Born: 14 June 1884
Died: 16 September 1945
To introduce the Irishman, is to mention the name of one of the most popular singers of all time. John McCormack.
At one time, you could almost be guaranteed to find one of his 600 plus records in the house of anyone with a gramophone.
McCormack trod the boards, for 10 years, as an opera star, before finding his true vocation as a recitalist. But to tell his story and appraise the man and his music, I can do non better I think, than quote Henry Pleasance, in his sketch on the singer and his book, The Great Singers. As it seems to me, a fine summation, of most of what I have read about the singer.
And then we shall attend one of his recitals, in miniature of course, and try to capture something of the unique flavor of the man.
What distinguished John McCormack in his time, from other singers with a similar enormous popular following, Harry Lauder for example, was his ability to excite apparel admiration among the most exacting connoisseurs of opera and lieder.
He is remembered today primarily as a singer of Irish ballads and folk songs. Many who treasure his recording of Kathleen Mavourneen, Macula and Rose of Tralee, and so on, would be surprised to learn, that during the first decade of his career, he was primarily an opera singer, in London, New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and the major cities of Australia.
They would also be surprised to learn that his records of such a hallowed items as Ilene Tesoro, and O Sleep by Desta Lev me, ‘where ‘ere you walk’, some of them made as many as 70 years ago, are held by some collectors to have remained unsurpassed in the perfection of their style and vocalism.
This span of repertoire confounded even McCormack’s contemporaries. Throughout his long career, he was plagued by critics, who, while acknowledging the beauty of his voice, and the elegance of his singing, deplored his taste and judgement in the selection of what he sang. His response was always there to sing nothing but the best music, as a form of snobbery.
‘It isn’t everyone’ he used to say, ‘who appreciate the more artistic music’. The world is full of men and women with humble thoughts and simple sentiments, and who shall despise them.
His reward for this democracy was an earned income of about $1,000,000 a year.
There were those who felt that McCormack lowered himself to make money. And he played into their hands by a notoriously extravagant way of life, he presided over luxurious establishments in Ireland, California, Connecticut, New York, and London. He owned, at one time and another 12 Rolls Royce’s, and in a life as full of wine and of song, he drank nothing but champagne. A Stradivarius and a Gurnerious were among his possessions, although the only thing he could play on a violin was “Callarnae”.
One of his most persistent ambitions, was to own a Derby winner, it remained expensively unfulfilled.
The critics were encouraged in their view, of his self con basement paradoxically, not only by the inclusion in his programmes, of what they felt to be bad, but also of what they knew to be good.
Two groups were always devoted to such composers as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Uegilvolv. The critics were thus reminded continually, of how well and how tastefully he could sing the best music. It only aggravated their scorn, for the sentimental Irish ballads and songs, that came at the end and drew the throng, and the scorn was not moderated by the fact that he sang this music beautifully too.
Such singing of such stuff they insisted was prostitution.
One might argue and some did, that McCormack like Fritz Chrysler possessed the art of turning lesser metals into gold. They were certainly never a trace of condescension towards anything he sang.
The same attention to rhyme, tone, phrase, diction and intonation, was expended upon the plainest Irish or their popularity as upon “Oh Sleep by Des deLevmeee”.
McCormack’s art as musician and vocalist was always admiral, whatever he sang. And as such, a source of aesthetic pleasure.
But he was hurt by the criticism and was always touchy, on the subject of repertoire. ‘I suppose you think’ he said in 1923 to Sir Compton MacKenzie, then the editor of the gramophone, ‘that I sing nothing but muck’.
He might have sung more of it than he did and not as well, had it not been for Caruso.
What distinguished John McCormack from other singers of the Irish ballads was an Italian schooling from which he derived, not only a discipline vocalism, but also taste and experience in a wide repertoire.
And to this schooling he was prompted by hearing a Caruso at Covent Garden in 1904. McCormack was twenty then, and just beginning a career as a professional singer. ‘I will never rest’ he said to a friend after that performance.
I will work and train and pray and someday there will be two men singing like that. Caruso and me.
Money was raised through concerts and donations, and off he went to Milan. Three years later on October 15, 1907, he made his London operatic debut as Torido at Covent Garden.
He sang the lyric role, Legarda, Donna Tavion, Alfredo, Rodolfo, Pinkerton and others, and was sought as a partner by Melba, who took him to Australia, and by Tetrazzini, who took him to Hammerstein’s Manhattan opera in New York.
He was soon spoken of, as the Irish Caruso, but he was no Caruso, and nobody knew it better, than he. His veneration of Caruso survived many years of friendship, when after Caruso’s death, a friend suggested to him that he was now the world’s greatest tenor, he said, ‘I object to that title, the greatest tenor is dead and the next one has not yet arrived’.
Next to his pleasant and well produced voice, wrote Edwin Evans, critic of The London Daily Mail in 1934, he owes his popularity to the fact, that of all singers now before the public, he is probably the most intelligible. He is perhaps, the only singer, who’s patron might economize on the book of words, without losing the thread of any song.
It was this knack, possibly stemming from a predilection to talk, to listen to and to convince, that predestined him to the recital hall.
He was in private life, gregarious, garrulous, and disputatious, with a passion for holding forth on all in any subject. In the recital hall he had of course, a captive audience and he relished it. It was his natural habitat.
That he would have made a great career as an opera singer is unlikely. The top note above B flat were not his, by divine right, and he did not have them for long. He never was and never would have been a good actor.
In the recital hall, he could sing what he sang best. In congenial surroundings and in congenial keys. In the Opera House, whatever the role, he’d never been anyone but John McCormack. In the recital hall, just to be John McCormack was enough.
But there was always something boyish, about this John McCormack, may have accounted for the preponderance of females among his fans.
Originally tall and lanky and darkly handsome, he put on a weight at an early age and made a portly figure on the stage or assisting in Roman Catholic ceremonies, where splendid, in his uniform of account of the holy Roman Empire.
But he never entirely shed the manners of a provincial Irish mill town boy.
He may have sensed this and resented it, for his relationship with Sloan and birthplace was neither close nor cordial. An awareness of provincialism may also have contributed to his ostentatious social habits and to his prodigality with money.
He was an indefatigable celebrity hunter and his own legitimate celebrity, made it an easy chase. He was drawn particularly to the world of sports, Bill Tilden was among his friends and McCormack and his wife, were among the guests at the wedding of Gene Tunney.
His compulsion to excel, was pronounced and he was, in game or argument, a bad loser.
There was also probably an element of incredulity in the whole performance, as if the phenomenon of John McCormack might not be true or could not last, and must be relished while it did.
He suffered more than most singers from pre-recital nerves. He visited the nearest Catholic Church before every appearance, he called it saying ‘Grace for music’. Before leaving his dressing room, he would stand for a few minutes in silence, gripping a rosary, and he was an eager admirer of his own records, even at the height of his career, he was continually astonished at how good they were. And he enjoyed his astonishment.
Towards the end of his life when nothing but the record was left, he would play them again and again, exclaiming happily and a bit wistfully, possibly even a bit incredulously, “I was a damn good singer, wasn’t I?”