Irish opera singer John McCormack – under the heading "Desuete Names"
The column "Desuete Names" today is dedicated to John McCormack -- Irish tenor, performer of operatic arias and popular songs, known for his extraordinary articulation and breath control. Gramophone recordings by “His Master's Voice” that are stored in the museum Collection Sound Library evidence the Irish singer's full-sounding voice. Musical compilation digitized from these records is posted to mark John McCormack's birthday.
John Francis McCormack was born on 14 June 1884 in Athlone in Great Britain (Westmeath, Ireland) into a working-class family. His parents worked in the Athlone Woolen Mill; John was the fourth child (there were 11 children in the family). As a boy, John sang in the choir of the old St Peter's Church in Athlone, and when the family moved to Dublin, he began to sing in the choir of St Mary's Church. In 1903, with virtually no vocal training, John won the gold medal among tenors at the Feis Ceoil Irish National Music Festival. A fundraising organized by friends enabled McCormack to travel to Italy in 1905 to study singing with Vincenzo Sabatini.
In 1907, John McCormack performed at Covent Garden in London in the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni, becoming the theatre's youngest principal tenor. Three years later McCormack made his US opera debut, launching a stage career that made him one of the most successful singers of the 20th century, and gained international fame. From 1911, McCormack was rather active in concert performances, where his voice and charm helped to boost his popularity as a celebrated lyric tenor of his time. Early in his career, McCormack should be considered an Italian operatic style singer: he sang (and recorded) French arias in Italian. Music critic John Steeney noted that despite his pop gigs and Irish roots, McCormack was essentially singing in the Italian manner. In February 1911, McCormack performed an aria of Lieutenant Paul Merrill in the premiere of the opera “Natoma” by Victor Herbert, starring Mary Garden. Later that year he gave concert tours in Australia. Moreover, the singing star of the time, Nelly Melba, then at the height of her operatic fame, invited him to sing in her season at the Grand Opéra (Paris).
McCormack made hundreds of recordings; the first ones were on wax cylinders in 1904. The most commercially successful series were the phonograms for the Victor Talking Machine Company in the 1910s and 1920s. With this company, McCormack was the second most popular performer after Enrico Caruso. His repertoire ranged from works by great composers to Irish folk songs. He supported the Irish nationalist struggle for secession from the United Kingdom. John Francis was the first performer of many famous World War I songs. In 1914, he sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and the best-selling version of the hit song "Keep The Home Fires Burning".
In 1919, he became the United States citizen; he lived and worked there until the late 1930s.
McCormack sang at the opera until 1923. His last performance was in Monte Carlo. Known for his extraordinary breath control, he could sing the 64th note of Don Ottavio aria “Il mio tesoro” (My treasure) from the opera “Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart without a single pause.
John McCormack received numerous awards during his musical career. In 1928, was awarded with the title of Papal Count from Pope Pius XI In recognition of his work for Catholic Charities. Before that, he received three papal titles of knighthood: Knight of the Holy Sepulchre (KHS), Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great (KSG) and Knight of the Order of St Silvester (KSS). He was also Knight of Malta and Papal Chamberlain.
His stage career spanned over forty years. John Francis McCormack retired from the stage in 1938, hence he returned a year later, after a farewell concert, to sing at the Red Cross Charity Festival to raise funds for the World War II front. He performed on tours, recorded on radio and in the studio until 1943, when His deteriorating health forced him away from the stage again. After a series of infectious illnesses, including flu and pneumonia, McCormack died in September 1945. He was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.