Born: June 14, 1884 – Athlone, Ireland
Died: September 16, 1945 – “Glena”, Booterstown, Country Dublin, Ireland
The famous Irish-born American tenor, John McCormack, began his singing career within the Roman Catholic Church in Dublin, Ireland. In 1902 he became a member of the Palestrina Choir of Dublin’s Cathedral, where he received lessons from the choirmaster, Vincent O’Brien. In 1903 he won the gold medal in the tenor section of the Feis Ceoil (National Music Festival) in Dublin, and began making concert appearances there.
John McCormack first sang in the US at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. That same year he began making recordings. Afterwards he had private vocal studies with Vincenzo Sabatini in Milan (1905). His excellent musicianship and promising voice quality landed him his first stage appearance at the early age of 21 under the name Giovanni Foli in the role of Fritz in L’Amico Fritz in Savona (January 1906). Shortly after, he went to London, where he began appearing in concerts in 1907. In October 1907, he made his Covent Garden debut in the roles of Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, and Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Subsequently he sang there during the 1908-1914 summer seasons in such roles as Edgardo, the Duke in Rigoletto, Rodolfo, Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Pinkerton, Charles Gounod’s Romeo, Cavaradossi, and Elvino.
In 1909 John McCormack made his Italian debut as Alfredo in La Traviata at San Carlos, Naples. Immediately following his Italian performance, he made his US operatic debut as Alfredo in La Traviata at the Manhattan Opera House (November 1909), a role he also chose for his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York (November 1910), remaining on the company’s roster until 1911 and returning from 1912 to 1914 and from 1917 to 1919. He also sang with the Chicago Opera (1910-1911). During his 12-year operatic career, he shared the stages many times with Dame Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini both in Italy and the USA.
However, due to a “self-confessed lack of acting abilities,” he all but gave up his operatic career and began dedicating himself solely to the performance of art-song… a career move for which he would be most famous. After making his formal concert debut at the Manhattan Opera House (November 1909), McCormack devoted much of his time to a concert career, which he furthered through his many recordings. After World War I, he made few appearances in opera, giving his last performance as Gritzko in Mussorgsky’s The Fair at Sorocbinsk in Monte Carlo in March 1923.
McCormack was best known for his ability as a concert performer, always performing to sold-out houses. One season, he was noted for his whopping 95 concerts performed across the country. With this kind of exposure and popularity, it is no surprise that his recording catalogue spans over 30 years. In 13 of those years, he grossed well over five-million dollars, and when his record royalties exceeded even those of the great Enrico Caruso, he was warned by his Neapolitan friend to never let this happen again!
John McCormack’s warm reception from the American audiences prompted his application for American citizenship in 1914. This action, coupled with his strong support of the Irish cause, cost him the support of the British public during World War I. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1919. After an absence of 10 years, he made a triumphant return to England at a Queen’s Hall Concert in London in 1924. In subsequent years he pursued a far-flung concert career with enormous success, although his vocal powers began to wane in about 1930. He made his farewell to the US in Buffalo in March 1937. He gave his last concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1938. At the outbreak of World War II (1939), he came out of retirement to aid the Red Cross. He sang on the radio; continued to make recordings until 1942. He received a number of honors, including being made a Papal Count by Pope Pius XI in 1928. He was also honoured by composer Victor Herbert to create the role of Lieutenant Paul Merrill in his opera Natoma. In 1915 he published his autobiography, “John McCormack: His life story.”
John McCormack was an incomparable recitalist, his repertoire ranging from the works of the great masters to popular Irish songs. To this day, only a few tenors have been unequivocally known for their lush vocal quality, elegant phrasing, outstanding diction, and remarkable breath support. It is exactly these qualities that the artistic voice of John McCormack is most revered for, and can still be clearly heard through his numerous recordings.
Both in performance and on recording, John McCormack is known for his signature “closing pianissimi” …a skill successfully achieved by few in the vocal world. Convincing portrayal of the words was an essential and integral part of his singing experience. The world-renowned coach/accompanist Gerald Moore said, “…the secret of his hold on the vast public was his sincerity. If he could not sing a song with conviction he would throw it away. Every song had to have some special message for John.”