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John McCormack - An Irish legend, then and now
McCormack was a singer of great versatility and his recitals all over the United States made him a household name. He catered to all musical tastes and made "The Fairy Tree," "The Rose of Tralee," and "The Old House" known to millions by his gramophone records which maintained their popularity for decades. He made several films, including Song O' My Heart. , which includes an unbroken twenty-five minute concert sequence, a unique record of his concert technique. In a review of the film in The Times (of London), a critic commented that "it's worth suffering the mawkishness of the plot to hear McCormack in his many enchanting moods."
As an operatic performer, McCormack had many critics. He found it difficult to express emotional depth, and his characterizations were often unconvincing. (He himself admitted "I am the world's worst actor!"). But his glorious voice made up for all his faults. His long, unfaltering line, flawless breath control and ringing high register made all his performances unforgettable. His recorded legacy stands testament: his 1916 recording of Don Ottavio's aria "Il Mio Tesoro" from Don Giovanni still sets the standard by which other performances are measured, while the beauty and technical perfection of his 1920 "O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?" from Handel's Semele (an aria originally written for soprano) has yet to be approached by another singer.
Having retired from the operatic stage, McCormack devoted himself to the recital platform from 1923 on. This, he rightly judged, was the ideal showcase for his unique combination of vocal purity and technical brilliance. Indeed, the opera critic Max de Shauensee observed in High Fidelity magazine that "when I think of the word 'singer' stripped of any extraneous dramatic connotations 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".
Having traveled around the world many times, he finally decided to retire in 1938, and his farewell concert in the Albert Hall, London, on November 27 of that year attracted an audience of over 11,000. But again, he felt he had a duty to perform when World War Two broke out, and he came out of retirement to sing on tour for the benefit of The Red Cross. The effort took its toll, and McCormack died at his home in Dublin, Ireland on September 16, 1945. The eminent opera critic Ernest Newman eulogized him fittingly in the Irish Sunday Times, saying "His was the supreme example of the art that conceals art. He never stooped to small and modest things; he invariably raised them to his own high level. He was a patrician artist with a respect for art that is rarely met among tenors. There is no one to take his place."
Yet, I wonder if you know that before every performance, wherever he was in the world, John McCormack always made his way to the nearest chapel. There, in the dim silence, he knelt in prayer, giving thanks for the great gift that had been bestowed on him, and asking for help that evening that he might give of his very best. I don't say that was the whole secret of McCormack's golden song - but I believe it was a vital part of it, and something that could ennoble the task of every one of us.
During the First World War, McCormack stayed in America, and used his concerts to promote the sale of Liberty bonds. At the end of the war, he sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "The Star Spangled Banner" before President Wilson at a ceremony by Washington's grave at Mount Vernon. Other highlights of his career included his singing "The Lost Chord" at the funeral of Oscar Hammerstein I 1919, and his performance of "Panis Angelicus" at the 1932 Eucharistic congress in Dublin - McCormack was a deeply religious man, and was made a Papal count in 1928 for his services to Catholic charities.
John McCormack left behind him a quite significant recorded legacy. He first went into the recording studio in 1904, and his final sessions were in 1941. His repertoire included opera, German art song, Irish and Scottish folk songs, Christian hymns, American martial songs, popular ballads and oratoria. This unprecedented wide diversity (not even Richard Tauber's recorded legacy is so eclectic) is easily explained by the unique circumstances of McCormack's career and life. It can also be explained by McCormack's philosophy of recital programmes. "I build my programme in a set way, and never vary from it.", he said, "First, I give my audience the songs they love. Second, I give them the songs they ought to like, and will like when they hear them often enough. Third, I give them the folk songs of my native land. Fourth, I give my audience songs they want to hear, for such songs they have the right to expect. After all, the first duty of any artist to his public is to consider its tastes, and I have always done so."
Note: We'd like to thank Hartson for yet another great contribution to these pages; he and his dear wife Helen, have been incredibly generous in their support of our efforts over the past year. Very active in their community - visiting nursing homes, for example - they still find the time to help us out with recipes, filler and other interesting content. Helen also has a wonderfully inspirational website you might like to visit: Occupy Till I Come
With much affection, we salute these two fine people who give so much of themselves to others.
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
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March 4, 2011
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