Pinnacle, 1919 - 1931

Postwar Years, 1919 - 1922

During World War I McCormack's concert activities had of necessity been limited to the United States. He had concertized profusely, usually more than 50-60 concerts per season. This success had made him a wealthy man, since his concerts were usually attended by sellout crowds in large auditoriums, as may be seen in a picture of a 1918 concert in New York City's Hippodrome. The several years following the war saw an expansion of McCormack's career to the European continent, as well as an expansion of his repertoire to include German lieder and other art songs. McCormack became an American citizen in 1919, finalizing a process that he had begun years earlier. It was the catalyst for some unpleasant experiences in other parts of the English-speaking world. In March of that year Charles Wagner and Denis McSweeney dissolved their managerial partnership. For most of the remainder of McCormack's active career, "Mac" would be McCormack's manager.

McCormack was in the United States in early 1920 for concerts and recording sessions (five between 4 March and 5 may). In the summer he sailed with Lily from San Francisco bound for Australia on his third tour of that part of the world. His success of 1913 was not to be repeated. Early in the tour he encountered resentment among Australians, because of his having abandoned British citizenship for American. (The reader should bear in mind that there was no Irish citizenship to be had yet.) After about 20 concerts McCormack cut short his tour and sailed for India and thence London. Here too he encountered resentment and outspoken criticism of his change of allegience. He dismissed any thought of a revival of concert activity in Engalnd at this time, and in November he traveled to Paris. Here he was welcomed, and several concerts were quite successful. While in Paris he met with James Joyce for the first time since 1904. Joyce was greatly interested in McCormack's talent and career. He had followed it closely, and there are many allusions to McCormack's singing and repertoire in Finnegan's Wake.

From Paris McCormack traveled to Monte Carlo, where he was to enjoy great success during two seasons of opera. These two seasons proved to be his last appearances on the operatic stage. In seven performances from February through April 1921 McCormack appeared in Tosca, Zauberflöte, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It was during his stay in the south of France that McCormack and Lily met the great Polish tenor, Jean de Reszke, who praised the Irishman as "the true redeemer of bel canto.

After these appearances in Europe McCormack returned to the United States for concert obligations throughout the remainder of 1921 and into the spring of 1922. Preparing for an April 1922 appearance at New York's Hippodrome auditorium, McCormack was stricken with a near-fatal case of streptococcal tonsilitis. He was in danger for two days but recovered. He and his family sailed for England when he was out of danger, renting a country house for his convalescence. McCormack did not perform during this stay in England. Only gradually did he begin to sing again, nursing his voice carefully back to health. The illness caused some contraction of its range, but by and large little damage had been done. That summer he met for the first time Herbert Hughes, whose arrangements of folk songs from the British Isles were henceforth to figure prominently in McCormack's recital programs. After a hunting trip to Scotland and a visit to with family in Ireland,the McCormack family sailed for the United States at the end of the summer. The concert at the Hippodrome had been rescheduled for October 15th. This and other concerts that fall were successful. McCormack had three recording sessions for Victor in October and November, and the family returned for Christmas in England.

Nearly 20 years after his 3rd tour to Australia McCormack was still a bit testy at the memory of his experiences 'down under'. After commenting on his 1911 experiences, John jumped ahead in the story, as he talked with L.A.G. Strong:

"I have had more than thirty years of public life, and nowhere have I found a more music-loving people than the Australians. Mind you, they have their faults - and plenty of them. They are insular. They listen passionately to the side of the story that they wish to hear. The idea of giving anyone the benefit of the doubt is almost impossible to them. Press propaganda is truth, and gossip is inspired. But they are wonderfully musical and gloriously enthusiastic. Their taste is excellent. No audience in the world compares with an Australian audience in its hunger for the really beautiful things in music. This is not only my experience, but that of every performer who has gone there. I will never forget their kindness to me personally in those early days. Nor will I forget their cruelty when silly propaganda charged me with all kinds of offences. Even my undying love for the land of my birth, and my unchanging belief in her inalienable right to be free, were charged against me as crimes.

(quoted in Strong, p. 164)

Continental and English Triumphs, 1923 - 1924

After concerts in Ireland in January 1923, McCormack entered upon his last performances in opera at Monte Carlo. He sang performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Martha, and the world premiere of Moussorgsky Sorotchintzi Fair. McCormack created the role of Gritzko. McCormack sang the final performance of this opera on 25 March 1923, his last appearance in opera. Returning from Monaco to England, McCormack set out from Liverpool on April 16th on a European tour that included recitals in Prague (26 April), Paris (8, 18 May), and Berlin (22 & 23 April): concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, and a recital on May 2nd. These appearances were highly acclaimed, not the least for McCormack's inclusion of lieder on the programs, along with other art songs, Irish songs, and other material with which he was closely identified.

By early fall the McCormacks were back in New York, where in September John had his only three recording sessions for 1923 (September 24-26). The family usually spent winters in their New York apartment, though McCormack was often on the road with Schneider and McSweeney. After two further Victor sessions in April 1924, McCormack again for European engagements, where in Paris he participated in a Beethoven Festival under the baton of Walter Damrosch. His performances were notable for including the recitative and aria from Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberg). These items he would later record for Victor, but they would remain unpublished until the LP era (RCA Camden CAL-635).

The summer of 1924 was spent in England and Ireland. In September McCormack had his first recording sessions in England since 1912. Over a period of three days (4, 19, 24) he recorded a group of 20 titles that encompassed lieder, concert arias, and songs by Rachmaninoff, Bridge, and Donaudy. It is instructive to compare the material from these HMV sessions with the Victor sessions that bracket it. For Victor he recorded popular songs exclusively (although a 26 September 1923 session included lieder and art songs). The 1924 HMV recordings were among his last last acoustic sessions. After a short session in December of 1924, the electrical recording era had arrived. In comparing the selections recorded for Victor in 1923 and 1924 with those for HMV just before his return to concertizing in Great Britain, one cannot help but suppose that the repertoire recorded for listeners on different sides of the ocean was related to the taste of those who it was hoped would buy the records. It is interesting that none of these HMV recordings were originally issued in the United States (despite the continuing reciprocity agreement between The Gramophone Company and Victor), but the Victor matrices were issued in the UK.

Soon thereafter McCormack gave his first concert in London in ten years. There was still some remaining resentment against him for his assumption of American citizenship five years earlier. Lily comments that "when the concert was announced he had received all manner of menacing letters warning him that he would not be welcome in London." (p. 132) A fear of poor turnout or demonstrations during the concert (6 October 1924) led to it being held in the smaller Queen's Hall rather than in the Albert Hall. Fears of disruption during his singing proved to be groundless, and the concert was a tremendous triumph.

Program for McCormack's Queen's Hall Concert, 6 October 1924

Caldo Sangue (Re di Gerusalemme) (Scarlatti)
O Sleep, why dost thou leave me (Semele) (Handel)
Vanne si superba va (Guistino) (Handel)

Die Liebe hat gelogen (Schubert)
Der Jüngling an der Quella (Schubert)
Komm' bald (Brahms
Wo find' ich Trost (Wolf)

Irish Folk Songs:
Norah O'Neale (arr. Hughes)
The Next Market Day (arr. Hughes)
My Lagan Love (arr. Harty)
Una Baun (arr. Hardebeck)

Luoghi sereni e cari (Stefano Donaudy)
Go not Happy Day (Frank Bridge)
When Night Descends (S. Rachmaninoff)
Before the Dawn (Geo. W. Chadwick)

Accompanist: Edwin Schneider

Pianist during intermissions: Henri Deering
Selections are in groups and sequences as on original program.
Deering played solo piano selections before these groups: arias, Irish songs, and Songs.
Encores not shown.

From a review of McCormack's concert in Berlin on 2 May 1923:

"The way in which John McCormack sings these songs is astonishing. Aside from the beauty of tone and the musical taste that are familiar virtues in everything he does, he exhibited a degree of excellence in his German diction and an almost exhaustive understanding of their poetic and emotional import, which for a non-German was thought impossible. His masterful vocalism and the intense and absolutely inborn musicality which is a constant source of wonder to those who have heard only about the 'popular' McCormack was most telling in two Handel arias and Lotti's familiar 'Pur dicesti,' and most of all in a delightful aria in stilo antico by Donaudy, which he gave as an encore - perhaps the gem of the whole evening. But then - how beautifully he sang 'Du bist die Ruh',' 'Der Jungling an der Quelle,' and Hugo Wolf's "Schlafende Jesuskind,' not to mention the intensely emotional "Una Waun' and the lilting 'My Lagan Love,' which like a lot of other numbers he had to repeat. Rachmaninoff ... and Bax closed the program, which comprised about every kind of song literature there is."

In a letter to his friend Archbishop Michael Curley McCormack commented on his concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, at which he had sung the tenor aria from Beethoven's Christ on the Mount of Olives (Christus am Ölberge):

"I had a great ovation at the close of it. This [aria] I sang in German. As I said to Teddy it took some nerve to face a German audience and sing for the first time in German an Aria of such importance and that only an Irishman could have done it. Ted agreed."

International Celebrity, 1925 - 1929

After the European concerts and operatic appearances of 1920-24, McCormack's status as a musical celebrity was supreme. Caruso had died in 1921, and there was no other singer of comparable gifts who enjoyed the universal appeal that McCormack did. During these four years he toured widely, going as far afield as the orient (1926), but returning regularly to New York. Here the family usually spent the winter months, but beginning in 1925 the family spent summers at Moore Abbey, a large estate in County Kildare near Monasterevan (ca. 35 miles from Dublin). This mansion was the ancestral home of the Earls of Drogheda and had been built on the site of a monastery of the 6th century. McCormack leased the estate for 15 years, and he and his family would use it as a residence for 12.

From 1925 to 1929 McCormack recorded for Victor in over 30 recording sessions and for HMV only three times (September 1927). In addition he began to broadcast regularly on the radio in the United States. The first such broadcast was on New Year's Day, 1925, with Lucrezia Bori. It is not known to have survived, but the New Year's broadcast from 1926 has. Surviving broadcast transcriptions before 1935 tend to be fragmentary and generally of poorer sound quality than those from 1936 on. These extant broadcast transcriptions are valuable documents in several ways. In a few cases they document songs that McCormack did not otherwise record. On many of them he comments extensively on the songs he sings or on aspects of his career. In 1937 and 1938, when McCormack made no studio recordings, broadcasts document his singing and preserve the unbroken progression of recordings of his voice from 1904 to 1942.

In the summer of 1925 McCormack gave a special concert in Dublin in honor of his parents, who attended, as Strong puts it, "in their official capacity." The audience response was extrememly enthusiastic, and McCormack sang "When You are Old and Grey" to his father and "Mother Machree" to his mother. It has also been claimed that in 1927 he recorded especially for his parents the songs "Annie Laurie" and "The Auld Scotch Sangs."

Lily McCormack discusses the tour of the orient in 1926 in I Hear You Calling Me (pp.142-144), noting that the impetus for the tour was Fritz Kreisler, who had just returned from such a junket. McCormack gave concerts in Japan and China that were very well received. Lily includes favorable reviews from several news sources, including the one quoted below. She also tells the story of John and Teddy out on a walk passing a record store in Kyoto and hearing within the sound of John's recording of "O Sleep, why dost thou leave me?" being played at far too great a speed. Lily tells what happened: "John said to the shop keeper, 'You're playing that much too fast. That's why it sounds so shrill.' The man said, 'No, sir. Is good. Is great singer John Comic.' Teddy said, 'This is the singer, John McCormack.' The little man seemed dazed and humbly adjusted the speed of the record. As if out of the blue an awestruck crowd collected to meet 'John Comic.'"

In 1927 McCormack was in the United States on New Year's Day for a radio broadcast (which has survived. One of his selections, "On Wings of Song" by Mendelssohn exists only in the form of transcription of radio broadcasts. McCormack included it in recital programs but never recorded it for Victor. A second recording of this song has surfaced recently from a broadcast in 1933 that is also quite listenable. After other concerts and four Victor recording sessions that spring, McCormack spent the summer in Ireland and had three recording sessions for HMV in September. Returning to America, he was soon back in the Victor studios and did three sessions in October. Once again, it is interesting to compare the items recorded for Victor before and after the HMV sessions with the selections recorded in England. For Victor he recorded a mixture of popular songs, 3 religious songs, and remakes of his old standards, such as "I Hear You Calling Me," "Kathleen Mavourneen," and "Mother Machree," all of which had been recorded in the acoustic era and sold in vast numbers. For HMV that year McCormack recorded art songs by Franck, Bantock, Messager, Chaminade, Quilter, and lieder by Schubert and Richard Strauss. Clearly, these differences in recorded selections illustrate that there were two record-buying publics being served.

In 1928 McCormack and Victor made an attempt to offer lieder to his American public by recording an album of Schubert songs. Rather than simply recording them with piano accompaniment, however, a misguided A & R staff member (one hypothesizes) decided that American listeners needed their Schubert gussied up with soupy Schrammel-like orchestral accompaniments. Also in the mix were instrumental versions of other songs, interspersed with McCormack's singing, with the added distraction of a male chorus on some songs. The selections are very well-recorded, good examples of the fidelity that was possible only three years into the electrical recording era.

Throughout his career McCormack was tireless in his participation in charitable activities to raise money for worthy causes. Three extended efforts stand out. During World War I he toured extensively for the Red Cross and other war relief activities in the United States. He did the same from 1939 to 1943 in Great Britain, despite ill health, poor weather, and the protests of family and others to take better care of himself. Thirdly, for the duration of his active career McCormack paid particular attention to Catholic charities, contributing money outright and offering his box-office appeal to raise money at special events. It is clear from the testimony of those who knew him best that he was thankful for God's blessings on him and his family, and that it was important to him to offer tangible thanks for these blessings. He once commented during the middle part of his concert career that he tried to include religious songs and hymns in his recital programs whenever possible. The Church in various capacities recognized McCormack's charitable endeavors by awarding him recognition and honors during his lifetime, as listed below. Other groups within the Church, lay and ecclesiastical both, also honored him. After several earlier honors had been bestowed, the Pope made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1928. This is an hereditary title, and McCormack felt the honor of it keenly.

The honors bestowed on McCormack during his career,
as listed by Leonard F. X. McDermott Roe in his 1956 discography,
include the following:

Ecclesiastical Honors:

Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, 1913

Knight Commander of St. Gregory, 1921

Knight Commander of Saint Sylvester, 1923

Papal Count, 1928

Privy Chamberlain to His Holiness, 1929

Knight Commander of Malta, 1932

Privy Chamberlain of Cape and Sword to His Holiness, 1933

Other Honors:

Doctor of Literature, Holy Cross College, Massachusetts, 1917

Freeman of the City of Dublin, 1923

Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, 1924

Laetare Medal, University of Notre Dame, 1933

McCormack was honored by a reception by the Catholic Men's Club of New York on 15 December 1922. His speech on that occasion included these remarks:

"I am deeply sensitive of the great honor paid me by this splendid body of my co-religionists. ... To be singled out by this splendid body of representative Catholics for such an honor makes me very proud. I wonder if all the members of the Cathlolic Club really appreciate what this club means. I have always felt that in times of stress and difficulties, such in fact as we are now passing through, there should be in the city of New York an organization which could speak as representing the Catholic Laity of the city. I believe we should at all times be proud to own we are Catholics, in fact, be a little more the militant type of Catholic, and show by our dealing with our fellow-men and by the cleanness of our lives in every phase that we are the type of men that America needs. ... If I may digress just one moment I would like to offer a prayer before the throne of the most High to send peace to that Motherland of mine. I can see her tear-stained face looking longingly to the west for some of her American boys to help stop the fratricidal war that is breaking her heart. The festival of Christ's birth is at hand, and forever identified with Christmas is the salutation of the angels to the shepherds on the mountain side, 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good-will.' I refuse to believe there are no men of good will in Ireland."

(quoted by Strong, pp.227-228)

Hollywood, 1929 - 1930

Hollywood had made overtures to McCormack in the late 1920's, but he did not respond until 1929, when McSweeney negotiated a lucrative deal with Winfield Sheehan of the Fox Company. The film that resulted was Song o' My Heart. That a major motion picture studio would approach McCormack and agree to pay him the sum they did is some measure of his unabated popularity in this country. Magazine and newspaper articles of the time treat McCormack as a celebrity whose name was known to all, and many members of the Hollywood press focused on his fame, wealth, and talent in the same perfervid vein that they used when writing about the top rank of movie stars. Original negotiations considered the possibility of two movies, but the final contract was for one. The fee for McCormack's participation was $500,000, a staggering sum in 1929. According to what McCormack told Strong (p. 248), Fox originally offered $400,000 and the option for a second picture at $600,000, the option to be acted on before the first picture was completed. McCormack and McSweeney insisted on the higher sum for the first picture, without the option for the second, which was never made. The film was a critical success but not the hoped for financial blockbuster. Miles Kreuger has told the story of the making of the film, Song o' My Heart. It was a musical in which McCormack was the protagonist and sang all the songs. Although sometimes belittled by latter day film "connoisseurs," the movie is a charming melodrama in which McCormack is supported by many other worthy and entertaining actors.

McCormack began 1929 with concert engagements in the United States and two April recording sessions for Victor. On May 7th he signed the contract for the Fox movie, at that point still without a title or script. Sheehan assigned Frank Borzage as director, and the original story by Tom Barry was shaped into the final script by Sonya Levien. The McCormack family traveled to Moore Abbey for the summer. A team from Fox went over in the summer as well to film scenery and background material, as well as to scout for talent. One of their recruits was the young Maureen O'Sullivan, who made her debut in the movie.

That summer McCormack also sang in an outdoor mass at "Cormack's Chapel" on the Rock of Cashell. (A picture of him broadcasting at the Rock of Cashell may have been taken on this occasion.) Late September found him in Paris, where he visited with James Joyce once more. The family sailed for the States on October 3rd. Filming of Song o' My Heart began on November 25 and lasted for almost 2 months. The premiere took place in New York City on March 11, 1930.

Well before the end of McCormack's second decade before the American public, he was a "superstar" in the United States, his life style included hobnobbing with the best and the brightest in the musical and social elites of his day. One gets a sense of this in Lily McCormack's picaresque memoir of their life together. To this mode of existence McCormack readily conjoined that of being a Hollywood celebrity as well. After the movie was completed, he bought a large estate in Hollywood and built a luxurious house, "San Patrizio," where the family lived for several years, their last before Cyril left for school and Gwen was married. Lily commented that it was "the house he had always longed to build ... the first, and last, house that John built. During the seven years we owned it we considered it our real home."

McCormack's professional life was one of constant movement. With homes on both sides of the Atlantic, he was seldom at rest, constantly traveling to concert engagements, usually without his family. He had owned a country house in Connecticut beginning in 1917 but sold it in the 1920's as his concert career expanded beyond the United States. He kept an apartment in New York City as well during most of his American career, and it was there in the winter that Lily and the children lived while John, "Teddy," and "Mac" were on the road. McCormack usually curtailed concertizing in the summer and spent that season at Moore Abbey in Ireland.

From reviews of Song o' My Heart:

"Mere words of praise, no matter how happily used, cannot commend the great appeal, the charm, the gripping sympathy, the tenderness, the uncloying naturalness, the humannes of John McCormack's performance in 'Song o' My Heart.' ... " (Evening Public Ledger, Philadelphia)

"John McCormack's 'Song o' My Heart' is a picture pearl of great price. It is a notable effort in a number of ways: in its recording it is the peak achievement of the throated screen. A few times we closed our eyes to test this point; and we found that the voice of the tenor was so life-like that it was easy to imagine him in the flesh and blood before us and not his shadow merely. ..." (Boston Evening American)

"There's a wistful charm and a quiet dignity in John McCormack's first talking picture which you won't see upon the screen once a year. ... We loved it for the magic that is in the McCormack voice, a voice which registers magnificently. Surely this picture will bring happiness to millions." (New York Evening World)

"If John McCormack were content to allow "Song o' My Heart to be his first and last singing picture, it would serve as an achievement of lasting memory, something fine and delicate and true to be cherished long after that golden voice has ceased to be." (Boston Herald)

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