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Where the River Shannon Flows

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This blog post was co-written with Jan McKee, Reference Librarian, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress

John McCormack, c1912. Prints and Photographs Division.

It wouldn’t be St. Patrick’s Day without some sentimental Irish ballads to listen to with our green beer, and the name that is most synonymous with Irish ballads is John McCormack.

John McCormack (1884-1945) was an Irish born American tenor renowned not only for his renditions of sentimental Irish songs but also for his superb operatic voice.

McCormack made nearly 800 recordings and recorded during every phase of his career so that the development of his voice and artistry is well documented. He made his first recordings in 1904 as a member of the Palestrina Choir of the Dublin Pro-Cathedral and before he had received any formal vocal training. These first cylinder recordings for the National Phonograph Company were nearly all traditional Irish songs.

Using the payment he received from the 1904 recordings, McCormack studied voice in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini. He made his opera debut in 1906 in Savona, Italy, sang in at Covent Garden in 1907and made his American debut in New York at the Manhattan Opera House in 1910. By 1909 his voice was fully mature with an extensive range and under perfect control. His tone was sweet, free and pure with exquisite modulation. He sang with restraint and dignity, avoiding much of the overdramatic late 19th century mannerisms common to opera performance at the time. His most active opera years were between 1909 and 1913

All the while, McCormack continued to record. He recorded traditional Irish airs, sentimental ballads, operatic arias and ensembles for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (G&T), the Edison-Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company, Odeon, HMV and Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1910 he made more opera recordings than Irish songs.

John McCormack’s 1916 recording of “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni  is considered to be the model of Mozart performance. According to Paul Worth in his John McCormack: A Comprehensive Discography (Greenwood Press, 1986), this is the recording he wanted to be remembered by. His rich voice, seamless phrasing and superb technical skill contribute to making this recording the standard by which other performances of this aria have been measured. This recording was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2006.

McCormack felt he was a poor actor and began laying the foundations for a concert career. His concert programs usually included works by Bach, Mozart, Handel, Italian classics, German lieder, art songs, sentimental ballads, traditional Irish airs, religious songs and some songs of a strictly popular nature.

John McCormack, standing in front of poster announcing an upcoming performance by him. c. 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.
John McCormack, standing in front of poster announcing an upcoming performance. c. 1918. Prints and Photographs Division.

In April 1922, he suffered a near fatal streptococcus infection. During his recovery, he did not sing a note all that summer and did not return to the concert stage until October 15. But it was evident that his voice had lost some of its power and, from this time until the end of his recording career twenty years later, McCormack’s voice underwent a slow, but perceptible decline, becoming darker and huskier.

His last operatic performance took place in 1923 and he returned to London in 1924 for more recordings and recitals. In 1925, McCormack returned to the United States and made his first electrical recording. From then until his retirement in 1938, his life was devoted to a grueling schedule of concert touring, recording and radio appearances. During World War II, he came out of retirement to sing for the Red Cross and the armed forces. He also had twenty-five wartime recording sessions in the HMV London studios between 1939 and 1942.

By the time John McCormack had been singing professionally for a decade, he was one of the highest paid singers appearing on stage. He had become wealthy at an early age and did not need to perform to live. He performed and recorded because he truly loved singing. Throughout his life his love of music remained steadfast. He was the last of a line of great classical musicians, among them Adelina Patti, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Enrico Caruso and Fritz Kreisler, who were truly loved by the public at large.

He left a legacy of thirty-eight years of nearly continuous recording for us to enjoy today. One hundred fifty-five of his acoustic recordings for Victor are available for listening in the Library’s  National Jukebox. So for St. Patrick’s Day it seems appropriate to listen to at least one of John McCormack’s enduring Irish ballads.

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