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Remembering the Great Irish Tenor

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Portrait of John McCormack, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Sometimes it’s hard not to get lost in our collections here at the Library, and when the National Jukebox launched about a year ago, I had a whole new resource full of wonderful early 20th-century recordings to explore. After writing a blog post last month on popular music in World War I-era England, I featured a recording of “Roses of Picardy” by the Irish Tenor John McCormack (1884-1945). McCormack has turned into my latest obsession and, after reading more about him and listening to recordings in the National Jukebox (many on repeat!), I knew that I had found my 2012 St. Patrick’s Day blog post!

Born in Athlone, Ireland, McCormack was exposed to little in the way of classical music as he grew up, though singing was a common activity in his house and he did exhibit a natural talent for it as a schoolboy. At 19 years old, McCormack won a tenor competition in Dublin and within a year he began recording for recording companies in London. After earning enough money from making these recordings, the tenor traveled to Milan to study with Maestro Vincenzo Sabatini who, upon first hearing McCormack sing, pronounced, “I cannot place your voice, God has done that.”

McCormack made his operatic debut in 1906 in Savona with the title role in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz; however, his career did not start out with immediate success. His stage presence lacked confidence and while his range and technical finesse was remarkable, he was incapable of producing the kind of volume his contemporary opera singers were producing. That said, he garnered favorable reviews after his first two performances at Covent Garden in 1907 at the age of 23. His musicality was immediately recognized and lauded by critics and the public. Soon after his first successes with the Royal Opera he began an artistic partnership with Luisa Tetrazzini, one of the greatest sopranos of her time and a significant influence on McCormack’s career.

John McCormack with his wife, Lily, and two children, Cyril and Gwen. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

McCormack eventually came to America to perform in Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera House. In addition to performing opera roles, McCormack also began programming recitals in the opera house where he showcased arias along with Irish ballads. The public loved hearing him sing the ballads, and he made waves by reaching a far wider audience than he could with just the opera house regulars. Recitals were also where McCormack could truly shine, for his character acting was one of the most criticized aspects of his opera performances (by critics and by himself!). John McCormack’s career is a fascinating story that I can only begin to relay in a blog post; if you’re interested in reading more, I suggest reading Pierre Key’s transcription of John McCormack: His Own Life Story and Gordon T. Ledbetter’s The Great Irish Tenor: John McCormack.

The National Jukebox is filled with over 150 recordings of McCormack singing a mix of arias and ballads. You can hear Nora Bayes sing Jean Schwartz’s “When John McCormack Sings a Song” (and see the sheet music, too!). The Performing Arts Encyclopedia also features sheet music by African-American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh that was dedicated to and/or sung regularly by John McCormack on his concert tours. Check out the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog to browse photographs of McCormack – there’s so much to see and hear online!

And now, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day this weekend, I leave you with John McCormack’s lovely rendition of an old Irish favorite, “Mother Machree.” Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

Comments (3)

  1. Ah, Mother Machree…. I have a soft spot in my own heart for John McCormack. What a wonderful performer! Thanks for the post!

  2. Thank you for the post!! Perfect for St. Patty’s Day – I’ve been enjoying the Library of Congress blog posts – as a musician myself, it’s so important to look back and be inspired by our wonderful cultural heritage. Keep up the good work!

  3. I too am obsessed with McCormack’s singing. There is so much good stuff! Check out “Pur dicesti,” “Little Mother of Mine” and “I Hear You Calling Me,” just for starters.
    Naxos in England currently has available for sale via the Internet a large continuing series of McCormack recordings. Fabulous!

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