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John McCormack, Lyric Tenor

By April 15, 2021April 7th, 2023No Comments

John McCormack was a very special singer. He himself admitted that he was no actor, and opera critics agreed with that self-appraisal. But his voice made up for perceived lack of acting skills. He had a long, unfaltering line, lo squillo, which is what Italians call a ringing, bell-like tone at the top of his register, and flawless breath control. He was especially known for his concert work, where, at the end of the concerts, he would include Irish ballads. These ballads were exceedingly popular. I have focused on classical repertory here, but if you like McCormarck’s voice, you can find many Irish ballads on you tube, for example “Macushla”, “I hear you calling me” (which is not an Irish ballad per se, but was a very popular song), “The Fairy Tree”, “Birdsong at Eventide”, and “The Rose of Tralee”. This is just a small selection.

I myself did not know very much about John McCormack. He is a favorite tenor of a dear friend of mine, and so I decided to post him. One word of warning. The older the record, the worse the sound. What tends to happen with early McCormack is that we don’t get all the sound of his voice, especially the middle frequencies. In order to appreciate him, you have to listen through the recordings to what was assuredly there.

Il mio tesoro, Don Octavio’s aria from Don Giovanni

Il mio tesoro intanto
andate a consolar,
E del bel ciglio il pianto
cercate di asciugar.
Ditele che i suoi torti
a vendicar io vado;
Che sol di stragi e morti
nunzio vogl’io tornar.

My beloved, Don Octavio’s aria from Giovanni

In the meantime,
Go to comfort my love,
And try to dry the tears from her lovely lashes.
Tell her that
I am going to avenge the wrongs done to her
That I want to return only as a messenger of destruction and death

Che gelida manina,
se la lasci riscaldar.
Cercar che giova?

Al buio non si trova.

Ma per fortuna
é una notte di luna,
e qui la luna
labbiamo vicina.
Aspetti, signorina,
le dirò con due parole
chi son, e che faccio,
come vivo. Vuole?
Chi son? Sono un poeta.
Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.
E come vivo? Vivo.
In povertà mia lieta
scialo da gran signore
rime ed inni damore.
Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
lanima ho milionaria.
Talor dal mio forziere
ruban tutti i gioelli
due ladri, gli occhi belli.
Ventrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!
Ma il furto non maccora,
poiché, poiché vha preso stanza
la speranza!
Or che mi conoscete,
parlate voi, deh! Parlate. Chi siete?
Vi piaccia dir!

How cold your little hand is!
Let me warm it for you.
What’s the use of searching?

We’ll never find it in the dark.

But luckily
there’s a moon,
and she’s our neighbor here.
Just wait, Miss,
and meanwhile I’ll tell you
in a word
who and what I do.
Shall I?
What do I do? I’m a poet.
I write.
How do I live? I live.
In my happy poverty
I squander like a prince
my poems and songs of love.
For dreams and for chimeras
and castles in the air,
I’m a millionaire in spirit.
But sometimes my strong box
is robbed of all its jewels
by two thieves: a pair of pretty eyes.
They came in now with you
and all my lovely dreams,
my dreams of the past,
were soon stolen away.
But the theft doesn’t upset me,
since the empty place was filled
with hope.
Now that you know me,
it’s your turn to speak.
Who are you? Will you tell me?

Händel, Semele, Where’er you walk

Where’er you walk
Cool gales shall fan the glade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade

Where’er you tread
The blushing flowers shall rise
And all things flourish
And all things flourish
Where’er you turn your eyes

Where’er you walk
Cool gales shall fan the glade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade
Trees where you sit
Shall crowd into a shade

Händel, Semele, O sleep, why dost thou leave me?

Oh sleep.

Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?
Why dost thou leave me?
Why thy visionary joys remove?

Oh sleep,
Oh sleep.

Oh sleep, again deceive me

Oh sleep, again deceive me
To my arms
Restore my wand’ring love
My wand’ring love,
Restore my wand’ring love!
Again deceive me, oh sleep!

To my arms,
To my arms
My wand’ring love!

Panis angelicus
Fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus
Figuris terminum
O res mirabilis
Manducat dominum
Pauper, pauper
Servus et humilis

May the Bread of Angels
Become bread for mankind;
The Bread of Heaven puts
All foreshadowings to an end;
Oh, thing miraculous!
The body of the Lord will nourish
the poor, the poor,
the servile, and the humble.

This is the Berceuse from Jocelyn, by Godard. It was written in French, but McCormack sings it in English. I will give both the French and the English.

Berceuse de Jocelyn

Cachés dans cet asile où Dieu nous a conduits,
Unis par le malheur, durant les longues nuits
Nous reposons tous deux endormis sous les voiles
Ou prions aux regards de tremblantes étoiles.

Oh ne t’éveille pas encor
Pour qu’un bel ange de ton rêve
En déroulant son long fil d’or,
Enfant, permette qu’il s’achève.
Dors, dors, le jour à peine a lui.
Vierge Sainte, veillez sur lui.

Sous l’aile du Seigneur loin du bruit de la foule
Et comme un flot sacré qui doucement s’écoule
Nous avons vu les jours passer après les jours
Sans jamais nous lasser d’implorer son secours.


Beneath the quiv’ring leaves, where shelter comes at last,
All sadness sinks to rest, or glides into the past;
Her sweet eyes prison’d now, in their soft silken bars,
O! my love, calm she sleeps beneath the trembling stars.

Ah! wake not yet from thy repose,
A fair dream spirit hovers near thee,
Weaving a web of gold and rose,
Through dream land’s happy isles to bear thee!
Sleep, love, it is not yet the dawn,
Angels guard thee, sweet love, til morn!

Far from the noisy throng, by song birds lulled to rest,
Where rock the branches high by breezes soft carres’d;
Softly the days go on, by sorrow all unharm’d,
Thus may life be to thee a sweet existence charm’d.

John McCormack

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.”