The following article is copyright 1974 by Peter F. Dolan and reproduced with the permission of the author:



John McCormack Mastersinger:

A Short Account of His American Career

by

Peter F.Dolan

 


John McCormack was undoubtedly the greatest Irish Musical artist to appear before the American public, and he is numbered in the company of Caruso, Melba, Battistini, and a few others. Select company this: the greatest masters of vocal art since the invention of the phonograph.

McCormack came to America in October 1909 as a less than front rank member of Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera Company. Hammerstein had not been enthused about hiring the young Irishman, but he acceded to the request of his star soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini, with whom McCormack had sung at Covent Garden, London. Of all the Hammerstein stars McCormack is the most remembered today, for after he left opera he went on to become the greatest concert attraction in history.

The McCormack concerts were not "club dates." He would come into a town like Hutchinson, Kansas, or Ames, Iowa and draw more than 3,000, sometimes more than the total population of the town. In Chicago one would find McCormack giving four concerts a year in the huge Auditorium Theatre, its huge stage area being used for 600 extra chairs on such occasions. In New York he appeared at the Hippodrome, a theatre nearly twice the size of Carnegie Hall, always to overcapacity and usually eight to ten times per season. In San Francisco he would give two concerts within eight days before 25,000 people at the Civic Auditorium. In Boston it was four in one week at Symphony Hall.

And so it went in Kansas City, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and a hundred other cities. A popular singer indeed. As early as 1914 when McCormack's manager, Charles L. Wagner, was proclaiming in his advertising copy that "John McCormack and Christmas were annual events," some cities were clamoring for more than one annual appearance. As late as the Spring of 1928, Denis McSweeney, Wagner's successor, was getting requests from nearly 350 cities for a concert appearance by McCormack.

In addition, McCormack toured Australia three times (1911, 1913, and 1920); he toured Japan and China in 1926 and Central Europe in 1923. After 1924 McCormack would often divide his season between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the United States.

McCormack had a very definite philosophy of how he planned his concerts. Here are some of his remarks on the subject:

The first group of songs which I give, on any program, are songs which I sing to please myself. They represent my musical taste. The second group is made up of art songs, that is to say, fine songs which the public should like and which it will like once they are heard a sufficient number of times to become familiar.

The third group I give contains the beautiful Irish folk-songs which have survived the ages because of the deathless appeal they make to the hearts of men. When I speak of folk-songs I do not mean ballads, but songs in which the story remains the same in all ages. The fourth group of songs represents the fine work of modern American and English composers ....

I believe that true art is universal in its appeal. It is because of this belief that I build my programs as I do, giving something to satisfy the musical taste of those who do not pretend to like everything given them in the name of musical art, something for those of cultured taste and something for the men and women whose love of beauty is untrained but instinctive.

[Musical America, Dec. 27, 1924 (pp.3, 25)]

These remarks were made in 1924, a period when he was approaching full maturity as an artist. Up until 1913 McCormack might have included operatic arias on his concert programmes; it was at that point that he began to see the incongruity of the modern 19th century operatic aria on the concert platform and the artistic possibilities of 18th century Classical arias and German lieder.




John McCormack's American Career

Spring 1912 Season: 35 Concerts Autumn 1922 Season: 20 Concerts
1912-13 Season: 67 Concerts,
12 Opera Appearances
1923-24 Season: 60 Concerts
Spring 1914 Season: ca. 50 Concerts 1924-25 Season: ca. 54 Concerts
1914-15 Season: 95 Concerts 1925-26 Season: ca. 50 Concerts
1915-16 Season: ca. 85 Concerts,
2 Opera Appearances
1926-27 Season: ca. 40 Concerts
1916-17 Season: ca. 80 Concerts 1927-28 Season: ca. 47 Concerts
1917-18 Season: ca. 88 Concerts,
5 Opera Appearances
1928-29 Season: ca. 10 Concerts
1918-19 Season: ca. 90 Concerts,
2 Opera Appearances
Spring 1931 Season: ca. 15 Concerts
1919-20 Season: ca. 85 Concerts Spring 1933 Season: ca. 25 Concerts
Spring 1921 Season: 4 Concerts Spring 1935 Season: ca. 10 Concerts
1921-22 Season: ca. 70 Concerts 1936-37 Season: ca. 30 Concerts


McCormack's initial concert tour of the United States had been managed by the Wolfsohn Musical Bureau. They had heralded him as a singer of operatic arias and Irish ballads, but even so, he could not be stereotyped.

He had resigned his position as a singer at the Irish Vilage at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition in 1904 so offended was he when an "Oirish" comic had been added to the bill.

It might also be said that he had removed the more militant Irish songs from his programmes by the time of his debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in 1907. His version of The West's Asleep is reported to have been memorable. But McCormack seemed a naive child in the face of conflicting Nationalisms.

Perhaps he had doubts about his own national identity. Both his parents were Scots, and he was born and brought up in Athlone, then a British garrison town. McCormack's parents had no roots in Athlone, and his father was a foreman in the Athlone Woolen Mills, a largely Protestant industry.

In every one of the nearly 1,200 concerts McCormack gave in America, he always programmed a group of Irish folk songs. At the beginning we find him giving The Minstrel Boy and Molly Bawn. Later the Thomas Moore songs were to become rarities on McCormack's programmes, except, perhaps, for The Last Rose of Summer.

McCormack began introducing the folk song arrangements of Herbert Hughes onto his programmes in 1913. He gave the first performances in America of She Moved Thro' the Fair, I Know Where I'm Goin' and dozens of others from the Hughes collection.

Two seasons later he began to introduce the folk song arrangements of Carl Hardebeck, Una Bhan, Sail Og Rua, and Ned of the Hills being three that come to mind. Unfortunately one or two tentative performances in Gaelic did not result in a regular practice; English translations became the rule. Also found in McCormack's Irish group were arrangements by Dr. Joyce, Hamilton Harty, Stanford, Milligan Fox, Larchet and Lady Dufferin. Surprisingly, McCormack would also include Crouch's Kathleen Mavourneen in his Irish group. By the turn of the century this song had become so hackneyed that it had been all but banned in the British Music Hall. One finds McCormack performances of it as early as 1903 and all through his American career: It appeared on the opening programme of his 1936-37 season. In McCormack's hands it became something more, perhaps, than even its composer ever dreamed of.

As mentioned earlier, McCormack would give four concerts a year in Chicago. Each appearance would necessitate a complete change of programme. In the 1915-16 season McCormack gave 12 concerts in New York without repeating one song or aria (excluding encores), a remarkable achievement considering the effort that went into the preparation of these programmes. Laurette Taylor was a summer neighbor of the McCormacks in Noroton, Connecticut and used to come round to the music room each day when rehearsals for the coming season's programmes would be in progress:

John spent the entire morning practicing and selecting new songs. Stretched on the grass beneath the window, I would listen. When he fancied a new song it was an education to hear him and the song get together, the very first time. It was like lovers meeting. He would sing it straight off, and then keep going painstakingly through it for hours and days to perfect it. [Memory of McCormack: "A Big Lump of a Boy" by Laurette Taylor, Town and Country, p. 131, November 1945.]

His love of research was no less astounding. Wherever he went he would hunt through the second-hand music shops and public library collections for some forgotten masterpiece by Mozart, Handel, Scarlatti or some forgotten composer. In 1923 he introduced Berlin to two Schubert lieder never before performed there. He gave the first performances in America of several of the Hugo Wolf lieder in the orchestrations of the composer. He and Elena Gerhardt were the foremost champions of Hugo Wolf in their day. He was among the first to benefit from the new Baroque scholarship that removed the Victorian trappings from Handel and to give performances of his works that would suggest what one might have heard in 18th century Dublin or London.

McCormack was very nearly the only tenor since Mozart's time who was equal to the technical demands, to say nothing of the interpretive and stylistic demands of that Master's music. Among singers McCormack was the most accomplished musician of his time.

Prominent among the millions who attended McCormack's concerts was a group that never attended any other classical concert - the Irish exiles. "The men and women whose love of beauty [was] untrained but instinctive." McCormack would often have to suffer through polite applause from this large quarter during his first two groups. They knew their favorites and were impatient. Writing to Mrs. John McCormack from Prague in 1923, Denis McSweeney said:

It was a different kind of enthusiasm. In New York they usually wait for the favorites before they get going; here they started after the first number, sung in Italian, a language which perhaps not a dozen people in the hall understood. [Quotation from Lily McCormack , I Hear You Calling Me , 1949, Bruce, Milwaukee, p. 129.]

While McCormack relished a captive audience, in a sense he was a "captive" too. It is interesting to compare too the Victor record sales figures for Macushla and Little Town in the Ould county Down with My Lagan Love and The Bard of Armagh. The first two were million sellers. It was for this reason that RCA chose them and others like them for their 1958 LP John McCormack Sings Irish Songs on RCA Camden Records. Apparently the old formula still worked then for the record sold more than halfa million copies.

McCormack's records of traditional Irish Music - a genre in which it is not likely that his work will ever be bettered - never sold in great numbers in the United States, as much as he did in his concerts and radio broadcasts to promote these songs. His audiences weren't about to have their consciousness raised by ethnic identification; Little Town in the Ould County Down kept the identification at the proper level. And John McCormack would have been a hard hearted man had he refused them.

Although McCormack is remembered by many today as a singer of sentimental trifles and songs of the Irish-American genre - Mother Machree, Little Town in the Ould County Down, Macushla and others, these songs hardly ever appeared on his concert programmes. Rather they formed the greater part of the encore requests from the balcony.

He had, to balance his musical intelligence, a naivete concerning Nationalism: he was a musical universalist. But more than that, he saw noothing demeaning in singing the songs that the great mass of his audiences loved, and for this the musicians shook their heads in disbelief. Perhaps a few words from Ernest Newman's obituary might be offered to bring us closer to a definition:

He never stooped to small and modest things; he invariably raised them, and with them the most unsophisticated 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 effort for mere effort'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. [Sunday Times, London, Sept 23, 1945, p. 1.]


The above article first appeared in The Sword of Light, Spring 1974, and is copyright by Peter F. Dolan.


Peter F. Dolan is a writer, photographer, political consultant, and cultural historian who, amongst many other professional endeavors, has been researching the life and career of John McCormack for many years, and he is widely known as a McCormack scholar. In addition to the above article, he also wrote the essay and assembled the pictures for the booklet that accompanied the 1977 RCA LP, "John McCormack - A Legendary Performer," as well as the notes for the LP issue of the soundtrack of McCormack's 1930 movie Song o' My Heart that was issued by The John McCormack Society of Greater Kansas City.


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