John McCormack (1885-1945) was an Irish tenor active from about 1909 to the early 1940s. Born to Scottish parents who had emigrated to Ireland, his interest in singing began as a child. In 1903, he won the coveted gold medal of the Dublin Feis Ceoil. A friend of James Joyce, who was two years older than McCormack, he encouraged Joyce to enter the 1904 Feis Ceoli. Which the then unknown writer did winning a bronze medal.

In 1904 he moved to Italy to study voice under Vincenzo Sabatini the father of the famous novelist Rafael. During his stay in Italy, he became fluent in Italian. In 1906 he made his operatic debut at the Teatro Chiabrera in Savona. The following year he appeared at Covent Garden as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. For the next six or so years he was an Italian-style tenor. But beginning in 1912 he became increasingly interested in concert performances at the expense of operatic appearances. His 10 Met performances reflect this change in the focus of his career. Between 1910 and 1918 he appeared in three concerts and seven operas.

He made numerous recordings of arias only one of which reaches true excellence – his famous recording of Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni. His exceptional breath control and facility with runs and ornamentations have made this recording a classic since its release over a century ago.

Less successful is his recording of Che gelida manina. His sound is a little thin for the aria and the high note near the end is forced and strained. Salut! Demeure chaste et pure from Gounod’s Faust is a little better done. It’s sung in Italian, as McCormack always did with the French operas he recorded. His phrasing is fine, but there’s a bit of unsteadiness in the tone. De’ miei bollenti spiriti from Traviata is well done, but nothing more. Caesar Franck’s Panis angelicus is an electrical recording made in 1927 when the tenor had completely abandoned opera. The music fits his voice to perfection, requiring style in the absence of vocal extremes.

It was as a concert artist that he achieved great fame. He was able to fill the 5,000 seat Hippodrome in New York for a concert. His records sold in the millions. He became a well-known figure on radio and appeared in films. His personal charm and charisma made concert venues ideal for his style of singing. He became an internationally known celebrity- and a very rich one.

Here are a few of the kinds of songs that marked the bulk of his career. They are sentiment, Irish, or patriotic for the most part. I Hear You Calling Me is a British song with music by Charles Marshall and lyrics by Harold Lake. It was a regular part of McCormack’s repertoire. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary is a British music hall song. It was used as a marching song by soldiers in World War I, though it was originally written as a lament from an Irish worker in London, missing his homeland.

The Wearing of the Green is an Irish street ballad lamenting the repression of supporters of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It is set to an old Irish air, and many versions of the lyrics exist, the best known being by Dion Boucicault. It is Boucicault’s lyrics that McCormack sings. The Star of County Down is another Irish ballad. County Down is in Northern Ireland. Kathleen Mavourneen is a song written in 1837 and composed by Frederick Crouch. Despite its Irish subject, Crouch was an Englishman.

I think after listening to some of McCormack’s recordings that it’s clear he made the right decision to foreswear opera in favor of a lighter and more popular repertory. The music he sang during his prime years was perfectly suited to his voice. An artist of his time, he would have difficulty in finding a place in today’s musical environment.