American Irish Musical Interpreters,
1850 - 1975
John McCormack, 1884-1945:
America’s Legendary Irish Tenor
Irish tenor John McCormack captured the hearts of audiences worldwide during his
decades-long singing career. A native of Athlone in County
Westmeath, Ireland, John McCormack became a U.S. citizen
in 1919, at the height of a phenomenal career as the most
popular vocal recitalist of the 20th century.
John McCormack’s first visit to the U.S. was in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where he performed in the “Irish Village” in the same venue as his future wife, Lily Foley, herself billed as “Ireland's Exponent of Gaelic Song.” He subsequently studied opera in Milan, performed in London venues, and eventually made
his U.S. opera debut at the Manhattan Opera House in 1909 opposite soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. The New York Post received John McCormack warmly, praising him as a “pure lyric tenor.” He quickly became a favorite with New York audiences, later performing at the Metropolitan Opera with soprano Nellie Melba.
The Manhattan Opera House hosted John McCormack’s first American recital in 1909, and his renditions of Irish ballads proved an immediate hit. Arguably more at ease as a recitalist than in operatic productions, his recitals and recordings came to include a wide repertoire, from Italian arias and light classical pieces to German lieder, Irish folk songs, and Tin Pan Alley compositions such as “My Wild Irish Rose.”
John McCormack’s concerts drew sellout crowds worldwide in the most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall and Covent Garden. His Victor 78-rpm records sold in the millions, and he recorded over 800 discs. In addition to recordings, John McCormack established himself in radio and in the film, Song O’ My Heart. Through all these media, John McCormack both elevated the “Irish tenor” genre in America, and earned the reputation as the most versatile singer of his time.
John McCormack frequently used his energy, fame, and talent to raise funds for charity. In recognition, Pope Pius XI raised the tenor to the Papal Peerage in 1928. A devout Catholic, John McCormack sang to a million people at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The event was broadcast throughout Ireland, as well as by the BBC and in continental Europe.
Towards the end of John McCormack’s life, the popularity of the full-voiced style of singing was waning, in favor of a new popular singing style that depended more on the use of the microphone. In the peak years of his career, however, John McCormack’s consummate artistry, expressiveness, and breadth of repertoire made him a household name. John McCormack is considered one of the great Mozartian singers of his time, and in 2006, the Library of Congress honored his 1916 recording of Mozart’s "Il mio tesoro" from Don Giovanni,adding the recording to the United States National Recording Registry.
For more information on John McCormack, see the select bibliography created for this exhibit.
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