Later Career and Retirement, 1931 - 1945
By 1931 McCormack had been before his American public for over two decades with virtually undiminished popularity. It is fair to say that he had become an institution, as well-liked, respected, and beloved as any singer before him or since. His staying power was at least as great, perhaps moreso, as Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra would ever enjoy. He had succeeded in every aspect of his calling: operatic stage, recital stage, film, and radio. He had made far more records than most other recording stars of his age, and the quantities of each that were sold were usually vast. His concerts continued to sell out the largest halls, and it was common for them to include additional seating on the stage as well as a large SRO crowd.
There was a portent in 1931 that musical times were changing. In that year McCormack had only two recording sessions for Victor, and neither yielded any published records. In July he tried to record one song in the west coast studios of RCA (which by this time had merged with the Victor Company) but deemed the song unsatisfactory. In the fall he tried again, recording four selections in a studio equipped with higher fidelity equipment. Again, no selections were published, although a test pressing has survived. After this last effort for RCA Victor McCormack henceforth recorded only for EMI in England. Some of these later recordings would be issued by RCA, due to the continued agreement that existed between the two companies.
The last Victor session of 1931 points to one of the most lamentable lacunae in the McCormack recorded repertoire of Irish Songs. This is the Thomas Moore song, "The Last Rose of Summer." He recorded it for Victor in 1910 (1 take) and for HMV in 1924 (2 takes), but all these efforts remained unpublished and apparently did not survive as test pressings. McCormack's last effort in 1931 likewise was unpublished. Legions of McCormack admirers have doubtless gone to their reward, disappointed after this life at not hearing McCormack sing, on this side of the grave, this most poignant of all of Moore's lyrics.
In the summer of 1932 the Roman Catholic Church held its 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. McCormack was a Papal Chamberlain and performed various duties during this event, that culminated in his singing "Panis Angelicus" during a Pontifical High Mass in Phoenix Park. This mass was broadcast on the radio, and film exists of it.
Gwen McCormack married Edward Pyke on September 16, 1933. The couple settled in England, and the first McCormack grandchild was born two years later. The next year saw the death of Denis McSweeney, who had been actively involved with the management of McCormack's career for over 20 years and sole manager for more than 10. He had been one of McCormack's most enthusiastic boosters from 1910 on and traveled with him and Schneider on almost all tours. Being on the road was onerous enough when traveling by train or automobile was the norm, but McCormack's schedule was grueling, especially from 1910-1920. The average number of concerts was usually more than 50 per season and often higher. Mac was ill for a number of months before his death, and therefore did not accompany McCormack on a tour to South Africa in 1934. Lily commented that John was devastated by McSweeney's death, and that he lost much of his ability to tolerate the long trips without his manager's companionship. John's brother Jim took over as manager for two years after this, but by 1936 McCormack was ready for a change. He gave his last concerts in the United States during the fall and winter of 1936-37, finishing in Buffalo, New York, at the Consistory Auditorium on March 16, 1937.
McCormack's program at his final American concert, March 17, 1937, at the Consistory Auditorium at Buffalo, New York:
Caro amor (from Pastor Fido) (Handel)
Where e'er you walk (from Semele (Handel)
Memnon (Arthur Foote>
Grieve not, Dear Love [Earl Bristol's Farewell] (C.A. Lidgey)
Alma mia (from Floridante) (Handel)
When night descends (Rachmaninoff)
The Bard of Armagh (arr. Hughes)
Green Grows the Laurel (arr. Hughes)
The Star of the County Down (arr. Hughes)
O Mary Dear [Londonderry Air] (arr. Schneider)
Far Apart (Schneider)
Mary Shaw (arr. MacLeod)
The Song of the seals (Bantock)
When I Have Sung My Songs (Charles)
After his final American recital McCormack remained in the United States for some months. Although he gave no concerts and made no studio recordings, he continued to make broadcasts, however, and three of these have survived from that spring of 1937 (2 January, 1 Frbruary, and 13 May). That broadcast on May 13th, on the Bing Crosby program, was one of the last times that Edwin Schneider accompanied McCormack. The two parted that summer, Schneider wanting to retire to the home he had bought in Arizona. Lily said that she and John visited him there that summer: "On our way to England we stopped off to see him and to invite him to come with us. He said he'd rather not leave just then; it meant a lot to him to have his own little home, and he felt that he'd done enough traveling for a while. I can never forget how sad John was when we left Teddy standing at the station. I am glad that neither of them knew they would not be seeing each other again."
Schneider had been a loyal accompanist, playing exclusively for John for 25 years (spring 1912 to spring 1937). He had been virtually a member of the family, traveling with them on their regular trips back and forth across the Atlantic (at least once, often twice per year). Over half his professional life had been spent playing for McCormack, traveling with him wherever they went, rehearsing, developing new repertoire in the summers, and being an active musical adviser. McCormack was 53 the summer of 1937. Schneider was ten years older, having been active as a professional musician before he met McCormack in 1912. His calm personality was always a noticeable contrast to the extroverted and high strung McCormack. Evidence (in the form of letters to McCormack's manager and others) suggests that Schneider was in fact not particularly well paid for his loyal service. On the 13 May 1937 broadcast his comment, made as part of the light-hearted badinage among McCormack, Bing Crosby, himself, and others on the show, may have been nearer the mark than others could know. McCormack praised Teddy for his 25 years of accompaniment, and Schneider quipped, "And I still think there must be some easier way to earn a living!"
Lily relates how their original plans had been to make their home at San Patrizio and make annual visits to family members in the UK. The lure of children and grandchildren in the absence of other committments, however, proved too great, and the Hollywood estate was sold. It seems probable that McCormack and his wife spent the summer of 1937 in England and Ireland and returned to the United States in the fall, although the various biographies are not clear on this. By spring of 1938 John was back in the States making more radio appearances: On St. Patrick's Day he appeared on Rudy Vallee's program. The next month he appeared on two broadcasts in Hollywood. Reference here is made only to broadcasts that have survived. Undoubtedly there are others that may come to light. This occurred recently when a recording of a broadcast of 10 February 1933 surfaced. This broadcast was made on home-recording (non-professional) equipment and proved to be quite listenable after restoration by modern techniques. Like the 17 March 1938 broadcast, it contained a song not otherwise represented in McCormack's recorded repertoire.
Resettling in London, the McCormacks moved into "Lansdowne House" in Berkely Square. (They gave up Moore Abbey after 1937.) Later, Lily relates, they moved to a house in Kensington, which had a studio where John could teach, as he had sometimes said he would like to do, but in the end seems not to have had the temperament for.
McCormack's English Farewell Tour in the fall of 1938 consisted of 20 concerts from September 20th to November 23rd. These were scheduled in both England and Ireland, as shown below. His Farewell Concert took place in the Albert Hall on Sunday, November 27th. He was tumultuously applauded by a huge crowd, and he evidently sang more encores than there were selections on the planned program. Lily says he sang 27 selections. Gerald Moore was his accompanist on the tour and at this farewell, as well as for all of McCormack's subsequent recording sessions from the fall of 1939 until 1942.
McCormack's Farewell Tour, Great Britain and Ireland, Fall 1938:
September 20: Folkestone
September 25: Eastbourne
October 2: Cork
October 4: Limerick
October 8: Dublin
October 10: Belfast
October 15: Manchester
October 18: Liverpool
October 22: Edinburgh
October 24: Birmingham
October 27: Glasgow
October 31: Leeds
November 3: Newcastle
November 5: Bristol
November 9: Waterford
November 11: Carlow
November 15: Tralee
November 17: Wexford
November 20: Thurles
November 23: Preston
Farewell Concert, Sunday, November 27, 1938, Royal Albert Hall, London:
Where e'er you walk
By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame (Harty)
Herr, Was Trä:gt der Boden hier? (Wolf)
Auch kleine Dinge (Wolf)
Farewell my gentle harp (Trad., arr. Fox)
The Star of the County Down
O Mary Dear
The old House
A Cradle Song
When I Have Sung My Songs
Some of the Encores:
A Fairy Story by the Fire
Believe me if all those endearing young charms
The Short cut to the rosses
The Rose of Tralee
Just For Today
Ten others (!)
On a broadcast in December of 1938, just after his farewell concert in London, when asked about his feelings about his career, McCormack compared it to an ocean voyage and concluded thus:
"Altogether it's been a calm and prosperous voyage, and now I've come into port."
In the spring of 1939 John and Lily took a vacation trip to Egypt. While there they learned of the death of the pope and traveled to Rome, where they remained until after the conclave that ultimately chose the candidate who became Pius XII. John had various duties to fulfil during this time, and he and Lily stayed a week beyond the coronation, at which time he and Lily were presented to the new Pope by Cardinal Hindsley. That summer, after a fishing trip to Ireland, John began to give some thought to teaching. The advent of the European war led John to offer his services to the red Cross for fund raising, and he soon resumed almost as grueling a touring schedule, given his age and health, as he had endured during the last years of his concertizing in the United States.
From the fall of 1939 to the first days of 1942 McCormack actively toured on behalf of the Red Cross and gave concerts for servicemen throughout the Great Britain. He also broadcast regularly on the BBC. During these years he greatly endeared himself to the public, since his unselfish activities on behalf of the war effort and the morale of the home front were self evident. His tour that began in the fall of 1939 included no less than 39 concerts between November and the following May. Other singers with him on that tour were Robert Irwin, baritone, and Sara Buckley, contralto. Irwin was an Irishman whose career had been strongly supported by McCormack in the States before the war.
McCormack kept up a hectic schedule throughout 1940 and 1941. He continued to give concerts, broadcast, and make records (with Gerald Moore as his accompanist. He became ill during the winter months in early 1942, when he developed a severe and persistent cough, which was followed by a recurrence of the streptococcal infection that he had suffered in 1922. His convalescence was lengthy, and he was unable to sing further concerts.
When he had recovered he did record in the studio three more times that year (26 May, 10 August, and 10 September). The September studio date turned out to be his final recording session, although McCormack probably did not perceive it as such at the time (according to Gerald Moore). The singer's health continued to falter, and he never regained the robust constitution and stamina that had sustained him in his long professional life. By 1943 he was unable to continue, and early that year he and Lily moved back to Dublin, living in the Shelbourne Hotel for about 18 months. In the late spring of 1944 the couple moved to their final home in Booterstown, a house named "Glena." McCormack's various biographers testify to a succession of illnesses during his final months, including pneumonia and influenza. Several sources note that he could not speak except in a hoarse whisper. He died peacefully on Sunday, September 16, 1945.
Lily McCormack, in I Hear You Calling Me , wrote that a few days after his death, she found these words which McCormack had written in a notebook:
"I live again the days and evenings of my long career. I dream at night of operas and concerts in which I have had my share of success. Now, like the old Irish Minstrels, I have hung up my harp because my songs are all sung."
"It is the capacity for being the song he is singing that gives him the right to be called the world's greatest living tenor."
- Compton Mackenzie, 1924
"A beloved bard, a perfect instrumentalist of song. He is the ideal type of artist. One who, through flawless mastery of technique, makes himself felt as a human being. There is in his singing that curious and likeable tinge of what, in this polished craftsman and universal favorite, has invariably struck me as being a genuine humility in the face of his gifts and of that rare and genial understanding which his singing has brought to hearts all over the world."
- Eugene Stinson
"Other artists will, I am sure, not think that I am casting a slur upon them if I select from among them one to serve as an example. From the beginning of his career as a concert singer John McCormack made it his custom to place always on his programs some of the best vocal music and to sing it with consummate art. He was supposed at that time to be merely a singer of popular ballads, but gradually he convinced the musical public and the whole country, as well as the critics, that he was a great artist - one of the best living singers of Mozart and Beethoven as well as of Irish folk-songs. The result was that his fame became world-wide and there was a universal demand not only for his records, but for himself in person ..."
"If there was ever a brilliant object lesson in any department of art, it has been furnished by John McCormack. ... The musical style is the vocal revelation of the heart within the man."
- W.J. Henderson
"When I think of the word 'singer,' stripped of any extraneous connotation and in its purest sense, I see John McCormack standing on the concert platform - 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. John McCormack was truly a singer for the people; he was also a singer's singer. ... From Italy, McCormack learned the art of singing with beauty and with complete security. Few men have sung with such stylistic and technical elegance."
"It was not technique alone, however, that made McCormack so fabulous a success. Without doubt, he was one of the truly remarkable personalities among musicians active in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the three of these who were able to reach the heart most directly were Padrewski, Kreisler, and McCormack, and of them, McCormack was very probably the surest technician. Like Caruso, he had a forthright charm that, free of any complications, made its effect with a minimum of time and effort. People who listened to McCormack were drawn to him. Let us call this personal magnetism. We are apt to refer to people we are drawn to as 'warm' or 'genuine'; McCormackwas just that. Even when he was singing in a huge auditorium, he always gave me the sensation of person-to-person intimacy."
"McCormack had a sense of the power of language such as few singers have possessed. In this he was like the bards of ancient Ireland. He could tell a story. He could paint pictures. His enunciation was so clear that every syllable reached the last row of listeners."
- Max de Schauensee
"He was a supreme example of the art that conceals art, the sheer hard work that becomes manifest only in its results, not in the revolving of the machinery that has produced them. He never stooped to small and modest things; he invariably raised them, and with them the most sophisticated listener, to his own high level. I never knew him in his public or his private singing, to be guilty of a lapse of taste, of making an effect for mere effect's sake. He was a patrician artist, dignified even in apparent undress, with a respect for art that is rarely met with among tenors. There is no one to take his place."
- Ernest Newman, 1945
Many years after his death, McCormack's home town of Athlone honored his memory with a bust placed beside the river Shannon, which flows through the city.
"... He opened his mouth, and my God, it was the most beautiful sound you ever heard!"
- Mary Garden
Beginnings, 1884 - 1907
Early Career, 1907 - 1918
Pinnacle, 1919 - 1931
Later Career and Retirement, 1932-1945
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