MCCORMACK, John: Remember
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JOHN McCORMACK Vol.3
'Remember' Original 1911-1928 Recordings
In the final analysis it might be said thatMcCormack, however shining an example of alost tradition,was just one among many othergreat singers, but in any serious evaluation ofhis vocal credentials it is impossible to playdown the superlatives. In his heyday justlyregarded in opera circles as a last outpost ofbel canto, to more specifically trained Americanears he embodied Longfellow's 'clear, sweetsinger','patrician' like no other in techniqueand artistry - although even then the moreconservative critics saw in his increasingcommercial populism the debasing of anuncommon talent. McCormack, however,pandered to his audiences and, at least whileyouth and vigour were his, maintained thesame high standard, whatever the repertoire.
And on the best records (generally those madepre-1925) the McCormack constants areeverywhere to be heard: articulation, clarity ofdiction (a clarity the Irish poet Yeats oncefamously denounced as 'damnable', as he hastilywithdrew from a McCormack recital),sweetness of tone, unparalleled breath-controland mezza-voce matched, particularly in thecontext of popular ballads, by a remarkablepower to communicate.
John McCormack was born the fourth ofeleven siblings to working-class immigrantScots parents in Athlone, on 14 June 1884.
Respectably God-fearing, his upbringing wasscarcely a privileged one, although music andparticularly singing were actively encouraged,and after briefly considering the priesthood, atseventeen he already aspired to a career as asinger. At his father's insistence, however, in1902 he entered the civil service as a clerk inthe post-office, but soon abandoned this to jointhe Palestrina Choir in Dublin's famousGeorgian Pro-Cathedral, under its notedconductor Vincent O'Brien. Inspired by thisnew mentor, in 1903 he won the Gold Medal atthe Feis Ceoil (Irish National Music Festival)and by 1905, with scholarship funds, hadundergone less than thorough training in Milanwith Vincenzo Sabatini (father of historicalnovelist Rafael). Moderate notices gleaned onthe provincial Italian opera circuit in 1906indicated no quick route to stardom but thenext year, in London, after appearances atBoosey Ballad and National Sunday LeagueConcerts and through the good offices ofCovent Garden musical coach Sir John MurrayScott, his patron, doors were already opening.
In October 1907, at 23, McCormack wasthe youngest tenor ever to sing leading roles atCovent Garden and a cursory glance at thattheatre's contemporary cast-lists, which includesuch names as Melba,Tetrazzini, Destinn, Didur,Dinh Gilly, Muzio, Sammarco and Vanni-Marcoux, provides an insight into the calibre ofhis operatic partners in London (andsubsequently in the USA). He appeared atCovent Garden each season until 1914, but wasby 1911 already based in America. In NewYork, he sang in Hammerstein's ManhattanOpera season (1909) and at the rivalMetropolitan made intermittent appearances(when not engaged on coast-to-coast recitaltours) between 1910 and 1919. Graduallyshunning opera he made the recital his stockin-trade, swiftly becoming the concert'equivalent' (at least in terms of receipts) of hisfriend Caruso. Firmly clutching his little blackbook of words, he delighted his cosmopolitanaudiences of thousands with every sort ofsong, from the classical to the commerciallypopular, delivering all with 'democraticaffection' and without condescension, in amanner almost inconceivable to our modernminds, by now attuned to 'cross-over'.
The highest-paid recitalist of his generation,through the many hundreds of records hemade from 1910 onwards for the AmericanVictor company (and its European affiliate 'HisMaster's Voice') McCormack was to reach outto an even wider audience. Having acquiredhousehold name status he endeared himself,largely through nostalgic ballads of emigre-Celtic orientation (first published in Chicago, in1866, When You And I Were Young, Maggieis a prime, if stage-Irish example) to theconcert-going and record-buying masses onboth sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, he fulfilledto perfection their nostalgic insistence for'songs their fathers and grandfathers used tosing' and the Victorian and Edwardian gemsillustrate all that is best in early McCormack ondisc: the forthright delivery, the ring andelevation in the high register. All outstanding inthis context are Ah, Moon Of My Delightfrom In A Persian Garden (the 1896 setting byLiza Lehmann (1862-1918) of selected versesfrom the Fitzgerald translation of OmarKhayyam's Rubaiyat) and tenor perennialsfrom two operas of the so-called 'English Ring':Then You'll Remember Me, from TheBohemian Girl (1843) by Dublin-born violinist,singer and theatre-manager Michael WilliamBalfe (1808-1870) and There Is A FlowerThat Bloometh, from Maritana (1845) byWaterford-born violinist William VincentWallace (1812-1865).
The Great War inspired such rallying songsas the smash hit by Ivor Novello (1893-1951)Keep The Home Fires Burning (of whichMcCormack's was the first American recording)and Cradle Song 1915, a vocal conversion of anoted violin encore by his friend Fritz Kreisler(1875-1962) from whose seamless bowingMcCormack was wont proudly to relate that helearnt more about 'spinning a legato' than hewas ever taught by any voice teacher, andwhile this is of course metaphorical, theimplication of technical efficiency is clearenough - for it is this which underpins the artof both the Viennese fiddler and the great Irishtenor. In the studio they would record morethan twenty sides together (some 'unpublished')and several of these have stayedbestsellers with an almost immortal appeal. Inevery case, however trite the tunes or lyrics,the duo's captivating musicality cannot bedenied and The Angel's Serenade, a oncepopularsalon item of 1867, surely ranksamong the most successful. Sung here in itsEnglish translation, by one Harrison Millard, thepiece was originally conceived by the Abruzziborninternational 'cello virtuoso GaetanoBraga (1829-1907) as an instrumental encore.
The song's original edition was titled 'Leggendavalacca'. The McCormack-Kreisler collaborationsinclude the Bach-Gounod and Schubert\Ave, Marias", while a tantalisingly short list ofsongs by Rachmaninov, comprising "To TheChildren" and "Before My Window"(Op. 26,Nos. 7 & 10) and the two gems from Op. 4, aregraced by Kreisler's ethereal obbligati.
Ensconced in the USA, McCormack theavowed populist addressed the masses,regularly featuring in almost the same breathas the Handel and Schubert Funicul?â?¼,Funicul?â?á (by Neapolitan Luigi Denza (1846-1922) this still-popular tenor encore datesfrom 1880 and the opening of the funicular toVesuvius) next to old American numbers(notably various songs by Stephen CollinsFoster (1826-1864) and the latest in popsongs). Several of these last he also assigned todisc, along with some more transient hits fromlong-forgotten Broadway musicals, several ofwhich he recorded, among the earliest (in1911) I'm Falling In Love With Someone,from Naughty Marietta, a contemporaryBroadway musical (136 performances, 1910)from the pen of his Dublin-born friend VictorHerbert (1859-1924), the then undisputed NewYork operetta king. Herbert openly praised thetenor's 'never ending enthusiasm' and whenhis 'grand opera' Natoma (in reality anotherHerbert operetta, but with more lavish sets)was premiered a month later, who else butMcCormack for the tenor lead? Some may stillnot have realised that the McCormackdiscography contains other items from shows;Rose Marie, title-song of the 1924 show byRudolf Friml (1879-1972) as well as variousnumbers by Irving Berlin (You Forgot ToRemember was a dance-hit before thisMcCormack ballad-version) attestretrospectively to the range of this tenor whomay still, in future decades, continue to be'remembered', even by those who never heardhim in the fles