditional)||3:04|
|(Lx 1570-1) 44369|
|7.||The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||3:05|
|(Lx 1576-1) 44374|
|8.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||3:12|
|(Lx 1577-1) 44375|
|9.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:58|
|(Lx 1579-1) 44376|
|10.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:03|
|(L 1580-1) 2895|
|11.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry)||2:04|
|(L 1581-1) 2896|
|(Lx 1582-1) 44377|
February or March 1907
|13.||My Dark Rosaleen (Needham-Morgan)||2:58|
|(Lx 2132-1) 44889|
|14.||Savourneen Deelish (Traditional)||3:06|
|(Lx 2133-1) 44852|
|15.||Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen (Traditional)||2:36|
|(Lx 2134-1) 44853|
|16.||Oft in the Stilly Night (Traditional)||3:20|
|(Lx 2135-1) 44854|
|17.||Absent (Metcalf )||2:09|
|(Lx 2430-1) 57511|
|18.||A Farewell (Liddle)||2:39|
|(Lx 2431-1) 57548|
|19.||A Farewell (Liddle)||2:39|
|(Lx 2431-2) 57548|
|20.||Love’s Golden Treasury (Capel)||3:18|
|(Lx 2432-1) 57549|
|21.||Like Stars Above (Squire)||3:30|
|(Lx 2487-1) 57507|
|22.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: O Lola ch’ai di latti [Siciliana] (O Lola, pretty one, white as the May, love) (Mascagni)||1:58|
|(Lx 2488-1) 57523 transposed down a semitone to E Minor|
|23.||PAGLIACCI: Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio ... Vesti la giubba (To act! With my heart bowed down with sorrow ... On with the motley) (Leoncavallo)||2:27|
|(Lx 2489-1) 57524 transposed down a semitone to E-flat Minor|
|24.||The Awakening of a Perfect Spring (Simpson)||3:35|
|(Lx 2490-1) 57504|
|25.||RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi)||2:00|
|(Lx 2491-1) 57508 transposed down a semitone to B-flat|
CD 2 (77:17)
|(Lx 2500-1) 66190|
|2.||TOSCA: E lucevan le stelle (Puccini)||2:30|
|(Lx 2501-1) 57525|
|3.||A Child’s Song (Marshall)||2:41|
|(Lx 2502-1) 57503|
|4.||I Sent My Love Two Roses (Simpson)||2:37|
|(Lx 2545-1) 57506|
|5.||The Lord is My Light (Allitsen)||3:31|
|(Lx 2558-1) 57505|
|6.||RIGOLETTO: Questa o quella (Verdi)||2:02|
|(Lx 2559-1) unpublished on 78 rpm|
|7.||THE BOHEMIAN GIRL: When other lips (Then you’ll remember me) (Balfe)||3:08|
|(Lx 2619-1) 57522|
August or September 1908
|8.||LA BOHÈME: Che gelida manina (Puccini)||4:30|
|(Lxx 2791-1) 84205|
|(Lx 2793-1) unpublished on 78 rpm|
|10.||CARMEN: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (See here the flower) (Bizet)||3:48|
|(Lx 2795-1) 57582|
|11.||I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby (Clay)||3:17|
|(Lx 2796-2) 57583|
|12.||MIGNON: Elle ne croyait pas (In her simplicity) (Thomas)||4:30|
|(Lx 2797-1) 57581|
|(Lx 2798-1) 57580|
|14.||Pianto del Core (Pinsuti)||4:56|
|(Lxx 2799-1) 84206|
|15.||Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded (Traditional)||3:31|
|(Lx 2840-1) 57587|
|16.||Avenging and Bright (Traditional)||3:00|
|(Lx 2841-1) 57590|
|17.||The Foggy Dew (Traditional)||3:06|
|(Lx 2842-1) 57593|
|18.||Trottin’ to the Fair (Traditional)||1:31|
|(Lx 2843-1) 57594|
|19.||MARITANA: There is a flower that bloometh (Wallace)||2:59|
|(Lx 2844-1) 57588|
|20.||SONGS OF THE TURKISH HILLS: I Know of Two Bright Eyes (Clutsam)||2:49|
|(Lx 2845-1) 57591|
|21.||Mary of Allendale (Hook)||3:06|
|(Lx 2850-1) 57602|
|22.||I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall)||3:48|
|(Lxx 2852-1) 84207|
|23.||When Shadows Gather (Marshall)||3:20|
|(Lxx 2853-1) 84210|
|24.||I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall)||4:03|
|(Lxx 2854-1) 84208|
CD 3 (71:55)
November or December 1908
|1.||Lolita (Serenata Espagnol) (Buzzi-Peccia)||3:18|
|(Lxx 2962-1) 84217|
|(Lx 2963-1) 57608|
|3.||The Philosophy of Love (Larchet)||2:36|
|Lx 2965-1) 57704|
|4.||A Southern Song (Batten)||4:11|
|(Lxx 3134-2) 84233|
|5.||Mountain Lovers (Squire)||4:07|
|(Lxx 3135-1) 84226|
|6.||When Shadows Gather (Squire)||3:43|
|(Lx 3136-2) 57632|
|7.||Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away (Bennett)||3:00|
|(Lx 3137-1) 57630|
|8.||CARMEN: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Il fior che avevi a me) (Bizet)||3:53|
|(Lxx 3138-1) 84225; X 75|
September 1909, with orchestra
|9.||Lolita (Serenata Espagnol) (Buzzi-Peccia)||3:16|
|(Lx 3150-2) 57640|
|10.||My Dark Rosaleen (Needham-Morgan)||3:50|
|(Lxx 3151-2) 84240|
|11.||LA FAVORITA: Spirto gentil (Donizetti)||3:37|
|(Lxx 3152-2) 84230 transposed down a semitone to B|
|12.||Voi Dormite, Signora! (Tosti)||3:29|
|(Lxx 3153-2) 57643|
|13.||The Fairy Glen (Marshall)||3:20|
|(Lx 3155-1) 57644|
|14.||Eileen Aroon (Traditional)||3:20|
|(Lx 3156-1) 57641|
|(Lx 3157-1) 57642|
|16.||O Lovely Night (Ronald)||4:03|
|(Lxx 3158-1) 84229|
|17.||The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||4:06|
|(Lxx 3160-1) 84234|
|18.||L’Ultima Canzone (Tosti)||2:48|
|(Lx 3162-1) 57645 transposed down a semi-tone to B|
|19.||My Queen (Blumenthal)||4:15|
|(Lxx 3163-1) 84231|
|20.||The Last Watch (Pinsuti)||4:15|
|(Lxx 3164-1) 8|
CD 4 (61:00)
|1.||Oft in the Stilly Night (Traditional)||2:31|
|(Lx 3166-1) 57646|
|2.||The Ould Plaid Shawl (Traditional)||2:45|
|(Lx 3167-1) 57647|
|3.||SPANISH DOLLARS: The Bay of Biscay (Davy)||2:15|
|(Lx 3168-1) 57648|
|4.||Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye (Hatton)||3:21|
|(Lx 3169-1) 57705|
|5.||AIDA: Celeste Aida (Verdi)||3:40|
|(Lxx 3173-1) 84236|
Alternative takes: Recording dates uncertain
|6.||Savourneen Deelish (Traditional)||3:19|
|(Lx 2133-2) 57550|
|7.||Love’s Golden Treasury (Capel)||3:15|
|(Lx 2432-2) 57549|
|8.||RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi)||2:42|
|(Lx 2491-3) unpublished on 78 rpm|
|9.||RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi)||2:43|
|(Lx 2491-4) 57508|
|10.||TOSCA: E lucevan le stelle (Puccini)||2:51|
|(Lx 2501-2) 57525, see note on page 65|
|11.||RIGOLETTO: Questa o quella (Verdi)||2:13|
|(Lx 2559-3) 57631|
|12.||LA BOHÈME: Che gelida manina (Puccini)||4:23|
|(Lxx 2791-2) 84205|
|(Lx 2793-2) 57633|
Cylinder recordings, 1906
Edison Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company
|14.||Home to Athlone (Greene)||2:29|
|Edison Bell two-minute cylinder 10085C|
Russell Hunting Company
|15.||God Save Ireland (Root)||2:39|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 612|
|16.||The Boys of Wexford (Darley)||2:38|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 613|
|17.||A Nation Once Again (Davis)||2:41|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 614|
|18.||The Croppy Boy (Traditional)||2:31|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 615|
|19.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:33|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 682|
|20.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry)||2:36|
|Sterling three-minute cylinder 683|
|21.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:26|
|Alternative take of Sterling three-minute cylinder 682 transferred to Pathé disc 77686|
|22.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry)||2:28|
|Alternative take of Sterling three-minute cylinder 683 transferred to Pathé disc 77687|
Producers: Ward Marston and Scott Kessler
Project coordinator: Jeremy Meehan
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston
Audio Assistance: J. Richard Harris
Photographs: Gordon T. Ledbetter, Elizabeth O’Brien, John Scarry, John Ward, and the estate of Paul Worth
Booklet notes: John Scarry and John Ward
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
This set is dedicated to the memory of Paul Worth, whose knowledge, passion, and research is the foundation for any McCormack project.
Marston extends a special note of gratitude to Jeremy Meehan, whose tireless work and good humor made this set a reality.
Recordings: Producing this set would not have been possible without the generosity of many John McCormack record collectors, who made their Odeon collections available to Marston. These are: Gregor Benko, John Bolig, the British Library Sound Archives, Harry Butler, Dominic C. H. Comb, Richard Copeman, John Keveny, Paul Steinson, and the estate of Paul Worth
The following selections are re-recorded from copies in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Laurence C. Witten II in the Yale Collection of Historical Sound Recordings, Yale University Library:
CD 1: Tracks [10-11]
CD 2: Tracks [12, 15-16, 19]
Marston would like to thank: The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Oisín Quinn; Staff of the Lord Mayor’s Office; John Count McCormack and the McCormack Family; Members and Committee of the John McCormack Society of Ireland; Mark Bailey; Eddie Hogan; Andrew D. Jones; Gordon T. Ledbetter; Brigid Lucey; Donal MacNally; Robert Marston; David Mason; Michael and Doreen McFarlane; Senan and Simon Meehan; Elizabeth O’Brien; Tom Ruane; John Scarry; Michael and Jennifer Semple; Betty Stoutt; Jonathan Summers; John Ward; and Sandra Worth.
The Odeon Recordings of
The recorded legacy of John McCormack can be conveniently divided into three periods: the 1904 cylinders and discs made before his training in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini; the 1906 cylinders and 1906-1909 Odeon discs; and the 1910-1942 Victor and Gramophone Company recordings. The first and last periods have been well chronicled but the interim Odeon period has always challenged discographers. The transfer of McCormack’s Odeon legacy to CD is an appropriate time to reconsider the recordings in the light of all the material now available.
McCormack made his first commercial recordings in London in 1904 when he made discs for the Gramophone Company, then known as the Gramophone and Typewriter Limited (G&T), and cylinders for the National Phonograph (Edison) and Edison Bell companies. The Gramophone Company’s registers show that the G&Ts were made over four sessions on 19, 23, 24, and 26 September. The Edisons were recorded on 21, 22, and 23 September, and the Edison Bells a month later on 21 and 23 November. The tenor’s labors in the recording studios yielded twenty-three titles, mostly Irish songs, some recorded for all three companies. Clearly they all wanted an Irish singer singing Irish songs but it should be remembered that McCormack was already singing commercial ballads and popular arias from English Opera. It is a pity that the Edison Bell cylinders of the “Lily of Killarney” aria and Sullivan’s ballad “Once Again” are the only examples of this wider repertoire. Nevertheless, they are historical vocal documents of the tenor at the beginning of his career.
The recording fees were a welcome boost to McCormack’s finances at a time when he was preparing for a period of study in Italy. But the benefits were not just financial. He had also made influential contacts within the recording industry and two of them, both pioneer recording engineers from the United States, would prove to be important. Fred Gaisberg of G&T introduced McCormack to recording and would be present at some later Gramophone Company sessions. Also, Russell Hunting of Edison Bell would subsequently be associated with the tenor’s Odeon recordings.
McCormack was very busy for the next eighteen months dividing his time between Ireland and study in Milan with Sabatini. He made his operatic debut singing under the assumed name Giovanni Foli, in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz at the Teatro Chiabrera at Savona in January 1906, followed this with Gounod’s Faust at the Teatro Verdi at Santa Croce sul Arno near Florence in April, and returned to Ireland a month later. He married his sweetheart, Lily Foley, in Dublin on 2 July,1 spent his honeymoon in London, unsuccessfully sought operatic engagements in Italy, and returned in early September to seek opportunities in London. His first engagement was probably a concert at the Palace Pier, Brighton on Sunday 9 September when he sang as Giovanni Foli for the only time outside of Italy.2 His recording activities resumed at about this time.
Lily McCormack remembered going to the Odeon studio, meeting the recording engineer, Arthur Brooks, and making a private recording of “Home to Our Mountains” with her husband. She recollects that “Mr. Brooks made a contract with John for six years at one hundred and fifty pounds a year” and adds that he had written to Brooks “for whom he had made records before,” prior to leaving Milan. There is no reason to question the making of a private recording as it is obviously from her own recollections, but her account poses two questions: Brooks outlined his early career in the Gramophone of May 1928 when he was recording manager for the Columbia Graphophone Company in London. He began as an actor who became a recording engineer with the Nicole company in 1903 and on its demise moved to the International Talking Machine Company (Odeon) in Berlin and subsequently became their London recording engineer. He never made any cylinder recordings. This last statement rules out the Edison and Edison Bell companies as they made cylinders at this time. There is no mention of employment with the Gramophone Company and we know that Fred Gaisberg supervised their early McCormack sessions. How then could Brooks have recorded McCormack previously? Secondly, the contract, apparently negotiated in late 1906, seems excessively generous in duration for an unknown singer. The contract details, repeated in the biography by L. A. G. Strong, are almost certainly derived from the tenor’s own unpublished memoirs, written in the 1930s and now housed at Boston College. They mention the Odeon annual guarantee and note that the contract still had two years to run when McCormack transferred to Victor in early 1910, but there is no specific reference to one six-year contract negotiated in the autumn of 1906. There is firm evidence elsewhere that there was more than one contract and the overall duration of six years extends over a number of contracts.3
The Gramophone Company’s artist files include some material relating to McCormack’s association with Odeon.4 This will be later considered in detail but it is relevant at this stage as it refers to two earlier recording contracts with the Russell Hunting Record Company Limited, a company originally formed in December 1904 as the Sterling Record Company Limited and renamed in March 1905. The men behind it were Russell Hunting and Louis Sterling, another American who had formerly served the Gramophone Company as manager of British Zonophone. They manufactured the Sterling cylinder and were well established in the trade by the time of the first McCormack contract, which is dated 17 April 1906. Nothing is known of the contract other than the date. McCormack’s location at this time is uncertain. Hunting, having engineered the Edison Bell recordings, knew that voice tests were unnecessary and could have reached agreement whilst the tenor was still in Italy or alternatively in London on the homeward journey to Ireland.
The six Sterling cylinders were the first fruits of the contract. They could have been recorded in April if the contract was signed in London at that time but they were probably made during his honeymoon there in July. According to the Talking Machine News, two cylinders were issued in October, another two in November, and the final two in the summer of 1907. The first Sterling was available from 1 October and this suggests a July recording date at the latest. The catalogue numbers suggest that they were all the product of one session at the firm’s studio at 81 City Road. It was again all Irish songs and no arias; his operatic experience had counted for nothing.
McCormack became an Odeon artist as a result of changes within the trade. The Odeon record was manufactured by the International Talking Machine Company, a company formed in late 1903 in Berlin, with a patent giving them a European monopoly for the production of double-sided discs. The Odeon label first appeared in Britain in early 1904 and the associated Fonotipia label in late 1905. The company operated through agencies and the London branch of Charles et Jacques Ullmann of Paris served as the English agency for both labels until July 1906, when they were succeeded by the Russell Hunting Record Company, which operated the agency via a subsidiary company, Sterling and Hunting Limited. This gave them a stake in both the cylinder and disc business and meant that Sterling artists were able to record for Odeon. McCormack graduated to Odeon under his original agreement with the Russell Hunting Record Company. There was no need for an additional contract. Another Hunting contract with a vocalist named Gordon led to legal action with the fine print quoted in court. It was dated 20 April 1906, only three days after McCormack’s contract, and was for disc and cylinder recording.5 McCormack’s contract was probably similar and it seems that Sterling and Hunting were anticipating the transfer of the Odeon agency and made provision for both types of recording.
Arthur Brooks appeared on the scene at about this time. The Talking Machine News for June describes him as “the new head of Odeon Company’s recording department in London.” He had obviously arrived shortly before the formal transfer of the Odeon agency and any recordings made at that time would have been cylinders engineered by Hunting. The previous association, implied by Lily McCormack, would have been meeting Brooks there in early July en route to Italy. McCormack, knowing that Sterling and Hunting were now the Odeon agency in waiting, with Brooks as engineer, subsequently wrote from Milan seeking a recording opportunity and on his return to London the Odeon studio awaited him.
Recording registers and associated documentation for the early years of British Odeon have not survived and consequently questions of dating, numbers of takes, and identification of gaps within known matrix number series cannot be resolved from sources at hand. The published discs contain a confusing array of numbers as a consequence of changes within the agency, and therefore, a brief overview of the numbering schemes follows. McCormack’s Odeon recordings were first issued as double-sided discs identified by separate face numbers for each side with different groups of numbers indicating the size of the disc. McCormack recorded two 7½-inch sides, which were coupled on a double-face disc in the 2000 series. His 10¾-inch discs were assigned several blocks of numbers: first the 44000 and 66000 series, and, from the autumn of 1908, the 57500 series. This latter was akin to a celebrity series, with recordings transferred from the earlier number blocks as well as new issues. In October 1906, the company introduced double-face discs bearing a double-face number common to both sides of each issued disc. These numbers ran from 1 to 827, and from September 1908 the numbers had a “0” prefix. Both series reused deleted numbers indicated by a prefix letter. McCormack’s 12-inch discs, introduced in 1908, were all in the 84200 single-face number series, with the associated double-face catalogue series beginning with X1. There was also a rare and frequently ignored series of single-sided discs available for about three months in early 1908. All of this means that some McCormack records can have four or five numbers and there can even be different couplings to add to the confusion!
Fortunately, masters were in a simple numerical matrix series from the middle of 1904 with prefixes L (7½-inch), Lx (10¾-inch), and later Lxx (12-inch) assigned to the London studio. Records will be identified by matrix numbers throughout this essay. The matrix numbers, issue dates, information from contemporary journals, the recorded repertoire, and the discs themselves, will be considered in the absence of a reliable dating source. It should be noted that recording activity could fluctuate greatly between busy and quiet periods and even spells of no recording at all. Consequently, consecutively numbered recordings could have been recorded weeks, rather than days, apart and this is part of the Odeon problem. This approach does not provide detailed answers to all questions, but together with additional information now available, it facilitates a more accurate assessment of the Odeon years.6
All of the Odeon recordings were made at the company studio at 14 Hamsell Street, London. Brooks engineered the first sessions (Lx 1565-1570, 1576-1582). There were clearly two sessions, probably on successive days. Two titles, “Come Back to Erin” (Lx 1579), and “Killarney” (Lx 1582), were available in early December; the remainder appeared in the early months of 1907.
Another popular tenor, Lloyd Chandos, cut masters Lx 1570-1574. Also, matrix Lx 1578 has been sometimes assigned to the unpublished “Home to Our Mountains” recalled by Lily McCormack. This seems unlikely, as a private recording played back immediately would have been destroyed in the playing. There would have been no manufacturing process and a matrix number would have been superfluous. This master, together with Lx 1575, cannot be accounted for at present. McCormack’s return to London and the first issue date indicate September recordings. Not surprisingly it was still the Irish repertoire. He was still the man to sing Irish songs, be it on cylinder or disc.
In late 1906 McCormack approached the Gramophone Company, Edison Bell, and Edison, the companies which had recorded him two years earlier, offering to make further recordings. The Gramophone Company’s rejection was understandable as the tenor was virtually unknown outside Ireland at the time. The Edison company was more sympathetic and offered him an exclusive contract after a successful test recording of an unknown title made in about November. This was, of course, impossible as he was already contracted to some degree to Russell Hunting and it led to nothing. The same thing may have happened with Edison Bell as a solitary cylinder  of an appropriate title “Home to Athlone” was made about this time. This was reviewed in the Talking Machine News of May 1907 and seems to have been the only tangible result of the tenor’s overtures to other companies.
The following year, 1907, was McCormack’s wonderful year. He began it as a comparative unknown and ended as a Covent Garden tenor. This meteoric rise began in March with spectacular success with the ballad “A Farewell” at the Queen’s Hall concerts promoted by Boosey, the music publishers. Popularly known as the Boosey Ballad Concerts, the vocal contributions were usually popular arias and ballads published by Boosey. He quickly became their star vocalist and was the equivalent of an Edwardian Frank Sinatra. The young tenor was now very much in demand and Sterling and Hunting were not slow in seeking exclusive recording rights. The second contract of 25 March may have been a consequence of this but the contents are unknown and the previous contract may have been due for renewal in any case. Sterling and Hunting were eventually able to announce, in the July Phono Trader and Recorder, that “this rising young tenor is henceforth exclusive to Sterling cylinder and Odeon disc records.” They finally got their man!
McCormack’s next visit to Hamsell Street produced only four more Irish songs (Lx 2132- 2135). The Talking Machine News of 1 February 1907 noted that “Odeon have made some records by Mr. Ivor Foster and Mr. Watkin Mills.” Matrix numbers Lx 1915-2078 reveal that both artists recorded over three sessions, which may have extended into February, and certainly Mills could not have been much later as he sailed for America in March. Three months later commencing in June, Odeon made an almost complete HMS Pinafore consisting of some twenty discs recorded over a number of sessions with multiple takes and matrix numbers running from Lx 2153 to Lx 2197. The matrix progression suggests a recording program at the beginning of the year followed by another in the early summer with an interim period when the tempo slowed considerably. This makes dating difficult. Fortunately, the recorded repertoire helps. McCormack made his Boosey Ballad Concert debut on 1 March and repeated successes at other concerts, as has already been said, rapidly made him a popular vocal idol. This session simply does not reflect this: it is still all Irish songs and no ballads. This suggests that it stems from February or early March before Odeon could come to terms with the new situation.
The tenor’s engagement for the Royal Opera autumn season was announced in August with his debut following in October. Odeon marked the occasion with publicity, lauding him as the British Caruso who would shortly appear at Covent Garden. Ideally, this should have been accompanied by recordings of operatic extracts but all they could offer was two of the Irish songs made earlier in the year. The Covent Garden engagement could hardly have been anticipated and the lack of operatic material is understandable, but there were still no ballad recordings. There may actually have been a period in the spring when Hamsell Street was silent, but McCormack’s visits to Ireland in April and again in May and his increasing round of engagements may have made it difficult to arrange a suitable recording date. The studio was also very busy in June with the prestigious HMS Pinafore recording. Whatever the reason, Sterling and Hunting were about to put things right.
Three recording sessions now followed in quick succession. The first yielded three ballads: “Absent” (Lx 2430), “A Farewell” (Lx 2431), and “Love’s Golden Treasury” (Lx 2432), with the last two titles issued in December 1907. By this time “A Farewell,” which McCormack had introduced to the public, had almost become his signature tune. “Absent” was introduced to the London concerts on 16 November, but he had probably sung it elsewhere before this date as it had been published in July. The second session produced five titles (Lx 2487-2491): three arias and two ballads. One of the ballads, “The Awakening of a Perfect Spring” (Lx 2490), was announced in late November and only given at the Ballad Concerts in January 1908. However, the tenor had sung it in Glasgow in September and it was in his repertoire at this time. The operatic extracts consisted of the Cavalleria rusticana “Siciliana”, “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, both in English, and “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto in Italian. The “Vesti la giubba” recording is unusual in that it does not seem to have to become a feature of his concert programs until about a year later and this studio performance may well have been one of his earliest attempts at what he later derisively termed “imitation Caruso.” The other two arias appropriately anticipated his Covent Garden debut and ideally both should have been in Italian. However, he had sung Turiddu in English with the Dublin Amateur Operatic Society in May and this may have influenced his choice of language. The third visit gave us “Thora” (Lx 2500), “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and “A Child’s Song” by Charles Marshall (Lx 2502). This was McCormack’s first recording of a Marshall song; it had been given at the Ballad Concerts at about this time and also in Dublin in May, although it was not published until the following month. Marshall would eventually provide him with “I Hear You Calling Me”, the most famous of all McCormack ballads. An interesting feature is that in his capacity as Boosey’s star ballad singer, he sometimes tested them before their publication date and sang them elsewhere before introducing them to London at the Ballad Concerts.
When were they recorded? Here, for once, there are relevant matrix numbers together with an exact recording date. Arthur Brooks travelled north to Sheffield in the summer to record the Sheffield Choir (Lx 2358-2368). The Sheffield Daily Independent of 15 July 1907 reported the event: the recordings were made locally on Saturday 13 July. McCormack clearly recorded after this date and all three sessions fit comfortably into September 1907.
The next three sessions produced only four recordings: Fraser-Simpson’s “I Sent My Love Two Roses” (Lx 2545), Allitsen’s “The Lord is My Light” (Lx 2558), an unpublished “Questa o quella” from Rigoletto (Lx 2559), and Balfe’s “When other lips” from The Bohemian girl (Lx 2619). The Fraser-Simpson song had been published in late July. McCormack had appeared at a concert in Eastbourne at around that time with the composer at the piano and it may have been sung then. It does not seem to have been given at the Ballad Concerts. These recordings were made against a background of increasing financial problems and this may explain why there were so few of them. The difficulties began in October when increasing competition in the cylinder business led to a sharp fall in the turnover of the Russell Hunting company with the deficit overflowing into Sterling and Hunting, the subsidiary company, which ran the Odeon agency.8 Resultant economies curtailed recording and manufacture, with perhaps a period without any recordings at all. These four titles must straddle the late 1907 to early 1908 period but the economic factors make dating difficult and there are additional complications that appear to relate uniquely to McCormack.
The Gramophone Company’s McCormack files outline a relationship with the company, which began in 1904, resumed in 1910 when he rejoined them via the Victor company, and ended in 1942 with his final recordings. Surprisingly, they include a 1908 contract with the tenor, which was never implemented; he had actually been recruited as a Gramophone artist two years before he signed for Victor. This is contemporary evidence of an unknown episode in McCormack’s recording career and merits detailed study.
The documents are in the form of correspondence between the Gramophone Company and their solicitors, Broad and Company, and also two Gramophone contracts with McCormack. Correspondence from the Russell Hunting Company to Broad, and their contracts with McCormack, are not in the files. Thus, the surviving material is incomplete but there is enough to fill in the gaps. The first letter from Broad to the Gramophone Company sets the scene.
9th Jany 1908
Re John McCormack.
Russell Hunting Co.
Enclosed we beg to send you form of letter to be written to you by the Russell Hunting Co with regard to this gentleman, also draft of proposed contract for Mr McCormack’s approval.
You should not pay any money except (a) upon the exchange of contract with Mr McCormack, (b) the effectual cancellation of the subsisting contracts between Mr McCormack and the Russell Hunting Co and (c) the delivery over to you of all master records and matrices.
The letter from the Russell Hunting Co should be stamped with a 6d stamp.
We return to you the two agreements between Mr McCormack and the Russell Hunting Co.
Broad & Co.
Here is clear evidence of negotiations between the two companies which must have commenced in late 1907. The prime mover is unclear, but it was probably the Russell Hunting Company in a bid to improve their finances. By early January a deal had been reached whereby payment would be made to Hunting when his contracts had been cancelled, McCormack had become a Gramophone artist and the Odeon masters had been handed over. The Gramophone Company would hardly have issued 10¾-inch discs and the last condition meant that they intended to remove them from circulation, probably by destroying them.
On 16 January the Gramophone Company forwarded a draft agreement to Broad requesting a fair copy for McCormack’s signature. They replied the following day with duplicate copies. Almost a week later, on 23 January, the Gramophone Company informed Broad that all the parties would meet at Broad’s office at one o’clock on 24 January. They apologized for the short notice but explained that it had been difficult to get everyone together. The Gramophone Company would bring the copies of their contract and a check for £300. This was presumably the payment to the Russell Hunting Company. Louis Sterling had been advised to bring the McCormack contracts to the meeting for cancellation. The letter ends with the telling sentence “As to the Sterling Company’s new agreement with Mr. McCormack, that is, of course, not our business.” The meeting duly took place and ended abortively. One unsigned copy of the Gramophone Company contract was subsequently annotated with “This agreement was not completed. The counterpart copy which we signed has been destroyed this day Feb. 12 1908. McCormack not agreeing to terms and conditions.” Obviously something had gone wrong despite prior preparation.
The rejected agreement was for three years with a royalty of sixpence on each record sold and a guarantee of £120 per annum. This extended to the Victor territories. McCormack in return was required to declare that he had previously sung for the Russell Hunting Record Company Limited under contracts dated 17 April 1906 and 25 March 1907, “which have been cancelled,” and was to undertake to record exclusively for the Gramophone Company. Manuscript alterations probably made at, or shortly after, the meeting of 24 January indicate that the difficulty lay with future recording rights. The “Sterling Company’s new agreement” mentioned in the letter of 23 January was a bid to retain McCormack’s services for cylinder recordings, with the Gramophone Company having exclusive rights for discs. The Gramophone Company eventually accepted this and the exclusive rights clause was amended to read “for the Gramophone Company or save for the said Russell Hunting Company but in the latter case for reproduction by means of cylinders only.” A new contract identical in all respects to the preceding one except for the revised clause was prepared, signed by the tenor and witnessed by his agent, Henry Bernhardt, on 24 February 1908, but was never implemented; Odeon withdrew from the deal, probably in March. The finale was an undated annotation to the contract which reads “Signed by McCormack but did not go through — as Russell Hunting stopped it.”
What went wrong? Sterling and Hunting may have decided that there was no point in proceeding as financial failure was inevitable anyway, or alternatively that they could keep their creditors at bay by other means. They introduced an exchange scheme for cylinders, reduced the price of discs and produced the previously mentioned single-sided Odeons, but failed to avoid liquidation. The musical instrument dealers, Barnett Samuel and Sons, succeeded to the Odeon and Fonotipia agency in the summer. They were agents for Sterling and Hunting products, and would have been aware of the financial situation. As potential Odeon agents they may have influenced events by objecting to a star artist, to say nothing of the master records, being transferred to a competitor. Whatever the reason, the deal failed at the last hurdle. There are no later Gramophone references to it and it seems to have been forgotten. Louis Sterling and Russell Hunting remained in the industry — indeed the former eventually became managing director of EMI — but they probably had no desire to recollect early financial failure. McCormack himself remained silent; perhaps he thought it was just a trivial episode in his career.
The above negotiations must have begun about December 1907 at the latest and ended about early March 1908 at the earliest. During this time, Odeon would hardly have recorded an artist whom they wished to transfer to a competitor; it would not make commercial sense, especially as masters would be transferred with him. When, therefore, were the tenor’s last recordings for the Sterling and Hunting agency made?
The three published recordings from these elusive sessions were issued in the spring and summer of 1908. One of them (Lx 2545) was the first McCormack disc with the skipped groove, a precaution against illegal copying from published discs. It was introduced in late 1907 and was a feature visible on all later Odeons. It does not really help with the dating here. Also the matrix progression cannot give an answer as there are too many variables. The most promising line of exploration appears to be the brief single-sided series consisting of a judicious selection from the existing catalogue together with some new issues. Details are elusive as the rarely-seen discs themselves are the main source of information; they seem to have had the usual face numbers, with single-sided catalogue numbers rising to 1014. McCormack had at least six titles in the series and probably many more. Significantly, the aria from The Bohemian girl (Lx 2619) was one of the new issues (catalogue number 939, issued in the middle of May). The time element suggests a late 1907 recording date, as the alternative — late March or April 1908 — seems too near to the issue date. This is the highest matrix number of the three discs and on balance — and it is a precarious balance — I propose November 1907 as being a plausible time for the recording of all three.
The agency was formally transferred to Barnett Samuel on 1 August 1908, but the new regime had been actively involved before this date and change was already in the air. The single-sided disc was abandoned and the traditional double-sided series reappeared. Jumbo records were introduced into Britain as an Odeon cheap label with a separate catalogue and matrix series. The Odeon label continued and 12-inch discs were introduced. The matrix numbers suggest that some were recorded in late 1907, but they were not actually issued until October 1908. Star artists, including McCormack, were transferred from the previous 44000 and 66000 series to a new 57500 series. New agreements were negotiated and the McCormack contract eventually bought by Victor probably dates from this time. The Covent Garden season had commenced in late April and some Fonotipia artists, including Sammarco, Zenatello, Edoardo Garbin, and Alessandro Bonci, graced Hamsell Street and recorded from 26 June until 22 July using the separate Fonotipia matrix series.9 Both McCormack and the English tenor Walter Hyde were appearing at Covent Garden, and contemporary Odeon publicity enthusiastically associated them with these Fonotipia opera stars and extended the usual Fonotipia practice of artists signing their discs to their own vocal celebrities. Both tenors signed in the wax to indicate approval of the recordings and in McCormack’s case the signature appears to be a constant from matrix LX 2840 onwards.10
Odeon travelled north again in the summer of 1908 to record the Leeds Choir in their own city. The exact date is unknown, but it must have been about July or August as it was noted in the Talking Machine News of 1 October. Two matrix numbers are known, Lxx 2690 and 2691. The tenor visited Hamsell Street three times not long after this. The first session (Lxx 2791-Lxx 2799) produced seven titles with two matrix numbers unaccounted for. Two 12-inch titles “Che gelida manina” from La bohème (Lxx 2791) and “Pianto del Core” (Lxx 2799) were coupled and issued in October. The matrix numbers and issue date indicate recording in August or early September.
McCormack quickly returned to cut six discs (Lx 2840-2845), which happily can be precisely dated to 3 October, as one of the discs — the Maritana aria (Lx 2844) — has the date inscribed in the master and is visible under the label. Walter Hyde cut masters Lx 2846-2849. Then McCormack returned to record four ballads (Lx 2850, Lxx 2852-2854), including three Charles Marshall titles accompanied by the composer. He made two versions of “I Hear You Calling Me” at this visit, which Odeon publicized extensively. The orchestral version was supplied in a special blue and gold record envelope with a photograph of the singer. The publicity noted that “ ... this lovely song has been responsible for some of his greatest concert platform successes. It is the favourite song of his repertoire, and audiences everywhere have received it with acclamation.” McCormack had first sung it in early 1908 on the provincial tour arranged by the Birmingham impresario Percy Harrison. He introduced it at the Ballad Concerts in April, and it quickly replaced “A Farewell” as his signature tune. The other ballad “When Shadows Gather” was published on 7 November, sung by McCormack at an Albert Hall concert with Melba on the same day, and a week later at a Boosey concert. No earlier performances have been traced although he may have sung it in the provinces. The proximity of the matrix numbers suggests a recording date shortly after the 3 October session although this means that it was recorded shortly before publication.
The next session yielded only three titles, “Lolita” (Lxx 2962), and two ballads by friends of McCormack. “Parted” (Lx 2963), by Alicia Scott, the sister of Sir John Murray Scott, the tenor’s patron, and “The Philosophy of Love” (Lx 2965), by the Dublin musician Dr. John Francis Larchet.11
The former was not a new ballad but it had been given at the Boosey concerts; the latter was published in April 1908 and sung in Dublin, probably accompanied by the composer, in the same month. The matrix numbers show an increase of just over one hundred from the previous session but it is difficult to assess this in terms of time as they had increased by fewer than two hundred by the late summer of the following year. Some Odeon artists had been transferred to the Jumbo label and although all the recordings were still made at Hamsell Street they were now in different matrix series. Consequently, the Odeon series moved more slowly than before. There is, however, an additional clue pointing to a recording date. In January 1909 the trade journals carried an announcement from Barnett Samuel headed “To Whom It May Concern” threatening legal action against anyone issuing discs of McCormack and Walter Hyde as Odeon had exclusive disc recording rights for both tenors. This was actually aimed at Russell Hunting for issuing Pathé discs transferred from Sterling cylinders. The announcement included notes by both artists, signed and dated 12 December 1908. Hyde was responsible for master Lx 2968. Both artists seem to have been in the studio on the same day and this could be a recording date. In any event, November or early December seems likely as “Lolita” was announced in February 1909 and issued in March.
McCormack’s final Odeon recordings comprise some five or six sessions, commencing probably in August and ending in September 1909, before he left for America to sing for Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company. The matrix numbers lie between Lx 3134 and Lxx 3173, with gaps that relate to other artists. The Palace Theatre Orchestra — probably the studio orchestra — made selections from “The Arcadians” on masters Lx 3154 and 3159. Two of the recordings from the first session (Lx 3134-Lxx 3138), “When Shadows Gather” (Lx 3136) and “Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away” (Lx 3137) were announced in October. The final visit to Hamsell Street ended on a heroic note with “Celeste Aida” (Lxx 3173). These dates fit comfortably with the tenor’s contemporary repertoire and their publication dates. “A Southern Song” (Lx 3135) and “Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away” (Lx 3137) were both published by Boosey in March 1909, with “Eileen Aroon” (Lx 3156) and “The Fairy Glen” (Lx 3155) following in July and August. These final Odeons were generally issued in 1910, but some were issued later.
The accompanying publicity included an endorsement by McCormack. The Sound Wave And Talking Machine Record of June 1910, and other contemporary trade journals, carried a double page advertisement with an autograph letter written from the Royal Avenue Hotel, Belfast, on 13 October 1909, describing the latest Odeons as “the finest set of records I have ever heard.” Clearly there is an air of advertising about this but there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the letter as he was in Ireland at that time; he sang at a Belfast Philharmonic Society concert on 7 October and in Derry on 14 October. Presumably he heard and approved the test pressings whilst in Belfast: Odeon would have moved quickly as they needed his approval before he left for America. Competing publicity provided further information. The Sound Wave And Talking Machine Record of July 1910 advertised his early Victor discs with a portrait of the singer and the note that “No new McCormack Records made since October 1909, can be obtained but from the Gramophone Company, Ltd., because Mr. McCormack has sung for no other Talking Machine Company since that date.” This confirms that the last Odeons were made in September.
McCormack sailed for New York on 23 October,12 and sang for Hammerstein; Calvin Child of the Victor Company heard him, thought that he would be a useful acquisition, and the transatlantic bargaining began. On 9 December Victor cabled the Gramophone Company that “McCormack can obtain immediate release three thousand pounds will make twenty records fifty percent royalty one thousand in advance.” The Gramophone response was a brief “Do not consider McCormack worth sum mentioned.” This was followed by an explanatory letter saying that the price was thought to be prohibitive for an artist whose sales would be mainly limited to the United Kingdom. A note from Calvin Child dated 18 December shows that Victor also had misgivings. He agreed that the tenor’s demands were excessive and added that “He has not in any sense a grand opera voice but I would very much like to secure him if it were possible for some Irish ballads as he sings them wonderfully.” Some hard bargaining was clearly going on. Odeon reduced their price by one thousand pounds and McCormack reduced the royalty per record but sought a larger advance. On 21 December Alfred Clark of the Gramophone Company cabled from Camden that “Fonotipia want two thousand pounds to release McCormack his terms are two thousand pounds advance on ten percent royalty twenty five selections want your opinion on his value to us with view sharing.” Sydney Dixon was joint managing director with Clark at this time and he replied by cable “Unless Victor afraid McCormack going to National am against proposition await my letter 17th.” He had already opposed the deal, expressing doubts about marketing the tenor on a celebrity label basis, but added that he might be signed to prevent Edison’s National Phonograph Company from acquiring him. The Gramophone Company was reluctant to share the cost of acquiring McCormack but there was now the possibility of a rival company getting into the act. Things were getting complicated!
Exchanges between the two companies seem to have abated over the Christmas holidays but as two test recordings were made at Camden on 3 January 1910 Victor was clearly pressing ahead and the Gramophone Company had to negotiate with Odeon at the London end despite their uncertainties. On 18 January, Child wrote to Alfred Clark, who had by this time returned to England, asking for the release to be obtained as quickly as possible. The reason for this was that McCormack “has been talking quite a lot about purchasing his release to sing for the Victor Company and both the Edison and Columbia companies are now following him up very closely. I think McCormack’s records are going to amount to a good deal more than we first anticipated, and will be of real value to us for a year or two but after that, he will take a good tumble if I do not miss my guess.” Here is further evidence that rival companies were hovering in the background and it seems that the tenor was not slow to appreciate that the possibility of rival offers enhanced his bargaining power. Also, in conjunction with his previous note of 18 December, it suggests that Child initially assessed McCormack as an ephemeral artist for the Irish American market who would be very profitable for a short time and then rapidly lose popularity.
There was yet another twist to the story. On 24 January, the Gramophone Company cabled Victor advising that “Fonotipia prepared cancel McCormack contract but claim discontinuance of royalties please cable.” This meant that Odeon wanted a cessation of royalties on all their McCormack recordings; they would be able to issue them in future and pay the tenor nothing. This was a smart move as all the 1909 recordings were awaiting issue. Victor replied on the following day that “McCormack agrees discontinuance of royalties if release granted immediately.” Two days later the deal was done at the offices of Broad and company where only two years before there had been an abortive attempt at an agreement between Odeon and McCormack. Broad reported that Emil Rink of Fonotipia signed the release document and the contract was produced and cancelled. The Victor Company was informed by cable and a confirmatory letter with the release document was forwarded on 29 January. On the same day the Gramophone Company billed Victor for two thousand pounds “in connection with the McCormack settlement.” A Victor contract was subsequently prepared commencing on 1 February although not actually signed by the tenor until 15 March. The bond had finally been severed: the Odeon years were over.
What does all this add up to? McCormack seems initially to have overestimated his value, although the fifty percent royalty demand may simply have been an opening gambit in what he knew would be lengthy negotiations. On the other hand Child underestimated McCormack: he wanted him for Victor as a short-term investment and he turned out to be a long-term acquisition. The Gramophone Company also had doubts about the singer’s long-term potential, but from a different angle. To Victor, McCormack was an attractive newcomer, but in Britain he was familiar as a leading native tenor and in December 1909 he was no more than that. International success lay in the future — hence their doubts about celebrity label status and sales in Gramophone Company territories outside the United Kingdom. Also, the deal would hardly have gone down well in Gramophone Company circles when they had effectively recruited McCormack in early 1908 only for Odeon to cancel the agreement. Then, the release settlement cost three hundred pounds; now, only two years later they were being asked to pay one thousand pounds. There is, as has already been noted, no later reference to it, but recollections of the earlier negotiations and their abortive conclusion may well have influenced the Gramophone Company’s attitudes. In the end they negotiated the release without being overenthusiastic.
Three months later, when things had calmed down, they were more optimistic. On 22 April a letter to Alfred Clark in Paris, probably from Dixon, outlined arrangements for marketing McCormack’s ballad records and added, “As regards the operatic numbers, these are easier to deal with. If he makes good at Covent Garden this season, I think he would command a pink label price.” Then, Barnett Samuel’s rival marketing of McCormack Odeons is considered in relation to the tenor’s potential. It reads, “The singer in question may come to be one of the great singers of the day. He is a young man and it would be unwise in my opinion to imperil the future of what may be a valuable asset, for the sake of striking a blow against a competitor.” Here at last is a judicious evaluation of John McCormack — and it came from a Gramophone Company prophet. Nor was the matter concluded there. In October 1911 Child wrote to Alfred Clark about revised arrangements for their celebrity artists engaged after 1 January 1910 and suggested that, as McCormack actually signed after that date, costs should be shared under the new agreement. There is no confirmation of this but it appears that the Gramophone Company finally paid up.
|Matrix Numbers||Estimated Recording Date|
|Lx 1565-Lx 1582||September 1906|
|Lx 2132-Lx 2135||February or March 1907|
|Lx 2430-Lx 2432; Lx 2487-Lx 2491; Lx 2500-Lx 2502||September 1907|
|Lx 2545; Lx 2558-Lx 2559; Lx2619||November 1907|
|Lxx 279-Lxx 2799||August or September 1908|
|Lxx 2840-Lx 2845; Lx 2850-Lxx 2854||October 1908|
|Lxx 2962-Lxx 2965||November or December 1908|
|Lxx 3134-Lxx 3138||August 1909|
|Lx 3150-Lx 3169; Lxx3173||September 1909|
The research methods employed here do not, as has already been said, give detailed answers to all of the questions that arise. There are still grey areas, but the Odeon years can be summarized as four recording periods divided equally between the two agencies. The first group of Irish songs is followed, about six months later, by a second group when Odeon (spurred on by the announcement of McCormack’s Covent Garden engagement) hurriedly recorded a program of ballads and arias to reflect his wider repertoire. Barnett Samuel continued with a third group in 1908 and a final one a year later, both covering all aspects of McCormack’s repertoire. (See chart to the right.)
This still leaves the question of the remade titles. There is no problem where Odeon used another matrix number, as these can be placed within recording sessions. But what if the only distinction is a higher take number? The first clue is the skipped groove, which appears on all Odeon discs from about late 1907 and the tenor’s inscribed signature introduced about a year later. The second is from Barnett Samuel’s publicity which announced that many Odeon titles had been remade by them at the tenor’s request. Taken together, and in the seeming absence of McCormack recordings in the first half of 1908, they must relate to the later Barnett Samuel period from August 1908 until the tenor’s final Odeon sessions of 1909.
Barnett Samuel continued to run the Odeon agency until the political and economic ramifications of the war with Germany effectively isolated them from Berlin and he closed the agency. However, the masters survived and McCormack Odeons appeared on various labels on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of years. These recordings, made over a century ago, have had a long life and they are not finished yet. Arthur Brooks, Russell Hunting, Louis Sterling, Barnett Samuel, to say nothing of the tenor himself, would never have dreamt that their work would be so cherished by posterity and that it could all be accommodated on a few small optical discs. Let us be grateful for their legacy.
Some material for this article originally appeared in the Record Collector magazine in April 2004 and it appears here by kind permission of the editor, Larry Lustig. Also, I would like to express once more my appreciation to those who assisted with the original article. I should like to thank Clare Ranger of EMI Classics and the staff of their Music Archive, especially Sonita Cox and the former archivist, Ruth Edge. Also, the curator and staff of the Burns Library, Boston College, for their courtesy whilst perusing the McCormack material in the Manning Collection. I must also acknowledge previous discographers who have grappled with the Odeons before me, especially the late Paul Worth, Jim Cartwright, and the late Brian Johnston. Individual help in various ways came from Neil Corning, the late Peter Dolan, Dave Fitzgerald, Jack Keveny, the late Mike Langridge, Gordon Ledbetter, Dave Mason, the late Michael Meagher, Elizabeth O’Brien, the late Oliver O’Brien, the late Tom Peel, and Ita Hackett of the John McCormack Society, and once again the sadly missed Paul Worth. My thanks to all of them and my apologies to anyone who has been inadvertently omitted.
© John Ward, 2014
1 The date of the marriage has sometimes been incorrectly given as 20 July.
2 McCormack sang frequently at the Palace Pier during his Odeon period. See the present writer’s “McCormack On Brighton Pier” in the Record Collector (Jan-March 1992 — Vol. 37/1).
3 L.A.G. Strong gives Odeon contract details on page 48 of his biography of the tenor ( John
McCormack, The Story of A Singer, London, Methuen, 1941). Lily McCormack recollects the first Odeon session and repeats contract details on page 31 of her biography (I Hear You Calling Me, London, W. H. Allen, 1950). The tenor’s unpublished memoirs have no Odeon recollections other than the reference quoted in the text.
4 EMI Music Trust Archive, McCormack file. The documents have no reference numbers. Unless specifically indicated in the text or notes, all Victor and Gramophone Company material is from this source.
5 “Dispute Between Vocalist And Record Manufacturing Company,” Talking Machine News, June 1908, pages 154-157.
6 Mike Langridge provides a comprehensive account of the company’s activities and issues in British Odeons (City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society Ltd., 2006). Matrix numbers for artists other than McCormack are mainly from this source.
7 See Peter Martland, “The Edison Recordings of John McCormack,” Record Collector (May 1991-Vol. 36/2).
8 Frank Andrews, “Sterling Records And A History Of The Companies Producing Them,” (Talking Machine Review, Bournemouth, 1975), details their financial decline.
9 Michael E. Henstock lists the London Fonotipia recordings in Fonotipia Recordings: A
Centennial Survey (Beaconsfield, 2004).
10 The signatures were inscribed in the central area of the wax master during the recording session. It was a feature of Fonotipa recordings of vocal celebrities. Odeon introduced it in about the late summer of 1908. It may have been limited to McCormack, Hyde, Lloyd Chandos, and Edna Thornton.
11 Larchet’s “Philosophy of Love” has frequently been incorrectly listed in the past as “Love’s Philosophy” and confused with the song of that name by Roger Quilter.
12 The departure date is frequently given as 15 October, the date quoted in McCormack’s unpublished memoirs. Contemporary sources show that he actually sailed on the Mauretania a few days later.
The McCormack discographical source used throughout was John McCormack, A Comprehensive Discography by Paul Worth and Jim Cartwright (New York, Greenwood Press, 1986). Brian Johnston’s John McCormack: The Complete Odeon and Pathé Recordings, an informative booklet provided with Cheyne Records’ set of four CDs, CHE44364-44367 yielded Boosey performance and publication dates. Information concerning other performances has been derived from contemporary programs, press announcements and/or reports. Other sources included the trade journals quoted in the text.
Notes on the Song Texts
From the beginning of his career, John McCormack’s audiences seldom if ever had to consult the lyrics printed in their concert programs; the singer’s diction was so extraordinary that no texts were needed. Every recording in the present set demonstrates McCormack’s flawless enunciation, but some of the song texts use words or phrases from the Irish language that need translation, while some of the English texts contain archaic words and constructions that require a modern gloss. In addition, several songs allude to historical events that are now largely forgotten and need to be identified. The following notes provide explanations for each of these unclear references. In some cases, single words can be clarified with a modern synonym; in others, longer quotations are used where archaic words or phrases need to be seen in context.
McCormack’s first Odeon recording session was devoted exclusively to Irish songs, most of them being musical evocations of an especially traumatic period in Irish history. This was the great rebellion that began in May 1798, when the United Irishmen, founded seven years earlier by Theobald Wolfe Tone, rose up against British rule, with disastrous results. By the time the conflict ended, less than six months later, there were over thirty thousand casualties on both sides, along with a bitterness that lingers to this day.
Another result of this blood-soaked uprising was a profusion of patriotic songs, aptly described by one commentator as being “thick as autumn leaves.” Three of these songs are represented here: “God Save Ireland,” “The Boys of Wexford,” and “The Croppy Boy.” “God Save Ireland” is as straightforward as it is rousing, with “Erin” being another name for Ireland, and the phrase “girt round with cruel foes” perhaps better understood as “surrounded by cruel enemies.” “The Boys of Wexford,” however, contains several obscure allusions. The references to “Ross,” “Wexford Town,” and “Vinegar Hill” (all located in County Wexford, south of Dublin) point to specific conflicts that took place during the 1798 rebellion. There were fierce battles at Wexford and Vinegar Hill in June of 1798, but the battle at New Ross on June 5 of that year is remembered as the bloodiest encounter of all. The song’s mention of “the long bright pike” is especially evocative of this historic moment, since pikes and pitchforks were virtually the only weapons available to the insurgents; next to British muskets and cannon, the rebels did not have a chance of victory.
“The Croppy Boy” is one of the most famous lyric expressions of the 1798 era, and through the fate of one young Irish rebel we are able to feel the tragic atmosphere of the time. “Croppies” were men who had cut their hair short in preparation for battle. In the opening of the song, the croppy boy refers to himself as a “stranger bouchal”; “bouchal” is the anglicized spelling of the Irish word “buachaill,” or “boy.” The boy’s need to speak with a priest has serious theological implications. As every Roman Catholic would know, a soldier risking death in battle would need forgiveness in advance for any serious sin committed; only then could he avoid an eternity in hell. Two of the transgressions the croppy boy confesses — cursing and forgetting to pray for his dead mother — seem minor indeed, and they emphasize the young man’s basic innocence, but one sin that he does confess to the British officer (disguised as Father Green) would merit eternal punishment: “at Mass time once” he went to play, an omission taken very seriously in the Roman Catholic faith.
The town of Passage mentioned in the song is a village and small port near Waterford Harbor in County Waterford, not far from the border with County Wexford. Two miles south of Passage are the ruins of Geneva Barracks (where the boy of the song died), and even objective guidebooks refer to the place as being of “1798 ill fame.” Some of the other place references in “The Croppy Boy” repeat locations mentioned in “The Boys of Wexford”: the towns of New Ross and Wexford are common to both songs, as is Gorey, a town below the Wicklow Mountains and the site of a brief rebel victory in June 1798.
The equally patriotic ballad “A Nation Once Again” dates from the mid-nineteenth century. The author of the text, Thomas Davis, was a writer and visionary whose work is more than a little reminiscent of the English poet and painter William Blake. When the speaker in “A Nation Once Again” tells us that, as a youth, he read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, “three hundred men and three men,” he is referring to two famous conflicts that took place in the ancient world. The first was the Battle of Thermopylae, where three hundred Greeks died fighting the Persians in 480 B.C.; the second was the siege of a bridge across the Tiber River in Rome in the sixth century B.C. According to cherished Roman legend, the brave Horatius and two companions defended this critical position against the entire Etruscan army, enabling the Romans to prevent an enemy invasion. The fact that these allusions to the classical world occur in a nineteenth-century Irish poem is a remarkable comment on the strength and vitality of the culture in which Thomas Davis was writing. One other phrase in the song may fall strangely on the modern ear: “our fetters rent in twain” is better understood as “our chains cut in two.”
We have seen Roman Catholic theology in “The Croppy Boy,” and in “The Dear Little Shamrock” we have a further allusion to that same faith, one that recalls an important moment in ancient Irish history. Legend has it that when St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity (circa A.D. 450), he used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the theological belief that three divine persons exist simultaneously in one Trinity. The song reports on this legend and proceeds to apply it to modern Irish political life: on this level, the shamrock, with its three leaves growing from one stalk, “denotes” that the Irish “together should toil” and depend only on themselves. The fact that Andrew Cherry wrote the song in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Irish revolutionaries learned the futility of depending on even the most sympathetic allies (unsuccessful French attempts to aid the rebels of 1798 come to mind), lends even more appropriateness to the lyric. Three additional words in the song need explanation: a “bog” is a wetland area very common throughout Ireland; bogs are made up of partially decomposed trees and serve as an important source of fuel in the form of turf. The mention of “brake” refers to a section of land covered with dense brushwood and undergrowth, and “mireland” is another word for a bog.
Other songs contain even more subtle allusions to the Irish past. There is, for example, the very famous “My Dark Rosaleen,” a text that may be traced to the seventeenth century, a time when the native Irish-speaking culture was yielding to English political rule and cultural domination. It was a decline from which Gaelic society never recovered. Throughout that century and into the next, Irish poets and bards were considered so dangerous to British rule that they were forbidden to mention even the name “Ireland” in story or song. As a result, wandering bards began to use the literary device of concealing patriotic sentiments in the texts of love songs, as the concept of Ireland was turned into a procession of beautiful women, always addressed in terms of endearment. So it is that the “Dark Rosaleen” stands for Ireland herself, with the “wine from the royal Pope” and “Spanish ale” serving as oblique references to the always-hoped-for aid from continental allies in the struggle against England.
“My Dark Rosaleen” contains other obscure references and archaic constructions that easily elude the modern listener. Aside from the mention of the Erne River, which runs near the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the following constructions in the lyric call for our full attention:
O! The Erne shall run red
With redundance of blood,
The earth shall rock beneath our tread
And flames wrap hill and wood,
And gun-peal and slogan-cry
Wake many a glen serene ...
The song concludes with a cosmic allusion to the end of the world, as the lover patriot combines his passion for the Dark Rosaleen with his nationalistic hopes for an Ireland that will always endure:
The Judgement Hour must first be nigh
Ere you shall fade, ere you shall die ...
In this same context of concealed references to Ireland, it becomes easy to view “Kathleen Mavourneen” as a patriotic song, with the words calling for an end to national apathy (“What? Slumbering still?”), while British rule is reported as “the horn of the hunter.” The word “mavourneen” (an anglicization of the Irish mo mhuirn’n) is a term of endearment, meaning “my love” or “my dear.”
“Savourneen Deelish” (from the Irish ’S a mhuirn’n d’lis, meaning “My true, or constant, love”) is another veiled tribute to Ireland, with the poem’s narrator evoking a warlike atmosphere (“escape from the slaughter”), all the while promising to return to his beloved (who is also addressed as “Eileen Oge,” from the Irish “îg”, meaning “young Eileen”) with “all my pay and my booty” brought from the scene of battle. The song also uses some constructions that sound antique today: “nigh” in the phrase “I was nigh broken-hearted” means “nearly,” or “almost,” while “wan” (“wan was her cheek”) means “pale.” “Booty,” of course, refers to whatever goods are taken in war by victorious soldiers.
In similar vein, we see the same blending of domestic love and patriotic sentiment in “Eileen Aroon.” (“Aroon” is a term of endearment meaning “beloved,” deriving from the Irish a rœn, literally “my secret”.) Given the Blakean sense of prophecy that Thomas Davis infused into so many of his nationalist poems, it is not difficult to sense the words of his “Eileen Aroon” as not only an expression of the desire to marry and raise a family, but also as a vision of an independent Ireland, a country that would have moral and cultural integrity (“a rock ’mid melting snows”), and having a mission to the rest of the world as a nation that could become “a beacon to the rest.”
One additional song that combines an ancient melody with words taken directly from the Irish language is “The Snowy Breasted Pearl,” which contains the phrase “sweet colleen oge asthore,” (an adaptation of “sweet cail’n —g a st—r,” “sweet young girl, my dear.”) The word “colleen” also occurs in one of McCormack’s final Odeon recordings, “The Fairy Glen.”
Among creators of Irish song, none is more famous than the nineteenth-century poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Moore wrote for the drawing rooms of the wealthy English and Anglo-Irish classes and was enormously popular in his day, being, in fact, second only to Lord Byron in sales and popular esteem. Moore’s musical arrangements and original lyrics evoked a romantic Erin, a land placed in a safely distant time of nostalgic glory. McCormack recorded four different Moore songs during his Odeon years, three of them taken from the poet’s best collection of music and lyrics, his Irish Melodies. The first of these, the elegiac “Oft in the Stilly Night,” contains two words that strike us as antique: “stilly” means “quiet” and “ere” (“before”) in the phrase “ere slumber’s chain has bound us” (“before we fall asleep.”)
The three remaining Moore songs contain several obscurities. In “Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded” McCormack sings:
Has love to that soul, so tender,
Been like our Lagenian mine
Where a sparkle [sic] of golden splendour
All over the surface shine—
The Lagenian mine refers to a gold mine in County Wicklow, a discovery that caused a great deal of excitement in Ireland in the early-nineteenth century. The promise of wealth was shortlived, however, when people realized that the only gold to be mined was a small amount of precious ore near the surface. Moore’s audiences would immediately recognize the connection between this famous mine, with its hope for vast riches, and a love that does not last.
Moore’s “Avenging and Bright” takes us back to the very distant past, to the Ireland of a thousand years ago. Gaelic legend tells of Deirdre, the daughter of Feidhlim, the chief storyteller in the court of Conchobar (Conor) Mac Neasa, King of Ulster. When Deirdre was fourteen, the king wished to marry her, but the young girl had fallen in love with Naoise, one of the three sons of Usnach. After she was taken to Scotland by the three brothers, Conor sent word that if they all returned to Ulster no harm would come to them. They acted on this promise, but the king had the three brothers killed and then took Deirdre as his wife. Conor’s triumph was short-lived, however, when a year later his new queen died of grief.
The object of retaliation in the first stanza of the song, then, is Conor, and the poem’s overall theme of revenge is striking for its depth of feeling. In his own day, Moore’s purpose was not to disturb the British colonial establishment, quite the opposite, in fact. However, for Irish people of McCormack’s generation, the poem’s final line, “Revenge on a tyrant is sweetest of all,” would have a distinctly modern reverberation. Less than a decade after McCormack made this recording, the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin would occur. It was the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland. Given this atmosphere of increasing revolutionary tension, we should pay particular attention to the full meaning of many of the Irish songs McCormack recorded during these Odeon years. In them may be heard modern stirrings of deep chords in the Irish historical consciousness, profound feelings that would lead to freedom for that country in our own time.
The final Moore selection, “A Child’s Song,” is not in a musical setting chosen by the poet himself. Rather, it was composed by Charles Marshall, the London songwriter and accompanist who had given McCormack his most famous song, “I Hear You Calling Me.” The text of “A Child’s Song” is from a masque, a now extinct form of entertainment that combined music and theater. In the song, the “fawn from Aden’s land” places the setting in present day Southern Yemen, on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, an area known as Aden in the nineteenth century. The “Siha’s fragrant thorn” is not easily identifiable, but we may assume it is a flowering plant from the area and it possibly refers to the medicinal herb Blepharis persica, whose seeds are used for water purification. In its references and its general mood, the song reminds us of Moore’s once popular but now forgotten poem Lallah Rookh, a book-length “oriental romance” that appealed strongly to nineteenth century readers.
The present set’s Victorian songs and parlor ballads represent a significant part of McCormack’s recorded repertoire from this Odeon period. Because they were written for English-speaking audiences, these ballads contain comparatively few foreign words or phrases; still, with the passage of more than a century, we encounter words that are not clear. For example, in “Love’s Golden Treasury,” “save” means “with the exception of,” and in “Absent” “the while” means “for the time.” When the ballad “A Farewell” gives us “pipe” as a verb (“pipe to skies so dull and grey”) it means “sing,” while the “carol” mentioned in the same song (“to sing a clearer carol”) is any joyful song, not a piece reserved for Christmas.
When we hear “I Sent My Love Two Roses,” we have Victorian English at its most daunting. The use of the word “divine” as a verb (“that night I should divine”) means “discover,” but two proper nouns in the text are quite obscure. The two roses sent to the young woman of the song are identified as “Jacqueminot” and “Lamarque,” red and white roses respectively. Since both botanical specimens were cultivated in the 1800s, audiences at the turn of the century would presumably be familiar with them as popular types of roses. With that archetypal Victorian parlor song, “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby,” we again hear echoes of nineteenth-century British fascination with things Eastern: “Araby” or “Arabia” were at the time generic terms for the Middle East. With the tales of “fair Kashmir” we are much farther East, in the same India as the setting of Thomas Moore’s Lallah Rookh, mentioned above. There is another aspect to “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby” that is worthy of mention. The song served as the theme for an 1894 fair named “Araby” that was held in Dublin. The twelve-year-old future author of Ulysses, James Joyce, went to that fair and later used both the theme song and his own experiences when he came to write “Araby,” one of the short stories in his collection entitled Dubliners. Joyce and McCormack knew each other during the singer’s early years in Dublin, and the two men sang together at a concert there in August 1904, a time when Joyce himself was seriously considering a singing career. As we listen to this recording, then, we hear several echoes not only of the fair and the entire atmosphere of Victorian Dublin, but also of the beginning of an important friendship as these two gifted Irishmen were beginning to make their respective marks on the twentieth century.
Another Victorian staple of the parlor and the concert hall is “Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye,” a song that has more than one antique moment: “chanticleer” refers to the rooster that announces the dawn of each new day, “lev’ret” a contraction of leveret, a common term for a young hare in the United Kingdom and Ireland. English and American songwriters of those times were fond of using an occasional foreign word in their texts, presumably to give their creations a little continental flavor. Totally English in vocabulary but just as antique to modern listeners is the early-nineteenth century ballad “The Bay of Biscay.” In this song, the clouds that are “rent asunder” are violently torn apart by the storm in which the “poor devoted bark” is sailing. A bark is a small sailing vessel, and “yielding timbers” refers to the ship’s wooden hull, which is starting to come apart (“sever”), as are the parts of the hull that are joined together by tar, or pitch (the “pitchy seams”).
The texts of some Irish songs contain words that are either British or Hibernian English, or in some cases have simply become unfamiliar over the years. In “Killarney,” for example, a “strand” is a beach, “heav’n’s reflex” is heaven’s reflection, while “Eden” is, of course, the biblical garden of paradise. A word from an additional song may also sound unfamiliar: in “The Green Isle of Erin,” “list” means “listen.” A final Irish song contains a place name that is certainly obscure for today’s listener. This occurs in “The Ould Plaid Shawl,” a song based on an old Irish air with a text by Francis Fahy, a minor poet from County Galway. Since Fahy was a native of the town of Kinvara, a sea fishing village on Galway Bay, it is fitting that his song is set there.
Throughout his operatic career McCormack generally recorded arias in either Italian or French, but in his first season at Covent Garden he sang in English, a fact documented by some of his early Odeons. For example, his 1907 debut in Cavalleria rusticana is recalled with a “Siciliana” in English (“O, Lola, pretty one”). The singer’s pronunciation of the word “heaven” might seem a little odd, but here as in several recordings he would make throughout his career McCormack pronounces it as “heav’n,” presumably to avoid the intrusion of the final syllable into the vocal line. In “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci we find some very Victorian constructions. The title, as translated into English, is “On with the motley,” words better understood as Canio’s instruction to himself to put on the multi-colored costume of a clown. In the text of “Then you’ll remember me” from Balfe’s opera The Bohemian girl, the word “deem” (“and deem it but as faded light”) means “judge” or “declare.” In “There is a flower that bloometh” from Wallace’s opera Maritana, the word “bloometh” is better understood as “blooms,” while “ere” (“pluck it ere it wither”) means “before.”
For their help in the research on these notes for the song texts, the writer expresses his appreciation to the following individuals: the late Paul Worth, Margaret Churley of the Creskill, New Jersey Public Library, J.D. Barnard of the Archives Department of Boosey and Hawkes, London, and the staff of the American Irish Historical Society library, New York.
© John Scarry, 2014
John McCormack: The Beginnings of a Great Career
In the 1960s, Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote: “Of all the great singers of this century, John McCormack was the most versatile. Opera and oratorio, Handel and Mozart, Brahms and Wolf and Rachmaninoff. Irish folksongs and ballads of simple sentiment: in all these he was at home.” An artist’s ability to excel in several different forms is inevitably the sign of a highly creative intelligence, and McCormack’s ability in more than one area of vocal art was evident from the beginning of his career. This versatility was presaged in 1903 when the singer won his first public prize, the gold medal at Dublin’s premier music festival, the Feis Ceoil, by singing “Tell fair Irene” from Handel’s Atalanta, followed by the old Irish air of “The Snowy Breasted Pearl.” The same versatility continued after his opera training in Italy and would become even more evident throughout the years of his apprenticeship, the period that began just after his return from Milan early in 1906, and that lasted until his departure for New York in 1909. In addition, the McCormack Odeons provide direct evidence of this artist’s steady progress toward musical greatness, documentation of a musical growth that, as one close observer has stated, is “without parallel in the history of the gramophone.” Much of the music on these recordings also provides a portrait in sound of an era that would, in less than a decade, vanish forever.
John McCormack was born in the Irish town of Athlone on 14 June 1884. After graduating from secondary school in County Sligo, he went to Dublin where he studied halfheartedly for the civil service career his father had mapped out for him. The young man conveniently forgot to take the qualifying examination on the appointed day, but it was clear he had not been without his own dreams for the future. In 1902, he joined the Palestrina Choir of Dublin’s Roman Catholic cathedral. This was a fortunate decision that brought him into contact with Vincent O’Brien, the cathedral’s organist and choir director; it was O’Brien who took the nineteen-year-old in hand and prepared him for the 1903 music contest. McCormack’s gold medal that year was a turning point for him and the opening moment in what would become one of the major musical careers of the century.
The Feis gold medal had proved to McCormack that he had potential as a singer; confirmation of this came a few months later when he was invited to sing at the Irish Village of the St. Louis World’s Fair. This first American experience had several positive results for the fledgling tenor, the most important being a chance recommendation from a musician that he should undertake serious vocal training in Italy. The advice made a deep impression on McCormack. After his return to Dublin, generous local support enabled him to travel to Milan where, during the final months of 1905, he studied under Vincenzo Sabatini, the father of the novelist Rafael, of Scaramouche fame.
McCormack’s opera debut was as the hero of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, which took place at Savona’s Teatro Chiabrera on the Gulf of Genoa on 13 January 1906. The newcomer was politely received, with the local critic gently reminding his readers that they had just heard a beginner’s first performance. There were some additional local appearances, notably in Faust, but neither this exposure nor auditions at La Scala led to an Italian contract. Clearly, McCormack’s goal was to establish an operatic career in Italy, but when no doors opened and funds ran dangerously low, it became clear that London had to be the next avenue of opportunity. Not long after his arrival in England, he won the friendship of a wealthy London artistic power broker, Sir John Murray Scott. When the older man eventually asked him to declare his objective, McCormack immediately replied, “I want to get to Covent Garden.” Murray Scott’s influence made this possible, and on 23 October 1907, McCormack made his London debut as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana. At twenty-three, he was the youngest principal tenor ever engaged by that opera house.
Even though critical response was generally favorable, if somewhat muted, McCormack had made a satisfactory first impression and, until the beginning of World War I, he would be well received at Covent Garden in such operas as Don Giovanni, La sonnambula, Rigoletto, La bohème, Lakmé, and Roméo et Juliette, appearing many times with both Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini. By the time of his last Covent Garden season (1913-1914), he had become well known by operagoers on both sides of the Atlantic, having made his New York opera debut in November 1909 as Alfredo in La traviata at Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House. Soon, however, two factors led McCormack to devote himself increasingly to recital work. The first was his decision to spend the World War I years in the United States, where an enormous audience of Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans was eager for the richness of their musical heritage. McCormack gave them what they wished for, as no other artist before or since has ever done. The second factor in the decision to favor concert work came from the competition of such brother tenors in opera as Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli. With success assured on the concert platform, the singer’s decision was made for him. By 1917, McCormack’s Metropolitan Opera work had diminished to a handful of appearances for the upcoming season; it is also significant that his last published recording from his operatic repertory, the legendary “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni, was recorded and released in 1916.
After the war, concert tours of Europe were interspersed with some final opera appearances in Monte Carlo, the most important being a 1923 production of the Moussorgsky/Tcherepnin opera, La foire de Sorotchintzi. The following year he made his long-awaited return recital in London, an appearance that had been delayed because of his 1919 announcement that he and his wife had become U.S. citizens. Many people in England and Australia branded him a traitor for this change of allegiance. Thereafter, he spent most of his time as a recitalist in the United States, Ireland, and England. A 1926 concert tour of Asia provided an exotic departure from the norm. In 1929 Hollywood beckoned: his Fox film Song O’ My Heart did not become the hoped-for start of a movie career, but it is memorable for the film’s long concert sequence, an important document of the singer in recital. Song O’ My Heart is also noteworthy for the screen debut of a Hollywood newcomer, the beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan. McCormack gave his last United States recital in 1937, and in November of the following year he made his English farewell at London’s Albert Hall. The singer continued to make recordings, including a series from the commencement of the Second World War until 1942, which benefited the Red Cross. Soon after, he retired to Ireland. In the next few years, his health rapidly declined, and on 16 September 1945, he died at his home in Booterstown, just outside of Dublin.
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When John McCormack first heard Caruso at Covent Garden in 1904, he struggled to afford even an inexpensive seat in order to hear the great Neapolitan; the twenty-year-old Irishman could not have dreamed that only a few years later some London critics would be hailing him as “the Irish Caruso.” Of course the young singer was flattered, and the headlines gave him publicity he could not have bought, but he knew better than to believe the compliments. McCormack did not delude himself into thinking that Italian training was equivalent to artistry. He knew that his hardest work was still ahead of him.
When McCormack was preparing for his 1906 opera debut in Savona, he discovered that the Italians could not pronounce his last name, so he decided to sing under the name of “Giovanni Foli.” The choice seemed a doubly good omen, not only because his fiancée was Lily Foley, but another Irishman, the nineteenth-century Irish bass Allan James Foley, had enjoyed a major international career. This historical reason for his stage name also reveals the close attention McCormack always paid to his artistic ancestors, and while tribute to vocal legends is always appropriate, “Foli” shows that, even before his debut, this young tenor was not slow to envision a place for himself in the pantheon of great singers.
While he was still studying with Sabatini, McCormack heard the maestro allude to the great singers he had heard, chief among them the legendary Mario, reigning prince of tenors in the mid-nineteenth century. Later, when he had established his friendship with Sir John Murray Scott and had asked for details on Mario’s art, the older man — who had heard every major artist of the previous half century — assured him that Mario’s vocal technique had been as flexible as that of any soprano. One can imagine how deeply flattered McCormack felt when, after meeting Mrs. Godfrey Pearse, Mario’s daughter, she detected a similarity between his voice and that of her father. Could this compliment have inspired McCormack to make his 1909 Odeon of one of Mario’s great arias, “Spirto gentil” from La favorita? We are strongly tempted to believe there was a connection. What is certain is that he never felt closer to the shade of this great icon than when, that same year in London, he sang at a concert featuring one of Mario’s greatest partners. “Most important,” McCormack wrote on his own program, “as was occasion of my only appearance with Patti.”
Other legendary tenors were closer at hand. Jean de Reszke had last been heard in London in 1900; when McCormack arrived there from Italy six years later, the Polish tenor’s landmark interpretations of Wagner’s heroes were still fresh in every mind. Lily McCormack remembers her husband listening “spellbound” to Lady de Grey’s detailed descriptions of de Reszke as Roméo, Tristan, and Lohengrin. It is from this period that we can date McCormack’s decades-long obsession with de Reszke. During these early years in London, McCormack often sang, in concert, “On with the motley” from Pagliacci and, in 1907, the Covent Garden newcomer recorded it for Odeon; de Reszke had sung Canio for the last time in 1905 in Paris. Another favorite de Reszke role was Don José; from McCormack’s Odeon years we have two versions of the “Flower Song.” More telling still, and even closer to the great man’s Wagner roles, we have McCormack singing the “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger at a 1908 Good Friday concert in London, which also featured music from Parsifal. However, some of McCormack’s unpublished recordings also tell a tale: “Ah! lève-toi soleil” from Roméo et Juliette and “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père” from Massenet’s Le Cid (the title role was written for de Reszke) would be made a few years later for the Victor company. In 1917, the singer announced publicly that the part of Tristan “might tempt him,” but “his one great ambition” was “to sing the part of Walther in Die Meistersinger.” In fact, McCormack twice recorded the “Prize Song” for the Victor Company. The first was made in 1915 (with Fritz Kreisler’s violin obbligato) but remained unpublished; the second attempt was released in 1916. If this were his calling card for a career as a Wagnerian, it was fortunate no opera house picked it up. McCormack was no Melchior. Much later, the singer also made two recordings of an aria from Tristan und Isolde, attempts that remained unpublished in his lifetime, and in his 1936 recording of Wagner’s “Träume,” we hear a final echo of this lingering desire to be a second Jean de Reszke. Fortunately for McCormack’s vocal longevity, he never did inherit that tenor’s mantle, but some dreams take a very long time to die.
Legends were all well and good, but there were present-day singers to listen to and from whom much could be learned. The baritone Sir Charles Santley was over seventy and still performing in public when McCormack heard him sing; the young tenor always remembered the old man’s Handelian style as a model of its kind. In a very different category, Harry Plunket Greene, for all his faults of technique, had admirable powers of interpretation, and his virtues were duly absorbed. In the opera house, even more immediate models were at hand. McCormack told his biographer, L. A .G. Strong, that during performances of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, when he was not on stage as Don Ottavio, he would “stand all the time in the wings, so that I should not miss a note of that heaven-inspired music.” He was also, of course, able to study the work of the other singers in the casts. How closely McCormack paid attention to other artists is evident in his description of Luisa Tetrazzini’s voice, an analysis worth quoting in full for what it reveals of McCormack’s keen powers of observation:
She had a superb vocal technique. The middle of her voice was white and breathy, probably from overwork as a young singer. But above E flat she was superb. Her chromatic scales upward and downward were marvels of clearness, and her trill was a trill indeed. She could get an amazing amount of larmes dans la voix, far more than I ever heard from any other coloratura soprano.
Tenors received as much, if not more, attention from this eager learner. While he was working on his memoirs with L. A. G. Strong, the biographer was able to lure McCormack into listening to some of his Odeon discs, a session one suspects was arranged without too much difficulty. Strong’s report is valuable, in that it gives us McCormack’s own testimony as to the tenors he took as his models. The singer’s Odeon of Tosti’s “Ideale” was played, with this reaction from the now critical artist: “Ah,” he exclaimed after one note, “imitation Caruso”; in another place, “Vulgar! Imitation De Lucia!” Then, when the young tenor slurred from one note to another, “Ah God, man, make up your mind!” It may be significant that “Ideale” was recorded for Odeon in September 1909, a little more than six months after McCormack’s disastrous engagement at the San Carlo in Naples. These appearances represented his final attempt to launch an opera career in Italy, but even the forced hiring of a claque (a necessity that made McCormack bristle in anger at the memory of it) could not convince Italian audiences that this was a tenor they wanted to embrace. In these tributes to Caruso and De Lucia, exemplified by the Odeon “Ideale” (and in Tosti’s “L’Ultima Canzone,” along with “Celeste Aida,” which was recorded at the same time) we may be eavesdropping on McCormack’s approach to the robust Italian style for that last operatic engagement in Italy.
McCormack’s self-directed apprenticeship lasted nearly four years. Throughout this period we observe him utilizing his training and making his judgments on the models appropriate to his needs. A large part of McCormack’s success in all of this lay in the fact that he had an unerring sense of what to absorb and what to ignore. This musical maturity, combined with a deep artistic sense, made possible this singer’s dramatic leap to greatness. What is also noticeable in all of his recordings, both for Odeon and later for Victor and HMV, is the singer’s utter modernity. Despite the fact that he is singing some of the most outmoded songs on record, flowery vestiges of the fading Victorian world, he is without a trace of mannerisms that would lead us to date his voice and technique. In opera or song, his approach is completely timeless. One would never suspect that here was a tenor whose teacher had been born in the early-nineteenth century and who came out of a tradition of a very ornate and antique singing style. We would suspect that Sabatini would naturally want to pass on this style to his most famous pupil, but if he did, McCormack clearly did not wish to retain that part of his teacher’s vocal heritage. To hear McCormack next to some other tenors of the time, including singers of the De Lucia variety, is to appreciate the distance we have come from the nineteenth century. Were a De Lucia to be heard on the operatic stage today, his technique would be thought of as strange indeed; were McCormack to come back, he would be instantly received as a completely modern artist.
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When McCormack began to record for the Odeon company in 1906, his material consisted of stirring Irish ballads, items that did not last long in his repertoire. It is as if the Odeon directors, learning that they had signed up an Irish tenor just back from Italy, decided to cash in on the Irish background and ignore the Italian training. The rousing melodies and straightforward patriotic texts of “God Save Ireland” and “The Boys of Wexford” represented material that McCormack had been singing in concerts throughout Ireland since the time of his Feis victory in 1903. He had even recorded some of them in 1904 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Limited. His immaturity was evident in those first sessions before the recording horn; now, in 1906, we hear for the first time the solid results of the young tenor’s newly-acquired technique. Seldom, if ever, has the classical bel canto school served as a foundation for the singing of such simple nationalist songs.
The following year’s recording sessions would see more meaningful texts and music, including the singer’s first Thomas Moore selection for Odeon, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” along with the old Irish airs, “My Dark Rosaleen,” “Savourneen Deelish,” and “Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen.” When we get to late 1907 and early 1908, the discs begin to reflect what had by then become his twin careers in opera and concert. The recordings also begin to preserve some historic moments from those early London years. For example, McCormack’s 15 October 1907 Covent Garden debut is documented in his recording of the “Siciliana” from Cavalleria rusticana made at the end of January 1908, and his remarkable success at the 1 March 1907 Boosey Ballad Concert with the Samuel Liddle song “A Farewell” was preserved in a November 1907 session. Although the Leoncavallo aria is well sung, it is not too harsh to say that, in the case of “A Farewell” we have a much different impression of the singer: here we are brought so immediately into the song and in such a compelling way that we are reminded of the words of a London critic who was present at that 1 March concert: “No doubt the voice was excellent,” he wrote, “yet the actual effect of his singing seemed to be in excess of the voice.” The comment is perceptive and strikes a keynote in any analysis of McCormack’s unique ability as an interpreter of song: the effects he creates make us forget that his was not an enormous voice, and the power also extends to the way in which the singer leads us to suspend judgment of the material he is giving us; when we listen to even the most banal song from McCormack, we always believe, through the magic that was his alone, that we are listening to music of much higher quality than is the case.
The 1908 sessions show a pattern that will last until the end of the Odeon period and beyond. McCormack’s recordings now begin to include a mixture of operatic selections, Italian songs, popular ballads of the day, and, as only he could sing them, traditional Irish songs and ballads. The operatic recordings do not always reflect what he sang well, or even what he actually sang at Covent Garden. The arias from Rigoletto and La bohème do report on his work there, but the arias from Pagliacci, Carmen, La favorita, and Aida are all items from the tenor’s wish list. It has already been noted that the aria from La favorita may well have resulted from the singer’s keen interest in the legendary Mario, but was the aria from Pagliacci a result of McCormack’s Caruso or Jean de Reszke worship? Or did McCormack really imagine himself as a Canio? Don José, Canio, or Rhadames would have been completely beyond McCormack in the opera house, and any attempts to sing them on a regular basis would surely have led to the early ruination of his voice — but here they are, well thought out and well sung, either promises to himself or announcements to the musical world. The beautiful aria from Mignon is an example of McCormack at his graceful best, but he never had an opportunity to sing it in an opera house. Here it stands by itself, a ravishing example of an aria perfectly suited to his voice and temperament.
Closely related to these arias are the impassioned songs of Italy, and here too, McCormack enjoys varying success. Such songs as “Mattinata,” “Lolita,” and “Voi, Dormite, Signora!” are well sung, but not for a moment do we believe that, despite McCormack’s perfect Italian, we are in the presence of someone fully into the spirit of the Italian canzone. We also do not feel that these are idiomatic readings of this kind of music, even when we reach a new plateau in the tenor’s maturity and arrive at the 1909 recordings of “Ideale” and “L’Ultima Canzone” interpretations that, as we have seen from McCormack’s own testimony, contain a little too much Caruso and De Lucia to belong wholly to the young Irishman. However, it is instructive to listen to “A Southern Song,” an anglicized first cousin to a genuine Neapolitan song. Every stock image of the genre is present here, from the moon to the lagoon, but notice how much more at home McCormack is using English to create this romantic, and ultimately Victorian, atmosphere. We sense an immediacy of mood in this song that we do not feel in his attempts to be passionately Italian. For a sense of his genuine passion in song, we should turn to his 1908 “Pianto del Core,” a recording that reveals McCormack’s purest Italian intonation lavished on a song that could easily have been written for him. No other tenors intrude as we listen to McCormack’s flowing, pulsating tone, each phrase carefully modulated, each inflection a natural ripening from what has gone before. This is McCormack at his very best in his second language.
When we turn to songs in English, we find McCormack truly at home. This tenor was one of the ideal singers of a now-vanished style often referred to as “Victorian singing.” For textbook examples of this, listen to the Sterndale-Bennet setting of Shakespeare’s “Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away,” with its haunting pianissimo ending, or “Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye” (a ballad that was it was composed especially for McCormack. A more stentorian example of “Victorian singing” is “The Bay of Biscay,” a song which, because of its associations with the nineteenthcentury British tenors John Braham and Sims Reeves, is more than a nod on McCormack’s part toward some of his English predecessors.
McCormack’s emergence as a master of the English song lyric is nowhere better shown than in “I Sent My Love Two Roses,” a song that, like so many others, is rescued from oblivion by the singer’s thoughtful approach and careful attention to every detail. Even in this old recording we can appreciate the subtlety he infuses into every part of the song, beginning with his beautifully shaped opening phrase first sung in England by Mario, a fact surely not lost on McCormack), or “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby” with its now quaint and hopelessly dated attitudes toward women. “A Farewell” is, of course, a perfect example of the Victorian parlor ballad and occupies a very special place here because, as Walter Legge pointed out to the present writer, McCormack’s first performance of the ballad marked the true beginning of his career in England — a more important debut for him than his first night at Covent Garden. “Parted” and “Mountain Lovers” are other revealing examples of this ballad tradition, the latter song being noteworthy because and continuing through his different colorations of tone that virtually match the roses of the title. Note also how carefully the singer modulates his voice to report the narrator’s conversation with himself: “For if she holds me dear,” I said, “she’ll wear my blushing rose...” The singer so convinces us that he is telling a story filled with characters and incident that, when we get to the singer’s final note, we hear the passionate climax to an intimate human experience. Such careful thinking and subtlety of expression are hallmarks of the McCormack approach, and they give us evidence of an interpretive ability extraordinary for a singer just approaching his twenty-third birthday. McCormack may not have been an effective actor on the opera stage — the tenor was the first to admit this — but as a creator of setting, atmosphere, and mood in song, he was without peer.
The work of one composer of the time has close associations with McCormack’s career and deserves separate mention. This was Charles Marshall, a well-known London accompanist, a favorite pupil of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and a composer of songs in his own right. Marshall approached McCormack during his early London days and showed him a number of his own settings of various texts, including Thomas Moore’s “A Child’s Song” (included in the present set), along with some of his own compositions, among them “I Hear You Calling Me.” This last piece was destined to become McCormack’s best known song — his musical signature, in fact. He first sang it at a Ballad Concert in March 1908, and recorded it the following October, with Marshall at the piano; he recorded it a second time, with orchestral accompaniment. Both versions are heard in this set, but historically and musically, the recording featuring Marshall’s piano accompaniment is the more satisfying.
Closely related to the “Victorian-singing” style used for the English ballads are the excerpts McCormack recorded from two nineteenth-century Irish operas, Balfe’s The Bohemian girl and Wallace’s Maritana. These works were so popular in their day that, along with Julius Benedict’s opera, The lily of Killarney, they were known collectively as the “Irish Ring.” Here, McCormack gives us two tenor staples from that “Ring,” “When other lips” from The Bohemian girl and “There is a flower that bloometh” from Maritana, both richly sung and with full appreciation for their charming melodies.
Traditional songs of Ireland give McCormack his best opportunities for memorable interpretations. By 1907, the relatively unsophisticated songs of the very first session have given way to noticeably better material, but some of these selections betray the singer’s understandable lack of experience. In “Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen,” he adheres too closely to the melody to give sufficient shading to the lyrics that would make the performance more memorable; “Savoureen Deelish,” on the other hand, shows an increased ability to give much more dynamic readings of music and lyric. One would expect his “Oft in the Stilly Night” of Thomas Moore to be more expressive than it is, but this 1907 recording is only straightforward at best; even his more mature 1909 record of the same song has too much legato to be an appropriate interpretation. But this is an older man’s song, and a tenor in his early twenties may be forgiven for too smooth a reading of the text. What a different situation we find when McCormack turns to other Thomas Moore songs: the 1908 “Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded” demonstrates a dramatic advance in the singer’s power to explore musical language, while the composer’s “Avenging and Bright” is a marvel of passionate declamation and remains one of McCormack’s most brilliant recordings from this entire period.
The McCormack Odeons have taken us from the singer’s first uncertain use of his formal training to the security of an artist in full control of his powers. In addition, these records document the rise of an unrecognized singer, searching for his first musical opportunities in London, to an artist about to embark on a major career a continent away. In a peculiarly appropriate way, one of his final Odeon recordings seems to illuminate this change in career. This is “The Fairy Glen,” a song almost deceptive in its use of a softly inviting melody and straightforward text. The song paints a utopian scene, replete with an “ivied cottage” in a setting of “love and beauty,” but a different reality intrudes when we hear of “lands beyond the sea, and streets all paved with gold ...” This is the immigrant experience so familiar to nineteenthand twentieth-century Europe and America, with the need to leave hearth and home in search of economic opportunities elsewhere. “The Fairy Glen” was clearly intended for the Irish community that was still streaming in large numbers toward the America of hope and promise. In a very real sense, this was about to become McCormack’s own story when the singer left Europe for New York in 1909 to sing his first opera engagement in America. As he set out on this important journey, even McCormack could not have imagined the unprecedented career he would enjoy in the United States, a career golden beyond his dreams and one that would enrich the entire musical world for decades to come.
© John Scarry, 2014
LISTS OF SUBSCRIBERS TO THE ODEON EDITION
Suzette Allen, Thomas Hackett, Cornelius and Anne Kennedy, Charles Lynch, Harry McCarrick, Carol Ann McCormack, John McKenna, Jim Morrison, Joseph and Una Murray, Vincent O’Brien, Colum O’Brien, Oliver O’Brien, Jim O’Donnell, and Tadhg O’Driscoll.
Harry Butler, Mark Hopke, Alfred King, Evan MacBeth, Donal F. MacNally, Aideen O’Keeffe, and Michael O’Shaughnessy.
Max Abrahamson, Athlone Gramophone Society, Áine Brady, David Budd, Edwin and Lydia Byland, Seán Callan, Tim and Maeve Carroll, Nick Chorlton, Joseph Clarke, Nicholas J. Clifford, Cork Gramophone Circles, Rob Cowan, Catherine (Kitty) Cullen, Mary Egan, Tom Faulkner, Jonathan Finlay, Tony and Anne Finlay, Marie Finn-Glynn, David Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzpatrick, Robert M. Flynn, Doreen and Nola Frawley, Teresa Garvey, Charlie and Rita Gerhold, Fred Grundy, Ita Hackett, Dennis R. Hardwick, Eddie Hogan, Terence and Ann Horgan, Theresa Horgan, Jacqueline Howe, Nuala Hyland, Max Keane, Malley Keelan, David J. Kelly, John and Sheila Kennedy, Timmina and Aidan Kennedy, John and Vera Kenny, John and Geraldine Keveny, Gordon T. Ledbetter, H. W. Logan, John MacNally, Patrick Mannion, David Mason, Denis F. McCarthy, Dermot and Anne McDevitt, Michael and Doreen McFarlane, Mary McKenna, F. McLoughlin, Jeremy Meehan, Simon Meehan and Britta Berger-Meehan, Hans Mittelberg, Cormac Morrison, Patrick Murphy, Paul Murray, Eileen and Bernard Newman, Tony and Mags Ó Dálaigh, Éamonn and Mary Ó Raghallaigh, Elizabeth O’Brien, Michael Anthony O’Brien, Denis O’Callaghan, James and Sylvia O’Connor, Daniel O’Hara, Pádraic O’Hara, Ina O’Hora, Oran J. O’Kane, Barry O’Keeffe, Terence O’Keeffe, John N. O’Leary, Kay and John O’Loughlin Kennedy, Desmond O’Reilly, Michael O’Reilly, Patrick J. O’Reilly, Donal and Breda O’Sullivan, Bob Perkins, Seán Pettit and Aruba Coghlan, Veronica and Dennis Preece, Alan Quinney, Francis Rushe, John Scarry, Tom Seacy, Clive Simmonds, Mary Skelly, Brenda and James Sullivan, College of the Immaculate Conception, Summerhill, Sligo, John B. (Jack) Sweeney, Christian Tögl, David Treacy, Marie Tully, Derek Walsh, Yvonne Walsh McGivern, John Ward, Joseph Whately, and Allan Wiederspiel.
Some fifteen years ago, McCormack scholars Paul Worth and John Scarry asked me to consider issuing a complete edition of McCormack’s Odeon recordings. Their proposal interested me primarily because of my own ardent admiration of the great tenor. I felt that his entire oeuvre should be available, and his Odeon recordings had never been tackled by any reissue label. I also recognized the unique importance of this body of recordings because it traces the young tenor’s musical development from undistinguished ballad singer to his rise to celebrity and his eventual transformation into one of the consummate musical artists of the twentieth century. The more I listened to these recordings, the greater was my interest in producing this project. Yet I was daunted by my experience that McCormack Odeons so often turn up in poor condition with the rarest discs invariably being the worst. In fact, several of these had passed through my hands in such deplorable state as to be almost unlistenable. For more than a decade, I postponed the project hoping for superior copies to come my way. Two years ago, I received an email out of the blue from Jeremy Meehan, a McCormack collector in County Cork, in Ireland, who offered to launch a subscription campaign to underwrite a McCormack Odeon edition if I would resume my search for the records. His enthusiasm rekindled my interest, and my partner, Scott Kessler and I immediately accepted his generous assistance.
Plans for the project began to take shape. McCormack experts on both sides of the Atlantic offered to contribute essays, while I canvassed collectors for help locating the best possible copies of the discs. No fewer than eight important collectors and archives generously offered their help, without which we could never have undertaken the project. During the course of the audio work, more than 300 discs were lent to me, allowing me the luxury to audition and compare duplicate discs. Many of McCormack’s Odeon recordings had been available on a variety of Odeon, Fonotipia, and Columbia labels until World War I; and afterwards, some were reissued on excellent pressings by English Columbia and Regal. For the common titles, I inspected as many as eight duplicates, opting for late pressings with good surfaces. Finding usable copies of the scarce titles proved nearly impossible as I had feared. Even when duplicates were available, they were often in similarly poor condition, compelling me to assemble the best portions of each disc for the final master.
My next challenge was to determine the correct turntable speed for each selection. I should point out that in the early days of recording, the concept of standardized speed simply did not exist, and therefore, recordings of this vintage can play anywhere from 60 to 100 rpm. Determining the correct speed for standard instrumental and operatic recordings is relatively easy because the score keys are well known and the turntable speed can be adjusted to produce that key. For the song repertoire that McCormack recorded for Odeon, the published keys are not readily available, nor are they relevant because McCormack would have had his accompaniments transposed to suit his exact vocal range and comfort. Postulating correct speeds of the present recordings has not been an easy task because much of the evidence is subjective and I can only hope that my assessments are correct. Someday, there might be a scientific procedure for determining speeds, but for the present, I have used my ear and musical instincts, coupled with my knowledge of recording practices of that time. I have taken this task very seriously and I accept full responsibility for my decisions.
Listening to the Odeon recordings as an integrated group, I chose plausible speeds for each recording session by paying close attention to the timbre of McCormack’s voice, which I know well from his acoustic Victor recordings. I quickly realized that the speeds varied greatly from session to session, but it was quite obvious that one nominal speed was selected for each recording session with only minor variation between sides. I made note of the speed for each selection where the voice sounded most natural to my ear, and the resultant key signature.
For the first two sessions covering matrices Lx 1565 through 1582, I chose 71.5 rpm, where McCormack’s voice sounds bright, young, and still insecure, but not nasal. I worried about this speed, however, because it places these traditional songs in unconventional keys: “A Nation Once Again” and “God Save Ireland” in D-flat; “The Boys of Wexford” in G-flat; “The Croppy Boy” and “The Dear Little Shamrock” in B; and “The Snowy Breasted Pearl” in E. Incidentally, his 1911 Victor recordings of the last two songs are sung in B-flat and F respectively. The next six selections are in standard keys of G, E-flat, and A-flat. The only exception is L 1581 “The Dear Little Shamrock,” which is a repeat of Lx 1569 and again is sung in the unusual key of B.
I decided next to play all twelve songs at 67 rpm, transposing them down a semitone. This speed places most of the songs in standard keys such as C, F, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and G, with only two songs in the non-standard key of G-flat. I tried to convince myself that this speed was correct, but McCormack’s voice sounds thick and throaty, not at all the voice of his 1910 Victors. I then wondered how McCormack’s voice would sound singing in these lower keys but with the orchestra tuned to a very high pitch such as A equaling 452 Hz, a quarter tone high. Increasing the speed, his voice began to take on a lighter and more familiar timbre, but it still sounded wrong to my ear. Therefore, I concluded that my first speed choice was correct. I suspect that McCormack simply asked the musicians to play in the high keys where he felt comfortable. It is completely plausible in fact that the Odeon orchestra played from handwritten parts, transcribed just for that recording, which means that they could have been written in any key that McCormack requested.
For the third and fourth sessions, I chose 80.5 rpm, with the voice sounding consistent with the earlier sessions. This speed also yields unusual keys, but again, it is apparent that played either lower or higher, McCormack’s voice is definitely not correct.
I have pitched session five at 77.5 rpm, though this speed has caused me a good deal of consternation. McCormack’s voice sounds absolutely natural at this speed, beginning with “Like Stars Above” in the key of C. But then we come to the arias from Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Rigoletto, all of which are transposed down a semitone. Tenors have frequently transposed “O Lola” down because of its high tessitura, even Caruso, but Fernando De Lucia is the only tenor from that era to have transposed “Vesti la giubba. The transposition of “La donna è mobile” is also worrisome since his subsequent Odeon recordings are definitely sung at score pitch. Raising the entire session to 80.8 as suggested by Paul Worth in his discography, places the three arias all in score pitch, but McCormack’s voice becomes pinched and thin, with the vowels sounding unnatural. I realize that not everyone will be pleased with my choice of the lower speed but, after repeated listening, I am convinced it is the correct one. Nowadays, it is simple to alter the pitch of a digital recording, and I suggest that people who are curious should conduct their own experiments. For the remainder of the recordings, I encountered no further pitching difficulties.
Once I had established the speed for each record, I began the transfer work and final mastering. After selecting the best copies for each side, I played them with five different sizes and shapes of styli, selecting the one which yielded the most vocal presence and the least amount of surface noise. With the more problematic sides, I used several styli on different parts of the disc to achieve optimum sonic clarity. A judicious amount of digital restoration was applied individually to each track, taking care not to distort the voice with the intrusion of digital artifacts. Finally, I compared the sound level and equalization of each selection with its neighbors in an attempt to achieve continuity between tracks.
Three alternative takes are known to exist as unpublished test pressings: Take 1 of Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata,” Take 3 of “La donna è mobile,” and Take 1 of “Questa o quella.” McCormack collector, Michael Meagher, who had owned these three unique discs, loaned them to me for copying, but after his death, no trace has been found of the discs of the two Rigoletto arias. Careful comparison of Takes 3 and 4 of “La donna è mobile” reveals that they are identical. Since discographies have not noted this discrepancy, I have included transfers of both discs here. Two of the cylinders presented in this set have completely eluded me in their original form: the Sterling cylinder of “The Croppy Boy” and the Edison Bell cylinder of “Home to Athlone.” Hence, inferior transfers had to be used for these items.
McCormack’s Odeon recordings are controversial and often dismissed by collectors because some are badly sung and none represent him at his absolute zenith. However, these recordings are of great importance, as they chronicle McCormack’s astonishing transformation. The recordings from his first two sessions in 1906 are undeniably poor, both vocally and musically. Yet they provide a starting point from which we can hear this young, inexperienced tenor’s steady progress, discovering how to sing more effectively with each successive recording session. One need only compare any of the recordings from the 1906 group to those from session ten and onward to hear McCormack’s extraordinary development. How did he make this transition? One can hardly believe that it is the same artist. Is it possible that he used his Odeon records to hone his vocal and musical art? This, along with the questions of pitch, style, and interpretation in the Odeon recordings must, for now, remain conjectural. Doubtless, these imponderables will continue to instigate debate whenever singers of the Golden Age are discussed. Despite all of the flaws in these Odeon recordings, we owe a debt of gratitude to those pioneers in the art of sound recording who captured, as for no other singer, the formative efforts of one who later achieved such distinction.