CD 1 (79:44)
23 April 1925, Camden, New Jersey
|1.||When You and I Were Seventeen (Rosoff)||2:34|
(BVE32534-4) 1086; HMV DA693
|2.||Moonlight and Roses (Lemare)||2:54|
|3.||Moonlight and Roses (Lemare)||2:56|
(BVE32535-2) 1092; HMV DA741
|4.||June Brought the Roses (Openshaw)||2:38|
|5.||June Brought the Roses (Openshaw)||2:38|
|6.||The Sweetest Call (Morrow)||3:14|
(BVE32537-2) 1092; HMV DA692 and DA741
24 April 1925, Camden, New Jersey
|7.||Schlafendes Jesuskind, No. 25, from MÖRIKE-LIEDER (Wolf)||2:41|
(BVE32538-2) 1272; HMV DA953
|8.||I Look into Your Garden (Wood)||1:58|
(BVE32539-2) 1147; HMV DA693
|9.||What a Wonderful World It Would Be (Löhr)||1:48|
(BVE32541-2) 1147; HMV DA692\t
14 October 1925, Camden, New Jersey
|11.||You Forgot to Remember (Berlin)||3:08|
(BVE33464-1) 1121; HMV DA760
|12.||Oh, How I Miss You Tonight (Burke)||3:04|
(BVE33465-1) 1121; HMV DA760
27 October 1925, New York City
|13.||Just a Cottage Small (Hanley)||2:38|
(BVE33819-3) 1133; HMV DA765
|14.||Through All the Days to Be (Melville-Hope)||2:57|
|15.||Through All the Days to Be (Melville-Hope)||3:00|
(BVE33820-3) 1133; HMV DA780
|16.||Mother My Dear (Treharne)||2:42|
(BVE33821-1) 1137; HMV DA765
17 December 1925, New York City
|17.||Love Me and I’ll Live Forever (Snyder)||3:01|
(BVE34159-1) 1594; HMV DA893
|18.||Love Me and I’ll Live Forever (Snyder)||2:56|
|19.||When You and I Were Young, Maggie (Butterfield)||3:06|
(BVE23525-4) 1173; HMV DA823
|20.||Luoghi sereni e cari (Donaudy)||2:38|
|21.||K detyam (To the Children), Op. 26, No. 7 (Rachmaninoff)||3:15|
(BVE27085-4) 1288; HMV DA1112
18 December 1925, New York City
|22.||Unter’m Fenster (Underneath the Window), Op. 34, No. 3 (Schumann)||2:05|
|with Lucrezia Bori, soprano|
(BVE34167-2) assigned Victor 3039, unpublished
23 December 1925, New York City
|23.||A Brown Bird Singing (Wood)||2:28|
(BVE34176-2) 1137; HMV DA780
|24.||Silver Threads Among the Gold (Danks)||2:59|
(BVE11834-4) 1173; HMV DA823
|25.||Silver Threads Among the Gold (Danks)||2:56|
24 December 1925, New York City
|26.||Night Hymn at Sea (Goring Thomas)||2:49|
|with Lucrezia Bori, soprano|
|27.||Night Hymn at Sea (Goring Thomas)||2:46|
|with Lucrezia Bori, soprano|
(BVE34166-5) assigned 3039, unpublished
28 September 1926, New York City
|28.||The Far-Away Bells (Gordon)||2:44|
(BVE36361-1) 1215; HMV DA858
|29.||The Far-Away Bells (Gordon)||2:47|
(1) We have not been able to trace the original test pressing of this unpublished recording. The transfer heard here is from a poor quality transcription made over fifty years ago.
CD 2 (78:40)
28 September 1926, New York City
|1.||When Twilight Comes, I’m Thinking of You (Horne)||3:26|
|2.||When Twilight Comes, I’m Thinking of You (Horne)||3:23|
|3.||When Twilight Comes, I’m Thinking of You (Horne)||3:23|
(BVE36362-3) 1197; HMV DA840
|4.||Just for Today (Seaver)||3:09|
(BVE36363-1) 1281; HMV DA929
30 September 1926, New York City
|5.||Lilies of Lorraine (Connor)||3:07|
(BVE36374-1) 1229; HMV DA881
|6.||A Rose for Every Heart (Cadman)||3:24|
(BVE36375-2) 1229; HMV DA881
|7.||A Rose for Every Heart (Cadman)||3:19|
|8.||Calling Me Back to You (Seaver)||3:19|
(BVE36376-2) 1197; HMV DA840
1 October 1926, Camden, New Jersey(2)
|9.||Adeste fideles (Traditional)||3:47|
(CVE36606-1) 6607; HMV DB984
|10.||She Rested by the Broken Brook (Coleridge-Taylor)||3:22|
|11.||A Prayer to Our Lady (Ford)||2:47|
|12.||Love’s Secret (Bantock)||2:10|
4 October 1926, New York City
|13.||Les Rameaux (The Palms) (Faure)||3:11|
(CVE36384-1) 6607; DB984
17 December 1926, New York City
|14.||The Holy Child (Martin)||3:04|
(BVE37147-1) 1281; HMV DA929
|15.||The Holy Child (Martin)||3:02|
|16.||Because I Love You (Berlin)||3:01|
(BVE37148-2) 1215; HMV DA858 and DA893
|17.||All’ mein Gedanken (“Minnelied”) (Traditional, arranged by Karg-Elert)||3:39|
(BVE37149-1) 1272; HMV DA953
12 April 1927, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
|18.||Somewhere a Voice is Calling (Tate)||2:21|
(BVE15419-3) 1247; HMV DA914
4 May 1927, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
|20.||Wild Rose Lane, No. 3, from SONGS OF THE HEDGEROW (Martin)||3:26|
|21.||Fallen Leaf, Op. 101 (Logan)||3:01|
|22.||Fallen Leaf, Op. 101 (Logan)||2:57|
(BVE38387-3) issued on AGSA63 from a re-recording
|23.||Christ Went Up into the Hills (Hageman)||3:41|
6 May 1927, New York City
|24.||When You’re in Love (Blaufuss)||2:47|
(BVE38731-2) issued on AGSA63 from a re-recording
|25.||Tick, Tick, Tock (Hamblen)||3:20|
(2) The choir members for tracks 9–12 are: Mary Allen, Elsie Baker, Della Baker, Helen Clark, Richard Crooks, Frank Croxton, Royal Dadmun, Margaret Dunlap, Erva Giles, Emily Stokes Hagar, Charles Harrison, Charles Hart, Jackson Kinsey, Olive Kline, Lucy Isabelle Marsh, Lambert Murphy, Paul Parks, Fred Patton and Ruth Rogers.
(3) For unknown reasons, Victor re-recorded this side on to a new matrix and destroyed the original master. Six attempts were made to re-record this side.
CD 3 (78:25)
6 May 1927, New York City
|1.||Tick, Tick, Tock (Hamblen)||3:19|
|2.||Panis angelicus (Franck)||3:53|
|3.||Panis angelicus (Franck)||3:52|
1 September 1927, C Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|4.||La procession (Franck)||4:28|
Songs of the Chinese Poets (Bantock)
|5.||Desolation (Op. 2, No. 3)||3:28|
|6.||Desolation (Op. 2, No. 3)||3:38|
|7.||A Dream of Spring (Op. 2, No. 2)||2:49|
|8.||A Dream of Spring (Op. 2, No. 2)||2:47|
|9.||Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Op. 21, No. 2 (Richard Strauss)||2:25|
|10.||Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Op. 21, No. 2 (Richard Strauss)||2:24|
|11.||Allerseelen, Op. 10, No. 8 (Richard Strauss)||2:50|
|12.||Allerseelen, Op. 10, No. 8 (Richard Strauss)||2:53|
(Bb11339-2) DA932; Victor 1660
2 September 1927, C Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|13.||Since First I Saw Your Face (Traditional, arranged by Somervell)||2:12|
|14.||J’aimais la vieille maison grise, from FORTUNIO (Messager)||2:23|
|15.||J’aimais la vieille maison grise, from FORTUNIO (Messager)||2:21|
(Bb11341-2) Victor 1660
|16.||An Sylvia (Who is Sylvia?), D. 891 (Schubert)||2:26|
|17.||An Sylvia (Who is Sylvia?), D. 891 (Schubert)||2:29|
(Bb11342-2) DA933; Victor 1306
|18.||Die Liebe hat gelogen, D. 751 (Schubert)||2:25|
|19.||Die Liebe hat gelogen, D. 751 (Schubert)||2:25|
|20.||A Fairy Story by the Fire (Merikanto)||1:54|
(Bb11344-2) DA942 and DA1111; Victor 1307
|21.||L’anneau d’argent (The Little Silver Ring) (Chaminade)||2:10|
(Bb11345-1) DA942; Victor 1303
|22.||Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Op. 3, No. 2 (Quilter)||2:11|
|23.||Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Op. 3, No. 2 (Quilter)||2:06|
(Bb11346-2) Victor 1307
|24.||The Cloths of Heaven (Dunhill)||2:12|
(Bb11347-1) Historic Masters HM77
5 September 1927, D Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|25.||Panis angelicus (Franck)||3:27|
11 October 1927, New York City
|26.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||4:25|
|27.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||4:29|
(CVE39889-3) 6776; HMV DB1200
(4) See footnote (1)
CD 4 (74:30)
11 October 1927, New York City
|1.||Love’s Old Sweet Song (Molloy)||3:31|
(CVE40165-2) 6776; HMV DB1200
|2.||Bird Songs at Eventide (Coates)||3:00|
|3.||Bird Songs at Eventide (Coates)||3:01|
(BVE40166-2) 1303; HMV DA973
|4.||Beloved, I am Lonely (Craxton)||2:31|
|5.||Beloved, I am Lonely (Craxton)||2:36|
12 October 1927, New York City
|6.||Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal (None But a Lonely Heart) Op. 6, No. 6 (Tchaikovsky)||3:32|
|7.||Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal (None But a Lonely Heart) Op. 6, No. 6 (Tchaikovsky)||3:25|
(BVE40170-2) 1306; HMV DA1112
|8.||The Rosary (Nevin)||2:13|
(BVE40171-2) 1458; HMV DA1116
|9.||I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall)||3:40|
(BVE40172-1) 1293; HMV DA958
|10.||I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall)||3:36|
|11.||Mother Machree (Olcott and Ball)||3:16|
(BVE40173-2) 1293; HMV DA958
13 October 1927, New York City
|12.||Annie Laurie (Scott)||2:46|
|13.||Annie Laurie (Scott)||2:50|
(BVE40177-2) 1305; HMV DA966
|14.||The Auld Scotch Sangs (Leeson)||3:03|
(BVE40178-2) 1305; HMV DA966
13 January 1928, New York City
|15.||Dear Old Pal of Mine (Rice)||2:45|
(BVE41543-2) 1321; HMV DA965
Sung in A
|16.||Dear Old Pal of Mine (Rice)||2:45|
Sung in B-flat
|17.||The Irish Emigrant (Barker)||3:14|
(BVE41544-1) issued on ERC6004 from a re-recording(6)
|18.||The Irish Emigrant (Barker)||3:19|
(BVE41544-2) 1528; HMV DA1234
|19.||Roses of Picardy (Wood)||3:34|
(BVE41545-2) 1321; HMV DA965
|20.||By the Short Cut to the Rosses (Traditional, arranged by Fox)||1:34|
(BVE41546-1) 10-0041 from a re-recording(7)
|21.||By the Short Cut to the Rosses (Traditional, arranged by Fox)||1:34|
(BVE41546-2) 1528; HMV DA1234
19 November 1928, New York City
|22.||Sonny Boy (Jolson-Henderson-DeSylva-Brown)||3:14|
(BVE48178-3) 1360; HMV DA1027
|23.||Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time (Shilkret)||3:10|
(BVE48179-1) 1360; HMV DA1027
|24.||Song of the Night (Waldrop)||3:08|
(BVE48180-1) 1463; HMV DA1135
|25.||The Gateway of Dreams (English)||3:09|
(BVE48181-1) 1463; HMV DA1135
(5) See footnote (1)
(6) This transfer was made from an original master pressing
(7) This transfer was made from an original master pressing
CD 5 (79:10)
27 November 1928, New York City
|1.||Ave Maria, D. 839 (Schubert)||4:04|
(CVE49209-2) 6927; HMV DB1297
|2.||Ave Maria, D. 839 (Schubert)||4:08|
|3.||Ständchen (Serenade), No. 4, from SCHWANENGESANG, D. 957 (Schubert)||3:49|
|4.||Ständchen (Serenade), No. 4, from SCHWANENGESANG, D. 957 (Schubert)||3:51|
(CVE49210-2) 6927; HMV DB1297
28 November 1928, New York City
|5.||Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), from WINTERREISE D. 911, No. 24; Ungeduld, from DIE SCHÖNE MÜLLERIN, D. 795, No. 7, (orchestra only); Abschied (Farewell), from SCHWANENGESANG, D. 957, No. 7 (Schubert)||4:51|
6 December 1928, New York City
|6.||Horch! horch! die Lerch’ (Hark, Hark, the Lark), D. 889; Heidenröslein, D. 257, (orchestra only); An Sylvia (Who is Sylvia?), D. 891 (Schubert)||3:53|
|7.||Nacht und Träume (Holy Night)(10), D. 827; Die Forelle, D. 550, (orchestra only); opening eight bars of Impromptu in A-flat, D. 935, No. 2, (orchestra only); An die Leier (To the Lyre), D. 737 (Schubert)||4:36|
(CVE49237-3) 6926; HMV DB1383
7 December 1928, New York City
|8.||Horch! horch! die Lerch’ (Hark, Hark, the Lark), D. 889; Heidenröslein, D. 257 (orchestra only); An Sylvia (Who is Sylvia?), D. 891 (Schubert)||4:03|
(CVE49214-4) 6926; HMV DB1383
|9.||Wild Rose Lane, No. 3, from SONGS OF THE HEDGEROW (Martin)||3:31|
|10.||Wild Rose Lane, No. 3, from SONGS OF THE HEDGEROW (Martin)||3:36|
10 April 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|11.||I Love to Hear You Singing (Wood)||2:51|
(BVE51613-2) 1425; HMV DA1059
12 April 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|12.||Little Pal (Jolson-Henderson-DeSylva-Brown)||3:15|
(BVE51620-2) 1425; HMV DA1059
|13.||A Garden in the Rain (Gibbons)||3:37|
(BVE51621-2) 1400; HMV DA1050
|14.||Lover Come Back to Me (Romberg)||2:53|
(BVE51622-2) 1400; HMV DA1050
15 October 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|15.||O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen, from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Wagner)||3:53|
(BVE TEST 426-1) unpublished(11)
16 October 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|16.||O Mary Dear [Londonderry Air]||3:17|
|17.||Just a Corner of Heaven to Me (Hanley)||3:06|
|18.||J’aimais la vieille maison grise, from FORTUNIO (Messager)||2:35|
17 October 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|19.||Ireland, Mother Ireland (Loughborough)||3:20|
18 October 1929, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|20.||Norah O’Neale (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||3:15|
19 February 1930, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|21.||The Rose of Tralee (Glover)||3:25|
(BVE58586-2) 1452; HMV DA1119
|22.||A Pair of Blue Eyes (Kernell)||3:20|
(BVE58588-1) 1453; HMV DA1113
(8) The “Salon Group” includes Lewis James and James Melton, tenors; Elliot Shaw, baritone; and Wilfred Glenn, bass.
(9) See footnote (1).
(10) The title for this song is “Nacht und Träume”, which translates to “Night and Dreams” in English. The Victor label reads “Holy Night”, while the HMV label lists, “Holy Night (Night and Dreams)”. Holy night are the first words of this song, which correspond to the German incipit “Heil’ge Nacht”.
(11) Victor files note: “For Mr. McCormack to hear.” This recording ends in mid-phrase before the end of aria.
(12) See footnote (1).
CD 6 (79:56)
19 February 1930, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|1.||A Pair of Blue Eyes (Kernell)||3:24|
21 February 1930, 44th Street Laboratory, New York City
|2.||Little Boy Blue (Nevin)||2:41|
(BVE58595-2) 1458; HMV DA1116
|3.||A Fairy Story by the Fire (Merikanto)||2:13|
(BVE58596-1) assigned 1307 but not published
|4.||Ireland, Mother Ireland (Loughborough)||3:20|
|5.||Ireland, Mother Ireland (Loughborough)||3:20|
(BVE56192-4) 1452; HMV DA1119
|6.||I Feel You Near Me (Hanley)||2:29|
(BVE58587-3) 1453; HMV DA1113
27 February 1930, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
|7.||Jehova! Du mein Vater! ... Meine Seele ist erschüttert! (Jehovah! Hear Me! ... My Heart is Sore Within Me), from CHRISTUS AM ÖLBERGE (Beethoven)||8:44|
(CVE58684-1 and CVE58685-1) unpublished
|8.||Jehova! Du mein Vater!, from CHRISTUS AM ÖLBERGE, (Part 1 only) (Beethoven)||4:06|
10 March 1930, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
|9.||Song o’ My Heart (Hanley)||3:00|
|10.||Wo find’ ich Trost, No. 31, from MÖRIKE-LIEDER (Wolf)||4:34|
|11.||Wo find’ ich Trost, No. 31, from MÖRIKE-LIEDER (Wolf)||4:34|
|12.||O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen, from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Wagner)||4:30|
(CVE58692-1) issued by RCA in 1950 on DSRB0980 from a re-recording
3 December 1930, C Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|13.||There, Op. 176, No. 7 (Parry)||2:43|
|14.||There, Op. 176, No. 7 (Parry)||2:42|
|15.||The Fairy Tree (O’Brien)||2:25|
|16.||Far Apart (Schneider)||2:52|
|17.||Three Aspects, Op. 176, No. 1 (Parry)||2:58|
|18.||Three Aspects, Op. 176, No. 1 (Parry)||2:57|
|19.||Anakreons Grab, No. 29, from GOETHE-LIEDER (Wolf)||2:56|
|20.||Anakreons Grab, No. 29, from GOETHE-LIEDER (Wolf)||2:50|
(Bb21030-2) DA1170; Victor 1568
|21.||Schlafendes Jesuskind, No. 25, from MÖRIKE-LIEDER (Wolf)||3:05|
|22.||Love’s Secret (Bantock)||2:23|
4 December 1930, C Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|23.||The Garden Where the Praties Grow (Traditional, arranged by Liddle)||2:36|
|24.||The Garden Where the Praties Grow (Traditional, arranged by Liddle)||2:32|
(Bb21036-2) DA1171; Victor 1553
(16) 27 February 1930 is the date inscribed on the test pressings of CVE58684-1 and CVE 58685-1. RCA files give the date as 28 February 1930.
CD 7 (79:13)
4 December 1930, C Studio, Small Queen’s Hall, London
|1.||The Harp That Once Thro’ Tara’s Halls (Traditional)||2:25|
(Bb21037-1) DA1171; Victor 1553
|2.||The Bitterness of Love (Dunn)||2:19|
(Bb21040-2) DA1175; Victor 1568
5 December 1930, Kingsway Hall, London
|3.||Ave Maria (Cornelius)||2:29|
|4.||The Prayer Perfect (Speaks)||3:21|
(Bb20691-2) DA1177; Victor 1554
6 July 1931, Hollywood
|5.||God Gave me Flowers (Torrance)||2:18|
|6.||God Gave me Flowers (Torrance)||2:18|
2 November 1931, New York City
|7.||Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen, No. 17, from ITALIENISCHES LIEDERBUCH (Wolf)||2:18|
27 May 1932, Kingsway Hall, London
|8.||Hymn to Christ the King (O’Brien)||3:42|
31 May 1932, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|9.||Beherzigung, No. 18, from GOETHE-LIEDER (Wolf)||3:02|
|10.||Beherzigung, No. 18, from GOETHE-LIEDER (Wolf)||3:02|
|11.||Ganymed, No. 50, from GOETHE-LIEDER (Wolf)||4:57|
16 September 1932, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|12.||Bless This House (Brahe)||2:51|
(0B3850-1) DA1285; Victor 1625
|13.||Once in a Blue Moon (Fisher)||1:58|
|14.||L’Automne, Op. 18, No. 3 (Fauré)||3:03|
|15.||Is She Not Passing Fair? (Elgar)||2:19|
(0B3853-1) DA1286; Victor 1649
|16.||A Prayer to Our Lady (Ford)||3:09|
(0B3854-2) DA1287; Victor 1625
|17.||Charm Me Asleep (Sanderson)||3:45|
(0B3855-1) DA1287; Victor 1649
|18.||I Know of Two Bright Eyes (Clutsam)||2:47|
7 September 1933, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|19.||As I Sit Here (Sanderson)||2:27|
|with Martin Broones, piano|
|21.||Love’s Roses (Broones)||3:03|
|with Percy Kahn, piano|
|22.||South Winds (Kahn)||2:39|
|23.||South Winds (Kahn)||2:42|
|24.||My Moonlight Madonna (Fibich)||2:34|
13 September 1933, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|25.||I Know of Two Bright Eyes (Clutsam)||2:31|
24 August 1934, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|26.||Music of the Night (Coates)||3:35|
|27.||A Song Remembered (Coates)||2:37|
|28.||Candle Light (Cadman)||2:31|
(17) This record is a single-faced disc issued to benefit the building fund of Liverpool Cathedral. The reverse side contains photographs of the Archbishop of Liverpool and of McCormack as Rodolfo.
(18) See footnote (1).
CD 8 (77:40)
24 August 1934, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|1.||An Old Sacred Lullaby (Corner, arranged by Liddle)||2:53|
|2.||Ein neues andächtiges Kindelwiegen (Corner, arranged by Liddle)||2:56|
(0EA408-1) assigned DA1675 but published only on HM77
|3.||Friend o’ Mine (Sanderson)||3:05|
|4.||Poor Man’s Garden (Russell)||2:24|
(0EA410-1) DA1391; Victor 1695
|5.||Sweetly She Sleeps, My Alice Fair (Foster)||3:07|
(0EA411-1) DA1405; Victor 1700
|6.||Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (Foster)||3:08|
(0EA412-2) DA1405; Victor 1700
29 August 1934, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|7.||Green Pastures (Sanderson)||3:04|
(0EA419-2) DA1392; Victor 1695
|8.||A Little Prayer for Me (Russell)||2:27|
|9.||A Life Lesson (Nevin)||2:31|
(0EA421-2) DA1406; Victor 1711
|10.||A Necklace of Love (Nevin)||2:00|
(0EA422-1) DA1406; Victor 1711
|11.||Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen (Traditional)||3:33|
|12.||The Dawning of the Day (Traditional)||2:48|
|13.||A House Love Made for You and Me (Coates)||2:48|
|14.||The Quietest Things (Wood)||2:14|
27 June 1935, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|15.||Oh Gathering Clouds (Traditional, arranged by Bain)||1:56|
(0EA2121-1) DA1427, DA1533; Victor 26772
|16.||Little Child of Mary (Burleigh)||2:40|
(0EA2122-1) DA1427, DA1534; Victor 26772
|17.||Little Child of Mary (Burleigh)||2:41|
|18.||When the Children Say Their Prayers (Russell)||2:21|
|19.||Baby Aroon (O’Brien)||3:04|
|20.||Baby Aroon (O’Brien)||3:07|
|21.||When I Have Sung My Songs (Charles)||2:26|
|22.||Song to the Seals (Bantock)||3:38|
(0EA2126-1) DA1444, DA1534, DA1851
|23.||Earl Bristol’s Farewell (Traditional, arranged by Lidgey)||2:12|
28 June 1935, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|24.||O Mary Dear [Londonderry Air] (Traditional, arranged by Schneider)||3:17|
|25.||O Mary Dear [Londonderry Air] (Traditional, arranged by Schneider)||3:23|
|26.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||3:02|
(0EA2129-1) DA1432; Victor 26569
|27.||Shannon River (Morgan)||2:27|
(0EA2130-1) DA1426; Victor 26569
|28.||Shannon River (Morgan)||2:26|
(20) Issued by Victor on 10-0042 from a re-recording.
CD 9 (71:56)
28 June 1935, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|1.||I Met an Angel (Morgan)||2:47|
|2.||I Met an Angel (Morgan)||2:44|
|3.||Little House I Planned (Oliver)||2:46|
|4.||Rise, Dawn of Love (Campton)||2:24|
|5.||Herr, was trägt der Boden hier, No. 9, from SPANISCHES LIEDERBUCH (Wolf)||2:50|
(0EA2134-1) DA1441; Victor 1739
|6.||Auch kleine Dinge, No. 1, from ITALIENISCHES LIEDERBUCH (Wolf)||2:07|
(0EA2135-1) DA1441; Victor 1739
23 July 1935, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|7.||Love’s Secret (Bantock)||2:27|
(0EA2180-1) DA1444, DA1533
Sung a semi-tone lower than in previous recordings
|8.||She Rested by the Broken Brook (Coleridge-Taylor)||3:25|
|9.||The Cloths of Heaven (Dunhill)||2:32|
(0EA2182-1) DA1445, DA1851; Victor 26705
|10.||O Men from the Fields (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:50|
(0EA2183-1) DA1445; Victor 26705
31 March 1936, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|11.||In Sweet Content (Sanderson)||2:33|
|12.||Ever in My Mind (Russell)||2:47|
|13.||Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||4:02|
|14.||The Kerry Dance (Molloy)||4:14|
(2EA2749-2) DB2848; Victor 14611
|15.||She is Far from the Land (Traditional, arranged by Lambert)||3:44|
(2EA2750-1A) DB2849; Victor 14611
|16.||Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (Traditional, arranged by Calcott)||3:03|
7 April 1936, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London
|17.||Caro Amor, from IL PASTOR FIDO (Handel)||4:22|
(2EA2764-1A) DB2867; Victor 14305
|18.||Where’er You Walk, from SEMELE (Handel)||4:02|
(2EA2765-1A) DB2867; Victor 14305
|19.||Träume, No. 5, from WESENDONCK-LIEDER (Wagner)||3:55|
|20.||Schlafendes Jesuskind, No. 25, from MÖRIKE-LIEDER (Wolf)||2:44|
30 November 1939, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|21.||The Old House (O’Connor)||2:33|
|22.||A Child’s Prayer (Thayer)||2:42|
|23.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:07|
|24.||I’ll Walk Beside You (Murray)||2:10|
CD 10 (74:26)
12 April 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|1.||When You Wish Upon a Star, from PINOCCHIO (Harline)||2:55|
|2.||Little Wooden Head, from PINOCCHIO (Harline)||2:51|
|3.||Little Wooden Head, from PINOCCHIO (Harline)||2:53|
|4.||The Magic of Your Love (Lehár-Stothart)||3:07|
2 May 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|5.||So Deep is the Night (Viaud-Chopin)||3:00|
|6.||Mighty Lak’ a Rose (Nevin)||3:02|
|7.||My Treasure (Trevalsa)||2:08|
19 June 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|8.||Plaisir d’amour (Martini, arranged by Woodgate)||3:11|
11 July 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|12.||Kashmiri Song, No. 3, from Four Indian Love Lyrics (Woodforde-Finden)||3:40|
(0EA8820-1) DA1746; Victor 2169
|13.||Till I Wake, No. 4, from Four Indian Love Lyrics (Woodforde-Finden)||2:55|
(0EA8821-1) DA1746; Victor 2169
|14.||The Lass with the Delicate Air (Arne, arranged by Lehmann)||2:30|
|15.||The Blind Ploughman (Clarke)||2:14|
Sung in E Minor
|16.||Passing By (Edward Purcell)||2:10|
|17.||The Sweetest Flower that Blows (Peterson)||2:24|
9 August 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|18.||Oft in the Stilly Night (Traditional, arranged by Schneider)||3:36|
|19.||The Meeting of the Waters (Traditional, arranged by Schneider)||3:44|
|20.||The Gentle Maiden (Traditional, arranged by Somervell)||2:42|
|21.||The Bard of Armagh (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||3:17|
25 October 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|22.||Stille Nacht (Silent Night) (Gruber, arranged by Woodgate)||3:03|
|23.||Legenda (A Legend), No. 5, from Shestnadtsat’ pesen dlya detey (Sixteen Songs for Children), Op. 54 (Tchaikovsky)||2:58|
(0EA8889-1) DA1803; Victor 2205
|25.||All Through the Night (Ar hyd y nos) (Traditional)||3:06|
|26.||See Amid the Winter Snow (Traditional, arranged by Goss)||2:53|
CD 11 (78:14)
17 December 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|1.||There is a Green Hill Far Away (Gounod)||3:29|
|2.||The Blind Ploughman (Clarke)||2:06|
Sung in F Minor
|3.||Wie unglücklich bin ich nit (Oh! What Bitter Grief is Mine), K. 147 (Mozart)||2:26|
|4.||O, esli b mog vyrasit’ v zvuke vsyu silu stradaniy moikh (Oh, Could I But Express in Song) (Malashkin)||2:24|
|5.||Since First I Saw Your Face (Traditional, arranged by Somervell)||2:20|
|6.||Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon (Miller, arranged by Moore)||3:12|
17 December 1940, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|7.||Maiden of Morven (Traditional, arranged by Lawson)||3:08|
|8.||Light of the Sunset Glow (Martin, arranged by Taylor)||3:05|
|9.||Light of the Sunset Glow (Martin, arranged by Taylor)||3:11|
28 January 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|10.||“God Keep You” is My Prayer (Ray)||2:47|
|11.||At the Mid Hour of Night (Traditional, arranged by Stanford)||2:44|
|12.||When I Awake (Wright)||2:07|
|13.||Down By the Salley Gardens (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:44|
|14.||She Rested By the Broken Brook (Coleridge-Taylor)||3:29|
6 March 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|15.||Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn (Jesus Christ, the Son of God), from CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN, BWV 4 (Bach)||2:49|
|16.||Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring), from HERZ UND MUND UND TAT UND LEBEN, BWV 147 (Bach)||3:22|
|17.||The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread (Somervell)||2:08|
|18.||Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams)||3:38|
|19.||Loveliest of Trees (Somervell)||2:09|
|20.||White in the Moon the Long Road Lies (Somervell)||2:54|
29 May 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|21.||The Dawn Will Break (Wood)||2:42|
|22.||The Village That Nobody Knows (Wood)||3:26|
|23.||Dank sei Dir, Herr (Praise Ye the Lord) (Ochs, arranged by Franke)||3:08|
25 June 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|24.||Linden Lea (Vaughan Williams)||2:32|
|25.||The White Peace (Bax)||2:26|
|26.||The Little Boats (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:14|
|27.||She Moved Through the Fair (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:36|
|28.||No, Not More Welcome (Traditional, arranged by Keel)||2:56|
CD 12 (77:52)
26 August 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|1.||The Green Bushes (Traditional, arranged by Ryan)||3:07|
|2.||Bantry Bay (Traditional, arranged by Molloy)||3:28|
17 September 1941, Studio 3, London
|4.||Our Finest Hour (Moore)||1:58|
Sung in E-flat
|5.||Our Finest Hour (Moore)||1:57|
(0EA9460-3) DA1803; Victor 2205
Sung in E
6 October 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|6.||Smilin’ Thro’ (Penn)||1:53|
|7.||The Devout Lover (White)||3:54|
|8.||Oh, Promise Me, Op. 50 (De Koven)||3:34|
(0EA9487-1) IR1053 and AGSA56
|9.||A Rose Still Blooms in Picardy (Wood)||3:03|
Sung in F
6 November 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|10.||A Rose Still Blooms in Picardy (Wood)||3:01|
Sung in F-sharp
8 November 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|12.||Will You Go with Me (Murray)||2:51|
25 November 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|13.||Night Hymn at Sea (Goring-Thomas)||2:53|
|with Maggie Teyte, soprano|
VICTOR TALKING MACHINE HOUR
|14.||Still wie die Nacht (Still as the Night) (Götze)||4:50|
|with Maggie Teyte, soprano|
3 December 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|15.||Off to Philadelphia (Traditional, arranged by Haynes)||3:33|
|16.||Come Back My Love (Rubinstein-Grün)||3:16|
|17.||Here in the Quiet Hills (Carne)||2:32|
23 December 1941, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|18.||God Bless America (Berlin)||2:35|
|19.||The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Steffe)||2:50|
26 May 1942, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|20.||By the Lakes of Killarney (Case)||2:56|
|21.||Love Thee, Dearest, Love Thee (Traditional)||2:46|
|22.||Children’s Prayer in Wartime (Wolfe)||3:28|
10 August 1942, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|23.||One Love Forever (Leslie-Smith)||2:23|
|24.||Say a Little Prayer (Mason)||2:45|
10 September 1942, Studio 3, Abbey Road, London
|25.||Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (Mozart, arranged by Schmidt)||2:51|
|26.||An Chloe (To Chloe), K. 524 (Mozart)||2:57|
|27.||Waiting for You (Phillips)||2:12|
CD 13 (78:05)
APPENDIX I: EXTANT RADIO BROADCASTS, 1926-1942
1 January 1926, New York City
|1.||When You and I Were Young, Maggie (Butterfield)||3:30|
|2.||Night Hymn at Sea (Goring-Thomas)||2:53|
|with Lucrezia Bori, soprano|
1 January 1927, New York City
|3.||Calling Me Back to You (Seaver)||3:27|
|4.||The Holy Child (Martin)||2:52|
|5.||Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song) (Mendelssohn)||2:39|
|6.||Closing announcement by McCormack||0:41|
With Edwin C. Hill, Host
10 February 1933, location unknown
|7.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||3:01|
|8.||Just for Today (incomplete) (Seaver)||3:08|
|9.||McCormack-Hill conversation … The Isle of Beauty (Traditional)||3:31|
|10.||That Tumble-Down Shack in Athlone (Sanders)||2:45|
|11.||The Snowy Breasted Pearl (Traditional, arranged by Robinson)||1:16|
|12.||Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song) (incomplete) (Mendelssohn)||1:46|
|13.||The Garden Where the Praties Grow (incomplete) (Traditional, arranged by Liddle)||2:12|
|14.||Annie Laurie (Scott)||2:49|
|15.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||2:01|
2 April 1933, Radio City Music Hall, New York City
|16.||Panis angelicus (Franck)||2:49|
18 September 1934, New York City
|17.||Alma Mia, from FLORIDANTE (Handel)||2:32|
|with Edwin Schneider, piano|
|18.||The Bard of Armagh (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:08|
9 January 1935, New York City
|19.||The Heavy Hours Are Almost Past (Boyce)||4:07|
21 August 1935, New York City
(McCormack’s selections were relayed by short wave from London)
|20.||Love’s Roses (Broones)||2:36|
|21.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||2:46|
11 October 1936, New York City
(McCormack’s selections were relayed from Nashville, Tennessee)
|22.||Just for Today (Seaver)||3:14|
|23.||The Ould Turf Fire (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||1:59|
|24.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:50|
19 November 1936, New York City
|25.||O Mary Dear [Londonderry Air] (Traditional, arranged by Schneider)||4:00|
|26.||Ever in My Mind (Russell)||2:29|
27 December 1936, New York City
|27.||Wie unglücklich bin ich nit (Oh! What Bitter Grief is Mine), K. 147 (Mozart)||2:27|
|28.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:37|
|29.||The Silent Hour of Prayer (Cadman)||3:00|
CD 14 (81:11)
APPENDIX I. EXTANT RADIO BROADCASTS, 1926-1942
With John McCormack, Host
|1.||Opening announcement introducing John McCormack followed by McCormack’s remarks and introduction of the orchestra’s first selection||2:14|
|2.||One Summer Morn (Richfield)||2:48|
|3.||The Ould Turf Fire (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:48|
|4.||Dryads, Sylvans, With Fair Flora, from THE TRIUMPH OF TIME AND TRUTH (Handel)||2:18|
|5.||Come in, and Welcome (Russel)||2:55|
|6.||McCormack’s closing remarks||0:45|
1 February 1937
(John McCormack relayed from Miami)
|7.||Just for Today (Seaver)||3:36|
14 March 1937, New York City
|8.||John McCormack introduces Irish baritone, Robert Irwin||0:49|
With Bing Crosby, Host
|9.||Conversation between McCormack and Crosby with interjections from unidentified comedian||5:21|
|10.||So Do I Love You (Wood)||2:40|
|11.||Shannon River (Morgan)||2:34|
With Rudy Vallee, Host
|12.||Conversation between McCormack and Vallee||2:24|
|13.||The Garden Where the Praties Grow (Traditional, arranged by Liddle)||3:15|
|14.||Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick (Traditional)||2:09|
25 April 1938
(John McCormack relayed from Hollywood)
|15.||The Bard of Armagh (Traditional)||3:34|
|16.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:15|
With Patric Curwen, Host
|17.||The Snowy Breasted Pearl (first verse) (Traditional, arranged by Robinson)||4:40|
|18.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||1:57|
|19.||McCormack and actress Gertie Miller reminisce||1:46|
|20.||The Old House (first and third verse) (O’Connor)||2:32|
25 June 1940, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
|21.||Where’er You Walk, from SEMELE (Handel)||5:23|
|22.||The Star of the County Down (Traditional, arranged by Hughes)||2:27|
|23.||I’ll Walk Beside You (Murray)||2:43|
|24.||If I Should Fall in Love Again (Popplewell)||3:02|
|with Evelyn Laye, soprano|
2 January 1942, London, House of Dame Irene Vanbrugh
|25.||Guests greet one another||2:10|
|26.||Maggie Teyte sings Lullaby, Op. 57, No. 2 (Scott)||1:55|
|27.||Eileen Joyce plays Etude Op. 10, No. 12 (Revolutionary) (Chopin)||4:36|
|28.||The Gentle Maiden (Traditional, arranged by Somervell)||2:47|
|29.||I’ll Walk Beside You (Murray)||2:47|
CD 15 (77:56)
APPENDIX II: CYLINDER AND DISC RECORDINGS, 1904 and 1906
21 September 1904, London
Two-minute, Edison cylinders
Spoken announcements by John McCormack
|1.||The Meeting of the Waters (Traditional)||2:12|
|2.||When Shall the Day Break in Erin (Fox)||2:06|
|3.||Love Thee, Dearest, Love Thee (Traditional)||2:17|
22 September 1904, London
Two-minute, Edison cylinders
Spoken announcements by John McCormack
|4.||Molly Bawn (Lover)||2:09|
|5.||The Irish Emigrant (Barker)||2:19|
|7.||The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||2:23|
23 September 1904, London
Two-minute, Edison cylinders
|8.||The Snowy Breasted Pearl (Traditional, arranged by Robinson)||2:14|
|10.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||2:08|
23 September 1904, London
7-inch single-face discs
|11.||Love Thee, Dearest, Love Thee (Traditional)||2:09|
|12.||When Shall the Day Break in Erin? (Fox)||1:41|
|13.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||1:52|
|15.||Norah, the Pride of Kildare (Parry)||2:11|
|16.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||1:53|
|17.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:07|
|18.||The Irish Emigrant (Barker)||2:04|
|19.||The Minstrel Boy (Traditional)||1:53|
24 September 1904, London
10-inch single-face discs
|20.||The Snowy Breasted Pearl (Traditional, arranged by Robinson)||3:01|
|21.||The Meeting of the Waters (Traditional, arranged by Moore)||2:26|
|22.||The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||3:25|
(5927b) issued on Zonophone under the name John O’Reilly X-42310
|23.||Molly Bawn (Lover)||2:49|
(5930b) 3-2216; DA552
|25.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||2:54|
(5931b) issued on Zonophone under the name John O’Reilly X-42208
|26.||Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Traditional)||3:01|
|28.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:47|
26 September 1904, London
10-inch single-face discs
|29.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:44|
(5938b) issued on Zonophone under the name John O’Reilly X-42318
|30.||The Foggy Dew (Traditional, arranged by Stanford)||3:02|
|31.||The Minstrel Boy (Traditional)||2:55|
(5945b) issued on Zonophone under the name John O’Reilly X-42209
|32.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||3:05|
CD 16 (55:24)
APPENDIX II: CYLINDER AND DISC RECORDINGS, 1904 and 1906
3 November 1904, London
Two-minute, black-wax cylinders
Spoken announcements by J. E. Hough
|1.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Shield)||2:20|
|2.||The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel)||2:15|
|3.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:28|
|4.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:31|
|6.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||2:26|
|7.||Eily Mavourneen (Once Would My Heart with the Wildest Emotion), from THE LILY OF KILLARNEY (Benedict)||2:20|
|8.||The Minstrel Boy (Traditional)||2:23|
|9.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:25|
10 November 1904, London
Two-minute, black-wax cylinders
Spoken announcements by J. E. Hough
|10.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Shield)||2:14|
|11.||The Dear Little Shamrock (Shield)||2:24|
|12.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:26|
|13.||Eileen Allanah (Thomas)||2:25|
|14.||Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch)||2:25|
|15.||Once Again (Sullivan)||2:26|
|16.||Come Back to Erin (Claribel)||2:24|
|17.||The Wearing of the Green (Traditional, arranged by James)||2:27|
July–August, 1906 London
Four-minute, black-wax cylinder
Spoken announcement by J. E. Hough
|18.||Home to Athlone (Greene)||2:31|
APPENDIX III: VICTOR TALKING MACHINE COMPANY
(Recordings not included in the McCormack Naxos series)
5 April 1912, Camden, New Jersey
|19.||Silver Threads Among the Gold (Danks)||3:21|
(B-11834-1) 64260; HMV 4-2215
31 March 1915, Camden, New Jersey
Private unpublished recording without matrix number, sung by eight-year-old Cyril McCormack
John McCormack joining in during the refrain and announcing the date at the conclusion
|20.||It’s a Long Way to Tipperary (Williams)||3:12|
9 May 1917, New York City or Camden, New Jersey
Private unpublished recording without matrix number, sung by eight-year-old Gwen McCormack
John McCormack joining in during the refrain and announcing the date at the conclusion
|21.||Poor Butterfly (Hubbell)||3:39|
9 May 1917, New York City or Camden, New Jersey
Private unpublished recording without matrix number, sung by ten-year-old Cyril McCormack
John McCormack announcing the date at the conclusion
|22.||If I Knock the “L” Out of Kelly (Grant)||2:00|
Producers: Jeremy Meehan and Scott Kessler
Audio restoration: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Marston wishes to thank the people listed below who have contributed in many ways to bring this project to fruition.
Michael Aspinall, John Bowman, Seán Callan, Gráinne Conway, Rob Cowan, Michael Fitzpatrick, Robert Flynn, Eddie Hogan, Irish Province of the Capuchin Franciscans, Malley Keelan, Deborah Kelleher, Keith Kurtzer, Gordon T. Ledbetter, Brigid Lucey, Dónal MacNally, David Malcolmson, David Mason, Members of the family of John McCormack, The Committee and Members of the John McCormack Society of Ireland, Doreen McFarlane, Senan Meehan, Simon Meehan, Elizabeth O’Brien, Noel O’Grady, Seán Radley, The Royal Irish Academy of Music, Jim Ryan, Ken Steenson, Derek Walsh and John Ward
Alfred Meehan King, Paul R. Terry and Des Wilson
William Cunningham, Éamonn Duffy, Michael Kelleher, David J. Kelly, Keith and Karen Kurtzer, Noel O’Grady, Michael O’Shaughnessy, Michael Russell, Jim Ryan, Ken Steenson and Derek Walsh
Friends of the John McCormack Electrical Project:
Séamus Aherne, Janyce Wolf and David Akins, William Albright, Adrian Allan, John Allen, Michael James Behan and Marie Lucey Behan, Mary Blood, Michael Bourke, John Bowman, Colin Bray, Neil and Catriona Brennan, Philip Brennan, Vivian Brennan, Seán Buckley, Maura Burke, The Burns Family, Edwin and Lydia Byland, Seán and Bríd Callan, Brian Canavan, Edward Carey, Clodagh Carolan, Fergus Carolan, Helen Chambers, Helen Clare and Simon Robinson, Lawson Clements, Nicholas Clifford, Aruba Coghlan Petitt, Séamus Collins, Timothy Collins, Justin Connolly, Ed Corbett, Brendan Corkery, Seán Costello, Robert Cowan, Pamela Cox and Michael M. O’Sullivan, Tom Crilly, Stephen Crowther, Maeve Curran, Paddy Daly, Jeanne D’Arcy, Kevin D’Arcy, Tom Deegan, Paul Devine, Joshua Dill, Áine Donnachie, Robert Dore, Eugene Downes, Francis Duffy, Audrey Dunphy, Niall Egan, Caroline Elbay, Ron Ewart, Tom Faulkner, Eddie and Tríona Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzpatrick, Robert M. Flynn, Dennis Forkel, John Foyle, Michael Gannon, Michael J. and Betty Gannon, M.L. Gardner, Kai-Uwe Garrels, Douglas Gerbino, Charlie and Rita Gerhold, Lawrence Gertz, John and Mary Gibson, Christopher Glancy, Frank Greally, Eileen and Peter Grogan, John Groves, Fred Grundy, Martin Haberbauer, Finbar Hannon, Brian and Mary Hargadon, Michael Harrington, Louisa Harrison, Donal Healy, Dorothy Heaphy, Declan Heffernan, Kenneth Henderson, Anna Hickey, Eddie Hogan, Ann and Terence Horgan, Seamus Hosey, Liam and Maureen Howard, John Hunt, Francis and Ronnie Hurley, Angela Hynes, Timothy Jackson, Tom Jardine, Jarlath Jennings, Sammy Jones, James Joyce Centre, Malley Keelan, Noel Keenan, Maurice Kelleher, Olive Kelly, Patricia and Frank Kelly, Sheila Kennedy, Brendan Kennelly, John and Vera Kenny, Geraldine and John Keveny, Susan Kiely, Brendan Kilty, Paul Koko, Brendan Lane, Gordon T. Ledbetter, Emmanuel Leonard, Patrick Leonard, Virginia Tech Newman Library, Carmel Lillis, H.W. Logan, James Lynch, Paul Lynch, Jimmy Lyons, Vincent MacCarthy, Norman MacDonald, Dónal MacNally, Paul Magnier, Omar Mahfoud, David Malcolmson, John Maloney, Declan Mansfield, André-Bertrand Marcoux, Bill Marshall, David Thomas Martin, David Mason, Michael McCann, James and Jean McCarthy, Ronnie McCarthy and John A. O’Sullivan, John McCourt, Siobhán McCrystal, Dermot McDevitt, Doreen McFarlane, Michael McGrail, Dominic McGrath, Nóra McGrath, Olive and John McGrath, Diarmaid McGuinness, Noel and Marion McHugh, Eileen McInerney, Geoffrey McKee, Jim McNicholas and family, Dónal and Marie McSweeney, Jeremy Meehan, Simon E. Meehan, Senan Meehan and Brigid Lucey, Simon and Britta Meehan, Patrick and Rose Molohan, Anne and Brian Montgomery, Dennis Moore, Declan Moran, Patrick More, Sylvain Moreau, Gerard Moriarty, Eddie Moroney, Fiona Gough, Cormac and Milo Morrison, Alan Morrisroe, John Mugan, Vera and Don Mullane, Fintan Murphy, John A. Murphy, Maria Murphy, Patrick Murphy, Joe Murray, Paul Murray, Millstreet Museum, Gian Paolo Nardoianni, Michael Nash, Eileen and Bernard Newman, Treasa Ní Éalaithe, David Norris, Tony and Mags Ó Dálaigh, Éamonn and Mary Ó Raghallaigh, Denis O’Brien, Elizabeth O’Brien, Francie O’Brien, John and Pauline O’Callaghan, Michael J. O’Connor, Pat O’Connor, Valerie A. O’Donnell, Frank O’Donoghue, Gerard O’Driscoll, Harry O’Grady and Eileen O’Grady, Aideen O’Keeffe, Barry O’Keeffe, John N. O’Leary, Gerard O’Regan, Desmond O’Reilly, Patrick J. O’Reilly, John and Mary Ormond, Fran O’Rourke, Thomas O’Shea, Michael O’Sullivan, Laura Pelaschiar, Andrew Percival, Bob Perkins, Sweny’s Pharmacy, Donald Pond, Tully Potter, Chris Powell, Joe Power, John and Lal Power, Seán Power, Alan Quinney, Seán Radley, John and Patricia Roche, Francis Rushe, Jerry Russell, Dermot Ryan, Oliver Ryan, Peter Ryan, Larry Ryan and Elma Keaty, Thomas Samuels, John Scally, Joseph Schneider, Lenny Schwartz, Jeffrey Scott, Tom Seacy, Fritz Senn, Marie Shannon, David Shea, Neil Simon, Muiris Sionóid, Willie Slattery, Athlone Gramophone Society, Alvin Souzis, William H. Spry, John Keane and Philomena Stafford, Henry and Jean Stanley, Roy and Olive Steenson, Christopher and Linda Sullivan, James and Brenda Sullivan, Mark Swift, Donal Thurlow and Suzanne Thurlow, Patricia Tinné, Patricia Tivy, Christian Tögl, Teri Noel Towe, Mary Troy, Marie Tully, Ken Tuohy, Éamon Ó Murchú agus Nora Uí Mhurchú, Michaeli and Helen Waide, Bill Wall, Michael and Lena Walsh, Paddy Walsh, John Ward, Mícheál Shanley and Eithne Ward, Joseph Whately, Allan Wiederspiel, R. Williams, Eric and Alan Winter, Roger York and Christian Zwarg
Marston wishes to remember in a special way the following people, some of whose names have been submitted by friends and family, and others who were supporters of the project but who died before they could see it completed.
Richard Bebb, Gottfried R. Cervenka, Dan Claffey, Jeremiah and Nóra Cotter, Dennis V. Crotty, Peter Dolan, David Fitzgerald, Robert E. Gillis, Brian Fawcett-Johnston, Margaret (Gretta) Kelleher, John Kennedy, James and Katie Lyons, John Count McCormack Jr., Michael McFarlane, Frank McGrath, Noel McGrath, Hans Mittelberg, Jim Morrison, Richard Morrison, Oliver O’Brien, James F. O’Donnell, Muiris O’Keeffe, Derry O’Reilly, Seán Petitt, Henry Y. Porter, Richard Savage, George and Anna Lena Steenson, Basil Walsh, Richard Warren and Paul Worth
Marston wishes to thank the following people for their assistance in providing McCormack discs, cylinders and secondary audio sources:
Mark Bailey, head of Yale University’s Historic Sound Recordings; Gregor Benko; John Bolig; Dominic Combe; Richard Copeman; Stuart Donaldson of the Sound Archive at BBC; Gerald Fabris, Museum Curator Thomas Edison National Historical Park; Michael Fitzpatrick; David Giovannoni; Raymond Glaspole; Lawrence Holdridge; Jolyon Hudson; Tom Jardine; Patricia Kelly; John Keveny; Keith Kurtzer; Peter Lack; Doreen McFarlane; Jeremy Meehan; Jeffrey Miller; Patrick J. O’Reilly; Eugene Pollioni; David Seubert, director UCSB Library’s Department of Special Research Collections; Barry Stapleton, Director of Ward Irish Music Archives; Paul Steinson; Jonathan Summers, curator classical division of the British Library Sound Archive; Owen Williams and John Wolfson.
The John McCormack Electric Edition
Of all the great singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era commonly referred to as the Golden Age, perhaps John McCormack was the most worthy of emulation by future practitioners. Part of his particular genius was to combine the sterling virtues of a rigorously perfected technique with consummate musical taste and scrupulous attention to detail. Ernest Newman wrote of McCormack that “He was a supreme example of the art that conceals art, the sheer hard work that becomes manifest only in its results, not in the revolving of the machinery that has produced them.” While many musicians, both vocal and instrumental, are gifted to the extent that they may be described as virtuosi, in only the greatest is there the awareness and humility to place their talent entirely at the service of the music: to act as a conduit for the wishes of the composer, rather than using the music as a vehicle for self-aggrandisement.
In McCormack’s case, however, there is a further gift that sets him apart; one that cannot be taught, nor perhaps adequately described. It seems to manifest itself in his ability as a communicator, and to transcend even music itself in the directness with which the listener is connected to the heart of the message.
Something in the nature of the greatest creative artists appears to be liberated to speak directly from the core of their being through the medium of their art, however fallibly human they may be in other areas of their lives. Edward Elgar, for instance, so notoriously prickly and sensitive to the opinions of others, wrote to his friend, August Jaeger, of his setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius, that, in composing it, he had written out his “insidest inside.” Beethoven himself, in a dedication above the Kyrie of the Missa solemnis, inscribed “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart—may it return to the heart!”)
Of the musicians whose work has been captured by the gramophone, itself an invention so imperfect and capricious in the early decades of sound recording, something transcendent in the greatest artists still shines through and touches us directly and individually. Names such as Casals, Kreisler, Caruso, and Rachmaninoff are often mentioned in this regard. What artists such as these seem to share, beyond their undisputed technical prowess, is an unconstrained openness of spirit and, in the words of Caruso, “something in the heart”. John McCormack’s art places him firmly in this company. Furthermore, while all singers may have something in the heart, McCormack also possessed a keen musical intelligence. As Gordon Ledbetter has written: “McCormack’s gifts lay in both heart and head. Instinct alone would not have enabled him to handle with such idiomatic certainty the vast range of music he had at his command. Other singers take on music outside their native instincts at their peril—everything sounds the same. That certainly was not true of McCormack. You see his intelligence, too, in how he illuminated the text as much as the music; and how, as his voice aged, he could match his repertoire to his resources, thus retaining the freshness of his communication and the immediacy of his art. Toscanini once said to him: “You know, John, if you weren’t a singer, you would still be a great musician.”
While his vocal technique, with its evenness of line, mastery of breath control, and purity of tone may have equipped him to be worthy of the accolade “the true redeemer of bel canto”, as reportedly bestowed by the great Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, such attributes would remain little more than vocal scaffolding were it not for McCormack’s supreme gift of communication. It is this above all—art rather than artifice, sentiment rather than sentimentality—that elevated him to become what Newman was inspired to describe as “a patrician artist, dignified even in apparent undress, with a respect for art that is rarely met with among tenors.”
On the demise of any great person, what lives on after them to benefit future generations? Reputation and biography survive, certainly, and in the case of everyone from statesmen to artisans, their various works. Happily, in the world of the arts, composers leave their scores to be performed, writers leave their books, poets their verse and painters their canvases. In the case of musical interpreters, however, those of the distant past are but footnotes in history: we know of the reputations of great singers such as Farinelli in the Court of Spain, of the celebrated Mrs. Cibber in Handelian London and Dublin, and of figures such as Giovanni Battista Rubini, Maria Malibran, and Jenny Lind in the opera houses of the 19th century. Numerous tributes exist detailing the extraordinary talents of these performers, with meticulous descriptions of their voices, their singing style, and their often colourful lives. Of their great art, however, not a note survives.
Elsewhere in this booklet, excerpts are quoted from a tribute written, following McCormack’s death, by the Irish concert pianist Charles Lynch. He concluded his piece:
When, on a train journey from Cork to Dublin, I read of his death in the newspaper, I realized that not only had Ireland lost the greatest musician it had ever produced, but that the world of music had lost one of the greatest artists of all time. To those of us who were lucky enough to hear him at the height of his powers he is not, and can never be, dead, for he will live in our memories as long as memory lasts.
It is now over seventy years since those lines were penned, and there can be few, if any, still living who retain such a memory. In the end, all we have are the recordings. For this reason alone, the task of restoring and preserving for posterity the existing legacy of one as seminally important in the history of vocal art as John McCormack is too vital to be left to chance. We owe it to future generations to ensure that these fragile sound documents are afforded the highest possible quality of expertise in transferring them to a permanent medium, and we could not have asked for the services of one more qualified or more passionately committed to this work than Ward Marston.
John McCormack: A Patrician Artist (Complete Electrical Recordings, 1925–1942) follows our issue of Mr. Marston’s restorations of the complete Odeon recordings of 1906–1909, on the Marston Records label, and his earlier restorations of McCormack’s complete acoustic Victor and HMV recordings of 1910–1924, for the Naxos label. With its publication, Ward Marston has reached the end of a journey begun over twenty-five years ago—a journey that has secured part of Ireland’s national heritage, but also the heritage of everyone who rejoices in the life-enhancing qualities of great musical artistry. It has been made possible by the generosity of the many subscribers and supporters named in this booklet. We hope that all who assisted will feel they have been part of something worthwhile.
Jeremy Meehan, 2019
John McCormack—A Brief Sketch
John McCormack was the beau idéal of the lyric tenor, possessing a voice of exquisite purity and limpid phrasing hardly matched by any other. He was Ireland’s first superstar. Max de Schauensee, the esteemed Philadelphia-based critic, remarked that “A McCormack Red Seal record was as usual in the average American home, during the second and third decades of the century, as father’s slippers by the fire or the family ice-cream freezer.”
Insofar as generations can be compared, in his day he was fêted as much as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley were in theirs. But with this distinction: McCormack could be described equally as a “serious” or classical singer as a popular one, the best of his career occurring at a time before so-called classical music and popular music had diverged and gone their separate ways, the microphone doing much to produce a new kind of singer. Audiences had not diverged either; McCormack appealed to all classes and conditions of both men and women.
Given the international and indeed historical achievements that lay ahead of him, McCormack’s origins were hardly promising. He was born in Athlone in the Irish midlands, on 14 June 1884, the fourth of eleven children born to mill workers, Andrew and Hannah McCormack. Athlone, at the time, was a British garrison town, through which the majestic and picturesque River Shannon flows. Historically, the town had importance as a strategic (and much bloodied) crossing point between the east and west of Ireland. The tenor was born in a little terraced house in The Bawn in the County Westmeath part of Athlone (the western half of the town, which straddles the river, is in County Roscommon). The house is still there, marked with a plaque, and is now a Chinese restaurant. When I paid it a visit and expressed an interest in the tenor, the enthusiastic owner hurried off and to my surprise came back with CDs of McCormack—singing German Lieder.
Andrew and Hannah had come to Athlone via Antrim in the North of Ireland but originally came from Galashiels in Scotland. Both were Scottish. Hannah was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian, but became a Roman Catholic on her marriage. Her background may have contributed to her son’s conspicuous tolerance and openness to all religious persuasions, when religion was such a divisive issue in Ireland. Andrew’s father, the tenor’s paternal grandfather, Peter McCormack, was Irish and had emigrated in the opposite direction, moving from County Sligo to Scotland.
With steady jobs at the mills, McCormack’s parents were relatively secure. Although not wealthy enough to own a piano, music making was a feature of their family life. The old man sang in the local church choir. (Inevitably, there were those who were to say in later years that Andrew had the sweeter voice.) Poverty was endemic in Athlone and much of the population could not write when McCormack was growing up. Hannah would not have felt out of place in that regard. She could read but not write, apparently, at the time of her marriage and so signed her marriage certificate with an “X”. Education, however, was improving and Hannah’s fourth child was well placed to avail of it.
The very year the tenor was born, 1884, the French order of Marist Brothers established a fine school in the Market Square of Athlone, a short distance from The Bawn, which the boy attended. Not only was he an able student, there was something about his voice that attracted attention, even as a boy soprano. An elderly past pupil told me that he made a point of attending chapel at the school just to hear McCormack sing. Something about the voice: as he began, so he continued. Through scholarships, McCormack completed his education at Summerhill College, Sligo.
On leaving school, thoughts of entering the priesthood were replaced by notions of a singing career. He had a brief stint in the civil service in Dublin, before snapping up an invitation to join the Palestrina Choir of the Pro-Cathedral under Vincent O’Brien, who coached and coaxed the excessively nervous boy for the Feis Ceoil (the national music competition) of 1903 in which he easily won the gold medal in the tenor section. James Joyce was also a pupil of O’Brien’s (as was the fêted soprano Margaret Burke Sheridan or ‘Maggie from Mayo’, as she called herself) and it is often thought that Joyce competed in the same Feis as McCormack. In fact, Joyce competed the following year. Unable to attempt the sight-reading exercise, which at the time was compulsory, he was awarded only the bronze medal. It is often repeated that he threw the medal into the River Liffey in disgust, and that it was never seen again. In fact, the medal remains in private hands. What have been long lost, “borrowed” or mislaid are the copies of Ulysses that Joyce gave to McCormack and Vincent O’Brien. As both copies were inscribed by the author they should be readily identifiable if they ever come to light.
It is a great pity that Joyce’s singing voice was never recorded. Vincent O’Brien thought highly of it. McCormack and Joyce appeared in public in the same concert on at least one occasion, along with the baritone JC Doyle, a local matinee idol and avuncular friend of McCormack’s. The occasion was a concert at the Antient Concert Rooms in what is now Pearse Street, then Great Brunswick Street, on 27 August 1904. All three, McCormack most prominently, make appearances in Joyce’s monumental novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. While Joyce’s singing ambitions faded somewhat after his Feis Ceoil appearance, he remained an avid fan of McCormack, following his career closely, and writing to him in 1920 having recently heard him:
I have lived in Italy practically ever since we last met but no Italian lyrical tenor that I know (Bonci possibly excepted) could do such a feat of breathing and phrasing to say nothing of the beauty of tone in which I am glad to see, Roscommon [actually Westmeath] can leave the peninsula a fair distance behind. (I Hear You Calling Me, Lily McCormack, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1949, p. 135)
It was a compliment that may only have gone so far with McCormack, who was not generally well disposed towards other tenors, even Alessandro Bonci, whom he dismissed by token of having a “white voice” at the top.
Immediately following his Feis Ceoil success, McCormack set about raising funds to study in Italy. There seemed no end to the numbers of well-wishers prepared to contribute. Concerts given by the tenor and his confrères were another source of money, and there was another option open to him that would not be available today: sound recording, although invented almost a generation earlier, in 1877, was still very much in its commercial infancy in the early nineteen hundreds, and the industry was a haphazard, informal affair. McCormack went to London and made approaches to several recording companies, making records for each, often duplicating what he had already sung, ballads all the way through. This was in 1904. He was twenty years old. He would continue to make recordings, year after year, up to and indeed after his retirement, until 1942, a span of thirty-eight years. Thus, uniquely among the great singers, we can trace McCormack’s development from even before he received any training in Italy right through to his final recordings.
So what are we to make of these first recordings? They are usually dismissed out of hand. The tenor himself thought little of them. He enjoyed playing one to friends and then asking them to identify the singer, saying it was by a youngster intent on a singing career, and what did they think? On their aghast response, McCormack, laughing uproariously, would admit to it being himself.
His very first recording session was a series of two-minute wax cylinders made for Edison’s National Phonograph Company. His spoken introductions are as revealing as the actual singing. What you hear is a very flat midlands accent with minimal articulation and not a hint of the rich, rounded vowels that were so characteristic of his singing a few years hence. As with his speaking voice, so with his singing. This is all of a piece with the impression he made on Josie Hoyle (herself the wife of a professional musician). She heard McCormack sing for the Dalkey Coal Fund, about 1903, and described him to me as “like a ploughboy”, hands and arms hanging awkwardly by his side. One can imagine his mouth lolling open. For all that, is it fanciful to imagine that, while he dismally fails to make much of the enunciation of the text of his songs, the words are actually important to him, but it has yet to dawn on him how to share them with his audience?
There is no question to my mind, that McCormack cultivated his “rural Irish accent.” The accent he developed bore no similarity with how he sounded as a boy growing up in Athlone, if we may judge from those spoken introductions. I would surmise that, while learning Italian in Milan, he realised the advantage of Italianate vowels that could be applied, with modification of course, to an Irish rural accent when singing in English. That, and even more his desire to come across in America and elsewhere as quintessentially Irish. So, he worked hard on cultivating his Irish image, not least through his accent.
McCormack made disc recordings at this time too, for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, and met for the first time the recording engineer Fred Gaisberg. The young singer left firm impressions. Gaisberg insisted he do something about his teeth, have them extracted, in fact. His dental hygiene may not have benefited from a penchant he had for carrying around boiled sweets with him, as Perceval Graves, who shared digs with him at a later date, remembered. Dentures, however, were not to interfere with diction, unless you point to the occasions that he pronounced “thee” as “dee”, as in the song “Love Thee Dearest, Love Thee.” Some observers would argue that this was not a fault at all, “dee” being a characteristic Irish way of pronouncing the fricative. Gaisberg’s other observations that have come down to us concerned the man himself:
He struck me as an over-grown, under-fed, unkempt youth—loosely built, pale-faced, disorderly dark hair, untidy clothes, very bad teeth, and worn down shoes…and he was drinking too much… His eyes were piercing dark and he had a very little to say, but that little showed him decidedly confident of himself—almost aggressive…
We all took an interest in this rough diamond… We recorded the very popular Irish songs, and I recall the difficulty he had when singing Fs and Gs… I was particularly struck with this defect, and thought what a pity in so promising a voice—for the quality was truly beautiful… While making his records he revealed to me that he would shortly be leaving for Italy to study with the well-known Maestro Vincenzo Sabatini [in Milan].
Unquestionably, McCormack was his own man even in those early days.
It was also on this trip to London that McCormack first heard Caruso. The Italian left a life-long impression on the young Irishman. In a fascinating collection of letters to the Dublin baritone JC Doyle, written between 1905 and 1909, the young tenor wrote breathless accounts of his student days, his early professional career and the singers he was able to hear. He writes enthusiastically about this singer and that, but every tenor falls short of his abiding hero, as he tells Doyle repeatedly: Caruso remained the touchstone, although McCormack himself in no way resembled him.
McCormack arrived in Milan in 1905 to be trained by Vincenzo Sabatini. It is remarkable that a singer who developed such an exceptional vocal technique spent less than a year with the maestro, all the formal training he would ever have. His operatic debut took place in the Teatro Chiabrera in Savona in the title rôle of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, on 13 January 1906, hardly a rôle to suit him even had he been a mature singer. Still, he was received well enough. Some further engagements in minor opera houses followed, an audition at La Scala came to nothing, and McCormack found himself out of work. He had married Dubliner and Feis Ceoil winner Lily Foley on 2 July 1906 and he writes coyly to JC Doyle in a letter postmarked 8 October: “I suppose you have seen Lil in Dublin. She has been home the last week on a holiday. She did not feel too well for reasons and I thought a week or two of change would help her”, which was another way of saying that his wife was pregnant.
For what would turn out to be the last time in his career, McCormack was short of money. He took the decision to up sticks, put Italy behind him and look for work in London. In no time, he picked up concert work in London and the provinces, work which would not have been available to him in Italy. He shared digs in 12a Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, with Perceval Graves, then a law student, who remembered McCormack for his moth-eaten fur coat and more significantly for his “immense powers of concentration”, an observation repeated elsewhere, including by Lily McCormack in her biography of her husband, I Hear You Calling Me.
Opera was what he really wanted to do, and kid though he was, he was bursting with self-confidence. He thought nothing of writing to JC Doyle from London that he was “keeping an eye out to good old Covent Garden” while boasting that he expected “a 3-years contract for the big summer season playing second to our mutual ideal Caruso.” He was then all of twenty-two.
His route to Covent Garden was through the Boosey Ballad Concerts held at Queen’s Hall. These were organised by the music publisher Arthur Boosey and, despite the title, were prestigious events at which some of the most celebrated singers appeared and where new music was tried out. Charles Marshall, a struggling songwriter, turned up at Torrington Square with just such a song for McCormack, indicative of his growing reputation. McCormack introduced Marshall’s song at one of Boosey’s concerts and from that point “I Hear You Calling Me” remained to all intents and purposes the tenor’s own property, his most famous encore.
At one of these concerts the young man was admired and taken up by Sir John Murray Scott, a man of influence in the highest circles. Scott got McCormack an audition with Harry Higgins, the general manager of the Royal Opera House. The story is well known: Higgins said he liked the voice but thought it too small for an auditorium the size of Covent Garden. Then make your orchestra play more softly, Scott is said to have retorted, a piece of advice that might not go amiss today betimes. So it was that on 15 October 1907, in the rôle of Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, that McCormack became, at twenty-three years of age, the youngest tenor ever to sing a major rôle at Covent Garden. Perceval Graves joined a contingent at the Irish Club at Charing Cross and marched down to the opera house to support their fellow countryman. Scott’s influence may have provided the young tenor with his first opportunity; thereafter, he had to sink or swim on his own merits. Swim he did, appearing in each subsequent year in the more prestigious summer seasons until the opera house closed down during the First World War, when it became, temporarily, a warehouse.
Remarkably for such a young man, in all that time at the Royal Opera House, he only once sang a secondary rôle. That was when he sang the rôle of Cassio to the Otellos of Giovanni Zenatello and Leo Slezak, who alternated in the eponymous rôle in Verdi’s opera. Otherwise, McCormack sang only lead rôles, a primo tenore from the start, singing with the greatest luminaries of the day, including Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini. His standing may also be judged by the fact that he was chosen to sing in two gala performances, in 1908 when the French President Armand Fallières was in London, and in 1911 when he sang in the gala to mark the accession to the throne of King George V.
These were gilded days for the tenor, both inside the opera house and out. This, after all, was the age of the salon and soirée. Perceval Graves remembered McCormack singing for the ageing Duchess of Devonshire who, despite using an ear trumpet, was a good judge of the human voice. In his repertoire was:
Stephen Adams’s impassioned ballad “Roses” in which McCormack gave out a ringing A natural with tremendous conviction. This, with other numbers…did the trick. The old lady was so delighted that she told all her friends and influential acquaintances all about the young minstrel, who soon became swamped with lucrative engagements. (RTÉ radio broadcast)
Golden days, indeed. Mrs Claude Beddington, a great admirer of the Irish tenor, left this evocative account of Edwardian musical life, and McCormack’s place in it, among the privileged:
In 1907 and 1908 Mr and Mrs McCormack lived at a picturesque, old-world country house, “New Copse”, in Surrey, and there entertained week-end parties, including great singers like Vanni Marcoux (to my mind the king of diction on the operatic stage), Sammarco and Scotti.
McCormack, always keen about exercise, played a great deal of lawn tennis, also hand-ball, which may be described as the Irish equivalent of fives. Another favourite recreation was “putting the shot”, a weight of 16 lbs.
One of the charms of these week-end house-parties was that all the guests were free to do as they liked. Breakfast began at 10 am; luncheon was missed out, and at 3 pm a sumptuous tea was served—on the lawn in fine weather; dinner, accompanied by the choicest wines (of which John is a real connoisseur) was eaten at 7.30 pm, and then music was made, the like of which had never been heard in the Surrey Hills.
Queen Alexandra was a frequent visitor at Lady de Grey’s house at Kingston-on-Thames, and nothing delighted Her Majesty more than to hear McCormack sing on the many informal occasions arranged there by the artistic hostess. In every instance, Lady de Grey, with her usual thoughtfulness, sent her motor to Netherhall Gardens in Hampstead to fetch McCormack and to send him home again. He thus had the honour of singing to Queen Alexandra every summer from 1908 to 1914. (All That I Have Met, p. 161)
McCormack was “well got” with the British establishment and no doubt he revelled in it as did Lily. But a few short years hence his standing would cause him enormous trouble.
His recording career continued with the Odeon label, for which he recorded more than eighty discs between 1906 and 1909. Consisting of opera and song, they make up a very specific period of the tenor’s artistic development, from when he had just become a professional singer to the point at which he was just about to reach his vocal maturity. He starts as a duckling taking to the water; he ends by taking flight. The Odeons were among the favourite recordings of the avid McCormack collector, the late Robert L. Webster, and it is easy to see why. Youth has its own particular charm. We hear and feel the tenor revelling in newfound powers, the strengthening of the voice, the increasing clarity of the words, the exuberance and newfound confidence. The rapid development of the voice and his personality during these few years is quite astonishing.
Inevitably, McCormack was dubbed the “Irish Caruso”, and it is said that Sir John Murray Scott had to warn his young friend not to try to emulate his hero. Perhaps he did overdo things in the opera house on occasion, but there is little evidence among the Odeons that he tried to copy the great Italian. One instance occurs in his recording of “Celeste Aida”. The manner in which he vigorously attacks and holds the high B-flat at the beginning of the phrase “Ergerti un trono vicino al sol”, the placement of the voice is reminiscent of Caruso and suggests conscious imitation.
It is worth considering for a moment how much Caruso’s style of singing differed from what had gone before him. Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806-1896) had changed singing forever, and audiences’ expectations with it, by taking his top C and the notes immediately below in the chest register rather than in falsetto or head voice. We simply take that for granted now, to the point that resorting to falsetto is regarded as a cop-out. Caruso was an innovator too, and his innovation is now so commonplace that we are unaware of how much of an innovation it once was. The innovation that Caruso introduced consisted of singing top notes while pulling the larynx emphatically down, and so providing a massive climax to his top notes. His prime, according to William James Henderson of the Sun was 1905 to 1909, but his voice became more characteristically Carusoesque as the years moved on, and perhaps from expediency the emphatic pulling down of the larynx became more pronounced, covering the tone of his top notes with a thrilling degree of girth and resonance. No one had sung like this before. Thrilling, indeed, but it is easy to overlook how much of an infraction of a purely instrumental style of singing it is, the Bs and Cs having a degree of resonance disproportionate to the notes below them. McCormack’s voice was configured quite differently. The girth of the tone tapers, thins out, with imperceptible smoothness through the registers, from the lowest to the highest notes, in the manner of a stringed instrument such as a violin. That flawless tone he combined with acutely judged portamenti and phrasing of extraordinary clarity. His Odeon recordings have their beguilingly youthful charm and exuberance, and while mastery over his voice and technique are not yet complete, the direction in which he is heading is clear.
In 1909, McCormack began his international opera career, crossing the Atlantic for the first time since his abortive visit to the Irish Village at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Luisa Tetrazzini had developed a grá for the young Irishman and put his name to Oscar Hammerstein, who was running his Manhattan Opera House in direct opposition to the Metropolitan. “An Irishman singing Italian opera in New York?” Hammerstein is said to have replied, dubiously. “I don’t think so.” He had second thoughts when considering how the Italian factions in the city had their native favourites, none more so than Caruso. So it was that McCormack made his debut opposite Tetrazzini in La traviata on 10 November 1909. The “broth of a boy”, as the New York Herald put it, made an immediate impression. New York took the young Irishman to their hearts and McCormack took New York to his. The following year, 1910, he was singing in the largest opera house in the world, the mighty Metropolitan Opera, opposite Nellie Melba.
The same year the Victor Talking Machine Company bought out his Odeon contract. The records he made that year, 1910, of Donizetti in particular, are among the greatest recorded documents of their kind, if not for their dramatic interpretation, for their unalloyed purity of sound and phrasing. Had McCormack recorded nothing else, these discs alone would put him among the finest of so-called bel canto exponents. And even if he did not infuse Verdi and Puccini with the same dramatic possibilities as some of his Italian counterparts, the same flawless vocal finish and phrasing are to be found in his recordings of these composers, and in arias by Bizet, Gounod, and Delibes.
In 1916 he made the recording of which he said that, if only one of his discs could be chosen for him to be remembered and judged by, this would be it. Legend has it that it was only on the suggestion of a recording engineer that McCormack was prompted to record “Il mio tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for which he was justly celebrated when he sang the rôle of Don Ottavio on stage.
The record is a masterful piece of singing, each note exactly in its place, the attack and line endings absolutely clear, the breath control exemplary. The voice never swerves. There is more to this recording. Take a Puccini aria: it does not much matter how the singer makes the journey upwards so long as he nails the note at the top, nor for that matter how he makes the descent. This would not do with Mozart. What makes McCormack’s recording of “Il mio tesoro” unique, is that throughout, unerringly, his vocal line rises and descends with perfect symmetry. McCormack was indeed the apostle of balance and proportion. He was to make another record which in a way was the very antithesis of this, and equally historic. If “Il mio tesoro” is a bravura aria, “Care selve” from Handel’s Atalanta, sung in translation as “Come, my beloved” and recorded in 1924, is, for want of a better term, all quiescence. The great arching phrases float and curve over our heads like the vaulting of some great Gothic cathedral. The economy of means, the focus of the tone, the effortlessness of it all is unique to McCormack. One can say more: the aria ends with the line “Guide me safely to her arms”. McCormack makes an octave leap from the A-flat on “her” to the A-flat above on “arms”. He drops a semi-tone, rises again, rolls the ‘r’, murmurs the ‘m’ and just intimates the sibilant, all of it done on a mere thread of sound and yet all executed with perfect vocal security. The sheer virtuosity of this feat is perhaps unsurpassed in the entire history of sound recording and yet its brilliance may make us overlook what I believe is an even greater McCormack virtue: the fact that despite this technical feat, this octave leap, McCormack still maintains both the melodic and verbal cohesion as a whole.
These recordings are at the high-water mark of singing on record. Equally, in this period when his voice was in its prime, 1910-1920 or thereabouts, he made of Victorian songs and ballads polished works of art, in a way that his successors have never succeeded in doing. And how he ranged over that repertoire: from Liza Lehmann’s “Ah, Moon of My Delight” and Balfe’s “Come Into the Garden, Maud”—just listen to how he makes light of such a tongue twister as “…For the black bat, night, has flown”—to Samuel Liddle’s “A Farewell” and Sterndale Bennett’s “Take, Oh, Take Those Lips Away”. This is a singer at the height of his powers and in complete control of his resources, the musical line and the text perfectly married, rubato exquisitely applied, drama and sentiment keenly felt. We have not heard, nor are we ever likely to hear, Victorian balladry and Irish song sung like this again. Why should we? The age is past. However, there is a paradox here. The repertoire is old-fashioned, yet his singing is not. Period quirks and unnecessary embellishments are absent, his art is always direct and immediate. Communication is the thing. Economy of means is a given. Precision and spontaneity are brought together here in a manner that occurs only rarely.
Hardly had McCormack established himself as an international opera singer than his career changed direction. While singing in recital in America, he was heard by the impresario Charles L. Wagner. Wagner was convinced the tenor was being badly handled by his agents, the Wolfsohn bureau, and Wagner believed he could do better. In his autobiography Seeing Stars, Wagner wrote of McCormack in a chapter entitled “Cashing High Notes Into Bank Notes” and recalled with disapproval how he had been handled by Wolfsohn:
He had been badly managed, both as to his concert appearances under the opera contract and under this farmed-out management. In the first case, on one tour he was sent out with five other singers, all more or less known in grand opera and called the International Company. McCormack himself, who was outstanding in the group, was not properly exploited.
These early managers emphasised his nationality—an unnecessary tactic. John McCormack never belonged solely to the Irish race; he belonged to the entire musical world… During the 34-date Wolfsohn-Quinlan tour, they announced him with green ink and heralded an Irish ballad singer. I came to the conclusion when I noted these maneuvers that shamrocks were no more necessary in exploiting McCormack than carving a polar bear on an ice pitcher…
I stayed with John most of the time he was making the Wolfsohn-Quinlan tour so was able to gauge the effects of these improper managerial moves…
Business was only fair on tour. It looked as though the local managers felt this tenor was good for only one appearance, but I was sure I knew better; that the poor houses were caused by poor management. I had reason to make these close studies of my golden-voice artist. My entire fortune was tied up in his fortune…
It would be unrealistic to expect the importance Wagner attaches to his own contribution to McCormack’s success to lose anything in the telling. But there is little doubt Wagner was an astute operator and during the early years of McCormack’s concertising, promoted his prize singer shrewdly:
Always I have contended that it is not solely the artist who draws. The exploitation of his artistry is equally as important. Americans are so busy that they need to be reminded again and again. Even when our houses sold out, out advertising continued, for everyone turned away at the box office probably told a dozen friends that that was the one thing he had wanted to hear all season. The public always craves that which is hard to get.
In 1912, Wagner got his chance when the tenor’s existing contract had run its course. Under Wagner’s management, McCormack sang sixty-seven concerts in that year as against a mere twelve opera appearances, and his reputation as a recitalist quickly began to overshadow his career in opera. Between 1914 and 1918, he appeared in only nine opera performances in America and none after that.
When McCormack appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House, on 4 February 1918, in Madame Butterfly with Geraldine Farrar (daughter of an Irish-American baseball player) and the baritone Antonio Scotti, the soprano Amelita Galli-Curci was in the audience:
…waving an ostrich feather fan of vivid emerald green, appropriate to the greatest cast the Emerald Isle ever furnished an opera in New York, [and] was a distinguished spectator last night at the Met, where she and her husband occupied orchestra chairs well back on the north side of the house, and at times divided attention with the stars on the stage. (The New York Times, 5 February 1918)
When McCormack sang the rôle of Pinkerton again, on 26 December 1918, it was his last appearance at the Metropolitan Opera.
The success of his 1912 tour with Wagner was such that the experiment was repeated the following spring and from that point McCormack’s reputation in the States as a recitalist simply snowballed. You have only to turn to newspaper clips of the time to get a flavour of the impact he was having right across America: “McCormack’s Fifth Greater New York Recital of Season—huge audience seems insatiate”; “McCormack furore in San Francisco—great tenor attracts clamoring throngs”; “St Paul box-office records broken”; “Record Richmond audience greets McCormack, return engagement of Irish tenor”. Such newspaper headings are typical. By the war years, the tenor had become a phenomenon of his times. Not only standing room, but seats on stage grouped around the singer became the norm. San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium he filled twice over in one week; in Boston, a great Irish stronghold, of course, he would appear up to four times at Symphony Hall inside a single week. This is the kind of thing you might expect with a modern pop singer.
With his opera days behind him, McCormack had no compunction in saying that he was the world’s worst actor. Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, he confessed, was his favourite rôle because he could put his hands in his pockets. But why should McCormack’s lack of acting ability have mattered so much? The separation of eye from ear is an opera goer’s way of life. Take the two prima donnas with whom McCormack was most closely associated, Melba and Tetrazzini. It was said of Melba that if she wanted to signify anger she raised one arm, if rage then she raised both. An opportunity to hear Melba at Covent Garden, provoked this response from McCormack in a letter to JC Doyle:
Melba on Saturday was the greatest disappointment I ever got. She sang the Bohème & when she came to the gulp [presumably in the death scene] I thought I would be put out, I laughed so much. (13 October 1905)
Tetrazzini, on entering the stage, was apt to acknowledge anyone she recognised in a box with a friendly wink or wave; she thought nothing of stepping out of character to join in the applause for another performer and even crossing the stage to pat a colleague on the back by way of encouragement—McCormack naturally received this treatment, being a favourite of Tet’s. And the diminutive lady, almost as wide as she was short, would have stretched credibility somewhat wasting away from consumption as Mimì or Violetta. Adopting the persona of another personality may well have eluded all three, but Melba as Queen of Song knew how to act that rôle; she had a regal deportment and could dominate the stage. Tetrazzini may have treated the opera a bit like cabaret, but she too knew how to make the stage work for her. The simple fact was that McCormack did not. He lacked a sense of stagecraft and never found a means of developing it. He was awkward and ill at ease on the opera stage and it showed. Besides, melodrama was outside his range.
Charlie Wagner in an amusing, if not entirely PC, discussion of the great Caruso, made this comparison between him on the opera stage and concertising:
Caruso, for all his greatness on the operatic stage, was not a recitalist… One day I mentioned concerts and it startled him. “Never!” he cried. “I am for the opera—in costume I am in character and comfortable—in a dress suit—what would I do with my hands?” When, several years later, Coppicus offered him double and triple fees, like a good foreigner he soon found out what to do with his hands—he held them out!
Caruso always was ill at ease on the concert platform. He would take a dozen songs to the piano on each appearance scheduled on the program. After each one, he would look around, measure the distance to the wings, and then sing another song. He seemed to be worried as to how to get on and off stage. Many times he would sing six or eight songs to a group, so as to obviate the necessity of making those dreaded entrances and exits. (Seeing Stars, pp. 144-145)
McCormack was the opposite. Where Caruso needed a mask to function effectively, McCormack, clothed with an operatic rôle, found his personality muted. By comparison, on the concert platform, by himself as himself, McCormack could hold an audience in the palm of his hand as hardly another singer. When he appeared at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo in 1926, this was the impression he made on the reviewer for the English-language Japan Times:
When he first came in, I sort of expected him to act as if he were “the World’s Greatest Tenor”. He did not. He just went and leaned up against the piano, and if he’d been in his own parlor at home, he couldn’t have been more simple. It seemed as though we were all one big family, and he was just talking to us, quietly, with his head a little on one side, and his eyes closed, telling us fairy tales as they came into his mind, making us smile and sigh by turns, weaving spells about us, and sometimes wringing our hearts by the pathos of his tones… Once he got settled by the piano he’d not shift his position at all, hardly; and you’d find yourself listening to that quiet soothing voice, that just came with no apparent effort, and seemed to be talking confidentially to each individual in the theatre. (5 May 1926)
The closest we can get—and it is very close—to what appealed to the Japanese reviewer is the concert sequence in the one full-length feature film McCormack made: Song o’ My Heart (1930). All credit to the director Frank Borzage, who had the concert sequence filmed with the camera entirely focused on McCormack and his faithful accompanist Teddy Schneider, while they performed song after song without the distraction of the tearful or rapt lover in the wings, or some such thing, which was well-nigh universal in films of the time.
Before the end of the First World War, McCormack had become an American institution. For the Fourth of July celebrations of 1918, at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, he was invited to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while President Wilson reviewed representatives of thirty-three nations as they filed past to lay wreaths at Washington’s tomb; after the President’s address he sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The honour was all the greater in that McCormack was not yet an American citizen. He had applied in April 1914, a process that would take five years and which required the renunciation of all previous loyalties. In McCormack’s case this meant renouncing his allegiance to King George V. Feelings ran very high during the war and in some circles this was seen as an act of gross disloyalty. From McCormack’s point of view, he was Irish and a nationalist by conviction, a subject of the monarch only by default. However one viewed the matter, there was no gainsaying how well he had done by the British establishment and he found himself persona non grata, the subject of abuse and threats such that he dare not sing in London.
On America entering the war in 1917 he offered his services to President Wilson, who told him he would be of most service staying put in the States. McCormack rallied to the cause and raised countless thousands of dollars for the war effort with a coast-to-coast tour for the Red Cross and other charities. His war recordings were immensely popular. “Mother Machree” was a particular favourite with the troops, for young men facing the prospect of death inevitably think of the fireside at home and of their mothers.
Despite being idolised in America and on the continent, he remained deeply troubled by being unable to sing in London.
He was despondent when he wrote to Wagner on 5 December 1920:
The London business was a farce. Quinlan [his agent] is a dreamer, and dreams bad dreams. I knew by the look of him that things were not well and after five minutes talk with him I gave him his £1,000 back and cancelled everything. The bitterness against me is very strong and with the present state of things in Ireland is it hopeless…
It was not only England. A concert tour of Australia in 1920 had to be aborted after a protest in Adelaide:
Owing to the omission of the National Anthem at Mr John McCormack’s, the Irish tenor’s, concerts, a large crowd made a demonstration. Hundreds remained behind at the conclusion. Someone shouted “Sinn Fein”. “God Save the King” was sung while the tenor was preparing to depart.
Mr McCormack was visibly affected by the imputation of disloyalty, and has refused to appear in further concerts at Adelaide. It may involve the abandonment of the rest of his Australian tour. He is reported to be hurrying back to America. (The Times, 11 September 1920)
He never sang in Australia again. He thought he might get into England by the back door, so to speak, writing to Charlie Wagner:
…I see it reported that the Met. intend to have a season of Opera at Covent Garden next summer. Tell Gatti I would very much like to sing there with the Company and that the fee I will leave to himself. Of course the Covent Garden crowd do not want me there now but I would love to put one across them by appearing with the Metropolitan Co. Some [?illeg.] stunt boy put it over!
Nor was he to sing in Covent Garden again. Instead, he turned to the continent where he was enthusiastically received. His last operatic performances took place in Opéra de Monte-Carlo, a five hundred-seater, ideal for a singer with McCormack’s moderate-sized voice and nuanced phrasing. He got some of the best reviews of his theatre career from André Corneau, critic of the Journal de Monaco. McCormack participated in what was Monte Carlo’s first production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Sadly, he recorded nothing from it. Among other operas he performed at Monte Carlo was Puccini’s Tosca, which might not have been regarded as ideally suited to him, but here is Corneau on the tenor as Cavaradossi:
The voice of M. MacCormack [sic] is not large, it is the voice of a light tenor, extraordinarily well placed, to which study has given an incredible suppleness, a voice which the artist uses to perfection. M. MacCormack singing without trying for effect and without permitting himself the slightest blemish of bad taste, he does not just produce volume for volume’s sake. He neither rushes nor retards the tempi according to caprice, and he does not hang on to high notes for interminable periods in order to win applause. Never does he transgress the most elementary law of song, that is, absolute respect for the music as it is written, nor does he modify the contour or the significance of a piece—and what a marvellous feeling for nuance and what clear articulation. In a word, the singer with his good method and always distinguished and classic style is simply admirable. Also, the manner in which he sang the last act of Tosca was a real feast of delicacy. (André Corneau, Journal de Monaco, 1 March 1920)
That is surely McCormack’s vocal art, where opera is concerned, to a ‘T.’ The repudiation of caprice: is there another tenor on record of whom that could be written to the same degree? McCormack was the least self-indulgent of singers.
McCormack’s very last operatic performance was on 25 March, in a rôle he had created on 17 March, that of Gritsko in A. N. Tcherepnin’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s La foire de Sorotchintsy. Corneau again: “The romance in Act 1, ‘Pourquoi mon triste coeur’, he sang divinely with a sigh of exquisite melancholy, tinged with tenderness, quivering with nostalgic Slavonic charm.” Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian tenor with attributes not dissimilar to McCormack, followed him in the rôle and made an outstanding recording of this aria in 1924. McCormack never did. Another opportunity lost.
Thereafter, McCormack devoted himself entirely to the concert platform. Yet, at the height of his celebrity in the twenties, he had misgivings. He was sensitive to the charge that his talents were being squandered on music that was beneath him. Never one to understate matters, the tenor feared that as a singer of ballads he was not a “real singer” as he put it, and there were certainly critics who thought just that. O. L. Whalen in the Detroit Journal, for example, argued that:
John McCormack, being from Athlone in the very heart of Ireland, and knowing the entrancing folk art of his land, could stand with Yeats and Lady Gregory as an exponent of it, and the encouragement which his audiences give should make it wonderfully agreeable, yet he chooses to sing dozens of foolish ditties and places himself only a little higher than Mary Pickford and Harold Bell Wright, who exploit the art of no country but merely purvey cheap sentimentality.
In one sense, he was a victim of his own success. His overwhelming popularity, singing the chaff of the day, never mind that he sang it with the same vocal finish and compelling musicality as he did everything else, detracted from his reputation both during his lifetime and subsequently. The myth remains of McCormack as a singer who prostituted his greater accomplishments for commercial and sentimental material.
The fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians went even further than O. L. Whalen by providing a date as to the tenor’s decline in repertoire. By 1924, the dictionary, asserted:
He could no longer be taken altogether seriously as a musician, since in his later years he devoted his extraordinary and unimpaired gifts to largely sentimental and popular ditties, not to be listened to with patience by critics or with enjoyment by true music lovers.
This is patently untrue. The very year Grove’s chose for his decline in his repertoire was the same year the tenor outlined for Musical America just how he prepared his concert programmes:
The first group of songs which I give, on any programme, are songs which I sing to please myself. They represent my musical taste. The second group is made up of art songs, that is to say, fine songs which the public should like and which it will like once they are heard a sufficient number of times to become familiar.
The third group I give contains the beautiful Irish folk-songs which have survived the ages because ovf the deathless appeal they make to the hearts of men…The fourth group of songs represents the fine work of modern American and English composers… (December, 1924)
Contrary to what is still sometimes believed, he never at any time in his career, not even at the end when there was little voice left, confined himself to the songs to which Whalen et al. took such exception. Grove should have known better. He varied the format described for Musical America but he typically began with a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century aria, as often as not with Handel. He had a particular affinity with the songs of Rachmaninoff (a personal friend, incidentally), which he frequently sang, and German Lieder with original texts appeared from the mid-twenties on. Art songs by modern English and American composers were also a prominent part of his repertoire. His concerts would be rounded off with a selection of Irish folk songs and work in a similar vein the strength of his Irish personality and his Irish accent made it all sound Irish even where it was not—“I Hear You Calling Me”, after all, was written by an Englishman, but who could listen to it other than in the context of the singer being by an Irish graveside? It is said the Irish listened through the classics of song “in impatient silence”. No doubt many others did so too. Such was the tenor’s popularity in such music that it overwhelmed his reputation in what was an almost uniquely wide repertoire. There was always plenty of material by which he might be judged a “serious” musician or not.
Yet the criticism stung him. Compton Mackenzie, the writer and founder of the Gramophone magazine, met McCormack in Dublin in 1924 and wrote of the encounter:
One of the keenest pleasures in an artist’s life is to be able to tell another artist quite sincerely that he admires his work. “Yes, but I expect you think I sing a great deal of rubbish”, said McCormack to me. I agreed and suggested that for this side of the Atlantic he had sung enough. “Yes, but I’m going to sing Wolf and Brahms now, and all sorts of songs that I really want to sing.” “That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time,” I assured him.
The date chosen by Grove, 1924, marked not the shrinking or deterioration of the tenor’s repertoire but rather the expansion of it. He had sung Lieder for some time but in the early twenties had now studied it in earnest and in German. His German he learnt on tour from his accompanist, Teddy Schneider, Chicago-born but of German parentage, and he turned to Sir George Henschel, a famed polymath, conductor and singer for coaching in Lieder. Henschel was probably invaluable to McCormack as he had actually received tuition from Brahms on the interpretation of Lieder. In a letter to Charlie Wagner, written from England where he could take vacations but not sing in public, he wrote feelingly:
I have made arrangements to study German Lieder with Sir George Henschel this fall and Teddy and I are then going in the spring to sing in Berlin and other large German cities and Vienna and I am going to find out once for all whether I am just a Ballad singer or a real singer. If you were an artist you would know that to sing always for the same public is very tiresome for the singer and makes him inclined to be lackadaisical and slipshod in method. I want to jack myself up as it were, so that I can if possible give more to my American public that I dearly love, and I want my American public to be proud of their American singer, and to share in any successes that may be mine over here. (24 June 1922)
McCormack’s reading into the German repertoire was far wider and deeper than is generally recognised. The critic and composer, Deems Taylor, retained a golden memory of an evening when “John sang straight through two volumes of Hugo Wolf’s songs, with Rachmaninoff at the piano and Ernest Newman turning the pages…” (I Hear You Calling Me, p. 156) Such evenings in the McCormacks’ apartment in New York were far from rare. Gerald Moore is on record as saying McCormack was one of the two best sight-readers in his experience, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau being the other.
In 1923, he recorded Lieder with their original German texts for the first time. He is every inch the broken-hearted lover in Schubert’s “Die Liebe hat gelogen”, which he recorded in 1923 and 1927, an interpretation Herman Klein singled out for praise while adding: “I don’t greatly admire his German accent, because it has an American flavour; but it sounds fluent, while the dark colour of the voice is welcome”. Others commented on the problem he had with umlauts that he never fully overcame. However, his versatility in Lieder was evident from the start. In Brahms’s “In Waldeseinsamkeit”, we find the tenor at his most tender and elegiac, savouring remembered, enraptured love. Interestingly, the English critic, Desmond Shawe-Taylor thought the tenor insufficiently responsive to Schubert’s “divine spontaneity”, although he made an exception for “Die Liebe hat gelogen” and he had unbounded praise for his singing of Brahms’s “Die Mainacht” and “In Waldeseinsamkeit” which:
…are sung with a beautiful lightness and smoothness, and with an easy phrasing. The interpretation of “In Waldeseinsamkeit” is notable for the three-fold upward phrase (like a distant echo) on the word “ferne” and for the final pianissimo rise on the last syllable of “Nachtigall”—one of McCormack’s most famous vocal effects turned to the most exquisite account. It is hard to think of the German tenor who could rival either of these performances. (World Record Club LP, WRC H110, sleeve notes)
McCormack also included French art songs in his concert programmes, even on the continent, although his French was indifferent and if he was sometimes stiff in his rendering of French music it is hardly surprising. He had Teddy Schneider to “bounce” German off on a daily basis if he wished, but not French. Nevertheless, in “Champs paternels, Hébron douce vallée” from Méhul’s Joseph en Égypte (1917), the voice, as one would expect, soars. In Gabriel Fauré’s “L’automne” (1932), the French is laboured and so is the voice, with an awkwardly executed interval near the end. It is mood rather than idiomatic French that impresses: he captures the regret of passing time with poignancy. César Franck’s sacred song, “La procession” (1927), taken with softness and delicacy, suits the tenor better still.
With England out of bounds, McCormack’s forays into Europe in 1923 proved to be all that he had hoped for, indeed perhaps even more. His manager, Denis McSweeney, wrote to Lily McCormack:
We have witnessed great demonstrations at the Hippodrome, Symphony Hall in Boston, Sydney and elsewhere, but I can truthfully say that the ovations in both Berlin and Prague were greater. Had the crowd here in Prague been as large as a Hippodrome audience they would have been heard in Paris almost. It was a different kind of enthusiasm. In New York they usually wait for the favourites before they get going; here they started after the first number, sung in Italian, a language which perhaps not a dozen people in the hall understood.
Triumph followed triumph, including his singing of the aria from Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which he sang with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter in Berlin. He had previously sung it in Paris. McSweeney recalled:
The ovation following the Beethoven Aria in Berlin was simply colossal. I don’t think I have ever seen our tenor so deeply touched. I am happy and very proud and very glad that I got over on time to witness it all, but the joint regret of the Three Musketeers [McSweeney, Schneider and the tenor himself] is that you are not here.
By 1924, a decade had passed since he had last sung in London. With time moving on he must have felt it was now nor never. Playing safe, he booked Queen’s Hall, a much smaller venue than the massive Royal Albert Hall, which under normal circumstances would have been the natural choice for a singer of his celebrity. As soon as the date of the concert was announced, for 6 October 1924, McCormack was again targeted with threats of disruption of the concert and worse. This time, however, he was determined to proceed with it. Henri Deering, the pianist, opened the concert and was, apparently, a model of composure. Then came the moment when John and Teddy Schneider appeared on the platform. The packed house simply rose to him and in Lily’s words: “From that moment the day was John’s… John knew he was once again in the hearts of the British public. We heard nothing more from the writers of the letters and telegrams and never found out who had instigated the ‘war of nerves’”.
Compton Mackenzie recalled:
He did me the honour of inviting me to sit between the Countess and his daughter in case there was an unpleasant demonstration. I had just grown a black beard about that time and looked a bit fierce. John himself spent the whole day in church after communicating at early mass, and from the church he came straight to Queen’s Hall. The place was packed. I sat between the great tenor’s wife and daughter in the middle of the front row of the circle. I can see now John’s face, chalk white as he came on to the platform. There was a moment’s silence and then the audience broke into mighty applause and cheering. John’s face grew whiter, if possible. A silence fell. Then as if from another world he started the aria “O Sleep” on that high opening note without the ghost of a tremolo in it. The return to London was a triumph, and not one of the gallant band of anonymous letter writers ventured as loud a hiss as a moulting gander. We had a wonderful supper party that night and a few days later John played over to me the records he had just made of Brahms and Wolf.
Herman Klein summed up his reception in one word: “magnificent.”
Also in the audience was the Irish pianist Charles Lynch, whose recollections of the concert deserve quoting at length:
I still remember the peculiar feeling of tense excitement which emanated from the absolutely crowded house. The concert opened with a pianoforte solo—Bach’s A Minor Prelude and Fugue for Organ, arranged by Liszt. This was played by the pianist Henri Deering. After this there was an interval of a few minutes and then John McCormack stepped on to the platform. When the huge crowd caught sight of him it broke into shouts and applause, and when this finally died away there was another minute or so of silence. Then John McCormack nodded to his accompanist, who began to play the opening symphony of a Handel aria. When McCormack’s voice entered I realized that I was listening to the most perfect voice I had yet heard, taken as an example of sheer vocal sound. The performance of this aria by Handel was well-nigh flawless from start to finish. But even greater things were still to come. During the course of that afternoon’s recital many songs were sung, but the performance of three others, besides the Handel aria, remains immovably fixed in my memory. These were Schubert’s little masterpiece “Der Jüngling an der Quelle”, Frank Bridge’s “Go Not Happy Day” and “The Next Market Day” by Herbert Hughes. The thrill I felt when I heard Toscanini conduct the New York Symphony Orchestra in the Albert Hall, and Sir Thomas Beecham conduct the Delius Festival Concerts in 1929, was equalled by the thrill which John McCormack’s performance of these songs gave me. It was not merely the perfect vocal sound. That was something one took for granted. Rather it was the consummate art which lay behind this, and which turned the mood of each song into a real, living world, in which each person and image in the poems seemed to become endowed with a life of its own. The voice literally floated through the hall, with the words, seemingly floating on top of it. This had the effect of making the words seem separate from and, at the same time emotionally one with, the vocal line. Consequently the simultaneous perfection of both vocal and verbal articulation was truly memorable. The public evidently shared my views, for they insisted on his giving a repeat performance of these three songs. As I came out of the concert hall into the London streets on that autumn evening, I heard a ringing cheer from the crowd in Ridinghouse Street, gathered around the great singer’s car as it drove him away.
To this, Charles Lynch had a postscript:
I heard John McCormack on other occasions, but, as it happened, never again at Queen’s Hall. It was always in the Albert Hall, that vast, gloomy building with the monstrous echo, yet McCormack’s voice filled that huge place from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall with effortless ease. It was indeed the only voice I ever heard sound really well in that building.
The Times, having noted the ovation he received, went on to compliment him on his:
…very substantial programme. He did not propose the three hackneyed arias with a few ballads, which famous singers often think, no doubt correctly, are good enough for such an audience, but gave a scheme of song in four groups, calculated to show very different sides of his art which, in the years since he was heard here, he has developed considerably. [Presumably the contributor to Grove’s Dictionary was not present!] He began with Scarlatti and Handel. The former’s “Caldo sangue” from the cantata Re di Gerusalemme is an intensely moving piece of pure melody as he sings it, and his Handel selection in English and Italian, “O Sleep” from Semele, and “Vanne sì, superba, và”, a vigorous aria from Giustino, showed two distinct aspects of Handel, as well as the intelligence in interpretation of the singer.
… His second group was made up of German Lieder, Schubert, Brahms and Wolf, his third of Irish folksongs, and his fourth was a miscellaneous selection of things he likes to sing. His study of German song is comparatively recent. If we are not mistaken, he began singing it in public in America only a year or two ago. “Der Jüngling an der Quelle” (Schubert) had to be repeated, and Wolf’s “Wo find’ ich Trost?”, the longest of the group, was splendidly given, though once or twice in the climaxes here one realised that the voice has not quite the inexhaustible quality it used to have. After this group he added as an encore Rachmaninov’s “To the Children” (in English), which he makes extraordinarily appealing through his spontaneous singing. Spontaneity is the very essence of his singing of Irish folksongs. We heard five, and wondered how many more the audience would get from him. Obviously they could not get enough to satisfy them. In these things the diction is perfect. You hear every word across Queen’s Hall, but are not made conscious of the art which produces the result. “The Next Market Day” (arranged by Herbert Hughes) was specially captivating to the audience for this reason, but in “Una Baun” the singer sings his heart away, which is better still…
McCormack’s repertoire was huge. Compare his Queen’s Hall return with the five concerts he gave at the Imperial Theatre, Tokyo, in 1926. He made a tour of the Orient on the advice of his friend Fritz Kreisler. McCormack’s proposed concert programmes were announced in advance. They make interesting reading as an indication of how much wider McCormack’s repertoire was—particularly in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, in the baroque and classical periods—than his discography or reputation would suggest; and once again it nails the mistaken belief that McCormack ever confined himself to familiar ballads. In the first concert, Handel’s “O Sleep Why Dost Thou Leave Me?”, one of his favourite concert arias and one he did record, was followed by a rare piece by Leonardo Vinci (c.1690–1732), “Sentirsi il petto accendere” from his opera Artaserse. His second concert opened with the aria “Gioite al canto mio” from one of the very earliest of all operas, Euridice, by Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), followed by Handel’s “Enjoy the Sweet Elysian Groves” from Alceste; and his fourth and fifth concerts featured, respectively, Mozart’s “Per pietà, non ricercate” and from Handel’s little-known opera, Giustino, “Vanne sì, superba, và”. The third concert opened with the recitative and aria from Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge, then continued with Schubert and Wolf. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century music was represented throughout, along with a collection of Irish songs. Writing of the second concert in the series the Japan Times noted that: “His voice, always sweet and warm, last night partook of the finer qualities of liquid expression and soulful interpretation… The very first number showed Tokyo the superb lyric mastery of his voice”. Notwithstanding what was on the concert programmes, the Japan Times announced his imminent arrival by describing him as the singer of “Mother o’ Mine”.
It is sometimes said that the recording industry reached maturity with the advent of electrical recording. That took some time. Only in the face of a declining market was the complacency of the record companies breached and the microphone and electrical amplification, invented years before, introduced to the recording studios, in 1925. Strange to relate, the eager anticipation of the new process was matched by an equal reaction of gnashing of teeth when the first electrical records came off the press. Compton Mackenzie had written in the January edition of the Gramophone:
We enter our third year at a season when the vitality of the gramophone is popularly supposed to be at its lowest ebb. In spite of that the atmosphere buzzes with whispers of coming excitements. HMV announce a new method of recording electrically.
Come November and he did not mince his words:
The exaggeration of sibilants by the new method is abominable, and there is often a harshness which recalls some of the worst excesses of the past. The recording of massed strings is atrocious from an impressionistic standpoint. I don’t want to hear symphonies with an American accent. I don’t want blue-nosed violins and Yankee clarinets. I don’t want the piano to sound like a free lunch counter.
Correspondents were equally dismayed. The new realism took some getting used to. Even today, collectors of early records feel nostalgic about acoustic records for their mellowness. But pre-electric records do not have the same harmonic range or detail. As a rule, they do not separate the voice from background instruments as successfully, nor provide the instruments with the same amount of detail as even early electrical recordings did. Incidentally, the electric process in the studio did not generally extend to electrically amplified gramophones or phonographs, which remained acoustic and often hand-cranked into the forties and beyond.
McCormack reached the age of forty-one in 1925. Over his long career, he had almost as many years making electrical recordings as he had acoustic. Through most of the 1920s his voice remained a potent instrument, with its youthful bloom fading only slowly. Some of his repertoire, but by no means all, he recorded both acoustically and electrically, and some songs he recorded several times. So often, when a singer repeats his work, especially where there is an interval of years, it is found that lapses in style and technique intrude, sloppiness creeps in or corners are cut. In McCormack’s case the scrupulous technique remained intact, while at the same time his vocal personality became more expansive, the text of songs more to the fore. The broadened vowels sometimes provide the words with more emphasis. Many a McCormack fan will tell you that when they think of his voice on record the words come to mind no less than the melody. His ability to converse on a musical line became more developed in the latter part of his career, as for example in three of his most popular encores, which he re-recorded in 1927: “I Hear You Calling Me”; “Kathleen Mavourneen”; and “Mother Machree”. Simple though the texts of these songs might seem in print, the words became embedded in the collective Irish memory—along with many others—by the poignant caresses McCormack imparts to them:
Though years have stretched their weary lengths between
And on your grave the mossy grass is green
I hear you calling me
and in “Kathleen Mavourneen”:
It may be for years and it may be forever
Then why art thou silent, the voice of
Sure, I love the dear silver
That shines in your hair,
And the brow that’s all furrowed,
And wrinkled with care.
I kiss the dear fingers,
So toil-worn for me,
Oh, God bless you and keep you,
Listening to them now, approaching a century since they were recorded, the words still ring fresh and heartfelt.
How often has McCormack’s diction been applauded, but it was much more than diction: it was his feel for words, and the manner in which he could point up words and whole phrases that made him the singer he was. It is a hoary old chestnut as to which should come first, the words or the musical line. There is, after all, an inherent conflict between the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of music. McCormack resolved the issue as if there was no issue to resolve. He was uncompromising in pursuing the rhythms of speech, moving across bar lines without compunction. Yet, such was his musicianship, he still maintained the essential contours of the vocal line as written. Perhaps the very essence of his art lay in his sense of timing, over and above the written score, manifest in sparingly-used pregnant pauses, in rubato of course, in lengthening and shortening phrases or parts of phrases to highlight what was important and diminish what was less so, in telling a story in song, as in “Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen” (one verse only in 1907; complete in 1934) and in bringing out the searing drama in such a song as Rachmaninoff’s “To the Children” (1922/24/25). By such means, on record no less than in live performance, he had the ability to reach out to his unseen audience with a rare intimacy and connection.
These elements of communication were nurtured by his Edwardian roots. They may have been losing ground to changing stylistic fashions and the pedantry of “fidelity to the score” by the late twenties, if not before. When his recording of Quilter’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (1927) was reviewed in the Gramophone magazine in July 1930, the anonymous writer had this to say:
When one of our most famous critics…has said that a singer has by his consummate style performed the feat of making him listen to poor songs, one can’t, when the songs are of any value, dismiss a record of that singer with a “very charming, though all wrong.” McCormack seems to be completely forsaking any sustained singing; indeed, his conversational style seems to be hardly recognisable as singing proper any longer. Can he possibly have been influenced by the talkie atrocities? Into the bargain, in Quilter’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal”, he makes the four shortest notes of the song, set so expressively to the first four syllables of “Slip into my bosom”, into the four longest; being guilty of one of the lowest tricks of singing. One can only admire and enjoy the rare perfect simplicity and ease of singing…
Lengthening the phrase in question seems fully justified: the meaning of the phrase is heightened, and while the melodic contour is elongated it is not perverted; McCormack’s rhythmic sense sees to that. It makes no sense to squeeze words uncomfortably to adhere to a prescribed pattern if a greater freedom provides a greater naturalness, as the reviewer would appear to recognise: “… rare simplicity and ease of singing.” It is not parlando. The emission of a sustained and homogenous tone runs through each phrase—which is as good a definition of singing as any other. The gentle, imaginative interplay that McCormack brings to the text and the melodic line makes this a gem of a recording. Who has sung it more eloquently?
Let us dwell for a moment on the distinction between parlando—heightened speech—and singing tone, so-called. Singing tone has little to do with actual timbre and everything to do with rhythm. Blues and jazz singers, not necessarily noted for “beautiful tone”, are said to “swing” when they are ahead, behind and on the explicit beat of their music, but always in contact with the beat. It is this which provides their vocal line with buoyancy—swing—no matter how raucous the voice or how limited the vocal range. The singer, classical or jazz, who dutifully plods along the beat never gets the vocal line airborne. It is no different in classical music other than that the beat is usually implicit rather than explicit. McCormack’s imaginative use, and acute sense, of rhythm was without peer among singers. His use of rubato runs through his work, but is most brilliantly illustrated in songs with overt rhythms. Well I remember the late Dr. Tom Walsh, founder of the Wexford Opera, enthusing in a lecture over the exquisite rhythmic buoyancy in “By the Short Cut to the Rosses”. One might equally point to the Ballynure Ballad, which so evokes “Old Ireland” and his late recording of “The Star of the County Down” (1939), which shows the freshness of his art undiminished by age. Writing of this song in “Am I Too Loud?”, Gerald Moore observed:
The claim that very little music is performed in strict time with a slavish observance of bar lines is not an empty one. I found that John McCormack used natural speech rhythms in his songs. This kept me on the alert for sometimes he would try to catch me napping, particularly in The Star of the County Down where he used every sort of elasticity of rhythm. This song had one particular line which was a real tongue twister for him: “No pipe I’ll smoke and no horse I’ll yoke, till my plough is a rust coloured brown”. I will swear I once heard him declaim: “No horse I’ll smoke, and no pipe I’ll yoke till my plough...” and then the phrase dwindled away into an indistinguishable mumble. A mishap like this was clearly noticeable when it overtook McCormack. Any other singer would have bluffed his way out of it. But John was not another singer, nor have I ever heard enunciation such as his. You could hear every syllable he uttered, no matter how softly he sang, and you could almost see his consonants.
How often do you hear “The Star of the County Down” sung today with the singer sticking relentlessly to the written rhythm, like a train stuck on tracks, the words hopelessly enervated? Where else but in McCormack’s recording of Stephen Foster’s lilting “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (1934) would you find the wonderful movement of the line, with such a sense of improvisation, every touch of rubato just so and sounding so natural?
An important part of McCormack’s repertoire was songs of a religious nature, of which he recorded many throughout his career. One becomes aware of just how accurate was McCormack’s intonation in both the Bach and Schubert settings of the “Ave Maria”, which he recorded several times. Perhaps the broad vowels are used with a little too much emphasis in the Schubert. But how well paired are McCormack and Kreisler, here as in so much else they recorded. Listen to Strauss’s “Morgen!” for its elegiac eloquence in both the vocal line and violin obbligato. The influence of Kreisler on his younger friend—there was ten years between them—was considerable, and freely acknowledged by McCormack.
His recording of César Franck’s “Panis angelicus” (1927) was among his most popular religious recordings. In 1928, for his indefatigable work for charities, McCormack was raised by Pope Pius XI to the papal peerage, the honour being all the greater for being made hereditary. And it was at the Pontifical High Mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, which concluded the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, that McCormack had the largest live audience of his career, with an estimated million attendees in the park. On the steps of the high altar, resplendent in his papal uniform and accompanied by his tutor of old, Vincent O’Brien, conducting the Palestrina Choir, McCormack sang Franck’s “Panis angelicus”. For many who heard him on that occasion, as their reminiscences testified, it was one of the highlights of their lives, an experience to be recounted to their children and their children’s children.
The greatest of his religious recordings, undoubtedly, was the aria from Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, recorded in English, with its recitative recorded in both English and German. His singing of the aria was greatly admired on the continent as we have seen, yet he did not record it until 1930—why so late? Any later and he would not have the vocal resources to handle it. The manner in which the text is projected in high relief against the musical line is a consummate achievement. Yet despite the textual urgency, the smoothness of his legato is never compromised. The religious fervour and pleading are expressed entirely by musical means and the vocal line is never smudged. Nor at any point, this being all the more remarkable given the date of the recording, does McCormack overreach himself while he builds up the drama, climax upon climax, right until the pleading, climactic conclusion on the lines: “Lord, arise! Deliver me!” A small part of the score, but who today sings arpeggios with the accuracy McCormack did? This recording is a tour de force.
Inevitably, in the thirties the voice darkened and showed evidence of ageing, yet some of the tenor’s most notable recordings, including German Lieder, were yet to come. With Hugo Wolf McCormack had a special affinity, responding to the questioning, searching nature of Wolf’s work, its religious allusions; and to Wolf’s organic fusion of music and language. He had introduced to America some of the orchestral settings that Wolf had made for his songs. The Hugo Wolf Society was formed in 1931 by HMV with the purpose of producing limited editions to be sold by subscription. Elena Gerhardt (1883–1961) was the first singer approached, and over a period of years some fourteen singers recorded for the project. Six volumes of Wolf’s songs, in all, were published. For the Wolf Society he is accompanied by Teddy Schneider. His recording of “Ganymed”, made in 1932, is regarded as one of the high points of McCormack’s recording career. The critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote of it:
He does supreme justice to one of the greatest of all German songs. It is somewhat mysterious that McCormack seldom (if ever) sang in public a song of which his interpretation is so memorable, indeed haunting, as to seem definitive. This is one of those rare performances which may properly be called inspired. A gentle pulsation enters the voice at the new access of emotion on the words “Du kühlst den brennenden/ Durst meines Busens,/ Lieblicher Morgenwind!”, a wondering assent at “Ich komm! Ich komme!”, a rapturous excitement at the phrase “Mir! Mir!/ In eurem Schoße/ Aufwärts!”, while the long final phrase floats upward and out of sight, from the oft-repeated D to the high F-sharp, in a manner of which this singer alone knew the secret.
In contrast to “Ganymed”, McCormack recorded Wolf’s “Schlafendes Jesuskind”, a poetic meditation on a painting by Francesco Albani, no fewer than three times, in 1925, 1930 and 1936. If the voice is inevitably older sounding in the last recording, it is also the one in which the singer is most deeply committed; and his recording of “Herr, was trägt der Boden hier” (1935) has the powerful stamp of a singer who not only understands mortality, but anticipates it. In a different vein altogether, yet still the work of maturity, is the unforced, spontaneous charm he brings to “Auch kleine Dinge”, also recorded in 1935, an existential savouring of the passing moment, the observation that “Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken”—even small things can delight us—is relished and pondered upon in a way that tends to escape youth. These recordings, made in the autumn of his career, are remarkable in showing that the singer, even as his voice declined, did not cease to develop experientially. His abiding affinity with miniatures is heard in such as Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon” (1941) and such Irish airs as “She Moved Thro’ the Fair” and Thomas Moore’s “Love Thee, Dearest, Love Thee”, his wistful charm becoming more plaintive with the passing of the years.
John McCormack retired from the concert circuit in America at Buffalo in 1937 and a farewell tour of the British Isles and Ireland culminated in a tearful farewell at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 27 November 1938. He came out of retirement during the Second World War to sing on behalf of the Red Cross. He finally retired to the Shelbourne Hotel in the centre of Dublin and then, on account of the onset of emphysema, to “Glena”, Booterstown, along the coast, where Lily hoped the sea air would help him. A nursing nun who looked after him at this time recalled him saying to her impishly: “Do you know, Sister, if Christ ever sang I am sure it was with a tenor voice.” His own voice was now reduced to a whisper. Charles Lynch remembered the last occasion he visited him at “Glena”:
During the course of that evening Count McCormack showed me his fine library of music. Amongst many other absorbingly interesting things was a facsimile manuscript full-score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Eventually he brought out a score of Die Walküre, which I commenced to play on his magnificent Steinway piano. For the next couple of hours I played large sections of this opera, while Count McCormack stood beside the instrument, turning over the pages and occasionally singing. When we came to the final notes of the incomparable work, we were both of us deeply moved at the beauty of Wagner’s music. As I stood on the steps of the house saying goodbye to him that night, I little thought that six weeks later he would no longer be with us, but so it was to be.
He died from pneumonia on 16 September 1945, aged sixty-one, and was buried, as he wished, in his Papal uniform, in Deans Grange Cemetery. It is said that in the west of Ireland, when word spread of his passing, there were people who drew down the blinds in their houses, a traditional mark of respect more usually reserved for a family member. I am old enough to remember that when the name of John McCormack came up in conversation among old timers, a faraway look would come over their faces and they would speak of him with reverence.
For McCormack was more than an entertainer. He defined the Irish experience. Sunt lacrimae rerum: tears lie at the heart of things. It was a time of grinding hardship and poverty; when tuberculosis was rampant; when families might share a single room; when emigrants were waked as the dead were waked: for those who departed for far-flung places were not expected to return. His voice and art embodied the struggle, the sense of loss and heartbreak of those times. He was an icon of the age, and the humanity in his art brought solace and consolation to countless numbers the world over. Not only with tears, for McCormack’s art encompassed gentle humour too. In the song “Off to Philadelphia”, the unfortunate emigrant was often interpreted as a figure of fun, a stage caricature. By contrast, McCormack, in his 1941 recording, identifies with the hapless traveller. The self-deprecating fun he pokes is all at himself, forlorn figure that he is, but the hope of one day returning home, though we are made to think it unlikely, is made in earnest. In “Molly Brannigan” (1913), one of the most beguiling of all Irish folk songs, McCormack brings out the underlying truth that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin.
His recorded output was immense. Posterity, however, cannot but regret what he never recorded. Perhaps the greatest singer of Mozart and Handel of his day, it is pitiful that he recorded less than a handful of their compositions. His concert programmes reveal a vast repertoire of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century songs, almost none of which he brought to the recording studio. Bach is barely represented; Scarlatti and Vivaldi not at all. One could go on. That said, his discography, for its idiomatic security, its consistency and versatility, and for the number of definitive recordings it contains, stands as one of the towering achievements in the history of sound recording. His records make the case for describing him as the greatest musician among singers of his time.
John McCormack had a voice of exquisite purity and a consummate vocal technique, yet perhaps his greatest gift was something else: for above the beauty of the voice and the technique, and even when the voice was no longer young and flexible, McCormack remained always a vividly communicative artist, among the most compelling vocal personalities of the twentieth century.
© Gordon T. Ledbetter, 2019
The passages quoted from the article by Charles Lynch are reproduced with permission from the Capuchin Annual (1946-1947). The Capuchin Annual was published every year in Dublin by the Capuchin Franciscans from 1930 to 1977. It contained articles (mainly in English but also in Irish) on a variety of subjects: poetry, cartoons, illustrations and photographs. Its circulation was international as it was frequently sent to Irish emigrants particularly in North America and in Australia.
The Singing of John McCormack
“I cannot place your voice, because God did that.”
My hope is to draw a portrait of the artist and the man: singer, patriot, musician, talker, mimic, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, an Irishman with a rough side to his tongue as well as a smooth and with vitality enough to make enemies as well as friends. To this end I have wherever possible let him speak in his own words.” (L.A.G. Strong, John McCormack, Peter Nevill Limited, 1949, p. 7.) In this design Mr. Strong was remarkably successful. Pierre Key did not have quite the same skill in transcribing McCormack’s speech in his book (John McCormack, His Own Life Story, Small, Maynard & Co., 1918). Key conceived this biography as a long conversation between himself and his subject, but it cannot be said that he consistently captured a credible echo of McCormack’s chatter. Can we really believe that John said things like “Sabatini did not immediately speak, but he rose slowly from his seat as though cogitating something important and not to be prematurely divulged?” (p. 108.) However, this same chapter does contain some interesting information about McCormack’s vocal studies with Vincenzo Sabatini in Milan (pp. 110 –111):
Two objects engaged the chief attention of Sabatini in our work: the acquiring of a mezza-voce, which I did not have by nature, and the freeing of my high tones. The voice was not what is called a “long” voice (by which I mean plenty of compass, from bottom to top) and the top notes were in my throat; but to get them out with freedom, so that a high A or B-flat had the same relative quality as the lower part of the voice, required constant, painstaking teaching on Sabatini’s part and practice on my own. The mezza-voce (singing with half the volume of the full voice, or with less than half) was a slow process; often I grew discouraged over it… But my endeavors, as may be apparent, so far as Sabatini is concerned, lay in the direction of acquiring an evenness of the vocal scale; of making the voice smooth in every note, and in gaining ease of production and certainty—in short, a technique which in time would become so perfect mechanically as to allow me to forget technique, while I sang, and devote my attention exclusively to the interpretation of the music and the text.
The biographies of Count John McCormack trace the life story of the shy garsún who rose to the exalted ranks of papal dignity and worldwide recognition as a star performer among international concert artists. Like Tito Schipa, a tenor whom he in many ways resembles, McCormack was able to fix on wax a permanent memento of his entire career, from 1904 to 1942 when the distinguished tenor emerged from retirement with a voice no longer boasting the high notes of yore but still—frequently—of pearly freshness and with a technique only partially eroded by time. In forty years of singing, very little of great significance was ever lost to McCormack the minstrel.
L.A.G. Strong quotes a perspicacious review by Julian Johnson from the Los Angeles Times following McCormack’s first concert in that city in 1912:
Such limpid use of the voice, such a delicate command of portamento, such mezza voce, such round, luscious, appealing, ringing tone, floating on the breath and formed apparently without the slightest physical limitation or throaty pressure—to tell the truth, all these things do not seem logical or even sane in these days of passion-tattering…of the expiring Bonci race only McCormack appears to upbear the white standard of bel canto pure and undefiled.
What Mr. Johnson wrote in 1912 could scarcely be improved upon as a description of the singing of John McCormack, but all of it could equally be said of Edmond Clément (1867–1928) and Hirwen Jones (1857–?), to name but two tenors more or less contemporary with him, exquisite singers who, however, never gained the immortal fame of John McCormack. Clément exemplifies the high achievements of the French school of singing as reformed by Paër, Rossini and the many Italian singers who taught in Paris, like Bordogni and Sbriglia, while the records of the forgotten Welsh tenor Hirwen Jones, who enjoyed a successful career in Victorian England in concert and oratorio, reveal one of the finest singers of a now extinct English school of singing that was also modelled on the Italian. All three of these light lyric tenors recorded the “Berceuse” from Godard’s Jocelyn, all of them displaying the qualities admired by Mr. Johnson (only McCormack, however, enjoying the privilege of a violin obbligato by Fritz Kreisler). These qualities were once demanded of all singers by discriminating audiences: small wonder that McCormack stood out in comparison with the “passion-tattering” complained of by Mr. Johnson. Small wonder, also, that such vocal paragons as Melba and Tetrazzini repeatedly asked for McCormack to sing with them.
Where any rivalry with Bonci is concerned, it seems to me that, so far as gramophone records can be trusted, only in “Giunto sul passo estremo” from Mefistofele does Alessandro Bonci offer any serious threat to McCormack. In 1906 Bonci was hailed by the New York critics, then the best in the world, as a paragon of vocal technique and style: curiously, they never mentioned his rather irregular vibrato, which is strikingly prominent on all his records. (Bonci was a pupil of Felice Coen at the Pesaro Conservatory: two other tenor pupils of Coen were Umberto Macnez and my teacher, Vincenzo D’Alessandro (1876–1968) neither of whom had a marked vibrato. At the age of ninety-two D’Alessandro still sang perfectly, very much in the Bonci style.) You could not describe Bonci’s tone as “round and luscious” though it does seem to be “appealing and ringing”, nor could you apply to Bonci the age-old Italian dictum “Il cantante non ha gola”—the singer has no throat—whereas you may certainly apply it to McCormack in 1912, when he recorded the two arias from Mefistofele. His beautifully-sung record of “Giunto sul passo estremo” ends with a ravishing ascent, pianissimo, to the high A-flat, held at length—to tell the truth, a rather vulgar addition to the score, but McCormack is not the only tenor on records to perpetrate this embellishment (often yelled fortissimo), which had probably become traditional, and he may even have learned it from Sabatini. (Caruso, in his 1902 recording, does not introduce an unwritten high note, probably because he had sung the opera at La Scala conducted by Toscanini, no friend to singers’ interpolations.) In the main, McCormack’s interpretation is “modern”, a fairly straightforward reading of the music, once so popular, now rather looked down upon. To place Bonci’s 1905 record on the turntable is to enter a completely different world: although McCormack finds at once the colour of voice appropriate to the song, striking a suitably mournful, regretful, dreamy (“trasognato”) tone, it is Bonci who is truly eloquent, in a very old-fashioned but vivid and fascinating manner. Bonci savours each phrase, lingers lovingly on the words and notes and gives the same kind of poetic “interpretation” that Fernando De Lucia, of the previous generation, does in his strikingly pictorial reading (1917). In each strophe Bonci teaches us how to place the ascending scale up to the high A-flat, upon which note, both times, he effects a spectacular diminuendo, avoiding any interpolation in the finale, where he sings only the written notes—magically—with a diminuendo on the F of “esistenza”. However! While Bonci is singing our hearts are in our mouths because the silvery, trembling voice sounds as if it might crack at any moment: in this thrilling record it never does, though in some other recordings he is not so fortunate. McCormack’s audiences (in the concert hall or on the gramophone) were spared this agonising suspense, so solid and secure was his technique. Although Bonci was by no means a better actor onstage than McCormack (Lilli Lehmann describes him as cutting a ridiculous figure), like a true Italian he manages to turn the Fonotipia acoustic recording studio into a theatre, whereas McCormack’s “Giunto sul passo estremo” is very much a refined, somewhat staid, concert performance. Unlike Maria Malibran, he did not have “il diavolo in corpo”, one of Verdi’s basic requirements for an opera singer (he was not “possessed by the devil”). This probably explains why, in the midst of the verismo ferment, Italian theatre audiences seem to have received him with respectful admiration rather than rapturous ecstasy—although subsequently they bought his records in considerable quantities.
It is interesting to compare McCormack in his golden period with, for example, two fine and popular contemporary English tenors, who, like McCormack, also recorded Liza Lehmann’s great song “Ah, Moon of My Delight”: Sydney Coltham and Hubert Eisdell. Both have fresh, attractive voices, with a sound technique on which to base their polished and detailed interpretations. They are scrupulous in following the composer’s indications in the score—Lehmann was herself a singer, a pupil of Jenny Lind, and knew what effects she wanted. Both tenors have a complete command of the piano, the pianissimo, the crescendo, and the diminuendo and Coltham even manages to take the final upper G pp as written, and then fine the note down even further in a virtuoso diminuendo! But if we then turn to John McCormack’s record, made in his sumptuous prime in 1911, Eisdell and Coltham are trumped: without paying any great attention to the composer’s markings, McCormack turns an already compelling song into a thing of pure magic. Naturally, he makes a special feature of the sustained pianissimo G at the end, and despite Sydney Coltham’s spectacular diminuendo and Eisdell’s brilliant high A, it is always going to be McCormack’s voice that I hear in my mind as I prepare to teach this song to a pupil.
McCormack on Acoustic Recordings
Before beginning his contract with Odeon in 1906, and, indeed, before having had the benefit of lessons from Sabatini in Milan, the twenty-year-old McCormack made over fifty recordings for various companies. One of the most pleasing and most promising is the 1904 ten-inch G&T of Balfe’s “Killarney” (better recorded than the cheaper, seven-inch version) that lingered long in the catalogues. Although McCormack used to poke fun at these primitive recordings of his, there is nothing at all to be ashamed of in this particular performance of a difficult and brilliant song—Balfe was a friend and pupil of Rossini. The young lad negotiates the difficult intervals with surprising aplomb and accuracy. The voice is not, I think, immediately recognisable as that of John McCormack, but the steadiness, consistency and limpidity of the vocal emission, the pure attack and the easy top notes explain the enthusiasm of such an expert as Luigi Denza. Perhaps we should pause to thank Vincent O’Brien for his valuable early lessons. There is an air of innocence, of ingenuousness, about the singing that would later blossom into the unique purity and freshness of John McCormack’s art. The boy is already trying for a sinuous legato, adorned with a frequent application of a rather slurpy portamento. The odd enunciation of the words, with muddy vowels, may have been caused by rigidity of the tongue at this early stage of his career.
It was unusual, to say the least, that a twenty-three-year-old Irish tenor, whose operatic career was limited to a handful of appearances in minor Italian opera houses, should not only have been invited to sing at Covent Garden in 1907 (albeit in the unfashionable autumn season) but also, soon after his fairly successful début, should have been featured in Don Giovanni with Félia Litvinne and Mario Sammarco, and even Rigoletto with Luisa Tetrazzini, also making her London début that year. He then took part in every Grand Season (April–July) at Covent Garden until 1914, singing regularly with Tetrazzini and Melba, as well as with Emmy Destinn, Claudia Muzio and Rosa Raisa, and even alternating in some of his rôles with Caruso. It was an amazing achievement, but he would rise to even greater heights of success at Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House, making his American operatic début there on 10 November 1909, with Tetrazzini to pat him encouragingly on the back as he struggled to sing La traviata with her through a bad cold. The audience loved his boyish charm, and the great critic Pitts Sanborn praised his lovely voice, his skilled technique, mezza voce and legato. Hammerstein himself said: “Well done, Mike, you’ll do.”
The Odeon company became interested in recording McCormack after his first concert successes in London. [All his Odeon records are reproduced in Marston Records’ 54005-2 John McCormack, A Star Ascending, Odeon Recordings: 1906–1909.] Odeon discs (like those of the sister company, Fonotipia) were often made with the singer standing very near to the recording horn, and they caught McCormack’s timbre in a warmer, more realistic and more intimate manner than many of the Victor and HMV records. However, this closeness also reveals all the warts: in the more vigorously martial songs many high notes sound clogged or throaty, and every now and then there comes a frog in the throat or a tiny crack in the timbre. In the first Odeon records of September 1906 the voice is that of a still unfledged McCormack: we already hear his inborn sense of legato, but the vocal emission is rather stiff, without the freedom and elasticity that the artist would have achieved only four years later. In the medium register the tone is “fixed” rather than floating, and the lower notes are reached with difficulty. On the other hand the upper notes are free and ringing, if not yet entirely under the singer’s control. (They would never become completely “safe”.) Often the last note of a phrase will slip out of tune because of the lack of a thorough support on the breath. All through his range there is a suggestion of a “goaty” vibrato that is not at all typical of the McCormack we know and love. His enunciation of the words is reasonably clear, but without the sometimes excessive care which he would devote to it after 1909.
The earlier Odeons convey a general impression of a praiseworthy—indeed, a prizewinning!—amateur who has been studying in a correct school and deserves encouragement. Here and there his innate musical genius pops out: in “Killarney” his execution of the florid passages is already of the highest class. By the time we come to the records of February (or March) 1907 there is a noteworthy overall improvement. After his second series of lessons in Milan, Sabatini had told him:
You are still very young, Giovanni. Your voice is not yet mature. But you are on the right lines now, doing nothing wrong, and as you grow older the voice will grow with you, and improve each year. (L.A.G. Strong, op. cit., p. 45.)
The wise old man had given John so firm a technical foundation that we can, indeed, follow the growth of the voice, the singer and the artist from year to year. The head resonance, the bright ring of the high notes, now extends down into the medium register, and the lovely song “My Dark Rosaleen” (by Alicia Needham) is a delightful record, while the traditional “Savourneen Deelish” includes the earliest example on record of McCormack’s famous trill. Harold Fraser-Simson’s song “Awakening of a Perfect Spring” includes a long and demanding phrase requiring sustained singing on the tenor’s passaggio di registro, and ends on a radiant high B natural. One year later (September–October 1908) we are listening to a singer who is very nearly the McCormack of the 1910–1912 Victor records; the aria “In Her Simplicity”, from Mignon, sung in English, is a delicious performance in which we hear, for the first time, the mezza voce effects that the tenor had studied so long to master. “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby” ends with the first recorded example of McCormack’s pianissimo high A-flat. In the haunting “Oft in the Stilly Night” (1909) the legato is exceptional, and, some tiny imperfections apart, we are approaching the authentic McCormack. In two salon songs of the period, “Roses” by Stephen Adams (like Charles Santley, a baritone pupil of Gaetano Nava) and “Pianto del core” by Ciro Pinsuti, McCormack, now more sure of his technique, can let himself go in outbursts of youthful, unbridled passion that we shall hardly ever find in the records of his artistic maturity, where a studied elegance and a discreet reining in of any excessive emotion confirm the wisdom of his preference for the concert hall over the theatre.
In some of his 1908–1909 Odeon records (like “Ideale” or “Trottin’ to the Fair”) we can hear that the singer has almost resolved the conflict between the claims of clear diction on the one hand and a flowing legato on the other. He has not yet made his vowels rounded and homogeneous, nor do they always sound perfectly natural, for even in “I Hear You Calling Me” some of the vowels are very odd. The critic of the Times (12 October 1912), after a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Birmingham Festival, complained of his “tendency to make English words ridiculous by singing the vowels as though they were Italian ones!” Henry Pleasants also believed that his Italian training led him to favour pure vowels, and to make “give rhyme with leave” (The Great Singers, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1967, p. 330). However, as Michael Scott observes (in The Record of Singing, Volume Two: 1914-1925, London, Duckworth 1979, p. 176): “It was after his arrival in America that the Irish in him began to reassert itself in his singing.” Gordon Ledbetter sums it up: “His use of the brogue was not only an assertion of his Irish identity but was also a valuable expedient for vocal placement; a feature of broad vowels likely to have been borne in upon him during his period of study in Italy.” (The Great Irish Tenor, London, Duckworth 1977, p. 41.) L.A.G. Strong has a lot to say on the subject, as always interestingly: “This Italo-Hibernian fluency gave to his singing of English an exotic and caressing quality which told heavily in favour of love song and drawing-room ballad. His rendering of Liza Lehmann’s ‘Ah, Moon of My Delight’ will not be surpassed. The nostalgic softness of the Irish voice, the smooth, seductive flow, and the last, miraculously sustained pianissimo, express perfectly the languorous pessimism of words and music.” (op. cit., p. 200.) I have to point out that in this, perhaps my first favourite among all McCormack’s records, there is hardly a hint of an Irish accent. Listening to McCormack speaking, for example in the radio broadcasts, it seems to me that once his operatic career was behind him, rather than concentrate on pure Italianate vowels—which he certainly employed right to the end—in the main he simply tried to sing as naturally and as charmingly as he spoke, with an accent that was entirely his own.
We begin to catch glimpses of the elegant phrasing that was to become a hallmark of McCormack’s art, the perfect pose of the voice on the breath and a personal and imaginative use of dynamic shading in such attractive interpretations as “Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away” (1909), in which Sterndale Bennett shows himself worthy of his master, Mendelssohn. Only McCormack himself could ever have been capable of surpassing the beauty of his singing here, which, in fact, he manages to do in his sublime Victor recording of 2 April 1912. In conclusion, we can also say that the Odeon records give us glimpses (sometimes entertaining) of the young Irishman who, like all the other tenors, was besotted with Caruso—whom he heard for the first time at Covent Garden in 1904. “Such smoothness and purity of tone, and such quality; it was like a stream of liquid gold.” (Pierre Key, op. cit., p. 102.) He occasionally went so far as to “Caruseggiare”, as the Italians say—consciously or otherwise to imitate Caruso—and this was dangerous because his vocal means were too delicate to risk so heavily weighting the passaggio to the top notes as we hear in “Celeste Aida” (1909), for example. He returned briefly to his flirtation with Aida in 1914, when he recorded a beautiful “O terra addio” with Lucy Isabelle Marsh, in which he is careful not to overweight the tone as he ascends to the high B-flat. The result resembles an attractive Victorian salon duet.
The Acoustic Victor and HMV Records
In the Victor records from 1910 onwards we find a more mature artist who had finally discovered his own vocal personality—unlike any other—and had begun to revel in it, really enjoying being John McCormack, while never losing touch either with his Italian training or his roots in Irish folk music and the music of the Church. He had so completely mastered the old Italian method of vocal emission and breathing (as described in the Méthode de Chant du Conservatoire de Musique, Paris chez Mme Le Roy, 1803, the Traité complet de l’art du chant by Manuel Garcia, Jr., Paris, Heugel et Cie., 1840, and Metodo completo di canto by Luigi Lablache, Milano, Ricordi, 1842) that his singing would always sound unstudied and spontaneous, and at the same time of total artistic integrity. Singing so often with Melba would have helped him to perfect his attack and unsullied emission of tone, and also to maintain his personal dignity and sense of a high vocation, even in popular songs. His records sold in millions and helped to maintain for many years a high standard of singing and enunciation for those willing to listen and learn (Bing Crosby among them). Charles Marshall’s touching “A Child’s Song” shows the degree of perfection to which he had brought his voice and technique in 1912: he demonstrates three different ways of singing the high A-flat, first in an easy full voice, then in a delightful piano, and finally he sings an exquisite trill on the high G, resolving into the A-flat pianissimo.
All his 1910–1912 Victors represent him at his very best: the operatic arias may be declared perfect, among the most flawless executions of taxing tenor music that we know. Every attack is clean, precise and pearly, and the timbre throughout is pure, floating on the breath. The voice is steady—as required by the cultured audiences in London and New York—but without any hint of the voce fissa detested by Latin operagoers. (In his last years some notes would be a little tremulous, due to failing breath support.) McCormack was still an “Italian” tenor, proud of his intense studies with Sabatini. His records of “Il mio tesoro”, “Una furtiva lagrima”, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”, “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me” and “Parigi, o cara” (with Lucrezia Bori), will be cherished and, I hope, studied as impeccable models when nobody will remember that he also recorded “Bless This House” or “Little Wooden Head”. The supreme test is the final scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, sung in the original keys. McCormack sings “Fra poco a me ricovero” with enviable ease, comfortable in the high tessitura; in the rising phrase “Ah! fin degli estinti, ahi misero!” the registers are perfectly blended and, after a breathtakingly beautiful attack on the upper F-sharp of “Ah!” he sculpts the entire phrase in one breath, as hopefully hinted by Donizetti in the vocal score, with a model use of legato and portamento. Such a silvery, mother-of-pearl tone would have carried to the furthest reaches of even the largest theatres. It may be objected that, no native Italian, McCormack sings “darà negletto avelo” instead of “avello”, but in compensation he has now carefully equalised the vowels, so that in this and the other arias sung in Italian in 1910–1912 the enunciation of the text has improved to an unimaginable extent after four to five years of hard work. On the gramophone, such outstanding but unostentatious artistry as he exhibits in “Per viver vicino a Maria” makes us envy those who heard him in the opera house. This aria from La fille du régiment, translated into Italian by McCormack himself, was inevitably encored, and no wonder—it is one of his loveliest records, sensitive and heartfelt singing with spectacular diminuendi on the high A-flat and B-flat. In “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore his attack is of immaculate purity, his cadenza perfectly articulated and rounded off. In “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali”, the second part of the final scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, his easy and fluent singing of the high-lying “O bell’alma innamorata” suggests irresistibly that if he had studied in Italy eighty years earlier, he would have been trained as a tenore contraltino and might have sung I puritani as well as La sonnambula. As Stanislaus Joyce wrote in his Dublin Diary of 1904, it was originally “a white voice—it is a male contralto” (quoted in Ledbetter, op. cit., p. 44).
Like the Neapolitans, the Irish can convincingly bring to vocal music either a searing melancholy or a bright and exuberant joyousness. The melancholy brings the Donizetti arias to touching life, whereas we hear more of the joy in “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” from Verdi’s La traviata. He probably sang the aria more slowly in the theatre; in his day nobody ever sang the cabaletta “O mio rimorso!”, but there it is in the score (and almost always included in performances today), marked allegro, implying that the preceding aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”, marked andante, should be sung slowly and reflectively. The implication of the words “bollenti spiriti” (literally, boiling high spirits!) has encouraged conductors and tenors to take the aria too quickly. Fernando De Lucia, thinking the aria in a kind of dream, allowing himself his usual liberties in ritardando and diminuendo, turns it into a masterpiece of intimate suggestion. Could McCormack have been familiar with this 1906 recording? McCormack’s conception is much more modern than De Lucia’s and his tempo is faster than andante, but in the second part of the aria he introduces several very effective ritardandi accompanied by diminuendi which are so logical that they must have been common practice in the nineteenth century, and McCormack probably learned this interpretation from Sabatini. (In the Mapleson cylinders recorded live at The Metropolitan Opera House in 1901–1903, the snatches from Verdi operas conducted by Luigi Mancinelli are a startling revelation of how differently his music was conducted by the great nineteenth-century musicians in pre-Toscanini days.) There is a slight sense of hurrying through the recitative, which, nevertheless, is splendidly declaimed, and following it with the score will reveal several traditional “improvements” typical of the true Verdi tradition—for example, sustaining the high A-flat on “gaudi suoi” right through the orchestral modulation, a very effective change. This record, often overlooked—perhaps because modern critics, however admiring of McCormack, are embarrassed by these changes of notes and rhythm not to be found in Verdi’s score—is probably the best ever made of Alfredo’s aria (discounting, for the moment, the wondrous but to some tastes eccentric De Lucia version).
In a selection of duets and ensembles with his friend Mario Sammarco, McCormack ranges from the florid singing of Il barbiere di Siviglia and the lilting charm of Rossini’s salon duet “Li marinari” (with two swashbuckling ascents to the high B natural) to a surprisingly dramatic outburst of cursing from La gioconda.
For many years critics and commentators, misled perhaps by McCormack’s own declaration that he had never transposed music down because this was not permitted in the theatres where he sang, did not want to believe that his Victor recordings of “Che gelida manina” from La bohème and “Salve dimora” from Faust were sung a semitone down. There is, however, now no shame in revealing that downward transposition in these arias (and many others in the operatic repertoire) was quite common—though not universal—in those days, even at Covent Garden or La Scala. Bonci recorded both arias in the original keys: Caruso recorded—one after the other—“Che gelida manina” a semitone down and “Salut, demeure” in the original key. On Odeon records in 1908 McCormack had twice sung “Che gelida manina” in the original key with a brilliant (if not completely “safe”) high C, but by 1910 he must have felt happier in the lower key. What does it matter? Puccini himself authorised this transposition. The Victor record is even lovelier than the Odeons, and “Salve dimora” is another of his most engaging operatic records.
After the agent Charles L. Wagner undertook the direction of McCormack’s concert tours in 1912, “He soon averaged a concert appearance every other day over a six or eight-month period” (Ledbetter, op. cit., p. 98) and although he appeared in opera and in six concerts with great success in 1921 at Monte Carlo, after a return visit there in 1923 he decided that the concert hall was to be his true artistic home. It must also have been comforting to earn about one million dollars per year without the bother of singing in opera! It is rather a pity, though, that he should have told Mr. Strong that operatic arias on the concert platform “are ridiculous and out of place, and lose everything that gives them any artistic value, either musically or dramatically.” The remark seems disingenuous, and he would not have uttered it in 1912, when his concerts included operatic arias.
McCormack set aside plenty of time for activity in the Victor studios between 1912 and 1925, recording mostly popular material, but in April 1920 came two of his most astonishing achievements: Handel’s “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me” from the oratorio Semele, and Rachmaninoff’s “O, Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair”. McCormack was courageous enough to begin many a recital with the Semele aria, written for soprano, in which Handel, like Mozart, throws a searching spotlight on the singer’s voice and technique. The tessitura might be thought rather low for a tenor, but in 1920 McCormack’s lower register is surprisingly full and rich, down to the low D. The first phrase, unaccompanied, starts with a limpid attack and ends with a very neat trill, then five bars later comes a heavenly attack—“O sleep”—on the E, fourth space. All have marvelled at the control enabling him to sing the long division on the word “wand’ring” in one breath, but only envious tenors, perhaps, will have observed that during this division he sustains the C-sharp, D-sharp, E natural and F-sharp, one after the other, each in its own peculiar, classical position in the “mask”: an Italian would say that each note is girata (literally, turned or, rather, spun) into a slightly different point of resonance. The climactic G-sharp above the stave, when it finally comes, is a brilliant note. McCormack’s enunciation of English is at its best here: all the vowels, even the “e” and “i” are rounded and only his pronunciation of the word “arms” is purely Irish. It is interesting to note that, at this period of his career, McCormack—if he felt so disposed—could deliberately remove any Irish pronunciation from classical music sung in English. In Rachmaninoff’s song “O Cease Thy Singing, Maiden Fair” (McCormack’s own translation) he is competing with his friend Fritz Kreisler, whose intensely beautiful playing of a spurious violin obbligato greatly enhances the appeal of this already wonderful song—the overwhelming effect justifies the intrusion, and, after all, Rachmaninoff himself greatly admired both artists. McCormack is at the peak of his vocal form and matches an unforgettably plangent tone to the plaintive but golden violin of Kreisler. The voice is still perfectly placed in the upper register and he can articulate the words easily in the passaggio, and he takes the high A both ff and pp with all the aplomb of his operatic years. There is, somehow, a profoundly nostalgic feeling and a peculiarly Russian atmosphere in this compelling performance, despite the English words—not all of which can be easily distinguished, a fault that we must all agree should be blamed on the recording engineer. Not even such great Russian tenors as Dmitri Smirnoff and Ivan Kozlovsky managed to surpass McCormack’s towering achievement here.
McCormack himself realised that after his vicious attack of tonsillitis in 1922 his voice had changed: increased resonance in the lower range was offset by a loss of ease and quality in the high notes. In some records we begin to notice “tiny imperfections”, absent from his Victor records of ten years previously. In September 1923 he recorded Walter Kramer’s taxing song “Swans” in which he offers us a high B-flat—slightly throaty and without the brilliant ring of the earlier years, but a secure note. The lovely, pure, Italianate timbre of his voice, the rounded and sustained vowels and his impeccably clear enunciation exert all their old fascination, and we can also enjoy the beautifully liquid consonants, the secret of which he shared with Melba and few others.
The culmination of his post-war achievements in the acoustic recording era probably came in September 1924, when, among a long list of respectable classical selections, he recorded “Come, My Beloved” (“Care selve”) from Handel’s Atalanta, although this cherished performance would have been even better if he had recorded it in 1920. Like “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me”, the aria opens with an unaccompanied phrase, beginning on the E natural, fourth space. Although some notes are now slightly tremulous, McCormack gives us yet another lesson in how to float the voice on the breath, how to shape the phrases. Then comes that magical moment when he makes a beautifully controlled diminuendo on the E, fourth space, on the second syllable of “delight”, rising up to the G-sharp, which switches smoothly into a still lovely head register, pianissimo. The aria ends with his celebrated tour de force on the words “guide me safely to her arms” with an octave leap up to a sustained high A, pianissimo, ending this celestial note by clearly and delicately articulating the final three consonants of “arms”. (The captious critic cannot help noticing that, in this aria, the “a” of “arms” is always dangerously open.) As if this were not enough, the Mastersinger ends this magnificent lesson with a diminuendo on the last note. The Handelian style adopted by McCormack has nothing to do with modern ideas of authenticity in performance: it is the grandiose Crystal Palace style that he learned from Emma Albani and Sir Charles Santley.
The Electrical Recordings
Fortunately for us, McCormack obviously enjoyed making records. Although he was one of the two best sight-readers that Gerald Moore ever came across, no record of his shows any signs of approximation or carelessness. To the frustration of certain strait-laced English critics, he dedicated the same careful preparation to his ballads as he did to his Lieder. (Even such great artists as Richard Tauber and Peter Dawson would occasionally sight-read music—especially ballads—in front of the recording microphone.)
The time has come to grasp the nettle: why did McCormack not record more Mozart or Handel, and why instead did he record so much musical trivia? L.A.G. Strong, who does not hesitate to use the word “rubbish”, has an answer (op. cit., p. 192): “To sing only the best music, [McCormack] regards as a form of snobbery. In his recitals, he would sing first what he owed to music, then what he owed to his voice, then what he owed to his country, and finally what he owed to the less sophisticated of those who had paid to hear him.” And then we learn that “Ernest Newman has said that it was precisely because he could so subtly phrase a song of Schubert or Wolf that he was able to move a huge audience with a popular ballad. This is true, but it is only half the truth. John could not so have held the unsophisticated unless he were himself moved by what moved them.” (op. cit., p. 194.) Of course, the record companies were principally concerned with sales figures: in 1917 Victor managed to sell 250,000 copies in one month of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It would be interesting to discover how many they sold of “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me” in 1920!
McCormack seems to have been in very good voice during his Victor recording sessions in 1925–1926, and the microphone was kind to him. There are many surprises in store for us: for example, whoever could have imagined the extraordinary technical skill and artistic witchery that would transform “Silver Threads Among the Gold” (a song once so famous that it would frequently be parodied) into a demonstration of how to sing fluently a melody composed mainly of uncomfortable intervals, joining all the notes together without one single portamento di voce? By treating it exactly as he treats Rachmaninoff’s “To the Children” he does not, perhaps, exalt it to the same artistic level, but he does underline for us what a good tune Hart Pease Danks had written, and exposes songs like Bantock’s “Desolation” and “Dream of Spring” as pretentious and “arty”. He has chosen better with Bantock’s “Love’s Secret”, which has no tune at all but plenty of atmosphere and ends with a beautifully sung descending chromatic melisma. Haydn Wood’s “A Brown Bird Singing” is a good song, and the same composer’s “Roses of Picardy”, one of the most famous in McCormack’s repertoire despite its feeble text, he sings memorably. “She Rested by the Broken Brook” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is an eloquent performance of an atmospheric song to a text by Robert Louis Stevenson, with an effective, even though not technically perfect diminuendo on the F natural of “vanished”, and a lovely soft F-sharp at the end. Only John Coates has recorded to equal effect Marshall’s “I Hear You Calling Me”, in the 1927 recording of which McCormack’s attack throughout is not quite so pure as in the 1929 film. However, the first high A pianissimo is outstanding, and then he effects a flawless diminuendo on the second one. Another good song is “Somewhere a Voice Is Calling”: how clear, how limpid, how beautiful is the very first word—“Dusk”—(a lesson in clarity to the great Mary Garden, who makes a meal of the word, but to little effect, in her unpublished record of the song). In the old English song “Since First I Saw Your Face” McCormack even pronounces the word “wrangle” beautifully! He is inimitable in Merikanto’s “Fairy Story by the Fire”, better in the piano-accompanied version. A born story-teller, he intrigues us and charms us, even mixing speech with song, and introducing a G-flat in falsetto in the last phrase. Eric Coates was a quite respectable composer, and “Bird Songs at Eventide” is an attractive song in which McCormack is able to introduce a surprising and effective “echo” effect on “call me to you”, followed by an exemplary diminuendo. Don’t miss this one, it’s typical of his very best work. Those who love Dame Clara Butt’s spectacular contralto versions of “The Little Silver Ring”, “My Treasure” or “Kathleen Mavourneen”, in which delicacy alternates with booming baritonal descents into her thrilling chest register, will scarcely recognise these old favorites in the chaste, silvery lightness of McCormack’s approach. He graces Chaminade’s song with exquisitely feathery, though telling enunciation, all very touching in its sincerity without a hint of sentimentality. I think, however, that Dame Clara was right to lard the downward intervals of “Kathleen Mavourneen” with portamento, as Patti also does. McCormack contrives to maintain the seamless legato required by “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” without using any portamento. (It is perhaps exactly by his artistic use of portamento that Gervase Elwes contrives to make an imperishable effect with this beautiful song.)
Of the records of more serious music from this period, the most important are the three unpublished sides from Beethoven’s Christus am Ölberge, which created quite a stir when we were first allowed to hear them; in the 1950s Countess McCormack lent her sample pressings of the two sides in English to Belcantodisc Records of Manchester, who transferred them to a 45 rpm disc. Like much of Beethoven’s vocal music this piece is not comfortably or effectively written for the human voice, but we are very glad to have McCormack’s splendid singing of it, especially for his lesson in how to declaim classical recitative. Although the music would seem to demand a rather more robustly dramatic voice, he shows us how a smaller but perfectly placed voice can manage all the effects Beethoven hoped for. His declamation is noble and deeply felt, and he includes most of the appoggiaturas. It is in this record, made in 1930, that one can perhaps hear for the first time an occasional falling-off in the hitherto perfect focus and freshness of the tone. Equally interesting are his two experimental recordings of the final scene from act two of Tristan und Isolde, a quiet and haunting passage in which Tristan invites Isolde to follow him to the desolate and utterly unattractive land of his mother’s birth. Although McCormack shuns any hint of the “Bayreuth bark” in his beautifully articulated singing, he also neglects the few opportunities offered for portamento. The sorrowful tone of the voice catches exactly what Wagner must have had in mind for Tristan at this point of the opera.
Other classical selections from this period are a mixed bag. Rachmaninoff’s “To the Children” is as good as the acoustic version, whereas Schubert’s “Who Is Sylvia?” is taken at too rapid a tempo and the characteristic group of four semiquavers occurring in each strophe is never clearly articulated. Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and “Serenade” have been treated to gorgeous orchestrations by the Victor musical staff: the “Ave Maria” is even equipped with a humming chorus à la Madama Butterfly, the harps go arpeggiating like mad and even the convent bell gets a look-in. If one is able to concentrate on the tenor solo in all this farrago, one can discern that he sings the one strophe very well, rather in the style of Lotte Lehmann, using a good deal of rubato. He sings the “Serenade” with equal charm, again in a nineteenth-century style. Tchaikowsky’s “None But a Lonely Heart” (is this McCormack’s own translation?—it is rather good) is heart-rending without the least hint of exaggeration. His Victor record of “Panis angelicus” is accompanied by a not very successful combination of organ and orchestra. He is in rather better voice for the London recording for HMV with piano and an excellently played ’cello obbligato. Franck’s “La procession”, a song which apparently deeply moved him, is most beautifully sung, although he is slightly taxed by the dramatic climax. Messager’s “La maison grise”, sung with loving care, is perhaps his most successful record from the French repertoire.
After all these years it is good to hear the two duets each that he recorded with Lucrezia Bori and Maggie Teyte. Those with Bori are disappointing, especially when we are longing for these two exquisite singers to repeat the success of their lovely “Parigi, o cara”. The microphone does not catch her voice well here, making it sound thin and acidulous, especially when the two are singing in octaves in “Night Hymn at Sea”, or echoing each other’s phrases in a souped-up arrangement of Schumann’s “Beneath the Window”. On the other hand, the version of Goring Thomas’s lovely duet with Maggie Teyte, recorded 16 years later, is much more successful, despite the possibly embarrassing competition from the dewy freshness and greater volume of the soprano’s voice. Coming from vocal schools that had much in common, McCormack and Teyte manage to blend their voices convincingly and McCormack introduces a great deal of delicate shading.
The concert sequence in the film Song o’ My Heart (1929) is a document all the more rare and precious because there are so few films of singers of his generation singing live. [It has not proved possible to include the sound-track of the film in the present set, but it is easily available on internet sites such as YouTube.] Here we have a short concert filmed in front of an audience: the result is very satisfactory, to me deeply moving, despite the revelation of some vocal deterioration, partly due to his attack of tonsillitis in 1922 and partly to hard work over the years since he began his long concert tours in 1912. The sequence begins with “Seán” warming up his voice as he passes from the dressing room to the stage, followed by Edwin Schneider, a musical pianist whose style, however, is much more “modern” than the tenor’s, as is clearly demonstrated in the opening number, “Luoghi sereni e cari” by Donaudy. Schneider plays with accuracy and beauty of tone and is a sympathetic accompanist, but his legato by no means matches McCormack’s; he is reluctant to use the sustaining pedal and rarely, if ever, leads with the left hand, so his style is more than a generation “younger” than McCormack’s. However, here and in many studio recordings the solid musicianship and perfect taste of Schneider make him a pleasure to listen to and, obviously, he was worth his weight in gold to McCormack. It is rather a come-down when, after 1939, the great tenor’s recordings are accompanied by Gerald Moore, an irritatingly mannered pianist with no true legato.
As he walks out of the dressing room, McCormack sings a precise and nicely equalised scale downwards and upwards from the E fourth space, glancing briefly at the high A-sharp, then leaping up an octave to the E fourth space again. This last E is not taken as Maestro Sabatini would have approved; he sings it on an open “a” vowel that sounds backward and throaty. (There are at least two versions of the film Song o’ My Heart currently available on YouTube, only one of which includes this warm-up.)
John McCormack walks calmly onto the concert platform with none of the exhibitionism of the “star tenor”. His natural charm and modest confidence mask the remarkable accomplishments the artist has built up over long years of experience. The audience takes to him at once. During the improvised introduction to “Luoghi sereni e cari” (a short prelude invented by Schneider, based on the interlude between the two strophes) McCormack appears to be consulting his little black book of words, but he is probably also quietly taking a few deep breaths to steady his nerves. He consults the book of words constantly throughout the concert. Each strophe contains one of those very long phrases for which McCormack was famous: “Io vi ritrovo quali ai bei dì lasciai di giovinezza!” pours fourth with ease, though in the second strophe the phrase “allor cercai di trovar pace al mio tradito core” catches him out a little when the breath shows signs of finally giving out on the last syllable. There cannot be any doubt that McCormack learned from Sabatini the old Italian “inter-costal” breathing method, and though he must have filled the vast expanse of his broad chest with air, there is no visible sign of puffing and heaving; everything flows easily and apparently spontaneously. Only every now and then do we spot him very slightly raising his shoulders, which is unorthodox in the old school. His posture is classically correct, even when he leans informally into the curve of the piano: shoulders back and relaxed, chest up. The head floats on the neck, the neck floats on the chest. We notice that he drops his jaw loosely and opens his mouth as if commanded by the dentist: he opens it deeply, but not widely. Only when he sings the “i” vowel do we observe that his teeth are too close together, which would have something to do with his unsatisfactorily thin pronunciation of this vowel in the medium range in this period. He does not make grimaces even when singing high or low notes. He does not “act out” his songs, for he does not need to gesticulate: all the expression is concentrated in the words and the music (making him a perfect gramophone singer).
Throughout this lovely song—one of a series printed in three books of “Thirty-six Arias in the Antique Style”—McCormack’s tone is as pure as ever, the enunciation of the words of distinguished eloquence and clarity, his Italian without any trace of a foreign accent. (Surely, he must have studied the song with Sabatini.) He has transposed it a tone up into F. Signs of vocal decay? McCormack was only forty-five years of age and sounds much younger, but one cannot help but hear his uncertainty whenever a note above F is seen approaching. In the first strophe, the high A, sung forte, on the last syllable of “Sol non mi punge ancor”, is back in the throat and disappointing to the fan of the acoustic McCormack, but the same note in the second strophe comes on the “i” vowel in “lenire” and he is able to hang on to it lovingly as it is a perfectly produced and quite thrilling note, as is the same “i” on the G in “viva” two measures later on. McCormack at this time of his life was able to produce the higher notes forte on “i” because he was actually singing something more like the German “ü” (as in Frühling) or the similar French vowel (phonetically “y” as in cru, or “y” as in mur). This vowel is recommended to tenors by Garcia to approach high notes. McCormack had worked very hard on equalising the vowels to perfect his legato, but either because of his tendency to produce English vowels as though they were Italian or because of an increasing desire to emotionalise his Irishness, by 1929 some of the vowels are rather too “open”, the “i” too thin.
Musically, this performance is a master class in tempo rubato, and it would make a fine test in musical dictation for any music student: the resulting manuscript would look very different from Donaudy’s original vocal score. Already in the 1910 Lucia di Lammermoor record McCormack does not sing in strict time the opening phrases “Fra poco a me ricovero / darà negletto avello”: encouraged by the rather bare accompaniment, intended merely to support the voice, he is able to prolong or shorten the notes at will, weighting each syllable as an Italian actor would in speaking the text, and yet maintaining an impression of singing “in time”. By 1929 McCormack had fully mastered this particular type of tempo rubato, often expressed as “borrowing and stealing” time, and in “Luoghi sereni e cari” you cannot tap your foot in time to the music because, with all the slowing down and speeding up, some bars of the music—marked in ¾ time—have four beats! I like to think that in this beautifully eloquent performance McCormack was paying tribute to De Lucia and Battistini, idols of his youth and both masters of the intricacies of rhythm. Tragically, this style of rubato has fallen out of favour, explaining why modern performances of songs by Donaudy or Tosti, sung in metronomical tempo, are unsatisfactory and unmoving. It is rather a shock to turn, for comparison, to McCormack’s 1925 studio recording for Victor of “Luoghi sereni e cari”, for here the little black book of words seems to have been replaced by a copy of the vocal score. He follows the written notes much more closely and adheres more strictly to the tempo, and we sense his need to fit the song onto one 10” record side. The result is beautiful, even inspiring in the higher passages, but we miss the magic of the film version, in which the fine detail in the musical text is as much due to McCormack’s inspiration as to Donaudy’s. It is also interesting that in 1925 the voice of the forty-one-year-old McCormack is showing no sign of a falling-off: the high G-sharp on “non mi punge ancor” is as brilliant on the “o” vowel as it is on the “i” in the second strophe. The comparison between the 1925 and 1929 performances suggests that, as in the case of many other great artists, any live McCormack performance would inevitably be more vivid than any studio recording.
We can pause to observe that McCormack sings Ethelbert Nevin’s “Little Boy Blue”, a song whose coy sentimentality makes it hopelessly dated today, with simple, wholesome sincerity. “Plaisir d’amour”, a study in polished legato singing, includes some embellishments and an example of McCormack’s rarely heard trill. In Raymond Loughborough’s stirring “Ireland, Mother Ireland” McCormack is able to summon up additional volume and richness of tone (not without some visible effort) to make a stirringly effective finale by using extra breath pressure (shades of the “Caruso imitations” of his youth). When he does this, we hear a strong vibrato not typical of his best singing.
The recital concludes with “I Hear You Calling Me”, an effective, even haunting song that McCormack made particularly his own; indeed, he saw its possibilities when it was still in manuscript. The music is very thin when compared with Donaudy’s pretty eighteenth-century pastiche, but McCormack treats it in the same way, with great rhythmic elasticity. He does not make the mistake of obeying the composer’s tempo signature—“Allegretto”—for he and Schneider play and sing the first four bars slowly, speeding up slightly at “You call’d me when the moon had veil’d her light”. There is, throughout the song, a wonderful impression that the two artists are improvising it as they go along! Despite the deep feeling that we sense in McCormack’s delivery of this slight composition, he still seems “to combine the imaginative capacity of childhood with the mature musical judgement of adulthood” (Ledbetter, op. cit., p. 90). Mr. Ledbetter quotes a memorable dictum by the dean of New York critics, William J. Henderson: “The musical style is the vocal revelation of the heart within the man.” The last high A on “calling”, produced, like all orthodox pianissimi, with the mouth wide open, is quite ravishing. The incomparable good taste and charm of John McCormack culminate in the lovely diminuendo on the very last note.
The Last Years
The records made after the film, from 1930 to 1942, begin to show McCormack in difficulties with maintaining the placing of his voice: the 1931 recordings show more decline than those made in 1930. His technique never lets him down completely: after his initial attack he is usually able to sustain a legato line right to the end of the breath, but the tone quality itself sometimes slips out of his control. He is often able to turn this to account, for, when the tone suddenly becomes breathy or hoarse (usually for just a few notes) he is able to convert this unfamiliar impure tone into “interpretation”, as in the Irish song “No, Not More Welcome” in which we listeners hear the suddenly deteriorating tone quality as increased eloquence. Putting down the stylus onto a post-1929 McCormack record, one is not sure what to expect: will he get through it unscathed, or will there be the tiniest flaw? Amy Woodforde-Finden’s famous “Kashmiri Song” illustrates my point: the attack on the word “Pale” at the opening of each strophe is perfect, but every now and then the tone does become slightly curdled for a note or two. It does not matter: the song, revealed here as an attractive melody in the pseudo-eastern vein, is redeemed from a century of mediocre performances by this distinguished and gentlemanly interpretation. One thing is certain: however trivial a song may turn out to be, McCormack’s interpretation will be finely polished, and, hanging upon every limpid and crisply uttered word as they flow in a seamless legato; we smile or sigh with the singer, depending on the mood he wishes to create in his listeners. In March 1911, at a session including his brilliant singing of Rossini’s “Li marinari”, he committed to wax one of his most haunting and deeply moving Irish ballads: “She Is Far From the Land” by Frank Lambert. He repeated this number 25 years later and a comparison is illuminating. In 1911 the voice was at its best and the effect is mostly created by a floating and perfectly supported legato, the words clearly enunciated; in 1936 the support cannot be so certainly relied on, the tone quality comes and goes, but much more attention is paid to individual words, the most significant of which are made to stand out without any apparent exaggeration. Indeed, we might well wonder how he manages to do so much with reduced resources. Bantock’s “Song to the Seals”, recorded as late as 1935, shows him in rather good voice. This is an attractive song (with a charming spoken introduction by the singer) including a lovely vocalised refrain which McCormack manages to sing particularly beguilingly, a mezza voce, the last time round. Though we are listening to a great and beloved singer no longer at his best, this is still a record that he might well have been proud of, and no true McCormack fan would like to be without it.
The few classical selections from this period range from Handel to Wagner and Wolf. Handel’s “Where’er You Walk” (for years this record was a great favourite on British radio) is composed rather like a student’s preparatory exercise for singing “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me”. On the upper F, F-sharp and G McCormack succeeds best when the vowel is a “u” sound, as in “cool”, although the repeated “i” sound in “trees” is also quite agreeable. Elsewhere he sometimes lingers too long on the consonants at the expense of the vowels. He cunningly varies the repeat by singing through the rests in the long division on the word ”shade”, reminding us even more of “O Sleep”. Despite its late date, this carefully sung aria has much to teach today’s Handel singers. Arne’s “The Lass with the Delicate Air” he recorded 20 years too late—it exposes all his weaknesses. Lying rather low in his range, Wagner’s song “Träume” does not really suit him and his ineffable purity of voice and style makes it impossible for him to summon up the hothouse atmosphere of German sensuality. An “Ave Maria” of Cornelius is an attractive offering, though we are in 1930 and the “e” of the repeated “Ave” causes him difficulty. Other noteworthy records from the nineteen-thirties include “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair”—now promoted into the classical repertoire ever since Marilyn Horne introduced it into the lesson scene of Il barbiere di Siviglia. In this particularly enchanting record, the tenor’s voice is indeed “borne like a vapour on the summer air”.
Opinions differ as to the success of John McCormack as an interpreter of the Lieder of Hugo Wolf. I daresay he was encouraged to embrace Wolf-worship by friends who leaned towards the Germanic in music. For the period, he recorded rather a large number of Wolf’s songs, considering that he was not a specialist like Elena Gerhardt; I find them beautifully and carefully sung but slightly aloof, almost without conscious interpretation. Perhaps he came to these songs with the earnest desire of studying, understanding and performing them with more respect than love, but there is an important fact to be taken into consideration: McCormack’s approach to Lieder is that of a nineteenth-century singer. Not surprising, perhaps, as he studied Lieder with Sir Georg Henschel. Just as in Italian opera, his first thought is to float the voice in a perfect legato, into which stream of mellifluous sound he can naturally place the perfectly enunciated words of the poem. First the music, then the words; and he does not hesitate to lengthen or shorten a vowel—or a note—to bring the stress closer to that of spoken poetic German. He approaches “Ganymed”, for example, as Gustav Walter, Marcella Sembrich, Leo Slezak, or Heinrich Schlusnus might have done: his first concern is to make the awkwardly written vocal part as attractive and as musical as possible. (As usual, he is perfectly successful in this.) His pronunciation of German vowels may not always be flawless, but every syllable is clear and he is even able, in the phrase “Ruft drein die Nachtigall liebend”, to suggest a separation between the “ll” of “Nachtigall” and the initial “l” of “liebend” while maintaining his legato! In this concern for legato he never utters the “glottal stop”, which was excluded from nineteenth-century German singing of the highest class: for example, in “Ganymed”, instead of singing “in diesen /glottal stop /Arm” he elides by singing “In diesenArm”, joining the “n” of “diesen” to the “A”, and leaning into the “n” firmly on his D and his F-sharp. (This elision is frowned upon by German authorities today, but it was widely used by singers until the nineteen-twenties, and must therefore be considered appropriate.) McCormack is able to delicately colour the tone just by thinking of the meaning. When he makes such an unforgettable effect with the cries of “Ich komm’, ich komme!” and “Mir! Mir!” he is responding spontaneously to the poet’s intention. The feeling springs from the heart and soul of the musician, and the intellect does not get in the way. The voice on this famous record of 1932 is in rather frayed condition, which, in fact, helps to add some touching depth to the interpretation, but luckily several of the higher-lying phrases call for the “e” or “i” vowels, which he was still able to place well in the passaggio notes. The beautiful song “Wo find’ ich Trost” must have appealed to McCormack’s religious temperament, and the orchestral accompaniment (is it Wolf’s own?) is especially effective in the passages where the influence of Wagner peeps through; Nathaniel Shilkret conducts beautifully. McCormack is in good voice, though he is taxed by the finale and in one take the penultimate note cracks, which is probably why this impressive record was not issued. It is in this record that I first noticed a bad habit that he developed, I believe, after 1930, of attacking some notes slightly from below, an irritating mannerism that Maestro Sabatini would not have countenanced! Another oddity is that in this record he is uncomfortable with the consonant “n”, so we get “Frage: Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hinll? Ulld: was rettet mich…” instead of “...ist die Nacht bald hin? Und…”. He is guilty of this curious lapse in a few earlier Lieder recordings, for example in the very similar acoustic recording with piano of this same song (1924), in which he is in better voice and includes rather more portamento. No German singer would ever have committed this solecism, and I cannot help wondering if McCormack ever did it in Italian opera, where it was common in his day—Battistini would sing “veldetta” instead of “vendetta”. John Steane has pointed out an almost unique musical error (like Melba, John did not make musical mistakes): he anticipates his entrance on “Und was rettet mich” on the last page.
I do think the unpublished “Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen” of 1931 is very attractive, with some nice McCormack touches in the pianissimi and the elegant upward portamenti (which he only sings where indicated in the score) and the piano accompaniment is strikingly played by Edwin Schneider. Even more appealing are the two Lieder recorded in 1935, making a marked contrast: “Auch kleine Dinge”, almost an encore number in its charm, and McCormack’s favorite “Herr, was trägt der Boden hier”, including some dramatically dark and threatening tones that we find rarely in his interpretations. These are memorable performances, to which we might add his 1936 recording of “Schlafendes Jesuskind” accompanied by orchestra, in which he finds some unusual tones of foreboding towards the conclusion. Though McCormack must have worked very hard at his French and German pronunciation, he never really perfected either, but this does not seem to me to detract much from the appeal of his best performances in these languages, nor did it interfere with his triumphs in Paris and Berlin. His acoustic records of Schubert’s “Die Liebe hat gelogen” and “Der Jüngling an der Quelle” remain unsurpassed.
Among the more respectable English songs he recorded in his last decade, we have Parry’s immortal “Jerusalem” to moving and inspiring words by Blake, for which he is no longer able to produce the required grand, sustained style (Peter Dawson, the great Australian baritone, pupil of Sir Charles Santley, made the perfect record of this magnificent song in 1934) whereas McCormack relishes singing the same composer’s dramatic song “Three Aspects”, even “letting rip” in some impassioned tenorial hectoring. In Dunn’s splendid “The Bitterness of Love” McCormack, in one of his most electrifying performances, “lets himself go” again in a great dramatic outburst—“I hated the two on the sand there”. In contrast, Wilfred Sanderson’s “Charm Me Asleep” is charming indeed, with a lot of still successful soft, high singing—not as good as it would have been in 1912, perhaps, but still beguiling, and the soft high G-sharp in the last phrase is lovely. One of his most attractive HMV records, from 1934, is the Australian composer George H. Clutsam’s delightful song “I Know of Two Bright Eyes”, recorded by many, but never so memorably as this.
The Irish songs from this period include the enchanting “The Fairy Tree” by McCormack’s mentor Vincent O’Brien. The singer makes a striking contrast between the sparkling, merry opening (featuring “the little people”) and the moving passage in which Katie Ryan has a vision of Christ: “When from a branch of thorn tree / The crown I wore was made”. McCormack finds an eerily haunting, almost supernatural voice for these verses, one of his most inspired and inspiring moments. McCormack legends include “The Garden Where the Praties Grow” and “By the Short Cut to the Rosses”, in both of which the lightness, clearness and rapidity of his enunciation make him sound like a twenty-year-old boy. The mysteriously unpublished record of “Norah O’Neale”, arranged by the invaluable Herbert Hughes, will, I think, always be a favorite of mine. What grand tunes the Irish minstrels invented! In 1934 he made a double-sided record of two gems: “Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen” (a milkmaid who is going off to England to better herself, and who will probably come back—Terence ruefully supposes—speaking perfect English) and “The Dawning of the Day”—one of his most delightfully sung later records—in which another rural damsel deposits her milking pail only to give a pert answer to a proposal of marriage. Yet again, listening to this master story-teller, we scarcely know whether to laugh or cry.
The Surviving Radio Broadcasts
Despite their generally poor sound quality, the radio broadcasts constitute a valuable appendix to the gramophone records. In the first, the 1926 New Year’s concert, McCormack is in very fine voice and gives a lesson in legato singing in “When You and I Were Young Maggie”. Even the duet with Lucrezia Bori, “Night Hymn at Sea”, is more successful than their unpublished studio recording made only a few days earlier. I find it significant that McCormack should have chosen to broadcast these particular numbers, which he had recently recorded for Victor. The broadcast material includes some songs that he did not record for the gramophone, of which the most precious is, obviously, a severely cut and re-arranged “Alma mia” from Handel’s Floridante (1934). The opening notes, slightly wobbly, do not seem promising, but as he warms up McCormack gets into his stride and we hear, with enormous pleasure, the kind of accurately articulated florid singing, legato and properly supported on the breath, that stamps his mastery of old Italian music on all the very few examples he has left us. A “Panis angelicus” from 1933 is sung with intense religious fervour but also with some sloppy attacks from below the note: however, he is interestingly free with the rhythm, after the manner of his singing in the film concert sequence, so the performance remains in the memory. His singing of “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” (1935) is far from the “Irish folk singer” style of his 1904 recordings and pertains more to the sophisticated style of the drawing room ballad: again, the result is compelling. In a broadcast of 11 October 1936, practically on the verge of retirement, he introduces and sings—incredibly, for the first time—a song with which he is forever associated by British radio audiences: “The Star of the County Down”. (The melody is that of the song “My Love Nell” that David Bispham recorded brilliantly for G & T in 1902.) It is a little miracle of whimsical and mischievous toying with words, melody and rhythm, which he repeats in the broadcast of 27 December 1936.
In the Seal Test Hour programme of 1937, McCormack is a jovial and relaxed compère. The jokes he tells may no longer be funny, but this does not detract at all from the charm of his performance, which includes his delightful singing of “The Ould Turf Fire” as well as a surprisingly brilliant semi-florid outburst together with the chorus.
The Last Records
The rather variable wartime records, in which the timbre of the voice is still attractive, include some great achievements. “Bantry Bay”, with its delightful melody and moving poem that passes from smiling remembrance to deeply religious hope, is a favourite with many record collectors, and the less well-known “The Little Boats” is a charming lullaby that somehow catches the fancy. Though he has no longer quite the reserves of voice for the marvellous song “Maiden of Morven” he makes an unforgettable drama out of it—“Like an empty ghost I go, / Death the only hope I know”– and in this context it scarcely matters that the last note is choked and unsteady. You will want to hear this record again and again, as you will the atmospheric and upsetting “She Moved Through the Fair”. Needless to say, he makes more of that fine eighteenth-century song “Down by the Salley Gardens” than anyone else who has recorded it. As late as 1941 he is still able to give us all a lesson in handling rubato in a masterly performance of “Off to Philadelphia”; if this is not a great song, he makes it into one. Another beautifully eloquent record is of C. Somerset’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “Echo”, and perhaps even more telling in its heartfelt loveliness is McCormack’s carefully crafted phrasing of Somervell’s “White in the Moon the Long Road Lies”, a perfect setting of Housman’s poem.
I should not like to be without his record of Gounod’s “There is a Green Hill” (nearly a great song) for although he no longer has the power to effortlessly sustain the climax he has lost none of his eloquence, giving a lesson in this song to the great soprano Florence Austral, who in her magnificent outpouring of glorious tone is unable to reach the heart and the imagination of her listeners as McCormack could still do in 1940. Although he cannot by any means sustain the weight of the monumental climaxes of Malashkin’s “Oh, Could I But Express in Song” and is forced to make compromises that he would have scorned a few years before, the result is a gripping master-class in how this song should be interpreted.
Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus” belongs to his very last recording session on 10 September 1942; the beautifully drawn line and exquisitely reverent feeling more than compensate for any lack of resonance on certain notes and vowels. Although “To Chloe” is really beyond his means at this point, to be able to hear him phrase the song so lovingly is a privilege indeed.
In addition to the lovely vocal emission, breath control, musical intuition, clear and meaningful enunciation and constant discipline that we have come to admire in this greatest of concert singers, another quality that McCormack shared with the best of his contemporaries has been stressed by Gordon Ledbetter, who defines it as “constantly creating and sustaining a linear tension over and above the tensions and releases native to all melodic music.” (op. cit. p. 149.) He has much to say on this fascinating subject. I should like to add that a study of the duet records made by McCormack and Kreisler suggests that frequently singing concert numbers with an instrumental obbligato would help a singer to develop a sinuous, continuous but inflected and flexible line with an inner musical tension. (It is interesting that in these duet records Kreisler is generous with his portamento, McCormack more restrained.) Mr. Ledbetter quotes Battistini, Patti, Sembrich, De Lucia and others. The case of Marcella Sembrich is particularly significant: before she studied singing she was already a proficient pianist and violinist, and in many of her records (especially, perhaps, in “Casta diva” and “Ah! bello a me ritorna” from Norma) there is a sense of her actually “bowing” the line as a violinist would, with great inner intensity and panache. (How interesting it is to recall that when McCormack made one of his first trips to the USA, he eagerly asked the journalists who had come to interview him when Madame Sembrich was due to give a song recital!) Then, think again of Tetrazzini, with whom he sang so often. Tetrazzini demonstrates linear tension remarkably, for example in Tosti’s “La serenata”, where she is singing in the mezzo-soprano key in her medium register, with daring elasticity of rhythm at an unusually slow tempo. I have pointed out McCormack’s elasticity of phrasing in the film versions of “Luoghi sereni e cari” and “I Hear You Calling Me”. Mr. Ledbetter says: “And it was with this discretionary faculty...for urging forward in a phrase and pulling back, that the singer attained a linear tension that goes beyond what can be notated.” Although so recent a singer as Maria Callas was a mistress of this aspect of phrasing, as records such as the Mad Scene from I puritani testify, few modern singers would know how to inflect the rhythm in this way, any more than they would be able to emulate the perfect shaping of phrases by the very discreet use of dynamic and rhythmic gradation in the 65-year-old Dan Beddoe’s records of the tenor arias from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Although fashions change, the thorough training in a gruelling school together with the sincerity and deep feeling of the artist and man still mean today that in almost whatever he chooses to sing to us, Count John McCormack will be utterly convincing.
“…and my heart
still hears the distant music of your voice.”
© Michael Aspinall, 2019
FOUR TRIBUTES TO JOHN McCORMACK
The following four essays are reprinted with permission from the Capuchin Annual (1946–1947). The Capuchin Annual was published every year in Dublin by the Capuchin Franciscans from 1930 to 1977. It contained articles (mainly in English but also in Irish) on a variety of subjects: poetry, cartoons, illustrations and photographs. Its circulation was international as it was frequently sent to Irish emigrants particularly in North America and in Australia. The 1946-1947 issue contained a lengthy Symposium of Tributes to John McCormack, with essays by many notable figures of the day.
This first essay is by Vincent O’Brien (1871–1948). He was known as a voice teacher and coach whose best-known students included Margaret Burke Sheridan, James Joyce and John McCormack. O’Brien was McCormack’s first music teacher and he was also the accompanist on the 1913–1914 Australasian tour.
The second essay is by Edwin Schneider (1874–1958). He was a pianist, teacher and music editor from the United States, who was best known as John McCormack’s accompanist. Schneider was a long-time friend of McCormack and accompanied him for most of his Gramophone Company discs between 1927 and 1936. He and McCormack had a sympathetic partnership and given Schneider’s solid musicianship and impeccable taste, he proved to be a valuable asset to McCormack’s recordings.
The third essay is by Gerald Moore CBE (1899–1987). Moore was best known for his career as an accompanist for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schumann, Hans Hotter, Pablo Casals, John McCormack and numerous other musical luminaries. Moore took up the mantle after Edwin Schneider’s retirement in 1938 and accompanied McCormack on many of his recordings from 1939–1942. Moore gave lectures on stage, radio and television about musical topics. He also wrote about music, publishing volumes of memoirs and practical guides to the interpretation of Lieder.
The fourth and final essay is by Ernest Newman (1868–1959). Newman was considered by many as one of most celebrated British music critics in the first half of the 20th century. He was music critic of the Sunday Times from 1920 until his death nearly forty years later. His essay was originally published as an obituary in that newspaper, following John McCormack’s death in 1945.
As these words are being written I am looking at the piano, an old tin box it is actually, on which I ran over the accompaniment of John McCormack’s first song to me. I shall never part with it now. Not only with John but with many others that piano is associated—all of them in kindly memory, but principally with John. He himself told me the story of that meeting in his own inimitable kindly humorous way in last year’s Annual.
William Ludwig, too, is associated with that piano, and with John. I remember at a wayside station somewhere he said to John and Lily (they were both on tour with him) “You two young people were made for each other.” They were, and how well anyone who knew the McCormack household (and how many that is!) can well attest.
I like to remember that I met them separately and that they came together in one of the happiest marriages I have ever known, as my close friends. I used to teach Lily before ever John met her. She won a gold medal at the Feis Ceoil.
John had a high regard for Ludwig. He spoke of him as the greatest singer this country had produced up to then and one of the greatest singers anywhere in his time. He was regarded as the greatest Flying Dutchman of his day, even in Germany. A slight cast in his eye added to the eerie effect he made in the part. It was really uncanny the effect he had on his audience. Even after he gave up opera and would sing nothing but Irish songs, a deep hush settled on the house from the very second he stepped on the stage. I remember once—it was in the Rotunda, at a time when political feeling was high—Ludwig was singing old Irish ballads and when he came to the lines: “Well, they fought for dear old Ireland/And full bitter was their fate,” he had just sung “bitter”—“bitt-her,” he bit it off—and they let him go no further; hats, sticks, everything went up in the air in a storm of emotion and applause, and tears came to the eyes of strong men—and he had to sing it again!
I recall him here at length because as I recall those days with John I recall him, too, and John’s regard for him. And perhaps, too, the fact that my father, Richard Vincent O’Brien used to teach him. Yes, the other piano is better: but this one remains.
Remains, too, the memory aroused by the large photograph there on the wall. Melbourne, 1914: the year “world war one” broke out. John is turned away from the audience arrayed in the background. That sheet of music before me as I sit at the piano is one of a Schumann song—I can’t remember which—it was the first of our “classical” group: and I can see the smiles of many of the great audience. For just as John was about to begin, a photographer took that photograph and the flash-light startled us—and startled John to exclaim, audibly right round the hall, “Oh, Hell!” I’m glad now that photograph was taken.
Those happy faces. I can see a Milesian touch that recalls all the happy reunions around the world of the Irish exiles. And when the concert was over dy’e think they’d go home? Crowded on the platform and all around singing the nostalgia out of their hearts, glorying in John’s greatness.
And how quietly proud Lily looks there, in the third row. And how fine and young and strong John is. He loved boxing. How often I was his sparring partner, giving, I like to think, as good as I got! And how expert we became at body punching; for we had a rule never to hit the face.
He was a good tennis player, too. Extraordinarily good: I saw him extend a world champion, Maurice McLoughlin, I think it was. He was very swift. And often, where another singer, in such a climate as that of Australia, would have gone to rest in the afternoon, John would play several sets of tennis; and after a cold bath and a cup of tea go off full of energy to the concert hall.
I heard him in opera only once, an unforgettable experience. It was in Don Giovanni. He sang a great deal with Melba; their voices blended perfectly. He used to say that to listen to Melba’s phrasing in “Mi chiamano Mimì” was one of the most wonderful experiences. He was like that in appreciation. He selected something essential and revealing from the work of the artist and he could always repeat it. Many a time the comical thought occurred to me that if he hadn’t been the great artist he was he would have made a fortune as a mimic.
A great treat it was when he would “choose a cast” for an opera: Melba, Caruso, all the great ones, and then he would sit down at the piano, and give us them all, a little of each, perfect imitation; he would go up into the high register of the soprano; and he would conduct it all. And the conductor would always be Toscanini. Toscanini was his idol. I remember once Toscanini was conducting Aida at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Caruso was the tenor. Pasquale Amato was the baritone (and I remember, too, that Amato “stole the opera,” as they say. A wonderful artist.) John bought three seats: right behind the conductor. He put me in the middle: Lily and himself sat on either side of me. John was entranced: he was intent on the conductor and wanted me to note every movement for myself.
As I recall sitting with him there, I recall, too, another occasion when we sat at Lord’s together watching a cricket match. We were able to converse that time! And it comes back to me. He talked about Tetrazzini. He liked singing with her. He had been singing (at Covent Garden) with her the night before. She wouldn’t allow him to sing top C where she could do it. “Just open your mouth wide and let me sing. You must save your voice,” she said. And she meant it. It was not that she wanted the applause for herself. She really was thinking of John.
Yes, this room is full of memories of John. Even that photograph of Kreisler—“a memento in remembrance of our pleasant artistic collaboration.” His accompanist fell ill. John and I were on the same circuit as Kreisler on a six months’ tour of America. I deputized. John was delighted.
How good John was: without being showily devotional. His singing of the “Panis angelicus” that Sunday in the Phoenix Park he regarded and spoke of as “the peak of his career.” He was proud of every association with the Church. I remember when we were travelling in New Zealand, the bishop of one place—his name, I think, was Dr Grimes—made some very complimentary remarks about us from the pulpit, and amongst other things said we were more like a travelling sodality than a company on tour! John was a great stickler for due observance: but always quietly without show.
God rest him. This room will never forget him: nor shall I.
There is an old saying, “art is knowledge.” If such is the case, John McCormack was an artist. Another saying aptly applies to him, “we only know what we remember,” and John had a prodigious memory.
As for John’s voice, it was truly a gift of God. The general public remembers him chiefly as a singer of ballads such as “Mother Machree” and “I Hear You Calling Me”, whereas only a few remember him in opera. John made his debut in opera at Covent Garden, London, October 15, 1907; there he sang Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, at twenty-three years of age. He was next cast for the rôle of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, quite a jump in point of musical value, and gave John the opportunity to demonstrate his marvellous breath control and flexibility of voice. I heard a performance of Don Giovanni when he sang with the Philadelphia Opera Company in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1913. The conductor, Felix Weingartner, put down his baton and joined in the applause after John’s singing of “Il mio tesoro”. It was Weingartner who recommended him to Lilli Lehmann, the great Austrian [sic] prima donna, for the Salzburg Mozart Festival in the summer of 1914.
We were on our way to Austria when the first world war was declared and were obliged to return to London from Ostend. His appearance there might easily have changed his career as a concert artist.
It was Fritz Kreisler, the famous violinist, who often said to John, “You owe it to your art to sing in all the countries of Europe,” but it was not until 1923 that he gave his first and only recital in Berlin.
I have never seen John so nervous before nor since. In the audience that filled the “Philharmonie” were such luminaries in the singing world as Lilli Lehmann, Richard Tauber, Johanna Gadski and many others. Not until he was requested to repeat a Schubert song did John really feel himself and was able to shake off his extreme nervousness. The critics next day were extravagant in their praise and likened John to the great Caruso, saying Caruso had a voice of gold and McCormack a voice of silver, a very apt comparison. The critic Weissman said, “It took an Irishman to show us some new Schubert songs, “Entzückung an Laura” and “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” a great tribute to John’s indefatigable research in the realm of song literature.
In the early days of our long association, I had the pleasure of seeing John’s development as a musician. When I first mentioned Brahms to him, he laughingly said, “I thought it was the name of a tooth wash.” Later, when asked by an interviewer, “What is your favourite song?” John unhesitatingly replied, “‘Mainacht’ of Brahms.”
John learned to read music in Sligo College by the tonic solfa system and “moveable do”. He could rattle off any jig-tune as fast as anyone could play it, using the do—re—mi. It was only when he encountered a very harmonically involved song of Hugo Wolf or Richard Strauss that he would ask, “What key am I in?”
I remember his friend, Sergei Rachmaninoff, showing him his new composition for tenor, chorus and orchestra. John started reading the tenor solo part at sight when Rachmaninoff exclaimed, “What, a tenor who can read!”
On tour, we spent hours at a time going through most of the German Lieder, not only songs suitable for tenor voice, but many essentially for soprano, alto, baritone and bass. Whenever our engagements took us to cities that supported a symphony orchestra, we never missed a concert, so that John soon learned to appreciate the highest form of musical expression.
Arturo Toscanini was his favourite conductor. I can still see John standing before his big Capehart gramophone going through the motions of conducting à la Toscanini. Had he had early theoretical training in music, he might easily have become a great conductor.
John never had a piano lesson in his life, yet he could sit down at the piano and play some of his favourite operas from beginning to end, playing and singing all the rôles as well as the chorus numbers from memory. He often remarked, “If my left hand were as good as my right, I’d be a concert pianist.”
To sum up John’s ability as a musician, he had the divine spark which denotes genius coupled with a prodigious capacity for work.
In his musical library, one found scores of all the operas, all the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss and many modern composers. The entire “Bach-Gesellschaft,” and the “Händel-Gesellschaft,” each containing about 70 odd volumes, and records of all the symphonies were also in his collection.
John was not only a great singer, but a true and loyal friend, a staunch Catholic, and a generous, loving father.
God rest his loving soul!
An accompanist,” I once wrote, “gets a view occasionally and sometimes even breathes the rarefied air of the mountain top—but there are more mediocre musicians than there are first-class musicians, and it is with the former variety who are down in the valley or half way up the hill that the accompanist spends most of his time.” The man privileged to play for Count John McCormack was on top of the world.
My first meeting with John McCormack was at the house of Lady Ravensdale. I had gone there to play for a violinist whom Lady Ravensdale, always ready to encourage youthful musicians, was anxious to hear. John McCormack was present. Though I had never met him before there was no mistaking him. The thousand pictures I had seen of him, with his black hair, twinkling eyes, fine head, all came to life in that imposing personality whose presence filled the room. With eagerness not unmixed with trepidation I moved over to the great man to shake his hand. I remembered feeling small when I first met the great Chaliapine, humble when first I met Paderewski—what sort of a reception would John McCormack give me? This is what happened: he clapped me on the back and said “Let me turn over the music for you, Gerald.” And that was that! Whenever I met McCormack after that, there was always friendliness, that calling me by my Christian name (it was as much as to say “I know all about you, my boy, and your work”) which brought unction to the soul of a young musician.
It was not until 1938 that I accompanied John (his old partner, Edwin Schneider not feeling well enough to make the journey to Europe). This, sadly enough, was on his farewell tour of England. I went to the Dorchester hotel to rehearse with him and after five minutes he said “What the devil do we want to rehearse for?” and this proved to be the nearest approach to a formal rehearsal we ever had.
He was in wonderful form vocally: his singing once again roused the stern music critics, always quick to detect a flaw, into superlative flights of praise. Ernest Newman wrote that when John sang “All’ mein Gedanken” the audience should have stood up and sung it to John to express what they and music lovers the world over owed to this man for the pleasure and inspiration his singing had given. And the public? London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, etc., all flocked to hear once again their beloved singer. It was a triumphant procession. “The artist’s room presented an amazing spectacle after a McCormack recital on account of the extraordinary cosmopolitan crowd that flocked there to greet their John.” This statement attributed to me, was rather inaccurate, for actually McCormack was away and out of the hall in his car almost before the applause had subsided. It was in his hotel that his friends and admirers would gather: there I have met great conductors, singers, violinists, pianists (I put musicians first, as they are most important); then there were ambassadors, statesmen, writers, actors and actresses, tennis players, etc., etc. To each person John would talk about their own work, to the politician politics, to the sportsman sport.
On the day of a concert, McCormack was unapproachable. He would not see anybody except his own immediate circle. Countess McCormack would see that he had all his newspapers around him and his books. He conversed in whispers (an iron restraint on John McCormack’s part, for he was a vehement and explosive conversationalist). I tapped at this door when the car came to take us to the concert, he would drink a cup of black coffee and off we would go—with me doing most of the talking to monosyllabic replies from John. Arrived at the hall, he would go through a crowd of autograph hunters at the artists’ room door like a knife through butter—he refused to stand out in the cold and damp signing autographs just before he was due to sing—the books could be sent in to him and he would sign them in his room.
John did not love rehearsing, as I have indicated earlier; I remember that the day before his last Albert Hall concert he had made an appointment to run through César Franck’s “Panis angelicus” at the hall with the cellist and organist—who were playing the obligati [sic]. “Why should I be going down to sing my heart out in a cold hall the day before my farewell? Sure, you go down, Gerald, you know how I sing it, you know my tempo, you know my little ways—you sing it through.” And then he added with a wicked look in his eye. “Sure, I think I’ll come with you for the peculiar experience it will be to hear you sing.” Incidentally, that was a new sensation for me, to sing in the Royal Albert Hall. I stood near the organist but had to sing sufficiently loud for the cellist—sitting a long way off—to hear me. These two were my entire audience in that vast hall with the exception of a lady who, with a man’s cap on her head, was doing some cleaning in one of the upper boxes. My noise attracted this lady, for I saw her peer suspiciously at me over the edge of the box and I could fancy her muttering with disgust—“blimey—John McCormack.”
This farewell tour, however, was not to be his last. Unlike many famous singers of the past, one would not ask McCormack, “How many farewell tours are you going to make?” As long as he was in good form he would have continued to make records, might indeed be inspired to make the occasional broadcast—but he would not reappear on the concert platform. Suffering humanity, however, brought him from his retirement. During the grimmest of the war years, 1941–42, he undertook a strenuous tour in aid of the Red Cross, in the course of which and in his anxiety to swell his contribution, he gave concerts in smaller towns than any he had ever visited since he had become celebrated. We in England will always think of him with added affection for that.
The name of John McCormack was a household word the world over. He sang in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Australasia. His fame had spread to places where he had never appeared. I remember sitting alone and disconsolate in a park in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, being made more miserable by a loud speaker attached to a gramophone which was droning out “blues”; suddenly a record with that unmistakable McCormack voice rang out through those grounds overlooking the Danube and I felt nearer home again. Those records of his have brought his voice to the firesides of the rich and the poor. Even Caruso, than whom John never had a more friendly and generous rival, once said to him “Giovanni, I heard that they have sold more records of you than of me this year. Never let it happen again!”
Those who want to hear McCormack at his best should hear his record of “Il mio tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the quality and flexibility of the voice, the legato line and the purity of his Italian are to be marvelled at. Of course the man in the street went in his millions to hear him sing “I Hear You Calling Me”, “Mother Machree” and “The Rose of Tralee”, and John would have been a very hard-hearted man if he had not catered for this overwhelming demand. Yet, in none of his programmes did he ever neglect to give the more serious music lover a treat; there would be something from the old Italian classics, “Amarilli mia bella”, “O del mio dolce ardor”; from Handel, “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?”, “Where’er You Walk”; Schubert’s “Ave Maria”; Wolf’s “Herr, was trägt der Boden hier”. The two latter songs, deeply spiritual, touched the heart of John and he would imbue them with all the fervour of his religion. “To the Children” by Rachmaninoff is another song which meant much to John, and through John, his listeners. Occupying the inmost recesses of John’s heart as these songs may have done, it must not be thought that he could ever sing the tritest ballad with any suspicion of insincerity or carelessness. Indeed the secret of his hold on the vast public was his sincerity. If he could not sing a song with conviction he would throw it away. Every song had to have some special message for John. “When I Have Sung My Songs to You I’ll Sing No More” may not be a great song—I will even go so far as to say that with any other singer it could sound banal, but when John sang it, a lump came into your throat, because you realized at once even if you were sitting at the back of the gallery—that the song meant so much to John personally. I know for a fact that whenever he sang this song he was thinking of his wife, Lily; he was paying homage to his lifelong companion, adviser and comforter.
This great minstrel will never be forgotten. He is enshrined in the hearts of the people, for his singing lifted them up and showed them beauty and romance.
“Low as the singer lies in the field of heather,/Songs of his fashion bring the swains together.”
Of the millions who enjoyed the singing of John McCormack, few realized how great an artist he was, and why. To the multitude he was the unrivalled singer of simple things expressed in a simple musical way, with a special gift for clear enunciation and clean-cut melodic line drawing. But these gifts, admirable as they were in themselves and in his use of them, were only part of a much larger whole. He was so perfect in small things because he was steeped in greater ones, was subtly intimate with them, and had attained complete mastery of the expression of them.
What he did was to carry over into his performances of simple songs an art based on, and subtilised by, the one intensive study of the masterpieces of song from Handel and Mozart to Hugo Wolf. Of Wolf he was a passionate admirer and unremitting student, though for obvious reasons he could not include much of him in his programmes. If the reader wants to get an idea of what rare qualities of musical understanding, of poetic feeling, of style, of phrasing, of nuance McCormack was capable in music of the finest kind he should study his record of Wolf’s great “Ganymed” in one of the albums of the Hugo Wolf Society.
He was a supreme example of the art that conceals art, the sheer hard work that becomes manifest only in its results, not in the revolving of the machinery that has produced them. He never stooped to small and modest things; he invariably raised them, and with them the most unsophisticated listener, to his own high level. I never knew him, in his public or his private singing, to be guilty of a lapse of taste, of making an effort for mere effort’s sake. He was a patrician artist, dignified even in apparent undress, with a respect for art that is rarely met with among tenors. There is no one to take his place.
John McCormack’s art commanded popular appeal in a way that completely transcended the actual music he sang. Performing with command and aristocratic eloquence, McCormack regularly connected to the hearts of millions with his concerts and through his recordings. His immense popularity was almost universal. Whether singing an operatic aria, a German Lied, an English art song, or one of his signature Irish selections, he always weaves a spell that gives one goose bumps and sometimes a lump in the throat. His magic was so potent that his records still exert an indefinable magnetic force, and we can almost feel his presence in the room. Each can be analyzed, described and studied, but I suspect no one will ever discover the secret of his art. Musicians can cite McCormack’s impeccable taste, nearly flawless vocal technique and breath-taking phrasing to explain his greatness, but his power to communicate is simply an unfathomable mystery.
As a boy, I was drawn to many of the great voices of the golden age. Among my favorite old records were the duet recordings of McCormack and Kreisler; they exuded such sweetness and serenity that they became part of my daily listening. My love for these two great communicators grew only more fervent with the passage of time. By the mid-1970s, I was trying my hand at audio restoration work, when the Pearl record label announced plans to issue a complete McCormack edition. As their multi-LP sets began to appear, I devoured them, thrilled to hear so many recordings that I thought I would never own as original 78s. Frequently dissatisfied with the poor quality of the remastering work, I hoped that someday I could contribute to the publication of a proper, professional McCormack reissue project. In the mid-1990s the Romophone label provided an opportunity. Several avid McCormack enthusiasts opened their collections and we began producing an eleven-CD project, comprising McCormack’s complete Victor and HMV acoustic recordings.
Alas, only four CDs were released before the Romophone label’s demise, but several years later, Klaus Heymann permitted me to complete the project on his Naxos label. Concurrent with my work for Naxos, Scott Kessler (my life partner) and I had begun issuing vocal and piano reissues on our own CD label, Marston Records. Over the years I had come into contact with most of the major “Mack” collectors, and had made digital transfers of many rarities that were previously available only in poor transfers. Jeremy Meehan, a zealous McCormack collector living in County Cork, Ireland, persuaded us to continue the McCormack project on the Marston label. With his help raising awareness and funds, we issued McCormack’s complete Odeon recordings as a four-CD set in 2014. With no time to take a breath, Jeremy plunged into a campaign to raise money for a sixteen-CD set that would bring together all remaining McCormack recordings that I had not already remastered—and here it is. I give my eternal thanks to all who made this project possible!
CDs one through twelve comprise the complete Victor and Gramophone Company electrical recordings made between 1925 and 1942. Every known recording, published and unpublished, is included. The published records have been transferred in every case from the best available 78 rpm pressings.
Some words about the varying quality of pressings
Nearly all of McCormack’s electric records were issued by English and Irish HMV, but as many collectors know, those pressings are often afflicted with a high level of crackle, sounding like eggs and bacon frying in a pan. There are various computer programs that can reduce obtrusive crackle, but when used to excess, they produce an undesirable dulling of the sound. I have tried to find a middle ground, reducing crackle without compromising the timbre of McCormack’s voice. Many of McCormack’s electric records were issued by both the Victor company and also by the Gramophone Company’s Australian branch, both of which produced extremely quiet pressings during the mid-1930s. I have used those higher quality shellac pressings whenever available, and have also managed to acquire over sixty sides pressed from the original masters on pristine vinyl, which give such quiet reproduction as to sound almost like tape recordings. Twenty-four of these have been loaned to us from the record collection held at the BBC through the good offices of Stuart Donaldson.
We are also grateful to John Bolig, the late David Fitzgerald, Lawrence Holdridge, Owen and Mark Williams (sons of the late Richard Bebb) and John Wolfson, who generously provided test pressings of unpublished recordings from their collections. Other test pressings that we know existed twenty or more years ago in various collections, have somehow disappeared in the interim. For those, we have had to rely on amateur copies made by the collectors who once owned the pressings. These are duly footnoted in the track listings. All alternative takes have been duly compared with the published takes making certain of their authenticity.
John McCormack was among the first celebrities to make electrical records for the Victor Talking Machine Company in the spring of 1925. These were accompanied by the same sort of small orchestra that had accompanied the company’s acoustic recordings, typically three violins, cello, flute, cornet, tuba, piano and percussion. By 1926, The tuba was augmented by string basses, and year by year, the number of players increased. By 1930, the orchestra employed for his Liederkranz Hall sessions comprised forty-three musicians—seven first violins, four second violins, four violas, four cellos, three string basses, two flutes, two clarinets, two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, four French horns, three trombones, tuba, harp, piano and percussion.
Some of the repertoire that Victor expected McCormack to record was of a popular variety that he would not have programmed for his concerts, such as the two Irving Berlin songs recorded in 1925 and 1926. Incidentally, while double-checking all of his recorded songs and their composers, I discovered that one of the popular songs McCormack recorded in 1925 has an interesting background story. The Victor record label for “Moonlight and Roses” gives the music credit to Moret-Lemare. I found that the refrain of this song is an adaptation of a popular organ composition, “Andantino in D-flat” by the well-known organist of that day, Edwin Lemare. Neil Moret, sometimes Morét, was one of several pseudonyms used by an unscrupulous composer and music publisher named Charles Neil Daniels. In 1921, he and lyricist Ben Black wrote “Moonlight and Roses” using Lemare’s melody for the refrain without Lemare’s permission. Within several years, the sheet music had sold over a million copies, and in 1925, Lemare threatened legal action against Daniels. Lemare eventually won a portion of the profits, and a 1925 edition of the sheet music gives the credit as follows: “Adapted from the celebrated Andantino in D-flat with the permission of the composer, Edwin H. Lemare.”
McCormack’s recordings of popular songs of the day were interspersed with the songs that had made him famous, including “I Hear You Calling Me” and “The Irish Emigrant”, and such religious numbers as Franck’s “Panis angelicus” and Hageman’s “Christ Went Up into the Hills”. Not all of McCormack’s Victor recordings used orchestral accompaniment, and as time went on, Edwin Schneider, McCormack’s regular accompanist and long-time friend, accompanied more and more of his records. Schneider also accompanied McCormack for most of his Gramophone Company discs between 1927 and 1936, with Gerald Moore taking over as accompanist for the sessions between 1939 and 1942. To me, the piano-accompanied records exhibit McCormack’s greatness to a higher degree than the orchestrally-accompanied discs, and Edwin Schneider’s sympathetic partnering is always a delight.
Remastering this large group of recordings was fairly straightforward, but there were a few challenges. My main objective was to make certain that all the records were reproduced at the proper pitch and that there was a consistency of sound from track to track, so that the listener would not need to continually turn the level up and down. Deciding upon the proper playback speeds for the Victor recordings was a bit tricky since they vary quite markedly. I found that while many of the sessions were recorded at 76 to 78 rpm, others were recorded at about 75 rpm with one session recorded slightly below 73. I have made an effort to attenuate the heavy bass resonance in the earliest of the Victor recordings, while trying not to adversely affect the lower frequencies of McCormack’s voice. The Gramophone Company records are mostly well-recorded at a consistent speed. My only hurdle was taming the crackle of the English and Irish HMV pressings.
CDs thirteen and fourteen contain all extant McCormack appearances on the air plus one newsreel recording. We are fortunate to have had access to excellent transfers of most of this material. These broadcasts are important, offering a dimension of McCormack’s personality that one cannot obtain from his commercial recordings. The inimitable charm of his speech simply pulls one into his orbit. Just listen to his introductions during the 1937 Sealtest program, or his delightful easygoing banter with Bing Crosby.
The development of electrical recording by Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1920s made it possible to record radio broadcast material, but it was a complicated and costly process. It could only be done by making a wax disc master and then electroplating and pressing it so that it could be played back. Bell Labs used the radio as a sound source for making experimental recordings and the masters were usually pressed by Columbia so that they could be heard and evaluated. In the U.S., both Victor and Columbia made off-the-air recordings, often made as custom recordings for the programs’ sponsors. Surviving examples of such recordings show that they sound comparable to commercial electrical recordings made in company studios.
The earliest known recording of a McCormack radio appearance is on the Victor sponsored “Talking Machine Hour” of 1 January 1926. The recording was made by Victor, and it has been widely circulated among collectors of early radio material. Thirty-three minutes of the program survive, which include only two of McCormack’s selections. The extant portion of McCormack’s 1 January 1927 appearance on the Talking Machine Hour stems from unlabeled ten-inch shellac pressings, which bear only the date etched into the center area. At the end of one of the sides, an announcer from a Canadian station bids the audience goodnight, so we can presume that these discs were recorded in Canada. Without further data, we cannot posit a guess as to why these sides were recorded.
The demand for off-the-air recordings was sufficiently great that within a few years, a system for making “instantaneous” recordings was developed. A wide blunt stylus embossed grooves into a soft aluminum disc, which could then be played back immediately without having to produce pressings. The sonic results were poor compared to the pressed records of major record companies, but the advantages were such that by 1932, small recording studios in major cities were doing a thriving business offering “air check” recording services to artists participating in the broadcasts and to the sponsoring corporations. Reports of the day indicate that hundreds of programs were recorded, and yet, the great mystery to collectors is why so few of these aluminum discs have surfaced. The three selections from McCormack’s 1934 and 1935 Vince Mouthwash programs were recorded with this system.
In 1930, RCA Victor developed a primitive system for making home recordings on pre-grooved vinyl discs. This was offered as a feature of their high-end combination record player/radio models. One could record events in the home as well as capture short bits of radio programming, recording at 78 rpm for higher quality sound or at 33 rpm for longer duration. A ten-inch blank could accommodate about eight minutes per side at 33 rpm, with a twelve-inch blank allowing for an additional two or three minutes. It must be pointed out that this system was extremely crude and turned out to be an abysmal failure. Collectors know that the sound of these recordings runs the gamut from poor to atrocious. The sound level is often so low that nothing is audible, or it is so high that the distortion is unbearable. The excerpts heard here of McCormack’s 1933 appearance on the CBS program “The Inside Story” were recorded using the pre-grooved system—mercifully, the sound is listenable.
By 1935, both of these systems became obsolete with the introduction of the greatly improved system of cutting into a lacquer-coated aluminum disc, which captured significantly higher frequencies with much less distortion. The remainder of McCormack’s U.S. broadcasts on this set were transferred from 33 rpm lacquer discs, most of which are in excellent sound.
The three BBC broadcasts that bring CD 14 to a close were all preserved on 78 rpm shellac pressed discs. The first, from 6 December 1938, was transferred from four twelve-inch single-faced discs bearing BBC labels. The recording was likely made from the broadcast, but it is also possible that the program was prerecorded on these discs, which then could have been played at different times on the various BBC services. The practice of prerecording programs was not uncommon for the BBC at this time. The second broadcast, from 25 June 1940, clearly derived from 78 rpm discs, but we have not had access to the original source. The present transfer comes from a tape that has circulated among collectors. The third broadcast has an interesting story behind it. The date of 2 January 1942 was listed in the Radio Times, and the program was announced as taking place at the flat of the actress Dame Irene Vanbrugh. Until recently, the only source was a poor-sounding recording made with a microphone placed in front of a loudspeaker. Listening to the program, it is clear that the conversation among the “guests” and their hostess is anything but spontaneous, and the entire setup seems suspiciously phony; but no further information about the program was available. Out of the blue, last year, I found a clue in the catalogue of the late collector, Richard Bebb. He had listed one single-faced disc from this broadcast, with McCormack singing “I’ll Walk Beside You”, bearing matrix CTPX11859-1. I knew right away that the disc was not recorded by the BBC, because the matrix bore the prefix used by EMI for their custom recording department. Record sleuth, Jolyon Hudson, discovered that this matrix is the fourth in a series of seven, recorded by EMI on 7 October 1941 for the Entertainments National Service Association. The recording venue is not mentioned in the EMI files, nor is the contents of the program. Owen Williams loaned the disc to Jolyon, who made a perfect digital transfer for this project. It struck both Jolyon and me that the recording bears a sonic resemblance to Abbey Road Studio 3, and why not, as the Abbey Road studio would have been the most likely venue for EMI to use for such a recording. It is anyone’s guess as to who invented the scenario and wrote the script. We have not managed to locate original discs for some of the other sides, but did find a satisfactory transfer of the first side, where the guests are introduced and Maggie Teyte sings Cyril Scott’s “Lullaby”. Sides two and three are taken from the poor source mentioned earlier. To my knowledge, sides 5, 6 and 7 have never surfaced.
Bringing our set to a close, the final two CDs present cylinder and disc recordings from 1904 and 1906, plus four acoustic Victor recordings that were not included on the Naxos edition. CD fifteen opens with McCormack’s earliest recordings, Edison two-minute wax cylinders, recorded in London during three sessions in September 1904. Edison’s cylinders were not given matrix numbers as they were recorded. Consequently, the order of recording within a session is not known. Catalogue numbers were assigned only after the cylinders were processed. This first group of McCormack’s cylinders rarely turn up, and when they are found, they are almost always in deplorable condition. The wax Edison used for his molded black wax cylinders is not particularly durable, and they were often damaged by too many playings and years of storage in damp cellars where mold would usually ruin them. Given the slight odds of survival, it is amazing that playable examples still exist. Six titles are presented in direct transfers from originals in varying states of condition. By far the best sounding are “The Irish Emigrant” and “The Green Isle of Erin”, which were provided by the Thomas A. Edison National Historic Park, with thanks to Edison Museum Curator Gerald Fabris. These two cylinders were molded from the masters onto high quality celluloid during the 1920s for preservation purposes, and this is how cylinders can sound at their best. Sadly, for the others, I was forced to use some very poor transfers made over the years by amateurs using original cylinder machines, often with a microphone held up to the horn.
McCormack’s first disc recordings were made for the Gramophone and Typewriter company that same month. On the same day when he recorded his last Edison cylinders, he recorded nine seven-inch discs for G & T, all of which can be heard here transferred from originals in fine condition. These matrices all bear a lower case “a” suffix. During this session, matrix number 6463a was skipped, and the following number was used twice in error for two different selections. “When Shall the Day Break in Erin?” was assigned 6464a, while “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” was given 6464WD2.
Two further G & T sessions that month produced twenty-two ten-inch published discs, four of which were issued on the company’s Zonophone label under the pseudonym John O’Reilly. Two additional sides are thought to have been issued on the Zonophone label, but to this day, neither of these has come to light. These records were listed in a different numerical matrix series with a lower case “b” suffix. We have sought the best copies we could find, but sadly, several of them are in less than pristine condition.
Collectors have argued for years about the correct playback speed of these records, some insisting on 76 rpm while others prefer 72 rpm. I have transferred all of the G&T records at 71.5 rpm; to my ear, this is where McCormack’s voice comes into focus, and the resultant key signatures are all easy for the pianist.
Six weeks later, McCormack made a second group of cylinders, this time for the Edison Bell label. Collectors have discovered over the years that multiple takes of some titles were issued, and we have included every known take that has survived as a listenable transfer. Sometime in 1906, McCormack recorded one lone cylinder for Edison Bell, “Home to Athlone”. In 2014, we issued a poor dubbing of this cylinder along with his 1906 Sterling cylinders. A fine example of the 1906 Edison Bell cylinder has recently surfaced, and therefore we thought it appropriate to issue it in an improved transfer.
The final selections on this set are four acoustic Victor recordings, take one of “Silver Threads among the Gold”, inadvertently omitted from the Naxos series, and three private discs sung by McCormack’s children, Cyril and Gwen.
John McCormack: A Patrician Artist [pdf]
Ward Marston has worked miracles with these irreplaceable recorded documents, and they emerge as fresh and vibrant. His efforts cannot be praised enough. This is a Limited Edition of 1000 sets. No aficionado of the ‘Golden Age of Singing’ will want to be without it.
—Stephen Greenbank, MusicWeb International, June 2019
McCormack the Magnificent [pdf]
I think it fair to say that Ward Marston’s latest McCormack set – his long awaited completion of the great singer’s recorded legacy as expertly transferred to CD [previous volumes are available on Naxos and Marston Records] – will prove one of the glories of recorded vocal art.
—Rob Cowan, Gramophone, August 2019
“Must haves” for John McCormack, Gospel and “Black music” fans [pdf]
Award-winning producer Ward Marston may have outdone himself with the newest release on his independent Marston Records label... The sound Marston gets is amazing.
—Steve Ramm, The Antique Phonograph, September 2019
John McCormack: A Patrician Artist - “Five stars it is, then” [pdf]
It is a remarkable accomplishment in all respects, made greater still when one considers the varying (and sometimes very poor) condition of the surviving materials... Taken all together, this labor of love is a must for the McCormack collector, or to any fancier of vintage opera and song that relishes great performances... 5 stars – For the McCormack completist, it doesn't get any better than this.
—Barry Brenesal, Fanfare