Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Classics: "In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing," sings the one and only John McCormack


There's a tear in your eye,
and I'm wondering why,
for it never should be there at all.
With such pow'r in your smile,
sure a stone you'd beguile,
so there's never a teardrop should fall.
When your sweet lilting laughter's
like some fairy song,
and your eyes twinkle bright as can be,
you should laugh all the while
and all other times smile,
and now smile a smile for me.

When Irish eyes are smiling,
sure, it's like a morn in spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter,
you can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
all the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
sure, they steal your heart away. . . .

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, Sept. 20, 1916

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we heard just the first verse, leading up to but stopping at, the first chorus of John McCormack's astonishing 1916 recording of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," one of four Irish songs included on the LP side devoted to McCormack in the c1960 RCA Victor anthology Ten Great Singers. (We'll hear the other three in a moment.)


The Ten Great Singers set was accompanied by a booklet with essays on each singer by longtime Met Assistant Manager Francis Robinson, one of the opera world's most tireless and natty schmoozers. Here's what he had to say about McCormack:
John McCormack (1884-1945) was the biggest concert attraction in history. Once in a single season he fulfilled ninety-five engagements. During the season of 1915-16 he sang twelve recitals in New York alone, alternating between the Hippodrome (capacity 5,000) and Carnegie Hall (2,700). His fame as a recitalist tends to obscure, as it did in is lifetime, his achievements in lyric drama, and it is almost forgotten that his first appearances in this country, except for a youthful sojourn in the Irish Village at the St. Louis World's Fair, were in opera.

His New York bow was not at the Metropolitan but at the Manhattan Opera House, where Oscar Hammerstein was giving the Met a run for its money. The directors of the older company finally paid the redoubtable Oscar a cool million and a quarter to leave town. The next season, 1910-11, McCormack joined the Metropolitan.

His greatest satisfaction, however, came as a member of the Boston Opera Company when he sang Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni under the baton of Felix Weingartner. He had sung the role at Covent Garden before he came to this country and was invited to do it at the Salzburg Festival with a cast including Lilli Lehmann, Johnanna Gadski, Geraldine Farrar and Antonio Scotti, but the First World War intervened. His recording of "Il mio tesoro" is beyond praise.

McCormack was only twenty when he heard Caruso for the first time. Little did he dream, sitting spellbound in the stalls at Covent Garden, that one year not too far in the future his record royalties would exceed those of his idol, a circumstance which Caruso admonished him not to let happen again.

The four Irish songs here are among the numbers he invariably had to include as encores. When he was through with his printed program, his audiences were never backward in shouting for their favorites.

He is said to have been the first artist to have seats on the stage back of him, and this became the rule at all McCormack concerts. Claudia Cassidy, critic of the Chicago Tribune, remembers an afternoon at the old Auditorium in Chicago:

"He walked out, took his place in the curve of the piano, went through the preliminary maneuvers, and all but had his mouth open to start. Suddenly a little woman got up from her front row of stage seats, walked right up to him, and put out her hand. what she said I never knew. But the big Irishman who sang Handel and Mozart like an angel behaved like one. He swallowed his amazement, took her hand, and acted precisely as if what she had done was the very thing he had hoped she would do."


You'll note that, except for hearing the 1916 "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" before the 1911 "Macushla," we're hearing the Irish songs chronologically, and indeed tracing the evolution of the McCormack voice over two decades. The singer of 1930 no longer possesses the sheer liquid ease and beauty of the 'teens, but it's still awfully potent singing. In the highlighted last half-stanza of "The Rose of Tralee," notice the simple but haunting caress of that last "Mary."

And while we're noticing, in "Mother Machree," when the refrain I've highlighted is repeated in the second stanza, at 2:09, notice how meltingly differently McCormack handles the climactic "Ah, God bless you and keep you" [2:35].

Macushla, Macushla,
your white arms are reaching.
I feel them enfolding,
caressing me still.
Fling them out in the darkness,
my lost love, Macushla.
Let them find me and bind me
again, if they will. . . .

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, Mar. 30, 1911

"Mother Machree"
Sure, I love the dear silver that shines in your hair
and the brow that's all furrowed and wrinkled with care.
I kiss the dear fingers so toil-worn for me.
Ah, God bless you and keep you, Mother Machree. . . .

John McCormack, tenor; Edwin Schneider, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Oct. 12, 1927

"The Rose of Tralee"
Though lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no! 'Twas the the truth in her eye ever dawning
that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

John McCormack, tenor; orchestra. Victor, recorded in New York City, Feb. 19, 1930


The other selections we heard Friday night were McCormack's "Una furtiva lagrima" recorded Feb. 1, 1910, and the recording he made with the great violinist Fritz Kreisler on Apr. 2, 1920, of the Rachmaninoff song "O cease they singing, maiden fair," Op. 4, No. 3. That same day McCormack and Kreisler recorded another Rachmaninoff song. That held last note of McCormack's is, well, something else.  (The English translations are credited to McCormack and pianist Edwin Schneider.)

RACHMANINOFF: "When night descends," Op. 4, No. 3 (in English)

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Edwin Schneider, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Apr. 2, 1920

McCormack and Kreisler in fact recorded a fair amount together. I thought we'd listen to a trio of "Ave Maria"s -- two of them quite familiar, the third . . . well, now you've heard it.

BACH-GOUNOD: "Ave Maria"

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Vincent O'Brien, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Mar. 31, 1914

SCHUBERT: "Ave Maria," D. 839

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Vincent O'Brien, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Mar. 25, 1914

MASCAGNI: "Ave Maria" (arr. from the Intermezzo of Cavalleria rusticana)

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Vincent O'Brien, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Mar. 31, 1914


Along with the four Irish songs we've already heard, there were four arias included. Since someone (maybe Francis Robinson, maybe not) went to the trouble of choosing them, I think we'll not only listen to them but do so in the order of presentation there.

MOZART: Don Giovanni: Act II, "Il mio tesoro" ("My treasure")

You'll recall that Francis Robinson described this recording as "beyond praise." The aria starts innocently enough but turns into a killer of epic proportions. Has anyone ever handled all that ferocious passagework more beautifully, even elegantly, than McCormack?
DON OTTAVIO: Go to my treasure meanwhile
and console her,
and from her lovely eyes
seek to wipe away the tears.
Tell her her wrongs
I go to avenge,
that only as messenger of carnage
and death will I return. Ah!
Go to my treasure &c.
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, May 9, 1916

BIZET: The Pearl Fishers: Act I, "Je crois entendre encore" ("I believe I still hear") (in Italian)

One of the classic lyric-tenor showpieces, sung here by one of the most classic of lyric tenors.
NADIR: I believe I still hear,
hidden beneath the palm trees,
her voice tender and resonant,
like the song of a dove.
Oh enchanting night,
divine rapture,
oh delightful memory,
mad intoxication, sweet dream.
In the clear starlight
I still believe I see her,
half drawing her long veil
in the warm evening breeze.
Oh night &c.
-- English translation by Alison Moyet

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, Dec. 11, 1912

MASSENET: Manon: Act II, The Dream (in Italian)

We've heard a good deal of the haunting dream des Grieux shares with Manon in Act II of Manon. The music ideally suits the liquid beauty of McCormack's tenor.
DES GRIEUX: On closing my eyes, I see
in the distance a humble retreat,
a little house,
all white, in the depths of the woods.
In its tranquil shadows
clear and joyous streams,
in which leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds.
It's Paradise. Oh, no!
Everything there is sad and morose,
for there's one thing lacking there.
Still needed there is Manon!
Our life will be there,
if you wish it, o Manon!

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, Jan. 3, 1913

MÉHUL: Joseph: Act I, "Champs paternels" ("Paternal fields")
JOSEPH: Paternal fields, Hebron, sweet valley,
far from you my exiled youth has languished,
like a flower that fades in the desert wind.
O my father, o Jacob, in purest ecstasy
you called me the hope and stay of your old age,
and without me you have grown old lamenting my misfortune.
Jealous brothers, cruel band,
it was your criminal hand
that dared to snatch me from his love.
You did not flinch as you saw
his tears and fatherly sorrow.
Unfeeling men, I should hate you,
yet despite these horrors,
despite this dreadful memory,
if you could repent
I would be moved by your tears.
-- English translation by Hugh Graham

John McCormack, tenor. Victor, recorded in Camden, Oct. 23, 1917


. . . with Fritz Kreisler, from the same pair of March 1914 sessions that produced the three "Ave Maria"s. The Schubert "Serenade," which one might expect to be all honeyed lyricism, is surprisingly energetic.

GODARD: Jocelyn: "Berceuse" ("Lullaby") (in English)

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Vincent O'Brien, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, Mar. 25, 1914

SCHUBERT: Serenade, D. 957, No. 4 (in English)

John McCormack, tenor; Fritz Kreisler, violin; Vincent O'Brien, piano. Victor, recorded in New York City, recorded Mar. 31, 1914


In case you're curious, the Ten Great Singers represented in RCA LM 6705 were:

Rosa Ponselle (s)
Amelita Galli-Curci (s)
Elisabeth Rethberg (s)
Lily Pons (s)
Kirsten Flagstad (s)
Enrico Caruso (t)
John McCormack (t)
Beniamino Gigli (t)
Lawrence Tibbett (b)
Ezio Pinza (bs)

Again, they were all for at least an important part of their recording careers Victor artists. All the recordings included were made in Camden, New York City, or (in the case of the Flagstad side) Philadelphia.




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