A Singer's Life, 1884 - 1945 Courtesy of The McCormack Society site, 2005).
"I like to go jumping about in my life, as the whim takes me.
I don't believe in all this pedantic arranging of things in order."
- John McCormack to his biographer, L.A.G. Strong
Chapters in McCormack's Life and Career
John Francis McCormack was one of the greatest singers of this century. A tenor of the bel canto school, he enjoyed an immensely successful career in opera, on the recital stage, and with the sale of his recordings. Born in Ireland in 1884 to working class parents, he early evinced a strong interest in a career as a singer, and in 1903 with very little formal training he won the gold medal as a tenor at the Irish National Music Festival, the Feis Ceoil. He studied briefly in Italy under Sabatini and returned to London in the fall of 1906 seeking opportunities to sing professionally. It took him less than a year, for in the fall of 1907 he made his debut at Covent Garden, at age 23 the youngest principal tenor ever to sing there. In less than three years he was singing opera in the United States too, as well as beginning a career on the recital stage that would make him one of the most successful singers of all time, both in the hearts of a virtually global public, and in the size of the financial reward he reaped from his concerts and recordings. In 1919 he became a citizen of the United States, his adopted country, and the one where his concert appeal had proven to be nearly universal and unrelenting. McCormack's active career lasted over forty years. He made his first recordings in 1904 and his last in 1942. He first sang professionally as early as 1902 and retired (in England) in 1938. One year after that farewell concert he was back singing for the Red Cross and in support of the war effort. He concertized, toured, broadcast, and recorded in this capacity until 1943, when failing health forced him to retire again. McCormack died in September 1945, mourned by his countrymen, his English public who had taken him to their hearts as well, a vast number of his fellow citizens in the United States, and music lovers all over the world.
The following sketches are intended to provide merely an outline of John McCormack's life and career on the stage and in the recording studio. Although there are no less than six biographies , five are out of print at the present time. Often it is only in university libraries that any of the six may be found. Therefore, these web pages may suffice to provide answers about McCormack for the casual researcher, who may not have access to any of the biographies or other reference works.
Salient facts, dates, recording highlights, and pictures are included, all pedantically arranged in chronological order despite the tenor's protest, since a clear chronology of his life and career is not easy to discern as one reads through any one of the biographies.
Also included are examples of McCormack's comments regarding the milestones of his career and his thoughts on certain musical topics. There is a wealth of this primary material included in the biographies by Key and Strong, as well as in Lily McCormack's charming memoir of her husband, I Hear You Calling Me, published in 1949, four years after the tenor's death.
In that book Lily commented, "John started to write his memoirs about 1936 but didn't have the patience to complete them...." Lily included portions of them in her book, as did Strong before her. Unpublished in their original entirety, "these memoirs consist of 175 pages written in pencil by McCormack, narrating the principal incidents of his career, along with his views of life as a concert artist." (Farkas, 1985)
"After all, what's in a song? A message people can understand. Melody, first, set to text that conveys something to heart and mind. One of the difficult tasks of my profession, and as important as the actual singing, is the choice of material for my programmes, and its arrangement.... First, I give my audiences the songs I love. Second, I give them the songs they ought to like, and will like when they hear them often enough. Third, I give them the folksongs of my native land, which I hold to be the most beautiful of any music of this kind.... Fourth, I give my audiences songs they want to hear, for such songs they have every right to expect."
- John McCormack, 1918.
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