McCormack, John Francis (1884–1945), singer, was born 14 June 1884 in Athlone, Co. Westmeath, fourth of five children to survive out of a family of eleven of Andrew McCormack and his wife Hannah (née Watson), Scottish mill workers who had moved to Ireland. The tenor's paternal grandfather had emigrated to Scotland from Co. Sligo. From the Marist Brothers in Athlone, McCormack won a scholarship (1896) to the Diocesan College of the Immaculate Conception or Summerhill College (latterly Sligo College), Sligo, where he excelled in mathematics and languages, maintaining himself there with further scholarships. Shortly after leaving school (1902) he joined the Palestrina Choir of the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, under its choirmaster, Dr Vincent O'Brien (qv). In 1903 he won the gold medal in the tenor section of the Feis Ceoil. The myth persists that James Joyce (qv) competed the same year, whereas in fact he entered the following year to win the bronze medal in the tenor section. Joyce remained a lifelong admirer of McCormack, who was a model for Shaun the Post in Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake.
Early professional career
After an aborted visit to the St Louis exposition in 1904, where the young tenor objected to being asked to do a stage-Irish turn, he took himself off to Milan for lessons from Maestro Sabatini, with whom he was to spend less than one year. He made his operatic debut in the title role of Mascagni's ‘L'amico Fritz’ at the Teatro Chiabrero, Savona (13 January 1906). After some engagements in minor Italian opera houses McCormack found himself unemployed. He headed back to London, where he had made recordings two years earlier, and made an impression with appearances at the Boosey ballad concerts, then much in vogue. His main break came in 1907, when he made his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in the role of Turridu in Mascagni's ‘Cavalleria rusticana’. At twenty-three he was the youngest tenor ever to sing a major in that house. In a short time he was partnering the most celebrated sopranos of the day, Luisa Tetrazzini and Nellie Melba included; and such was his own success that he remained with Covent Garden for eight consecutive seasons, until 1914; and – with the exception of singing the role of Cassio to Giovanni Zenatello's Otello – sang only major roles, fourteen in all, Don Ottavio (‘Don Giovanni’), Rudolpho (Puccini's ‘La Bohême’), Cavarodossi (‘Tosca’), and Edgardo (‘Lucia di Lammermoor’) among them.
In 1909 McCormack crossed the Atlantic to sing at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House in New York, partnering again the coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, with whom he was to continue to share many triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic. The same year, through his friendship with the baritone Mario Sammarco, he sang at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples. Although newspaper reviews were favourable, by his own estimation his success was only moderate, and he did not sing in Italy again. An ambition to appear at the La Scala, Milan, remained unfulfilled. In 1910 he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, making his debut there with Melba in ‘La traviata’. In 1911 he appeared in the world premiere of ‘Natoma’ by Victor Herbert (qv), first in Philadelphia and then at the Metropolitan, singing the role of Lieutenant Paul Merrill opposite Mary Garden in the title role as the 'Native American'. The critics, however, were unimpressed. The same year he toured Australia as Melba's leading tenor, and returned to Australia as a recitalist in 1913.
An indifferent actor, McCormack was nevertheless greatly admired on the opera stage for his polished vocalism. On one occasion in Boston the conductor, Felix Weingartner, put down his baton and led the applause during a performance of ‘Don Giovanni’ after McCormack had sung ‘Il mio tesoro’, for which he was justly famous. It was by his recording of this aria (1916) that he said his reputation should be judged. There are other records in the same category. He was perhaps the finest singer of Handel and Mozart of his time. ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ (1920) from Handel's ‘Semele’ and ‘Come my beloved’ (‘Care selve’; 1924) from Handel's ‘Atalanta’ are models of their kind. In these recordings the manner in which the voice floats on the tip of the breath, as it were, the economy of means, and the arching, lucid phrases, delivered with exquisitely judged portamenti, are vintage McCormack. The manner in which the tenor closes out the final line of ‘Come my beloved’ is especially noteworthy. The aria ends with the line ‘Guide me safely to her arms’: McCormack makes an octave leap from the A flat on ‘her’ to the A flat above on ‘arms’, he drops a semi-tone, rises again, rolls the ‘r’, murmurs the ‘m’ and just intimates the sibilant, all on a thread of sound and yet all executed with perfect vocal security. The sheer virtuosity of this feat is perhaps unsurpassed in the entire history of sound recording and yet its brilliance may make us overlook an even greater McCormack virtue: for despite this octave leap, McCormack still maintains both the melodic and verbal cohesion of the phrase as a whole. As a measure of his versatility the tenor brought the same meticulous sense of shape and form where it might be least expected from him: in a record of Walter's ‘Prize song’ (1916) from Wagner's ‘The mastersingers of Nuremberg’, and it is among his best records.
Despite a voice of only moderate size, at the Metropolitan he was cast in Verdi and Puccini operas. However, at Covent Garden, at Monte Carlo, and in America at the Manhattan Opera House and with the Chicago–Philadelphia Opera Company (formed after the Manhattan had closed), he had the opportunity to sing in early nineteenth-century operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, for which his mellifluous voice was ideally suited.
In 1912, under the management of Charles L. Wagner, a noted impresario of the day, McCormack made a concert tour in the US. This proved to be a turning point. The tenor realised that the recital was his true métier. An opera role served only to inhibit him; his instincts were not of the theatre and he never developed much in the way of stagecraft. He felt awkward on stage, and it often showed. By comparison, by himself, as himself, on the concert platform he could hold an audience in his hand as few other singers could. Audiences responded to the charm of his singing, which sounded entirely natural and unforced, no matter how large the auditorium. McCormack has often been praised for his exemplary diction, but he had something much more than good diction: he had a feel for words, an ability to converse on a musical line, to point up a story in song, in a manner that was entirely his own. The inherent conflict between the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of music he seemed to resolve as if there were no conflict to resolve. His gift for intimate communication in recital became legendary.
To the Irish in particular McCormack was an icon of the age and more than simply an entertainer. He brought solace to countless numbers who knew poverty and for whom the dislocation and tragedy of emigration were commonplace. His singing of such songs as ‘I hear you calling me’, ‘Macushla’, and ‘Mother Machree’ was a reflection, direct and heartfelt, of the sadness and heartbreak of those times. Few could resist the gentle melancholy that tinged his voice or the tender intimacy with which he used it. There was humour in his voice too, when occasion demanded, as in ‘The garden where the praties grow’, or ‘Off to Philadelphia’, where the humour is whimsical and never forced.
By the middle war years, McCormack could fill virtually any concert hall in any part of the US to over capacity. Standing room and seats on stage became the norm. At one point he was making concert tours of eighty and ninety dates per season. In New York he would move between Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and the massive Hippodrome (where he would give eight or ten recitals during the season), always to capacity audiences. His repertoire was extensive. In the 1915–16 season in New York, he did not repeat one song or aria in twelve programmes (excluding encores). In Boston he could sing four times in the space of a week to overflowing audiences.
As a consequence of his success as a recitalist, McCormack's opera appearances became less frequent. His last season was at the Monte Carlo Opera (1923), when he created the role of Gritzko in Moussorky's ‘La foire de Sorotchintzi’. ‘Few singers’, wrote Tom Walsh in Monte Carlo Opera 1910–51 (1985), ‘have been acclaimed more perceptively or more fervently on their farewell appearance.’ He was not yet forty when he retired from opera.
Such was the impact that McCormack made with Irish folk songs and Irish-style ballads (to which there were critics who took exception) that it is sometimes thought he forsook all else. Typically, his concert repertoire was divided into groups made up of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century arias; the work of modern English and American composers; often Rachmaninov, one of his favourite composers and a personal friend; and German lieder, in all of which he excelled. The Irish ballads – for which the Irish émigrés would be waiting in ‘impatient silence’ would then round off the evening, but he never gave concerts exclusively of ballads.
He made a notable tour of middle Europe in 1923, taking in Berlin and Prague, where he was much admired for his lieder (even if he never attained the same fluency in German as he had in Italian) and for his breadth of repertoire. He had a particular affinity with the songs of Hugo Wolf, recording ‘Ganymed’ (1931) for the Hugo Wolf Society subscription series. In 1924 he took part in the Beethoven Festival at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées under the direction of Walter Damrosch, when he sang, as he had in Berlin, the aria from Beethoven's oratorio ‘Christus am Ölberge’. In 1930 he recorded the recitative in both German and English, and the aria in English. At this point in his career he had just sufficient voice left to encompass the aria, and its combination of technical ease and religious fervour make it one of the great recordings of its kind. Sadly, Beethoven's ‘Adelaide’, which he sang on the same occasion and with which he also had a notable success, was never committed to disc. No matter where he sang, his engagement with his audience was noted. He triumphed as far afield as South Africa, Hawaii and Japan.
Writing some time after hearing him at the Queen’s Hall, London, in 1924, the Irish pianist Charles Lynch summed up the experience in this way: ‘When McCormack's voice entered I realized that I was listening to the most perfect voice I had yet heard … The voice literally floated through the hall, with the words, seemingly floating on top of it. This had the effect of making the words seem separate from and, at the same time emotionally one with, the vocal line. Consequently the simultaneous perfection of both vocal and verbal articulation was truly memorable.’ (The Capuchin Annual 1946–47)
American citizenship and honours
Having applied for American citizenship early in 1914, McCormack became a naturalised American citizen in June 1919. This made him persona non grata for a time in Britain and in Australia, where a concert tour in 1920 had to be abandoned. Among many honours, he was made doctor of literature at Holy Cross College, Massachusetts, as early as 1917; became a freeman of the city of Dublin in 1923; and was awarded a doctorate of music by the National University of Ireland (1927). In 1928, for his unstinting services to charity, he was made an hereditary count of the papal court, later serving as a papal chamberlain, and it was as a papal count that he had his largest live audience. At the pontifical high mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin, which closed the eucharistic congress of 1932, and with a million of the faithful present, McCormack, on the steps of the high altar, sang César Franck's ‘Panis angelicus’. For those present it was an event savoured and remembered.
Radio, recordings, and films
With the advent of radio in the 1920s he reached new audiences. He made his radio debut with the soprano Lucrezia Bori, and went on to appear on radio with the likes of Bing Crosby. On the few radio recordings of his speaking voice, his banter today often sounds contrived and all too evidently scripted, but he became a popular radio celebrity in his own right in the 1920s and 1930s.
He took the lead in the film Song o’ my heart (1930), notable for the tenor's charm and an unbroken concert sequence. It was the first sound feature film shot in Ireland, and also featured the nineteen-year-old Maureen O'Sullivan (qv) in her first film role. He also appeared, awkwardly overweight and in indifferent vocal form, as himself in Wings of the morning (1937), the first Technicolor feature film made in Britain or Ireland.
His recording career matched his popularity as a recitalist. He first recorded in 1904, right at the beginning of the industry, and continued until well into the second world war, a remarkable span which reveals his development as an artist and his expanding repertoire. The youthful timbre of his voice, which did not last long, was best heard between 1910 and 1920. The most disciplined and least self-indulgent of singers in opera or on the concert platform, off stage he enjoyed good living, and his lifestyle and excessive weight appear to have taken a toll on his voice. But his art never ceased to develop. As his vocal range shortened he made more of language in song; and the immediacy and freshness of his communication remained right until the end. Along with the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and the Romanian-American soprano Alma Gluck, John McCormack was the mainstay of the RCA Victor recording catalogue for many years. No less than in live performance, he had the gift of being able to transcend the limitations of sound recording and reach out to his unseen audience with a rare intimacy.
Final years; assessment
His last concert appearance in the US was on 16 March 1937 at Buffalo, New York, after which he made a farewell tour of Britain and Ireland, culminating in a tearful farewell at the Royal Albert Hall in London (27 November 1938). He came out of retirement during the second world war to sing on behalf of the Red Cross and continued to make recordings until 1942, when the onset of emphysema made further singing impossible. He lived for some months at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, before finally retiring to his last home, ‘Glena’, Booterstown, Co. Dublin, where he died on 16 September 1945, aged sixty-one. He was buried, as he wished, in his papal uniform in Deansgrange cemetery, Co. Dublin.
A bronze statue of McCormack by sculptor Elizabeth O'Kane (2008) stands in the Iveagh Gardens at the rear of the National Concert Hall, Dublin, and shows him in characteristic pose: ‘his head thrown back, his eyes closed, in his hands the little black book he always carried, open but never glanced at, as he wove a spell over his completely hushed listeners’, as the American critic Max de Schauensee recalled. De Schauensee was not alone in remarking on the illusion that no matter how large the auditorium, he had the sensation that the tenor was singing to him alone. After the tenor appeared in concert in Tokyo, the unnamed reviewer for the Japan Times commented: ‘Once he got settled by the piano he’d not shift his position at all, hardly; and you’d find yourself listening to that quiet soothing voice, that just came with no apparent effort, and seemed to be talking confidentially to each individual in the theatre’ (5 May 1926).
He married (1906) in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, Lily Foley of Dublin, a singer who had also performed in St Louis in 1904; she and their two children survived him. His correspondence with Charles L. Wagner is in the Heinman Collection case, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
John McCormack was one of the most highly paid singers of his time, and his spending capacity fully matched his ability to earn money. He had houses on both sides of the Atlantic, taking up residence in Hollywood for a while and living like a grandee at Moore Abbey, Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, while he tried and failed, expensively, to win the English Derby. A better investment was his fine collection of paintings.
In his prime McCormack had a voice of great purity, beauty, and technical grace. He remains as the beau idéal of the lyric tenor. His recordings reveal a supreme vocal technique, a meticulousness which he never allowed to overshadow spontaneity. No less remarkable was his repudiation of caprice and self indulgence. Purity of style was an abiding hallmark of his art. His recorded output was immense. Posterity, however, cannot but regret what he never recorded. Perhaps the greatest singer of Mozart and Handel of his day, it is a great pity that he recorded less than a handful of their compositions. His concert programmes reveal a vast repertoire of seventeenth and eighteenth-century music, almost none of which he brought to the recording studio. Bach is barely represented; Scarlatti and Vivaldi, not at all. One could go on. Nevertheless, his discography supports the view that McCormack was the most versatile singer of his time, with a remarkable consistency, idiomatic security and unsurpassed musicianship. He was among the most compelling vocal personalities of the twentieth century.