Distant Voices : John McCormick

To the public at large, John McCormack (1884-1945) is fondly remembered as “the greatest Irish tenor,” thanks, in part, to his beloved interpretations of Irish ballads and folk songs. McCormack’s widespread popularity, however, often overshadows the depth of his artistic achievements; his repertoire was broad, and his numerous recordings reveal a tone of natural beauty enhanced by technical mastery and refined musicianship.

McCormack was born in Athlone in central Ireland and began his musical studies in Dublin, where he won the gold medal in the Feis Ceoil in 1903 at the age of 19. Upon hearing Caruso sing Rodolfo at Covent Garden in 1904, McCormack was motivated to receive further training in Italy, studying in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini for three months in 1905. After several engagements at small Italian opera houses, McCormack made his debut in 1907 at Covent Garden, where he would give the majority of his operatic performances. His roles there included lyric ones such as Ottavio, Edgardo, the Duke, Gounod’s Faust, Roméo, and Rodolfo—but also heavier ones such as Turiddu, Boito’s Faust, and Pinkerton.

At Covent Garden, McCormack’s frequent partners were Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini, the latter recommending him to Oscar Hammerstein. McCormack made his New York debut opposite Tetrazzini at Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House in 1900 as Alfredo, and he sang the same role with Melba at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910. He sang only six performances at the Met during the tenure of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general director of the house from 1908 to 1935. McCormack quickly gained a reputation as the “Irish Caruso”—but, by his own admission, he was no Caruso, deferring to his friend and rival.

A self-professed bad actor, McCormack turned his attention to the concert stage in 1912, becoming a star attraction during the height of concert activity in America. His recital programs were scrupulously balanced to appeal to the diverse tastes of his audiences. A portion of the evening was dedicated to such composers as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf, while the remainder comprised sentimental ballads and songs from both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, those who came to hear the Irish songs were exposed to classical repertoire, and vice versa, even if serious concertgoers were alienated by the inclusion of popular music on the program.

Regardless of the repertoire, McCormack’s approach was essentially Italianate, and he sang with consummate artistry and technical perfection. “McCormack’s vowel sounds were always pure, and his consonants distinct,” wrote Henry Pleasants. “Hardly another singer has combined so successfully an immaculate enunciation with an immaculate melodic line. This was one of the secrets of his art, particularly in music of an inferior order, where the melody, however compellingly voiced, was not sufficiently communicative to stand alone.”

McCormack’s recorded legacy spans 38 consecutive years, leaving a nearly complete survey of the artist’s progress. He made hundreds of records and even outsold Caruso at one point. His 1916 recording of “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni is among his most notable—and most famous—achievements in the studio. It is an astounding demonstration of breath management and stylistic grace that Robert Tuggle described as “an unattainable ideal for succeeding tenors.” A similar display of fine breath control and elegant phrasing isMcCormack’s 1909 rendition of “Spirto gentil” from La favorite. recorded in 1924, “Come, my beloved” (“Careselve”) from Handel’s Atalanta is regarded as one of McCormack’s best. The tenor made several recordings for the Hugo Wolf Society from which “Ganymed” (1932) is one of his most communicative interpretations on record. “Macushla” (1914) is an affecting example of the tasteful manner in which McCormack delivered an Irish song with sincere feeling and serious musicianship.

Countless reissues of McCormack’s recordings are currently available on CD. Preiser records’ Lebendige Vergangenheit and Nimbus Records’ Prima Voce labels both have quality releases of his operatic recordings in their catalogs. Naxos Historical has eight volumes dedicated to the tenor’s acoustic recordings. For those desiring to hear the tenor in lighter repertoire, Prima Voce also has a volume dedicated to McCormack in song, as do a multitude of other companies, including EMI with Songs of My Heart: Popular Songs and Irish Ballads.

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.