Patricks' Day! John McCormack Special. . .
Sona shona lá
What is an Irish Tenor?
Well, it's simply a tenor from Ireland, right? Yes. And no. Being geographically
from Ireland is a concept that doesn't exactly exist. If one is from Ireland,
one is from myth and poetry and heart of a type not found elsewhere, right?
That's part of it. And having a higher, more elastic singing voice is part of
it. There is certainly a quality of sentiment that is particular to Irish
tenors. Call it sweet, wistful, nostalgic, sad, all at once. Or, as one friend
offered, "Just pinch your nostrils and sing 'Danny Boy.'"
Today's special St. Patrick's Day Edition of Saturdee Opry Links
begins appropriately enough, with the great, or should I say iontach,
John McCormack. The most duly revered and cherished Irish tenor of all. Are you
wearin' the green?
Feature: JOHN MCCORMACK: THE CHARMING IRISH
McCormack biographer Gordon T. Ledbetter says McCormack was the greatest
musician among singers, with his voice peaking from 1910 to 1920. He sang from
the heart and the head, both spontaneously and cerebrally, and could sing
anything, from opera to German lieder to Irish folk songs.
A characteristic Irish ballad, "Foggy Dew," sung gloriously by the
characteristically Irish tenor, John McCormack, on this St. Patrick's Day. No,
this is not the "Foggy Dew" inspired by the 1916 East Uprising, but dates to the
"Down the hills I went one morn,
A-singing I did go,
Down the hills I went that morn,
And she answered soft and low.
She says: "If you be my true love
I'm sure that you'll prove true;
And close in my arms I will roll your charms,
We'll be hidden in the foggy dew."
About the song:
Way back in 1906, in the northwestern port town of Savona, Italy, a young tenor
stood nervously in the wings. Giovanni Foli, the fresh-faced prodigy, was to
debut in a supporting role in the opera, "L’Amico Fritz," by Mascagni. Foli's
voice proved so striking that despite the lesser role, he earned good
notices---and went on to sing larger, ultimately leading roles. In time, he
became a household name, breaking box office records in the United States and
becoming one of radio's first great stars. Why, then, have we not hear of Foli
today? Why is he not as famous and revered as Caruso, Gigli, Schipa, and the
rest? Simply because Foli was a stage name in Italy adopted by the young John
McCormack. Here he is, singing in Italiano. "Una Furtiva Lagrima" ("A furtive
tear"), from Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love."
Setting: The interior of Adina's house in an Italian village, 19th century
Synopsis: Nemorino has just taken a second dose of love potion. Unbeknownst to
him, he has also just inherited a fortune and when he enters the room, he is
flocked by the women in the room. Confident because of his dose of "love potion"
(which is really just wine), he ignores them as well as his love Adina. Adina is
hurt by this and leaves. Nemorino notices her unhappiness and realizes that she
does care for him. He sings of his joy at finding that she loves him.
McCormack's light lyric tenor was perfect for Mozart, and this was not lost on
anyone. Here he is with the indelibly melodic aria, "Il Mio Tesoro" ("My dearest
one") from "Don Giovanni."
Setting: A cemetary
Synopsis: Sure that Don Giovanni was the person who killed his fiancee's father,
Don Ottavio swears that he will make sure Donna Anna gets her revenge on Don
McCormack grew up singing in church in his home town of Athlone, County
Westmeath. After winning the 1903 Feis Ceoil (the Irish National Music Festival)
in Dublin, the prodigy was displayed at the 1904 World Expo in St. Louis.
"Displayed" is the right term, as McCormack found the stereotypical "stage-Irish" aspect so
objectionable that he quit. (How Irish!) Still, the trip was not for nothing, as
he met one Lily Foley, also a member of the troupe whom he would marry two years
later. Here he is nearly 30 years later in the Henry Fonda vehicle, "Wings of
Morning." (Followed by "Killarney.")
"Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly to-day,
Were to change by to-morrow, and flee from my arms
Like fairy-gifts, fading away!
Thou wouldst still be ador'd as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will. . ."
About "Believe Me. . ."
AND HERE is an interview with Lily, in 1954:
Not long after the debacle at the World Expo in the USA, McCormack heard Caruso
sing "La Boheme," by Puccini, in London’s Covent Garden. It was, he would later
say, "the best lesson I ever received." It was, in fact, that experience that
made him realize his life's goal, the first step of which was to move to Italy
and study with the prominent operatic teacher, Vincenzo Sabatini. In just a few
years, in 1907, McCormack made is London Covent Garden debut---the youngest
principal tenor ever to do so. He was 23. Here is a wonderful specimen of
McCormack's operatic prowess, from 1910. This is "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali,"
from "Lucia di Lammermoor," by Donizetti. You see, one need not have a voice
that tries to "swallow the world," as a friend of mine put it, in order to be
Setting: The Ravenswood cemetary
Synopsis: After learning that Lucia has died, Edgardo is grief-stricken and
sings to Lucia that he will soon be with her in heaven. Soon afterwards, he
stabs himself and dies beside her body.
McCormack was, amazingly enough, a great interpreter of German lieder (songs), yet recorded just a
few. Here is "Ganymed," a Goethe poem set to music by the great lieder composer,
Hugo Wolf. To read the lyrics is to understand why McCormack might have liked
it, as they somehow seem to have much in common with several Irish ballads.
"How, in the morning brightness,
You all around shine at me,
With thousandfold love-bliss
The holy feeling
Of your eternal warmth
Presses itself upon my heart,
But back to Irish heartbreak, if that is not redundant. Every Irish song seems
to have such undercurrent, even the happy ones. Here is McCormack with an
achingly tender, long-enduring Irish air, composed by the blind harpist Thomas
Connellan in the 17th Century. Enjoy that last note.
"With gentle words I courted her
And asked her to be my bride
She turned and said, "Please go away,"
Then went on down the way
And the morning light was shining bright
At the dawning of the day."
In 1925, McCormack honored his parents at a Dublin concert, singing “When You
Are Old and Grey” to his father, while seranading his mother with his
show-stopper “Mother Machree.”
McCormack was nothing if not a genial and charitable man, appreciative of his
singing gift and good fortune. He dedicated much time and singing to The Red
Cross and Catholic charities, raising and donating enormous amounts of money.
After a performance at the 100th centennial of Catholic Emancipation in Dublin,
McCormack was named a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, an honor he cherished
(earning him the nickname, "The Count.") So dedicated to these causes was
McCormack that he failed to take his own health into account, touring repeatedly
until he was exhausted. By 1938, McCormack had more or less retired, performing
only at his son’s wedding in 1941. He died in 1945. Here he is with "The Old
House," by John McDermott.
Toward the end of her life, my mother said
the only music she wanted to hear was songs by John McCormack. I can understand
"The minstrel boy to the war is gone;
In the ranks of death ye may find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
With his wild harp slung along behind him;
Land of Song, the lays of the warrior bard,
May some day sound for thee,
But his harp belongs to the brave and free
And shall never sound in slavery!"
Saturdee Opry Links St. Patrick's Day Special Encore!
John McCormack: The Original Irish Tenor
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