JOHN McCORMACK

National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.

I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.

Stamp honoring John McCormack

I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.

When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”

JOHN McCORMACK

Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.

According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”

Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.

 

PAUL POTTS

PAUL POTTS

I saw Paul Potts singing on TV last week and heard an announcement that his new CD would be in stores on May 4. I went to Border’s and bought a Potts CD which turned out to be from 2007. I can’t complain about that; I took it off the shelf without examining it very closely. He has a pleasant enough voice that reaches into the upper end of the tenor range seemingly without strain. I think he lacks the firepower demanded by much of the tenor repertoire, but tenors – like cigars and coffee – are a matter of taste.

I, for one, never bought into all the excitement about Pavarotti. Clearly, I’m outnumbered. My taste is affected by the fact that I’m kind of a tenor maven, so I listen to many singers that most people have no reason to know about – obscure figures like Edmond Clement, Francesco Tamagno, Leon Escalais, and Father Sidney McEwan. I think the perennial discussion about “the greatest tenor” is a pointless exercise, because there are no objective criteria on which to base such a judgement. It’s more a question of “favorite” than of “greatest.”

 

Giovanni Martinelli

Giovanni Martinelli

For example, I prefer some tenors over some singers whom I know to be technically superior, precisely because I prefer them. Giovanni Martinelli is an example. He was nicknamed the “lion of the opera” because of the way he sometimes roared out his notes. He had his detractors on that account, but he has me as a fan for the same reason. When he was in his 70s he made a recording of “Wintersturme” from “Die Walkure” – but sung in Italian as “Cede il Verno” – and I think it’s the equal of a recording that Lauritz Melchior made at a much younger age.

My favorite tenor altogether is Count John McCormack, a legendary Irish singer whose career included roles with the world’s major opera companies as well concert tours, many recordings, and radio appearances. When McCormack first appeared on the operatic scene, he called himself Giovanni Foli (after his wife, Lily Foley) on the theory that he would fare better if audiences thought he was Italian.

 

JOHN McCORMACK

JOHN McCORMACK

It’s part of opera lore that McCormack once greeted Enrico Caruso as “the world’s greatest tenor” to which Caruso replied: “And when did you become a baritone?” I love to listen to McCormack singing Italian and French with that lilting brogue. But I especially like to hear his Irish songs, many of which are so melancholy. I also have a few recordings on which he speaks (one is a funny radio conversation with Bing Crosby), and I find it hard to listen to McCormack without smiling.