Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Music St. Paddy Likes: John McCormack

It is St. Patrick's Day today, widely celebrated all over North America by the wearing of the green and the drinking of the ale. But it is also a day to be celebrated with some great Irish-themed music, and there is perhaps no better choice than one of the greatest and most versatile Irish tenors of all time—John McCormack, that is!

Seven decades after his passing, John McCormack is still remembered today as one of the best tenors who ever graced the stage and the recording studio, and his music still sounds as fresh and beautiful today as it did in the 1930s and '40s. McCormack was Irish by birth, although he would later become an American citizen. Born in 1884 in Athlone, Ireland, he earned a reputation as an opera singer in the early years of the 20th century, headlining many important operatic productions in Italy, England, and the United States. Aware that his talent as an actor was somewhat lacking and that his gifts lay elsewhere, McCormack concentrated on live appearances and recordings after World War I, finding great success with his Irish ballads, folk tunes, and airs that made him a star internationally. Although he also performed classical lieder and pop songs in his recitals, his audiences constantly demanded his Irish-themed material, and he was always delighted to oblige. At the beginning of the sound era, he also worked occasionally in movies, though the ones he made, such as Frank Borzage's Song O' My Heart (1929, with Maureen O'Hara) and Harold D. Schuster's Wings of the Morning (1937, with Henry Fonda), are rather obscure. In the late 1920s, McCormack returned permanently to his native country, and by 1938 he had quietly slipped into retirement, although he kept making records almost until his death in Dublin in 1945.

There are many CD compilations of John McCormack's work, both classical and popular, and they are all recommendable, because he was the kind of artist who hardly ever made a subpar record. However, for his Irish recordings, one of the best choices is Songs of My Heart: Popular Songs and Irish Ballads (EMI Records, 1992), which includes sides he made between 1930 and 1941. Here we find him mostly accompanied by a piano that is always elegant and sympathetic and that supports his marvelous voice perfectly. As the title suggests, the program features mostly Irish tunes, many of them from poet Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, such as "The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls," "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "The Meeting of the Waters." There are also a couple of selections from the Stephen Foster songbook ("Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Sweetly She Sleeps My Alice Fair"), a musical setting of a W.B. Yeats text ("Down by the Sally Gardens"), and several traditional Irish melodies like "The Garden Where the Praties Grow" and "The Bard of Armagh."

McCormack's interpretation of "The Londonderry Air," better known as "Danny Boy" but presented here under the title of "O Mary Dear," is one of the most memorable ever recorded. But one of the most moving tracks on the compilation is the traditional ballad "She Moved Thro' the Fair," which is the perfect example of McCormack's ability to create and sustain and mood in song, in this case deeply sorrowful and haunting. Both the music and the lyrics of this song have a rather mysterious and mournful quality that seems to foreshadow death before the wedding of two lovers. We do not know that the bride is indeed dead until the final lines, but the sorrow and unrest are ably conveyed by McCormack and his piano accompanist from the opening stanza of the song:

My young love said to me:
"My mother won't mind
And me fath'r won't slight you
For your lack of kind."
Then she stepp'd away from me
And this did she say:
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day."

The music contained herein shows that McCormack was a master interpreter of song who could instantly create a connection with any live audience. Since we cannot experience him live at any of his extremely popular recitals anymore, his recordings are the only possible substitute, and listening to them makes us realize why they are worthy of being played and treasured all these decades after they were made. Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

McCormack sitting at the piano

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