Early Career, 1907 - 1918
In the early weeks of 1907 McCormack met Albert Vesetti, a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music. Lily speculates that he may have been introduced to Vesetti by Gwen Trevitt, whom McCormack had known as a fellow student living at the same lodging house in Milan. Vesetti had been Adelina Patti's accompanist for many years. He had heard John sing on more than one occasion and was sufficiently impressed with McCormack's voice that he gave him two letters of introduction to two important music publishers in London. Such firms had powerful influence in the music world, because the sale of sheet music was still a more important economic endeavor than the sale of recordings. It was publication of musical compositions that signified success for a composer, and quite often for a musician as well, because of the way the publishers promoted their wares. Vesetti gave McCormack letters introducing him to William Boosey of Chapells and to his cousin, and business rival, Arthur Boosey, who had his own firm, Boosey and Company. The second of these letters turned out to be a stroke of good luck for McCormack. Lily stayed in Dublin after Christmas, expecting the birth of their child. (Cyril was born on 26 March 1907.) When mother and child rejoined John later that spring, his star had risen.
McCormack admitted that his nerve failed him when he presented his letter to Arthur Boosey. He had departed in disappointment from the office at Chapells, after being told that William Boosey was too busy to see him. So, upon walking the short distance between the two shops (Bond Street to Regent Street), simply handed over his letter to one of Arthur's assistants and promptly left, unwilling to face again an indifferent response. After several days he received a letter from Vesetti to the effect that Arthur Boosey was actually eager to meet him and hear his audition. On the day of McCormack's return visit Samuel Liddle was in Boosey's office and accompanied McCormack in the Flower Song from Carmen and the song "Nirvana" by Stephen Adams. According to Strong, publisher and accompanist were both impressed by what they heard and asked for more. Liddle, also a composer, asked McCormack to sing his song "A Farewell," which he had just composed, set to verses by Charles Kingsley. Boosey again was impressed and engaged John to sing at his next Ballad Concert on March 1st at Queen's Hall in London.
The Boosey Ballad Concerts were an example of a common practice in those days. Music publishers made their money by selling sheet music to musicians, often amateurs. At a time when phonograph (and gramophone) records were a luxury commodity, prospective customers heard the latest songs at recitals, usually with several singers participating, designed to showcase the music published by the sponsor of the recital. Most music publishers followed this practice; admission was cheap; and such concerts were widely attended. The Boosey Ballad Concerts were quite prestigious (as was the venue of Queen's Hall), and well-known artists were presented, so McCormack was among the elite. His appearance was a resounding success. Boosey engaged him for the rest of that season, as well as the next. McCormack made other important concert appearances that spring: On April 1st another Queen's Hall concert; on May 5th a National Sunday League Concert, again at Queen's Hall. Each appearance seemed to lead to others. At the second Boosey Ballad Concert that spring McCormack was heard by Sir John Murray Scott, a wealthy patron of the arts in London.
McCormack appeared in an amateur production of Faust in Dublin in May 1907. Lily was still there with the baby, staying with her mother and sister Peggy. After returning to London from this trip to Dublin, he received an invitation from another singer, Eva Gauthier, to accompany her to a party at the home of Sir John Murray Scott. The older man invited him back many times that summer and took an increasing interest in McCormack's career and ambitions. Eventually Scott's influence secured an audition with Harry Higgins, the manager of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Again, this event has taken on a mythic cast in the McCormack saga: Higgins and others who heard the audition were impressed with McCormack's voice, but thought it too light-weight for the acoustics of the auditorium. At that, Sir John retorted (in Lily's account): "If you would only keep your orchestra down a bit, all your singers could be heard!" This episode appears in Lily's book and Strong's, but in the biography by Pierre Key, based on interviews with McCormack (and quoted at length), John simply says that he got an offer after singing the audition.
McCormack made his Covent Garden debut on October 15, 1907 as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. By most accounts and reviews his singing was well received. At age 23 he became the youngest principal tenor ever to sing at Covent Garden. Reviewers praised the quality of his voice, though not without comment on its relative lack of power.
It had taken McCormack four years to realize the ambition generated by his success in the Feis Ceoil. He had risen to the top rank of his profession, largely by dint of his own effort and choices, and not without several lucky breaks. His comment to Lily in the gallery at Covent Garden the previous year on their honeymoon had been: "If ever I get my foot down there on that stage, it'll take a hell of a lot to get it off." He would in fact keep it there until the lamps in Europe went out in August 1914, but by the fall of that year he had in fact already put the other foot down elsewhere.
McCormack described his experience at his first Boosey Ballad Concert on March 1st, 1907:
"There was a large audience that Friday afternoon, the seats being quite filled. I was fifth on the list of singers, a favorable position, and my introductory aria, 'Questa 'o quella.' The moment to go out came at last, and with Samuel Liddle, the official accompanist, I appeared before my most important assemblage. ... Before the song was finished I recognized that I was not failing. The voice was responsive and smooth, I had control of my resources and felt that my enunciation could be clearly understood. I could see little signs which auditors invariably indulge in whenever favorably impressed; and this encouraged me to let myself go more freely. One catches the temper of an assemblage after a song has been sung. There is a difference between applause, spontaneously given because the givers have been moved, and the perfunctory clapping of hands which caps a mediocre effort. I left the stage, after profuse acknowledgement, with my nerve-centres tingling. I seemed to float, rather than to walk, to the stage exit. The remainder of that afternoon remains in my memory as a sort of intoxicating daze."
(from Key, chapter 11, pp. 157-159)
McCormack's account of his Covent Garden debut on 15 October 1907:
"The night of nights - and it was all that - came at last. ... I was so nervous that I ceased to be nervous. I guess the nerves, for that evening, were thoroughly burned out. ... Anyway I should have a chance to warm up before going out to face the thousands there in front; the men and women who were to say 'yes' or 'no' to my maiden effort. The serenade, which Turridu sings behind the curtain before it is raised, would give me that chance. And presently it came. I got the signal, the harpist began the introduction and I set myself. ... For a second, possibly only half a second I thought I'd die. I stood looking at the harpist, with my mouth as parched as though I'd been footing it through a desert. Then to myself I said, 'Old Boy, you've got to! ... The rest of it was easy enough, as debuts go. I guess I'd suffered until there was nothing left in me to suffer. For the serenade to Lola went fairly well - so the people and management thought, and the music critics, who wrote about the performance for the papers of next day. I had steadied before having sung a dozen measures of the serenade, so that when I made my entrance I was as cold as ice. ... Evrything, that night, seemed magnified. I saw with a clarity of vision which, I presume, was due to the highly sensitized condition of my nerves; and my hearing was the same. I anticipated all that was to come: every musical phrase and word, long before its proper moment, and every action the role demands and each gesture. That's about all. In less than an hour and a quarter it was all over. They told me in the dressing room that I had won."
(from Key, chapter 13, pp. 191-195)
From a review of McCormack's Covent Garden debut, Westminster Gazette, 16 October 1907:
"If Mr. John McCormack, the young Irish tenor recently discovered, who made his London operatic debut last night in Cavalleria Rusticana, had been an Italian he would perhaps hardly have attracted very much attention. It would have been said that he had a small voice of pleasing quality, which would doubtless be haerd to better advantage in a smaller building, and that is about all. We have not got so many native operatic tenors, however, that we can afford to deal with them so lightly, and therefore Mr. McCormack may be considered a little more closely. On the whole his debut was certainly successful. His voice is not, indeed, quite large enough for the vast spaces of Covent Garden, but it is certainly one of a very pure and agreeable quality, and he employs it with excellent judgement and taste. ... No doubt in time ... his voice will gain in power without, it may be hoped, losing any of its sweetness. At present it is not very big, and when he was heard side by side with Scandiani, say, it was impossible not to be struck by the contrast in the matter of volume and resonance, and Scandiani himself is hardly reckoned a giant. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that Mr. McCormack is not a baritone, but a tenor, and tenors, as we know, are judged by a standard of their own ..."
(quoted in Strong, pp. 67-68)
Sir John Murray Scott became McCormack's patron, and the tenor admired him greatly. After Murray Scott's death, McCormack reminsced to Key in this way:
Sir John Murray Scott "... was good enough to invite me often to his home, and there I benefited far more even than I was then able to comprehend. For Sir John's outlook on life was broad, and he imparted to those privileged to come in contact with him an appreciation of what such a perspective meant. I know in my own case that he stimulated the finer qualities and eventually enabled me to understand that to become a great singing artist - in the full sense - one must be more, merely, than singer and musician. ... His influence helped me incalculably, and the example he himself set. It meant something just to be near him and hear him talk, not alone on music, which he thoroughly knew in all its branches and history, but on the kindred arts and on politics, science, philosophy, finance and travel. He was what I would call a well-informed man, one well-traveled, who remembered. It was no commonplace task to satisfy such a man, and I was content only when I felt that I was near to, if not completely, satisfying him. Sir John believed in shooting at a high-hung star, and drilled into me that idea. But for all his task-mastership he wielded no iron hand. His way was to lead rather than to drive; and it was also his way, after patient observation of a &#protégé, to drop him if he showed an unwillingness to respond. That was all. He 'sized' a man, to use a colloquialism, lightning fast and gave him a fair chance - but no more than that. And the gentleman, unvaryingly; it was inborn. So, you see, I had my advantages."
(from Key, chapter 12, p.174; chapter 14, pp. 205-206)
In his first season at Covent Garden McCormack sang with Tetrazzini (on 11-23-07) in Rigoletto. The soprano had made her debut in London earlier that month and scored an amazing success. In those days Nellie Melba was the reigning soprano at Covent Garden, and Tetrazzini's warm reception led to an intense rivalry between the two. McCormack sang with both. With Tetrazzini he would go to America (fall 1909) to sing at the Manhattan Opera, and two years later (fall 1911) he would go to Australia with Melba's opera company, on her first professional tour of her homeland. McCormack sang in every Covent Garden summer (or Grand) season through the summer of 1914. He appeared in 15 different operatic roles, in only two of which he sang secondary to another tenor of greater fame.
After Christmas 1907 McCormack embarked on his first Harrison Tour. Organized by Percy Harrison on a regular basis, these tours of the English provinces usually consisted of several singers and instrumentalists, always billed as "International Celebrities." The troupe traveled together from one concert date to the next under the paternal oversight of "Daddy" (as he was affectionately known to his charges) Harrison. With McCormack on that first Harrison Tour of spring 1908 were Emma Albani, Marie Stuart, Dalton Baker, John, and Marie Novello (a pianist). Strong notes that John sang arias from Carmen, Faust, La Bohème , and songs by Charles Marshall and Thomas moore. Evidence also suggests that McCormack and Marshall met for the first time in late 1907, and that in early spring 1907 the songwriter shared with McCormack a new song, "I Hear You Calling Me." This song became McCormack's signature piece, and he recorded it twice in 1908, five times for Victor, and at least twice for his film Song o' My Heart.
McCormack had been making records for the Odeon Company since the fall of 1906. The exact dates of his recording sessions for this company are uncertain, but it is possible to discern groups of recordings (according to consecutive runs of matrix numbers) that probably comprise recording sessions. By late 1908 he had sung in about 13 sessions. His contract called for recording 24 selections per year. Of the selections he recorded for Odeon, the majority are songs or ballads, outnumbering operatic arias by about four to one. Furthermore, the arias that he did record were not representative of his performances on the stage. The songs were probably for the most part representative of what he sang at recitals, however. The Odeon recordings are the most problematic group within the McCormack Discography. Playback speeds vary widely, and therefore many re-issues, especially early LP's, distort his voice by playing at too fast or (more often) too slow a speed. When they are heard in pitch (remember that the speed the record turns on the turntable affects the pitch of the recorded music), it is possible to hear a continuing improvement in his singing from the Irish ballads and revolutionary songs of 1906 through the last Odeons of 1909. By the end of 1909 McCormack's voice has developed the familiar timbre of the early Victor recordings.
With the conclusion of the Harrison Tour in the spring McCormack began to prepare for his first Grand (or Royal) Season at Covent Garden, held in the first part of the summer. This was prefaced with three significant concert events in May in which McCormack sang: On May 26, 1908 a Diamond Jubilee Concert was held at Queen's Hall to mark the 5oth year in music of Wilhelm Ganz, a prominent conductor. Adelina Patti came out of retirement to sing in his honor. McCormack and other artists sang individual selections, McCormack's choice being "Celeste Aida," a role he never performed, but an aria which he nevertheless recorded the following year. The next day, May 27th, a Gala Performance was held at Covent Garden by royal command. McCormack and Tetrazzini sang in Act I of I Pescatori di Perli, and Melba, Journet, and Zenatello performed Act II of Faust. On May 28th there was a League of Mercy Concert at Albert Hall. Mnay top artists, McCormack among them, were invited to appear, and to be included among them was a signal honor, as well as a sign of how much his reputation had grown since his Covent Garden debut of less than a year earlier. The roster of performers included Caruso, Melba, Scotti, Ben Davies, Charles Santley, and McCormack, along with Tosti, Landon Ronald, and Hamilton Harty as accompanists.
It was while McCormack was singing in the Grand Season at Covent Garden that year that his daughter Gwen was born in Dublin on July 21.
That fall he appeared at the Birmingham Festival, singing Elijah and the Verdi Requiem under Henry Wood. Other singers included Charence Whitehill, the American baritone, Aino Ackté, soprano, and Muriel Foster, mezzo. The year ended with a five concert tour with Fritz Kreisler, with whom McCormack was to enjoy a long professional association. Thus by the end of 1908 McCormack was active in all of the arenas that a professional singer in the British Isles might aspire to: opera, oratorio, recitals, special events, and the recording studio. His participation was actively sought by those who planned such activities and events, and he was being well paid. He was 24 years old, six years out of school, had been married for two years, and had two young children.
Regarding his first Harrison Tour, McCormack commented:
"The Harrison concerts were interesting that year and broadened my acquaintance with audiences. It allowed me to see something of other cities and the experience helped. Incidentally, my repertoire grew steadily and my musical knowledge, for besides studying I lost no opportunity to hear as much good music as I could, especially that for the orchestra. And another thing: I fussed a little at the piano. For I realized that some day I should need musicianship - which few singers appear to feel they care to acquire."
(quoted in Key, chapter 14, p. 206)
"During all my Harrison tours I never heard a word spoken in anger among us artists. Of course, we had heated arguments about the taste of the audience and their power to estimate what was what - always, of course, depending on the applause that was given to the Protagonists of the argument, if you know what I mean: but we were always one happy family."
(quoted in Strong, p.86)
McCormack's comments about operatic technique at the time of his second season at Covent Garden:
"My second Covent garden season witnessed strides in the desired direction. I had added to my repertoire, and was called on to appear in the three roles I had first learned, and several more besides. At the close of my fourth year I had sung Turiddu [in Cavelleria Rusticana], The Duke [in Rigoletto], Don Ottavio [in Don Giovanni] and the principal tenor roles in La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, La Tosca, La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lakmè, Faust, Romeo and Juliet, and The Pearl Fishers. One does not gain freedom of stage routine in a few performances. The easy actor, in opera, is not too often encountered. It is a difficult matter - which many do not know because their intimacy with the opera singing is limited - to provide an adequate dramatic impersonation of a role while singing it. And the cause is due largely to the lack of what I will call synchronization between music and text; the pauses in the connective of phrases which destroy the possibility of logical dramatic continuity and frequently place an artist in passivity when the action should not be arrested. ... To surmount such obstacles - which is less difficult in some operas than in others - requires long and arduous training before the public, and a talent to combine acting with singing. 'Operatic' gestures do not, as the expert knows, constitute dramatic action, and never will. To mould characterization of a role with its musical side is an art, a many-sided one, and has few masters. I strove to acquire it, but it came slowly - especially in that second year, when music had, of course, to be the main thing."
(quoted in Key, chapter 15, pp.211-212)
In the spring of 1909 McCormack again sang in opera in Italy, making his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto at the San Carlo Opera. Reminiscences of the engagement do not describe it as particularly auspicious, although he did meet Fernando De Lucia, who congratulated him on his singing. At a party given by the assistant stage manager McCormack met the man's daughter and was told that she was preparing for a creer as a singer. Five years later he met the young woman again, Claudia Muzio, singing at Covent Garden. That spring he also appeared in several concerts with Busoni. On their way back from Naples in April John and Lily had an audience with Pope Pius X. Arriving back in London, he began rehearsals for the Grand Season at Covent Garden, in which he was to add two operas to his repertoire: Lakmé and The Daughter of the Regiment, singing them both with Tetrazzini.
Towards the end of that season Oscar Hammerstein came to London seeking talent for his Manhattan Opera, which he had started in New York several years earlier purposefully to rival the Metropolitan. While it is clear that he was quite interested in securing Tetrazzini's services, accounts vary as to exactly how McCormack received an offer. McCormack himself gave differing accounts of this. In an interview for a magazine article published in the Musical Leader he asserted that because Tetrazzini wanted to sing with him in America Hammerstein accepted him somewhat grudgingly, with the words: "An Irish Tenor in opera? I don't think so ..." Soon thereafter McCormack McCormack told Key that Cleofante Campanini, the conductor, had spoken favorably of his voice and Hammerstein accepted that recommendation and made him an offer. By 1939 or so, in interviews for the biography by Strong, McCormack told the story in a way that suggested that Hammerstein had sought him out, made him an immediate and generous offer, and quipped, "McCormack, an Irishman singing Italian opera in New York. Sounds like cinch? We should get a brand new audience of opera-goers."
McCormack was able to cancel his obligation to appear in the Harrison Tour in the fall of 1909. He sailed for the United States on October 15 and made his Manhattan debut on November 10 (or 7th) as Alfredo in La Traviata with Tetrazzini and Sammarco. Reviews were favorable for this and subsequent performances. McCormack agreed to return the following year. That fall in New York he met Denis McSweeney, the man who was to be his co-manager and manager for most of his American career. He also sang his first recitals in the United States in New York that fall.
The Manhattan opera season extended from November 1909 until March the following spring. In January 1910 McCormack made test recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, on the strength of which he was offered a contract, providing that Victor could buy out the remaining years of his contract in England with Odeon. The Victor Company had a long-standing reciprocity agreement with The Gramophone Company in England and asked them to split the £2000 that Odeon wanted to relinquish McCormack. The Gramophone Company refused to share this expense, but Victor paid it. (The reader should be aware that the English pound was worth about $5.00 in those days.) Thus on February 10, 1910 McCormack signed a contract with the Victor Co. as represented by Calvin G. Child, head of the Artists' Department, that was to last until 1938. There were seven more recording sessions in 1910, and McCormack was to record actively in the Victor studios for two decades, recording hundreds of titles that sold in the millions.
McCormack returned to London in the late spring of 1910 to begin rehearsals for the Covent Garden season. He learned that he was to sing in La Bohème with Nellie Melba at her request. on the strength of his performances with her in that and other operas that season, she asked him to be part of the opera company that she was taking to Australia in the fall of the following year. In the fall of 1910 McCormack was back in the United States. Hammerstein had sold out to the Metropolitan Opera, which arranged for the Manhattan company to perform in a number of American cities, Chicago in particular. There they performed Puccini's new opera La Fanciulla del West, just after the world premiere had taken place in New York at the Met (with Caruso, Amato, Destinn, and Toscanini). Once the season in Chicago ended, McCormack joined the cast in Philadelphia that was preparing the world premiere of Victor Herbert's opera Natoma. This took place on 25 February 1911 with a cast that included Mary Garden in the title role, Mario Sammarco, and McCormack (who created the role of Paul). The opera, whose plot revolved around the Indian maiden, Natoma, was not a great success, and, after some performances at the Met later that season, it was never revived.
McCormack in the spring of 1911 had five more recording sessions in the Victor studios. There was another in London in July by The Gramophone Company. The fruits of his recording sessions in 1910 and 1911 totlaed over 40 published sides, nearly half of the number of records that he made over four years for Odeon. These recordings are the beginning of McCormack's golden era of recording, which lasted until 1922 (from the standpoint of pure vocal powers), and with only slightly diminished qualities past 1930. From the standpoint of musicianship and interpretive finesse, some (the present writer included) would argue that McCormack's latter-day contraction of range and other audible signs of vocal decline were more than offset by the interpretive power and stylistic elegance of his later recordings. The 1910-1911 recordings have been re-issued recently on compact disc in superb transfers.
On the way to the San Carlo Opera engagement, McCormack stopped at Milan to see his teacher, Sabatini:
"On the way Mrs McCormack and I stopped off at Milan, to see my old maestro, Sabatini. We were both overjoyed at meeting again, and Sabatini made a great fuss over Mrs. McCormack. After matters had quieted I took out my bill-fold: 'Let me see, two hundred francs (forty dollars), that was the amount for the last two months of tuition, wasn't it, maestro?' And what do you think Sabatini asked? ... He wanted to know if I could conveniently spare it. With his next breath he began berating me for sending him so many pupils. For, as it had happened, my tone-production had elicited inquiries as to who my master had been, and when I recommended Sabatini - and I did recommend him, you may be sure - students flocked to his place. ... Before he would talk on the many matters of common interest to us both, Sabatini insisted I should have a lesson. 'The bad habits,' he said insinuatingly, 'I will see if you have formed them.' And for half an hour he stripped my voice bare. Then he appeared satisfied. That I had gone on in the way he hoped gave him inexpressible delight. One or two things he did not approve, and frankly said so. But when he had finished with me I gathered fresh confidence in myself; for the dangerous period in my vocal career had been safely passed, and I believed that a continuance of those same methods would guard my toneproduction in the future. Madame Sabatini came into the studio then, to play while I sang operatic arias the maestro insisted he must hear. He let me finish each one; then we would discuss it: Sabatini suggesting changes which I instantly recognized would add to their interpretive value. We had several hours of this, and I finished a wiser singer and a better one."
(quoted in Key, chapter 15, pp.217-218)
McCormack's lengthy contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, dates from the fall of his first season with the Manhattan Opera, as McCormack himself set down in his unpublished Memoirs:
"To one of my first opera performances in New York came the head of the Artists' Department of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He was pleased with my work and asked me to make a test record of an operatic aria and an Irish ballad. I made Tu che Dio Spiegasti from Lucia di Lammermoor, and Killarney. They were excellent and I think are still in the catalog, after a quarter of a century. I was offered a contract immediately, but unfortunately I had two more years to sing for the Odeon Company in London. The Victor Company cabled to London and asked how much they would accept to release me. They asked two thousand pounds. Then the Victor Company cabled the Gramophone Company in London asking them to pay half of the release - they had a working agreement about their artists. My old friend, the Gramophone Company, thought that the Victor Company had suddenly gone crazy. Well, perhaps they had. In any case, the Victor Company paid the two thousand pounds and on February 10, 1910, gave me a contract which does not lapse until February, 1938. I received ten thousand dollars in advance of royalties and ten percent of the list price of the records. I have left the name of my very dear friend who signed that contract on behalf of the Victor Company till the end. I want here to thank him, not only for the contract, but for the great gift of his friendship. Bless you, Calvin G. Child."
(quoted by Lily McCormack in I Hear You Calling Me, pp. 104-105)
In his 1918 interviews with Pierre Key McCormack barely mentioned the opera Natoma by Victor Herbert. Although he sang in its premiere, on 25 February 1911, opposite Mary Garden, and recorded the tenor aria under the composer's baton (3 April 1912), this silence on the subject is interesting. It suggests that McCormack took a dim view of the music but did not then choose to say so in public. He had no such reticence ca. 1939, when he commented to Strong:
"The music of Natoma was just so and so. Victor Herbert was a great master of operetta, and I always feel that Natoma was an overgrown operetta, one that had grown bigger and noisier and more bombastic. The name part, exquisitely played by Mary Garden, had some beautiful phrases with the American Indian flavor, though in my opinion, not so original as Charles Wakefield Cadman's American music. The part of the tenor, was, if anything, more fatuous and stupid than the usual tenor part. The music was very high and very ineffective. I remember appealing to Joe Redding to tell me how in the name of music I was to phrase the strange sentence, 'Tell me, gentle maiden, have I seen you in my dreams, I wonder?' 'I wonder' flummoxed me altogether, and I am damned if I know now how Natoma could tell him whether he had seen her in his dreams. Still, queer things happen in opera libretti."
(quoted in Strong, p. 152)
The Grand Season at Covent Garden in the summer of 1911 included a gala performance in honor of the coronation of King George V. It also included the London premiere of La Fanciulla del West (although not with John). Strong relates a story of how McCormack taught the tune of the Waltz to Cyril, who was an enthusiastic singer from an early age. When the McCormack family was invited to tea by Tetrazzini, who had also invited Campanini, Cyril's singing of the waltz astonished the conductor, who, when he had recovered, thought that McCormack had Cyril sing it to him as a joke: "The opera had not yet been heard in London. and here was a baby singing one of the principal motifs .... 'Oh, Giovanni,' he exclaimed,'you have done this on purpose.' " (Strong, p. 157). (Cyril was four years old that spring.)
McCormack and Melba cut short their participation at Covent Garden that summer in order to depart for Australia. Lily and the children traveled separately on a ship that sailed south around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the summer heat of the Mediterranaen and Red Sea. John traveled first to Paris for a concert and then departed from Marseilles. His trip through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean in July and August confirmed the wisdom of sending his family by the cooler route.
The Australian Tour opened in Sydney on September 2, 1911, and after great acclaim moved next to Melbourne, Melba's hometown. Here the reception was less than Melba had anticipated, and she cut short the planned appearances to return to Sydney. The operas presented on this tour included: Tosca, Romeo et Juliette, Faust, La Traviata, Rigoletto, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly. After the tour concluded, McCormack stayed behind to give some concerts, which were apparently quite successful. He sang in a performance of Messiah on Christmas Night and gave a recital on New Year's Day. Cyril and Gwen then left for home with "Auntie," while John and Lily sailed for British Columbia via New Zealand and Hawaii, where McCormack also gave concerts.
It was on this first Australian tour, and the return from it, that McCormack met two assisting artists who would be associated with his concert career for many years. The first of these was the Australian violinist Donald McBeath. He was recommended to McCormack by one Mother Xavier of Lewisham Hospital, who had come from a town only 20 miles from Athlone herself. McBeath performed with McCormack on several concerts, playing solo violin pieces during the interludes between McCormack's groups of songs. When McCormack returned for his second tour of Australia in 1913, McBeath would join him again in the same capacity and remain with McCormack as an assisting artist until 1922, except for an interlude lasting not quite two years during the war.
McCormack described his trip to Australia in the summer of 1911 in two passages, one written in 1918 and another in the late 1930's. In the summer of 1911 he had just reached the age of 27, and one catches a hint in his writing that he was somewhat wide-eyed as a world traveler:
"That trip to Australia was one of the most interesting in my life. Through the Straits of Messina we went, catching a view of Mount Etna in eruption; on to Port Said, the back door of the world; continuing through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, in heat that makes a New York heat wave feel like an autumn-day; thence to Colombo, a real Paradise. We stopped over night at Gaul Face Hotel. Next morning we proceeded to Freemantle and thence over the Australian Bight, which is supposed to be the roughest sea in the world, for across it blows a wind that comes straight from the South Pole without interruption."
(quoted in Key, chapter 22, p. 296)
"We crossed the Indian Ocean in practically dead calm, escorted by eight or ten albatross - or is it albatrosses? I am always completely fascinated by the flight of an albatross. There surely is motion without exertion to the nth degree, the poetry of motion reduced to the minimum. After watching the noble bird for days circling our ship so paecefully, so noiselessly, as if we were on 'a painted ship upon a painted ocean,' I could undersatnd whence arose the legend that it was unlucky to shoot an albatross. It would be cold-blooded murder. ... We arrived at Colombo early in the morning. Before leaving London I had been warned not to miss seeing the sunrise there. I was indeed glad that I had heeded that warning for never will I forget that morning. Dawn began to stretch her rosy fingers up into the eastern sky, and suddenly a mountain appeared silhouetted against the crimson horizon. As the sun rose higher and higher, fainter and fainter became the silhouette until when the sun was risen, the mountain had disappeared. All during the morning I searched the horizon with my binoculars to find it, but I could not. It was like a curtain that had sunk out of sight to unveil the sun."
(quoted by Lily McCormack in I Hear You Calling Me, p. 68)
McCormack on Nellie Melba:
"Melba's vocal equipment was splendid. The tone was beautiful, and beautifully placed. Her technique was perfection. Her trill was exquisite, her scales were pearl-like, her picchettati were just like a bird's notes. Her diction in English was Australian, just as it was in French and Italian. (I never heard her sing in German.) Her phrasing was, as a rule, uninspired, and sometimes it sounded slipshod, yet she sang certain phrases in a way no other singer I ever heard could even approach. In Romeo et Juliette she so carried me away by the sheer exquisite beauty of the sound in the beginning of the second act that, one night in Melbourne, I forgot to sing my answering phrase as Romeo. And who that ever heard Melba in Bohème will forget the finale in the third act, especially that phrase beginning "Vorrei che eterno durasse l'inverno?" To me it was the perfection of the vocal art. Her acting? She was just as good or bad as I was. ... As a colleague, she was a mass of contradictions. I have known her to do some of the kindest things, and some of the most cruel. In the matter of sharing applause, I can frankly say she was by far the most selfish singer I ever sang with. ... Perhaps I can best express my feelings about Melba as a colleague by saying that in the seventeen years I knew Enrico Caruso, I never heard him say an unkind word of a fellow-artist. Melba was different. Nevertheless, when she sang, she made one forget the colleague, and listen to the singer. I can pay her no greater compliment."
(quoted in Strong, p. 137)
During the first weeks of 1912 McCormack met with Charles Wagner in Portland, Oregon. He and Wagner had earlier discussed the possibility of a new management contract the previous year. McCormack's recitals in the United States had hitherto been under the auspices of the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company. This contract was due to expire in February, and Wagner had traveled west to meet McCormack at the time this contract expired. He argued that McCormack's concert activity in the United States had far greater potential than had been realized under the management which had overseen McCormack's artistic activity outside England up to this point. Indeed Wagner had traveled with McCormack during North American concertizing in 1911, planning how better to do it. While they were in the American northwest, McCormack and Lily had several pictures made, of the two of them and of McCormack alone. Some of these may have been publicity shots, such as one in which McCormack uncharacteristically wore a hat, perhaps to make him look a little older.
Wagner traveled in February and March with McCormack, his wife, and accompanist, Spencer Clay, across the country on a concert tour from the west coast back to New York. Along the way, it would seem from a contemporary post card, Wagner took advantage of opportunities for publicity. On March 12 in Chicago McCormack met Edwin Schneider, who became John's new accompanist, since Clay wanted to return to England and teach. The two would be together until 1937. Arriving back in New York on March 31, McCormack had three recording sessions for Victor in early April before departing for England.
Later in 1912 McCormack and Wagner added Denis McSweeney as co-manager, completing the team that helped McCormack rise to the zenith of his concert career in the United States over the next decade. The pattern that soon emerged was for John, "Teddy," and "Mac" to travel together from concert to concert on US tours, which usually took place during the fall and early spring. In 1919 McSweeney would become McCormack's sole manager until his death in 1934.
As in previous years McCormack returned to England in the spring in order to participate in the summer season at Covent Garden, followed by a vacation, and a return to the United States in the fall. There he was rejoined by Schneider and McSweeney and began the concert tour that the latter had worked out. In the fall of 1912 and early spring of 1913 that tour consisted of 67 solo recitals and only 12 appearances in opera. Thus by the end of his third year of performing in the United States McCormack had clearly shifted the focus of his professional activity from opera to recitals. Singing in opera, especially at Covent Garden, was prestigious, but McCormack clearly found solo performances equally rewarding, artistically as well as monetarily. His concerts arranged by Wagner were guaranteed to yield a fee of not less than $750 (and this minimum increased in 1913 and 1914). In larger cities, however, McCormack usually sang to huge sellout crowds, and his earnings were proportionately higher. The 1912-1913 tour ended as before with concerts on the east coast, allowing McCormack the opportunity for several recording sessions with Victor in January, March, and May, before departure for England.
Immediately after the Covent Garden season that summer, McCormack and his family departed for a tour of Australia which McSweeney had arranged. Since Schneider was unable to be away from home that summer, McCormack's teacher and mentor Vincent O'Brien went as accompanist. In Australia the entourage was joined by the young violinist Donald McBeath, who became part of McCormack's concert team, returning with him to the United States. The tour of Australia included 62 concerts in about three months. By 1913 McCormack was already able to fill relatively large halls, as can be seen in a picture of a Melbourne concert on this tour. McCormack sang as many concerts or more as he had on the Australasian tour while traveling from the west coast of the United States across the country heading east from October 1913 to March 1914. Arriving back in New York he proceeded to make records for Victor in no less that seven sessions from late March to early April. Vincent O'Brien accompanied the recordings on March 25th and 31st, the sessions which included McCormack's first recordings with violinist Fritz Kreisler. McCormack and Kreisler would continue to record together over the next ten years (except for an interval during World War I), eventually making about two dozen records.
McCormack had gained increasing fame for his performances in Don Giovanniover
the years in performances at Covent Garden and the United States, including
one in Boston in 1913 under
Felix Weingartner. While In Australia
in the summer of 1913 McCormack had been invited by Lilli Lehmann to sing this
opera at the Salzburg Festival in August of 1914. After his performances at
Covent Garden that summer, he and Lily had barely crossed the channel when war
was declared. They returned to England and in October sailed for the United
States, where they would spend the war years.
McCormack commented on his arrival in North America after the 1913 tour of Australia:
This small turn-out long ago in Scarborough must have rankled, because McCormack mentioned it again in the extant 1933 broadcast and told it once more to Strong (page 174) several years later!
"After that Australasian tour, it was America once more. I can assure you that the sight of land, after our long voyage, was welcome to our eyes. Mrs. McCormack, O'Brien, McBeath, McSweeney and I watched from the deck of the ship the approaching shoreline. It was late February when we landed in Victoria, and cold... Back in the United States our audiences were waiting for us; and we presently took up the filling of the score of concert engagements which Wagner had prepared. After Victoria and Vancouver we appeared in Seattle, Portland and other Pacific coast cities; every concert brought a crowded house, with the people welcoming me in a fashion that warmed my heart. Nothing at all like the concert I once gave in Scarborough (England) when there were thirteen persons present, by actual count."
(quoted by Key, chapter 24, pp. 327-328)
McCormack discussed the invitation by Lilli Lehmann to sing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at Salzburg in 1914:
"I consider that invitation to have been the most striking musical honor ever bestowed on me; nor can I conceive of one greater to achieve. Madame Lehmann's letter recalled my experiences in Boston, during the preparation and the performance, in the Boston Opera House, of Don Giovanni, which I was privileged to sing under that eminent conductor, Felix Weingartner. It was said that Weingartner pronounced me the greatest living singer of Mozart; but such a statement is, undoubtedly without foundation in fact. ... I do recall, with the utmost pleasure and satisfaction that during the first general rehearsal of that Boston Don Giovanni, Weingartner, after my singing of "Il mio tesoro," put down his baton and applauded; which he repeated in the performance itself. After the third act of the performance he came to my dressing-room to personally congratulate me. With these recollections, I was elated at Madame Lehmann's invitation, and the remainder of my Australasian tour found me devoting considerable thought to the forthcoming Salzburg festival - which was prevented, it was to turn out, by the outbreak of the war."
(quoted by Key, chapter 23, pp. 320-321)
Lily McCormack presents an extract from her diary that spans February 15, 1912 to March 31, 1912. She mentions the contract with Wagner but not the meeting with Schneider. She also lists 19 or 20 concerts that John gave during this six week period, from Portland to Chicago, to New York, and many points in between. She further comments:
"This timetable account of a concert tour is a fair example of what John was to go through months on end for many years. I do not see how he ever stood the physical and nervous strain. Some of the tours lasted eight and ten weeks, at least three concerts a week, with long journeys in between. We soon decided that the traveling was too hard for me, so for the most part I stayed in New York with the children unless the concerts were as near as Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington, with a few special trips to Chicago. John sang sixty-seven concerts between November, 1912, and May, 1913, and twelve operas, traveling between each one.
(Lily McCormack, in I Hear You Calling Me, pp. 77-78)
During the years 1914-1918 McCormack's concert activity was of necessity confined to the United States. Virtually all of his performances during these years were solo recitals. In fact he made only nine appearances in opera in the United States during these years. (Covent Garden was closed for the duration.) McCormack typically toured from the fall through the spring, usually beginning and ending on the east coast, where recording sessions for Victor took place in either Camden, New Jersey or New York City. Between 1914 and 1919 McCormack gave over 400 concerts in the United States. In one season alone he sang more than 90. In 1914 he applied to become an American citizen, an act which would not be finalized until 1919, with ramifications for his post-war career.
McCormack traveled with Edwin Schneider, Denis McSweeney, and Donald McBeath. His family stayed in New York City or at one of the homes he either rented or purchased nearby in Connecticut. McBeath was 16 when McCormack met him during his 1911 tour with Melba. He performed violin solos between the various groups of songs that comprised McCormack's programs. McBeath rejoined McCormack for the 1913 tour of Australia and became a regular part of the McCormack team until 1917 when he served almost two years in the Canadian Air Corps and was stationed in Texas. He rejoined McCormack after the war and continued as before. As far as can be determined he did not record with McCormack for Victor, which is a pity. McCormack became quite wealthy from the earnings from his concerts during these years, which allowed him to indulge his generous impulse to give expensive gifts to his wife and friends, as well as to indulge his own taste for fine things, such as paintings, expensive motor cars, and rare violins. At one time he owned a Stradivarius AND a Guarnarius, on which McBeath was allowed to play his selections during concert interludes. It is unclear if the young violinist ever played violin obbligato with McCormack and Schneider, as Fritz Kreisler did. In later years McBeath told how McCormack did not care for McBeath's own violin, although Kreisler did, playing it instead of his own on at least one of his solo violin recordings for Victor.
Edwin Schneider was McCormack's accompanist from 1912 until 1937, the year of McCormack's last recitals in the United States. He was about ten years older than the singer, and, by all reports, was a quiet somewhat self-effacing man and a fine musician. He actively participated in the building of McCormack's repertoire and probably had a say in determining what songs were deemed suitable for his concerts. There are several stories told by Lily and others of McCormack and Schneider poring over vast numbers of songs, trying out most of them, and selecting only the best to prepare for performance. Schneider encouraged McCormack to add the German lieder to his programs, which brought him much acclaim at recitals in Europe after the war. McCormack tended to be high strung and restless, and he relied much on Schneider and McSweeney for companionship during the aruous travel that was part of his long North American tours. These often included two or three concerts per week, separated by train and automobile trips. Schneider not only traveled with McCormack, but, along with McBeath, was virtually part of the McCormack family during the summers and other intervals when not on the road. He typically lived near the McCormack homes or at times with the family and was included in many activities, such as the skating excursion in 1914 with Cyril and Gwen, during which he managed to break his wrist. (Ludwig Schwab filled in as accompanist until it healed.) A photo taken at Easter in 1914 at Atlantic City shows Schneider, McBeath, McCormack, "Auntie," and Lily behind a beach photo prop at Atlantic City, where the family went for a holiday annually.
Some measure of the appeal that McCormack was able to exert on his concert tours may be perceived in the facts that Pierre Key cites regarding the 1915-1916 season. He gave 12 concerts that season in the New York area, in both Carnegie Hall and the Hippodrome (5000 seats), which he filled beyond its seating capacity. That season he gave seven concerts in Boston, six in Chicago, three each in Philadelphia and Washington. Key notes that he was able to "go three times in a season to a city no larger than Springfield, Massachusetts, [and] fill the largest auditorium there ..." Key also mentions that McCormack sang under Karl Muck in Boston during the 1915-1916 season.
While John was touring, the McCormack family typically spent most of the time in New York. Summers were spent in Connecticut. In 1915 and 1916 they rented "Pope House in Darien (CT), which gave McCormack the opportunity to do a lot of "messing around in boats," such that over a span of several years he owned several of increasing size. By the summer of 1917 he had purchased an estate of his own on the waterfront in Noroton, Connecticut, named "Rocklea." (accent on the second syllable) There is the summer of 1918 McCormack collaborated with Pierre Key in the writing of a biography of himself. So much of it, however, consists of quotations by himself that the book is almost an autobiography. It had its origins in a series of magazine articles about McCormack and his career that had been published the previous year. Charles Wagner thought that a similar but more elaborate project in book form would be good publicity. Key had also written a biography of Caruso, a hero of McCormack's, and so came well recommended. An unanticipated effect on the project, however, occurred in the form of John's deference to a boyhood friend, Michael Curley, then already a bishop in Florida. Curley exerted an editorial influence on the project that rendered the overall quality of the text somewhat stilted, overly adulatory, and in a few cases less than forthright. McCormack evidently perceived that the finished product was not quite what had been planned and bought out the entire edition shortly after publication. The original edition is scarce, but the book was reprinted in 1973. Despite its shortcomings it is a valuable document due to the lengthy quotations of McCormack on virtually all aspects of his life and career to that point. (He was 34 in the summer of 1918.)
When the United States entered the European war in 1917, McCormack toured widely on behalf of the Red Cross and War Bond rallies. He also gave many concerts for servicemen at miltary bases, hospitals, and other locales. He sang at an Independence Day celebration at Mount Vernon that was attended by President Wilson, who congratulated him on his singing of the national anthem. In 1918 there occurred a tragedy in the McCormack extended family. Lily's brother and his wife died when the mail boat on which they were traveling was torpedoed in Dublin Bay. McCormack immediately made arrangements for the upbringing and education of the ten children, nine of whom lived thereafter with Lily's mother and older sister. John and Lily adopted the youngest of the ten, Kevin, who was only 16 months old at the time. McCormack also provided a retirement home for his parents near Dublin.
McCormack continued to record profusely for Victor during the war years, averaging five or six sessions per year. Operatic titles gave way almost entirely to songs, with one notable exception: On 9 May 1916 he recorded "Il mio tesoro" from Don Giovanni, which is considered his finest operatic recording, and, by many, the best recording of this aria ever. He continued to record with Kreisler, except for a hiatus between 1914 and summer 1915 when the violinist was in the army (serving in the Austrian army until wounded - but that's another story). Most of the Victor records from this period have orchestral accompaniment. Schneider only appears in sessions (1916 and 1920) with Kreisler and McCormack (except for the 2 May 1913 recording of "Le Portrait"). Ludwig Schwab was the pianist in a 1915 session with Kreisler. Schneider accompanied a session on 5 November 1919, from which there were no published recordings (sadly, because that session included an aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, "Se il mio nome," a private recording made for Josef Pasternak). In fact, aside from sessions with Kreisler, Schneider did not record as McCormack's accompanist until 1923 (26 September for Victor), 1924 (the September HMV sessions), and most sessions from 1927 to 1936. It is something of a regret that so many of McCormack's Victor recordings from 1910 to 1924 have the pallid and unlifelike orchestral accompaniment that the acoustic recording process yielded. The products of the September 1924 sessions in England offer perhaps the best representation of a McCormack-Schneider recital from these years when the voice was at its prime, although the concert scene (which shows McCormack's performance of five songs or encores) from Song 'o My Heart is a close second.
McCormack on McSweeney:
"Although I was introduced to the American concert world, and splendidly introduced too, by my old friend, Charles L. Wagner, no one man had more to do with helping [me] to whatever success I achieved in that field than that kindly, good-looking Kerry man, Denis McSweeney. For more than a quarter of a century, he managed my concert affairs. He was my friend and adviser till the day he died. His memory will ever remain green in my heart."
(quoted by Lily McCormack in I Hear You Calling Me, p. 86)
Beginnings, 1884 - 1907
Early Career, 1907 - 1918
Pinnacle, 1919 - 1931
Later Career and Retirement, 1932-1945
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