McCORMACK, John: Come Back to Erin

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Come Back To Erin Original 1910-1921 Recordings

'Irish songs? ... We all sang them - and got theapplause!  I never could understandall this fuss about McCormack's Irish songs ... His Italian songs were muchbetter!'             

(Cavan O'Connor)  

All great singers - and others less-than-great -  have always benefited from localisedforms of hero-worship, and in the days before radio and TV McCormack'spopularity hinged largely on the fact that he was an Irishman who arrived inAmerica at the right moment to delight mass-audiences with his Irishyarns.  Which may sound like anover-simplification or even a solecism - for his vast and cultured repertoirewas soon to span arias, art-song and lieder, all of which he sang with artistryand commitment, if not always total idiomatical accuracy.  The difference between McCormack andthe others, however, resided in a superior technical perfection (his finediction and exemplary articulation were founded on the principles of bel canto)- and to these were added, fortuitously perhaps, certain otheringredients:  an outgoing, evenforceful personality, an uncanny power to communicate simple emotions and, noless advantageous, connections in the right places - not least an exclusivecontract to record for the prestigious Victrola and HMV Red Labels (the veryrecords restored on this CD) which ensured that his voice would be heard inliving-rooms around the world.

John Francis McCormack was born of mixed Scots-Irishextraction on 14 June 1884 in Athlone, where his father, Andrew, was a localwool-mill worker.  RespectablyGod-fearing, his upbringing was scarcely privileged.  At school, however, he was a bright student and was awardedvarious scholarships and by 1902, despite parental opposition, he already had aburning ambition to become a singer, although after failing the entrance examto the Dublin College of Science he at first took up a clerical job in thepostal service.  Through friendswho already sensed the exceptional quality of his voice, however, he wasintroduced to his mentor and preceptor Vincent O'Brien (1871-1948), thenconductor of Dublin's Pro-Cathedral's celebrated Palestrina Choir.  O'Brien coached the raw McCormack andunder his tutelage, in May 1903, the tenor won the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil(Irish Music Festival).  Hisaccompanist on that occasion was the Co. Down-born composer-conductor HamiltonHarty (1879-1941) and he here sings Harty's haunting My Lagan Love, from the1909 cycle Three Ulster Airs - settings of Songs of Uladh, a folksongcollection arranged by  'PadraigmacAodh O'Neil' (aka Herbert Hughes!) in collaboration with 'SeosamhmacCathmhaoil' (otherwise Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), noted Belfast-born poet,Irish folklorist, Secretary of the Irish National Literary Society and sometimeRepublican internee).  

By 1905 funds were raised for McCormack to undertake furtherstudy in Milan with Vincenzo Sabatini. He had, meanwhile, in London in September 1904, made his firstrecordings, cylinders for Edison followed a week later by discs for FredGaisberg's Gramophone & Typewriter Company - predictably of Irish songs,Killarney, The Minstrel Boy and Believe Me, If All Those Endearing YoungCharms, but these were vocally a far cry from the re-recordings that were tofollow, beginning with the Odeons (from December 1906 onwards) and the Victorsmade after January 1910. McCormack's initial forays into opera in Italy in 1906 offered theambitious young tenor no sure road to stardom and his earliest career wasmarked by struggle prior to his appearances in London at the Boosey Ballad andNational Sunday League Concerts and the opportune patronage he secured whichopened the door to Covent Garden and final recognition of his talent.  McCormack made his Covent Garden debutin October, 1907 (as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana), at 23 the youngest tenorever to undertake a leading role at the Royal Opera.  The roster of great singers who subsequently partnered himonstage in London (and later in America with the Chicago Opera and elsewhere)included Melba, Tetrazzini, Sammarco, Vanni-Marcoux, Destinn, Dinh Gilly,Litvinne, Ra?â?»sa, Muzio and Didur. His reputation as an operatic tenor was high, notwithstanding hisapparently 'indifferent' acting and despite the fact that his career in operawas virtually over by 1914.  Hemade his American debut (as Alfredo in La traviata) in New York, in 1909, butacclimatising quickly to life in the USA he already perceived the concertplatform as a truer and certainly more lucrative metier.  On the one hand there was a vastresident Irish audience wanting to hear songs of the 'Ould Country' and in anycase, like his contempo-rary Peter Dawson, he probably regarded opera as toomuch work for too little reward.

From his first recording session (for the Victor Company) inJanuary 1910 McCormack was hailed a master balladeer.  Though expensive, his recordings - after those of Caruso -were major sellers, a boom industry for Victor which reciprocally complementedthe tenor's regular and far-reaching concert tours.  The highest-paid recitalist of his generation, his massiveaudiences were treated in the same breath as Handel or Scarlatti and Schubert,or Thomas Moore and Stanford, to the latest mock-Irish samples from Tin PanAlley, while his identification with nostalgic ballads in emigre-Celtic modeendeared him to the record-buying middle-classes across the Atlantic, too.  As a communicator, or storyteller, inconcert and on disc alike, McCormack was second to none.  In his natural habitat, the concertplatform, his trademark 'little black book' in hand, he would regale hisaudiences with every kind of song from the elevatedly classical to the banallycommercial (Ernest R. Ball's My Wild Irish Rose or tear-jerking Mother Machreeor Alma Sanders' stage-Irish Little Town In The Old County Down are cases inpoint).  By 1914 already aspiringto American citizenship, but still fond of the country that had given him hisfirst break, that year he recorded Jack Judge's Great War anthem It's A LongWay To Tipperary, ostensibly to back the British war-effort. 

Like his promoters McCormack was out to make money, but hedelivered the populist repertoire with total sincerity and withoutcondescension, and in a way inconceivable today even to the most dedicateddevotees of crossover.

 Peter Dempsey,2004

Disc: 1
Little Town in the Old County Down
1 Killarney
2 Come Back to Erin
3 The Minstrel Boy
4 My Lagan Love
5 Dear Little Shamrock
6 Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms
7 Mother Machree
8 The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls
9 Where the River Shannon Flows
10 Molly Brannigan
11 The Foggy Dew
12 The Low Backed Car
13 My Wild Irish Rose
14 It's a Long Way to Tipperary
15 Ireland, My Sireland
16 That Tumble Down Shack in Athlone
17 Sweet Peggy O'Neill
18 The Barefoot Trail
19 The Next Market Day
20 A Ballynure Ballad
21 Little Town in the Old County Down
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