John McCormack

By Theo Mortimer

John McCormack was born in Athlone on June 14th 1884. He is as well remembered today for the song, I Hear You Calling Me, as for his tremendous, Il mio tesoro (Don Giovanni). His early musical studies were undertaken during his membership of Dublin's Pro-Cathedral Palestrina Choir where its conductor, Dr. Vincent O'Brien, also coached him privately, leading to his winning the prestigious Tenor Award at the Feis Ceoil in 1903. He sang Tell Fair Irene (Atalanta) and The Snowy Breasted Pearl accompanied by Hamilton Harty, later a famous conductor and composer. It is often said that James Joyce was a fellow contestant but he actually won third prize in 1904.

After further study with Vincenzo Sabatini in Italy, he made his operatic debut at Savona in L'Amici Fritz, in 1906. On his return to London, in 1907, he made an impression at a Boosey Ballad Concert when one critic stated, 'No doubt the voice was excellent, yet the actual effect of his singing seemed in excess of the voice. A more perfect and more beautiful display of vocal art I would not wish to hear'. Later that year he made his debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana; he was 23, the youngest tenor ever to perform a leading role there. It was the start of an operatic career at the theatre that would last until the outbreak of war in 1914 and included lead tenor roles in: -

Don Giovanni, Lakmé, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Figlia del Reggimento, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Somnambula, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mefistofele, Roméo et Juliette, Faust, Cavalleria Rusticana, Otello (secondary role).

Oscar Hammerstein I recruited McCormack for his Manhattan Opera House and the young tenor, partnered by Luisa Tetrazzini, opened the season in La Traviata and appeared in other operas there before joining the Metropolitan Opera. He also sang at other American operatic venues and at Monte Carlo, where he added Martha to his repertoire and created the role of Gritzko in the world premiere of Mussorgsky's The Fair at Sorotchintzi, in 1923. Following his success at the Manhattan Opera, the Victor Talking Machine Company (afterwards RCA Victor) invited him to make some test records and, as a result, a contract was signed which lasted until 1938 and which earned both singer and company vast sums over the years. Although McCormack made relatively few operatic recordings, they stand today as a monument to one of the greatest bel canto singers of all time. His Il mio tesoro (Don Giovanni) is still the standard by which all others are judged, 86 years after its recording. His recording career was to encompass lieder, oratorio, Irish songs (particularly those of Thomas Moore) and many, some say too many, popular songs of the day. In 1908, McCormack discovered a song by Charles Marshall that showed great possibilities for his voice, although others had rejected it as unsingable. He first sang it in March of that year at a Boosey Ballad Concert, accompanied by the composer, and recorded eight different versions during his long career. The song was I Hear You Calling Me. His recordings sold in millions and a large number are still popular today, having been successfully transferred to CD.

Hammerstein had earlier said that with his voice and his Irish name he would have a great career in concerts; the concert manager, Charles Wagner, recognised this and, in 1912, offered a contract for three years with a minimum of fifty performances per year at $750 per concert. The first concert took place on February 27th, 1912. It proved to be the commencement of the concert career, which was to last until 1938. It also marked the occasion when Edwin (Teddy Schneider) joined him as accompanist, a role he maintained to March 1937, excepting the one occasion when McCormack took his old teacher, Dr. Vincent O'Brien, as accompanist on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.

At the 4th July 1918 celebrations, Washington's grave at Mount Vernon, the tenor stood beside President Wilson and sang, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Star Spangled Banner, as representatives of 33 nations laid wreaths. In 1919, he sang The Lost Chord at the funeral of Oscar Hammerstein. By 1923, he had finally deserted the operatic stage and concentrated fully on the concert platform and recording. Throughout his long career his world tours continued, audiences never tiring of his recitals. On September 3rd 1923, at the time of his first concerts in Dublin for over ten years, the Lord Mayor of Dublin conferred the Freedom of the City on the 39-year-old tenor. It was an honour he cherished, as was the Papal Knighthood, bestowed on him in 1928 by the Pope.

Max de Shaunsee, the American critic, described the artist at work; 'when I think of the word 'singer' stripped of any extraneous dramatic connotations and in its purest sense, I see John McCormack standing on the concert platform - his head thrown back, his eyes closed, in his hands the little black book he always carried, open, but never glanced at, as he wove a spell over his completely hushed listeners. John McCormack was truly a singer for the people; he was also a singer's singer'. Talking pictures brought McCormack to the screen. He was paid $500,000 to star in Song O' My Heart in 1929. The film is of interest; it shows an unbroken concert sequence, unique in films, which gives a glorious example of his concert technique. There is an audience of 800 extras, the only time people were paid to listen to McCormack!

On March 16th 1937, McCormack gave his last recital in the USA. The following year he undertook a farewell tour of Great Britain and Ireland, culminating with the final concert at the Albert Hall on November 27th 1938, where police tried to control those who could not gain admittance and an amazing 11,000 people crowded the auditorium. It was a very moving occasion for both singer and audience but it was not, in fact, his real farewell. During World War II, he sang on tour in Britain on behalf of the Red Cross and on broadcasts on BBC radio. The years, however, had taken their toll and he died at his home at Booterstown, Co. Dublin, on September 16th, 1945, aged 61. Through the aegis of recordings McCormack's name and reputation live on; it was no accident that Jean de Reske called him, 'the true redeemer of bel canto'. His grave is at Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin.

By Theo Mortimer

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