Mar 17 2012

Singer Spotlight - John McCormack

John McCormack

John McCormack

In recognition of St. Patrick’s Day I’ll highlight the most well-known Irish singer, tenor John McCormack.

From Wikipedia: John Count McCormack, in full, John Francis Count McCormack (14 June 1884 – 16 September 1945) was a world-famous Irish tenor singer, celebrated for his performances of the operatic and popular song repertoires, and renowned for his diction and breath control. He was also a Papal Count.

McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children of Andrew McCormack and Hannah Watson on 14 June 1884. His parents were employed at the Athlone Woollen Mills.

In 1903 he won the coveted gold medal of the Dublin Feis Ceoil. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and they had two children, Cyril and Gwen.

Fundraising activities on his behalf enabled McCormack to travel to Italy in 1905 to have his voice trained by Vincenzo Sabatini  in Milan. Sabatini found McCormack’s voice naturally tuned and concentrated on perfecting his breath control, an element that would become part of the basis of his renown as a vocalist.

In 1906, he made his operatic début at the Teatro Chiabrera, Savona. The next year he began his first important operatic performance at Covent Garden in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, becoming the theatre’s youngest principal tenor. In 1909 he began his career in America.  Steane (“The Grand Tradition” 1971) stresses that, for all his later devotion to the concert platform (and his Irish identity), he was (for albeit a relatively brief period) in essence an Italian operatic tenor.

By 1912, he was beginning to become involved increasingly with concert performances, where his voice quality and charisma ensured that he became the most celebrated lyric tenor of his time. Famous for his extraordinary breath control, he could sing 64 notes on one breath in Mozart’s Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, and his Handelian singing was just as impressive in this regard.

McCormack made hundreds of recordings, the first on phonograph cylinder in 1904. His most commercially successful series of records were those for the Victor Talking Machine Company during the 1910s and 1920s.

McCormack was the first artist to record the famous World War I song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in 1914. Between 1914 and 1922, he recorded almost two dozen songs with violin accompaniment provided by Fritz Kreisler, with whom he also toured.

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Jocelyn “Berceuse” with Fritz Kreisler

In 1917, McCormack became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In June 1918, he donated $11,458 towards the USA’s world war effort. By now, his career was a huge financial success, earning millions in his lifetime from record sales and appearances, though he never was invited to sing at La Scala in Milan.

In 1927, McCormack moved into Moore Abbey, Monasterevan, County Kildare and lived an opulent life by Irish standards. He had apartments in London and New York.

McCormack also bought Runyon Canyon in Hollywood in 1930 from Carman Runyon. McCormack saw and liked the estate while there filming Song o’ My Heart (1930), an early all-talking, all-singing picture. McCormack used his salary for this movie to purchase the estate and built a mansion he called ‘San Patrizio’, after Saint Patrick. McCormack and his wife lived in the mansion until they returned to England in 1938.

McCormack toured often, and in his absence the mansion was often rented to celebrities such as Janet Gaynor and Charles Boyer. The McCormacks made many friends in Hollywood, among them Will Rogers, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Charles E. Toberman and the Dohenys. After his farewell tour of America in 1937, the McCormacks deeded the estate back to Carman Runyon expecting to return to the estate at a later date. World War II intervened and McCormack did not return.

McCormack originally ended his career at the Royal Albert Hall in London, during 1938. However, one year after that farewell concert, he was back singing for the Red Cross and in support of the war effort. He did concerts, toured, broadcast and recorded in this capacity until 1943, when failing health finally forced him to retire permanently.

Ill with emphysema, he bought a house near the sea, “Glena”, Booterstown, Dublin. After a series of infectious illnesses, including influenza and pneumonia, McCormack died in September 1945. He is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.

He was much honoured and decorated for his musical career. In 1928, he received the title of Papal Count from Pope Pius XI in recognition of his work for Catholic charities. He had earlier received three papal knighthoods, Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great and Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester. He was also a Knight of Malta and a Privy Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape, an honour which is known now as a Gentlemen of His Holiness.

One of the most famous acts of McCormack’s Irish career was his singing of César Franck’s Panis Angelicus to the thousands who thronged Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

Because of when he was active, there aren’t a lot of videos available to see John McCormack’s singing. But one great resource is the movie “Song o’ My Heart”, available below.

When I first heard McCormack when I was in college I wasn’t impressed. Like many when listening to a historic singer for the first time, I was distracted by the limitations of the recordings. The difference compared to what I hear now is significant. The purity of the voice is exemplary. Like I have said before, we need to learn to listen functionally to really make listening productive.

One song I really like and find to be a great example is “Kathleen Mavourneen”.

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This song shows the great low range he retained along with the high tessitura he was capable of.

This is just meant to be an introduction, so hopefully some will be inspired to learn more about this legendary singer.
As always leave a comment below to discuss this more.

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  1. Scott Miller

    Thank you Michael for reacquainting me with this wonderful lyric tenor, of which I am one myself. I, too, pride myself on my breath control and diction. But, I certainly am no Mr. McCormack.

  2. You’re welcome, Scott. Glad you liked it. I would certainly never recommend someone imitate a singer, but there is a lot of benefit to learning how to model a master singer.

  3. Vincent McMaster

    Found this in a review of a performance in the Metropolitan Opera:

    ….But what Mr. McCormack contributed here, and later in the opera was much beautiful singing, of its kind unsurpassable in quality of tone, in purity of diction, in finish of phrase, and in most of the subtler graces of the art that are not always the first to be recognized. There are other operatic works in which it may be hoped he will be heard wherein Mr. McCormack’s extraordinary qualities as a singer will count for more than they do in La Bohème.

  4. I was wondering why tenors didn’t sing like that anymore. TO make this more lowbrow I will change the subject to pop and mention Nick Lucas. The amazing thing is that so many singers of pop, jazz, folk and opera in the 1920s and 1930s had a particular style that was so bell clear. From Ruth Etting to Nick Lucas to Helen Morgan (listen to her singing Why Was I Born 1929 recording on youtube. Maude Maggart also does a great version 85 years later! She is natural singing personified:
    I was going to say PLEASE forget “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” but i had another listen and didn’t mind it. Listen also A Man and His Dream or Moon Glow you may be impressed. Not just a great guitarist.
    A Man and His Dream on youtube:

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