The following article is copyright © 1998 by Padraic O Hara and reproduced with the permission of the author.
Padraic O Hara
Don't fight over the title or subtitles of this essay because,
whatever you may call it, it is nothing more or less than an attempt to put
one tenor, one Irish tenor, into his proper historical and musical
"No, it wasn't."
"It was, I tell you."
That might sound like the start of a good old Irish argument, but is it? The "Mick" was Dublin's own Michael Kelly (1762-1826) and "all this" was the fame for music which Ireland enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, internationally. "All this" did not start with "Mick", as a perusal of Irish history will show.
Since the Celts came from continental Europe, and had, with little outside interference, developed their culture in their island-home for some seven hundred years before the great Briton, Patrick, brought them the True Faith, it was only natural that they would have wanted to benefit that same ancestral continent and renew and expand their contacts with it, when the time was right. In the great Golden Age of Faith and Learning in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries saintly and scholarly Irish men and women went and established links which remain to the present day with all the countries of Western and Central Europe. Many of these and their successors were active when the trouveres of France, the minnesingers of Germany and the trovatori of Italy were establishing the traditions of the singer-composers on the Continent. In the 12th century a visitor to Ireland was Gerald from Wales, best known as Giraldus Cambrensis, who did not go out of his way to describe the Irish in glowing terms; but when it came to Irish music and musicianship he waxed poetic and enthusiastic (Note 1). When, therefore, some centuries later, the great classical-music movement blossomed in Europe it was again only natural that the Irish - with their fame for music, song and poetry would be involved. And they were. The Irish composer, Toirdhealach Ó Cearbhalláin, better known as the blind harper, Turlough O Carolan, who was born fifteen years before Johann Sebastian Bach, involved himself in a musical "contest" with the Italian composer Francesco Geminiani, who was, at the time, living in Dublin (Note 2). According to Irish sources, the Irishman won!
When the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph brought a company of singers from Italy to sing Italian opera at his court in Vienna one of the principal tenors was the Naples-trained Dubliner, Michael O Kelly. And Mick was right on hand when Salzburg's own Wolfgang Amadeus required a principal tenor for the first production of his new opera, "Le Nozze di Figaro", in that selfsame Vienna in 1786. He was not only the tenor in Mozart's new opera but a personal friend of the great composer as well. Michael, from Mary Street in Dublin, the eldest of fourteen children, made his first professional appearance on stage in his native city at the age of 17, giving his last professional performance on the same stage 32 years later (Note 3). He certainly was not the first singer to compose some of the songs he sang, but what was particularly noteworthy was his most impressive output of more than sixty stage-productions (operas included) and these must have been very tuneful as Mozart, who had helped him with composition, had praised Mick's melodic flair. Wolfgang had said to him that "melody was the essence of music" and that he was not to bother himself about harmony, etc. Mick didn't; his harmony was supplied by, or "borrowed" from, others giving Little Tom Moore (of "Moore's Melodies" fame) the "excuse" for saying: "Poor Mick is an imposer rather than a composer". Incidentally Thomas Moore was born just across Dublin's River Liffey the very year that the 17-year-old Mick gave his first professional performance. There are two "Irish-tenor traditions" which Michael Kelly may have initiated, namely that of singing at functions and concerts while being mainly an opera-singer, and that of being a superb "Mozart tenor" (in which capacity he "created" two of the roles in "The Marriage of Figaro"); traditions handed down to another Irish tenor, born more than a century after him. As well as singing, Michael was also a stage-manager, an impresario and a music-publisher. As some of our US friends might say: "some cookie, this Irishman". And the outspoken manner of his famous "Reminiscences" may well have been a third tradition he passed on to other generations - for later Irish singers were not noted for being shy in expressing their views openly!! At a party given in Vienna Mick had the privilege of hearing his friend Mozart playing with three other gentlemen Haydn, Dittersdorf and Wanhal comprising what must have then been the greatest string-quartet in the world; an event to be, in some ways, later paralleled.
Since Mick's time the opera stages of Europe have seen and heard many Irish or Irish/European stars, among them a man born just one generation after the Dubliner, a native of Naples where Mick had studied, trained and sung. He had a French father and an Irish mother and he was the great bass, Luigi Lablache, a man whose heart was as big as his huge physique and his remarkable voice. He attended, in an official capacity, (and financially contributed to the ceremonies of) the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1827 (Note 4). At that very time another Irishman was playing piano and originating the "nocturne" in far-away Moscow; none other than John Field, who outlived the immortal Beethoven by just ten years. That fourth decade of the 19th century saw the birth, in Cahir, County Tipperary, of Allan James Foley. Though leaving Ireland for the US in his childhood years and receiving all his early training over there, Allan James was to make his mark, and a brilliant international career extending into the 1890s, as the operatic, oratorio and concert bass, Signor Foli. He was a regular star in Covent Garden and Drury Lane in the late '60s and '70s, creating Daland (from Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman") in English, in the latter theatre in 1870. He was not to know that a young Irish tenor early in the next century would temporarily and respectfully make use of his name, Foli, to launch his - the tenor's - career in Italy.
Signor Foli, the bass, was still around when a young man from Limerick, the "Joe" of our quartet, was auditioned and immediately engaged by Sir Arthur Sullivan to sing in Sullivan's own opera, "Ivanhoe", then being presented by D'Oyly Carte. That was in 1891. A series of concerts followed, at the end of which the 27-year-old Limerick-man returned to Italy, where he had been trained in Milan. Joseph O Mara, second youngest of a family of thirteen, had arrived; and he remained as a top operatic and concert tenor virtually until the end of his life. A year before he died Joe was the first tenor to broadcast in Ireland at the opening in 1926 of the new Irish radio station (Raidio 2RN - now R.T.É.). It may have been his 1893-'94 tour of Britain and Ireland with Sir Augustus Harris's Italian Opera Company which gave him the idea of having his own touring opera company (going one better than Michael Kelly in this respect), an idea which came to full fruition, preceded by an equally successful touring concert company. He was engaged for that Italian opera tour to sing the principal tenor roles in "Cavalleria Rusticana" (then only "4 years old") and "Faust" - operas to become early successes for another Irish tenor later - but he also sang the principal roles in "I Pagliacci" (only "2 years old" then), and "Carmen" as well as "Lohengrin" and "Die Meistersinger". After a tour of Britain and Ireland in Stanford's opera "Shamus O Brien" the Harris company brought the opera to America where Joe's success was great. It was to be increased even further more than a decade later when, in the musical "Peggy Machree", he was to become the sensation of Broadway, acquiring for himself the "title" of "an Irish Caruso" in the process (Note 5). But just before the 19th century ended he was back in England singing in concerts, etc., in "the great homes". At one of these musical evenings he sang in the company of Melba, Pol Plançon, the great French bass, the great violinist, Jan Kubelik, and the world-renowned pianist, Jan Ignace Paderewski, a 'quartet' then surely as illustrious as the string-quartet with which Mick Kelly had rubbed-shoulders over a century earlier in Vienna.
The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin had, since the 1870's, become a great house for opera and there in 1884 The Carl Rosa Company presented (as they had done for 9 years) their operas. One, Annigo Boïto's "Mefistofele", starred two outstanding Irish singers of the time: tenor Barton McGuckin, later to take to the conductor's podium, and bass William Ledwidge (more famous as "Wilhelm Ludwig") later to have his own touring concert company (Note 6). These singers and this opera were to feature prominently in the career of another singer who was born that very same year.
Joe, however, as the new century dawned, was adding to his laurels as a brilliant singing-actor and a tenor capable of the dramatic and lyric challenges of the standard and more recent operas. In the Moody-Manners season in Covent Garden in 1903, while a young Athlone lad was winning the tenor Gold Medal in Dublin's Feis Ceoil, Joe sang principal tenor in "Romeo & Juliet", "Maritana", McAlpin's "Cross & Crescent" (a new opera), "Carmen", "I Pagliacci", "Il Trovatore", "Lohengrin" and "Tannhäuser" - all in one month! (Note 7). He was Ireland's first Enzo in "La Gioconda" with Blanche Marchesi, daughter of the legendary voice-teacher Mathilde, Ireland's first Rodolfo in "La Boheme", Ireland's first Cavaradossi in "Tosca" and Ireland's first Samson in "Samson et Dalila" with Zelie de Lussan. He sang in 67 operas throughout his life and concluded that wonderful career with 14 years of touring with his own splendid opera company.
But the more intimate side of his art cannot be overlooked and the choice of repertoire in his concerts certainly provided subsequent Irish tenors with some "ready-made" selections. At a concert in my home town of Ballina in 1911 Joe sang, apart from operatic and other selections, Tom Moore's "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms" (as Michael O Kelly probably had done), "Eleanore" (by Coleridge-Taylor) and Chaminade's delicate "The Little Silver Ring". In other concerts (as well as including them in the "ballad-operas") he sang "My Lagan Love", "I'll Sing Thee Songs of Araby", "The Derry Air" (to the words "Would God I Were The Tender Apple-blossom"), Moore's "Oft In The Stilly Night", "The Wearin' Of The Green", "The Ould Plaid Shawl", "The West's Awake" and at the opening of station 2RN - "Turn Ye To Me".
Joe was one of the many great singers who either did not like recording or did not like the way records represented his voice. Whatever about the 1902 "Ochone! when I used to be young" from Stanford's "Shamus O Brien" which just might give an inkling of what his voice sounded like, the two Landon Ronald songs of the same year must be regarded as completely unrepresentative of both the voice and the man. Joe O Mara could never have sounded like this. Joe;s entire recorded output was completed by two unpublished 1911 items.
There was another Irish tenor who had not as strong a case against the recording process but who definitely disliked his own records, the fifty or so that he made. He was, like Joe, the possessor of a marvellous dramatic voice and was a man who could boast of a brilliant international operatic career of almost 30 years. From Limerick to Cork as the crow flies is a mere 60 miles and it was in "the southern capital" that John O Sullivan was born some thirteen years after Joe O Mara. John's father died when he was only six and two years later his mother took himself and his sister to France. Love of music and singing in the Cathedral choir in Rouen, found the young Irishman performing with a fine baritone voice as the century came to a close. Study in the Paris Conservatoire was followed by the start of a singing career but as the voice matured it stepped up in range and timbre to full dramatic tenor. John arrived in London in 1908 (where a fellow Irishman and fellow-tenor had just about established himself in the lyric field of grand opera) and, after an initial hitch, was engaged by the Moody-Manners Opera Company, and made his debut in "Tannhäuser". On his return to France the Great War interrupted his activities but he continued to sing. He was heard by famed conductor Cleofonte Campanini and brought to the Chicago Opera in 1918 where he enjoyed the company of Caruso, Martinelli, Galli-Curci and other greats, and was wildly acclaimed for his powerful singing. Performances in France, Portugal, Italy and South America followed in the early to mid-1920s. Problems beset his Covent Garden debut in 1927 and he returned to France. 1930 saw him in Ireland, for the first time since childhood, giving concerts in Dublin and Killarney (his father's home-town). He continued to sing for the next seven years and gave his final performance in Geneva on April 25th, 1937 - with the voice 'as good as ever'; he was then in his sixtieth year. One thing the recordings of John O Sullivan show clearly is that his was not the lyrical type of voice generally associated with, and expected from, the singer of Irish songs. To the third of our three tenors, John McCormack, belonged that special type of voice. John O Sullivan died in Paris in April 1955 - his life-span completely encompassing that of his fellow-countryman, John McCormack, who was born seven years after the Cork tenor and died ten years before him. Other than nationality, operatic and concert success and belonging to the same era these two Irish tenors shared something very unique: each of them was richly praised by that most legendary of all tenors, the magnificent Jean de Reszke. To John O Sullivan, after hearing him in Tannhäuser, in Nice in 1921, the great Polish tenor wrote: "You have what it takes to interpret those heroes of the Wagnerian dramas: voice, power, verve, acting ability ... I must also compliment you on your clear diction and perfect intonation ... I'd like to express all my admiration for the way you sang and acted the role of Tannhäuser" (Note 8). That these two Johns met is very likely as John, the dramatic tenor, made his debut with the Chicago Opera (as Arnold in "William Tell") on November 27th, 1918 while John, the lyric tenor, sang (with Galli-Curci) in "La Boheme" four days later with the same Company, but such a meeting does not seem to have been documented.
About Poland's Jean de Reszke it was written: "He gave to every word the fullness of its meaning and to every note the perfection of sound, because to him the expressiveness of words meant almost as much as that of the music which accompanied them". Surely these words would also apply to John McCormack, the singer to whom Jean de Reszke wrote, "You are the true redeemer of bel canto". To the young fellow from Athlone who followed on the heels of, if not in precisely the same footsteps as, Joe from Limerick (a man twenty years his senior) was granted the voice which was completely "at home" in all areas of singing, from popular to folk-song, from lieder to art-song to religious music, from the classics of Handel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven to Italian, German, Russian and French grand opera. He, indeed, is the third tenor of our trio and the principal member with all respect to the others, of our "Irish quartet". The story of John McCormack (1884-1945) is, perhaps, too well known to even sketch here but it is the story of an early concert career, of some seventeen years of operatic performances and achievements (though diminishing in number in the last five), of a phenomenal concert-life spanning virtually a complete generation, and a truly remarkable recorded output. He began recording when he was twenty, continued through his magnificent vocal prime to his period of movingly mature interpretation and on to the era of delightful, though with diminished vocal range and resources, renderings of his early and mid-fifties and ended finally in his fifty eight year. All these elements of his career testify to the Irish tenor's place in the musical world of the 20th century and to his continuing of the great vocal traditions of the past.
Moreover, his great musical friends and colleagues also testify, often by their presence alone, to the greatness that was his. His typically Irish enjoyment of things light and simple in music was very fully shared by his Austrian friend, the world's greatest violinist, Fritz Kreisler. In the annals of recorded music there are few examples of such brilliant collaboration between two all-time greats. John and Fritz recorded together for a period of ten years, marked, near its end, by the performances of several exquisite songs by their mutual friend the great Russian composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Could John's friendship with Sergei and his love of the Russian master's music have influenced him in his choice of the part of Gritzko in Mussorgsky's opera "The Fair of Sorotchintzi", the very last opera in which the Irish tenor sang? Could Fritz's friendship, in the early years in Vienna, with the great symphonist Johannes Brahms and the great lieder-composer, Hugo Wolf, have spurred John on to his meticulous singing of the works of those two musical giants? The answer is "of course", in each instance. Would not John have recorded Sir Edward Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius" at the composer's own request had not the recording company gone against the idea? John showed how splendidly he could sing Elgar's music in his emotional recording of the composer's "Is She not Passing Fair?". Did not Arturo Toscanini 'phone John after one of the tenor's broadcasts in the US to ask about a song which had taken the conductor's fancy? The song was the little gem, "Padraic the Fiddler", by John's great friend and exact contemporary, the Irish composer Dr. John F. Larchet. John's recording of this song features Fritz Kreisler two of whose personal compositions John recorded - "The Old Refrain" and "Caprice Viennois" ("Cradle Song").
Kreisler's friend, another world-renowned violinist, Eugene Ysäye, championed the music of his native Belgium, especially that of composer and organist, César Franck. If one ever wanted to assess the relative virtues of the dramatic and lyric tenor voices in a piece of exceptional music one could do no better than listen to Franck's "La Procession" as recorded by Enrico Caruso and by John McCormack; coincidentally each tenor was 43 years old when he recorded it. Surely John's two 1927 recordings of Franck's "Panis Angelicus" (one of them, as written, with organ and 'cello accompaniment) plus his singing of this heavenly piece five years later in Dublin, at the Eucharistic Congress, must have added considerable weight to the cause of Belgian music. And we may recall that that Eucharistic Congress in 1932 commemorated the arrival in Ireland, a millennium and a half earlier, of the great Briton, St. Patrick, with the inestimable gift of the Faith. The Belgians had indeed been aware of the Irish for, among others, their famous violinist-composer, Henri Vieuxtemps had made his own arrangement of the air "St. Patrick's Day" an arrangement played at a concert in Dublin in 1906 - when one of the principal performers was the 22 year old tenor from Athlone.
A great many of the composers whose work John sang and recorded were either friends or acquaintances of his and a list of them would look like a roll-call at the United Nations. In the US there was Charles Wakefield Cadman several of whose songs John sang, including "At Dawning" (his beautiful love-song recorded by the tenor in 1912) and his movingly devout "Silent Hour of Prayer" (composed especially for the Irish tenor and broadcast by John in 1936); there was Henry T. Burleigh who wrote songs and "spirituals" for his own people and indeed for the rest of the world, and who greatly treasured the tenor's friendship - John recorded his "Little Child of Mary"; and of course, there was Blanche Seaver, a lady seven years the tenor's junior (but who outlived John by nearly 50 years) whose "Just for Today" is a jewel among the many devotional songs inextricably linked with the Athlone singer. Drawing the Irish and American music scenes together was Dublin-born Victor Herbert whose music John sang with particular verve (as can be heard in all his recordings of Herbert's music, including the aria from the composer's only opera, "Natoma", which had starred McCormack). The long line-up of English composers included Hubert Parry, Arnold Bax and Sir Granville Bantock who had been Musical Director at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre when it celebrated its first quarter of a century in 1896 with a gala performance of Stanford's opera "Shamus O Brien" which then starred Joe O Mara. In John's spoke introduction to "Song to the Seals", the only one of all his commercial records giving the background to the song, he mentions the composer by name; none other than Sir Granville Bantock. Nor can one forget some, perhaps, less auspicious composers whose songs were virtually immortalised by John: Samuel Liddle with his simple, homely yet noble "A Farewell"; Wilfred Sanderson with his passionate "Until" (recorded by John in his youthful prime) and "As I Sit Here", so appropriate to the faithful yet broken-hearted lover (recorded by the tenor in his more mature years); and the never-to-be-forgotten Charles Marshall with his "I Hear You Calling Me"! Italy's Paolo Tosti, Luigi Denza (who had presented John with his Gold Medal when he won the tenor competition in the Dublin Feis Ceoil of 1903) and Attilio Parelli (who conducted several of the operas in which John starred) were represented, among others, in his recorded repertoire, as were Germany's Moritz Moszkowski (Moritz of Polish origin), Switzerland's Joachim Raff (just a little before John's time), France's Cécile Chaminade (who died a year before the Irish tenor), yet another of the many lady-composers whose songs John sang, and singer-composer Jean-Baptiste Faure (whose religious songs - among them "Crucifix" and "The Palms" - suited the faith, the temperament and the voice of the Irish tenor so well), Czechoslovakia's Zdenek Fibich, Finland's Oscar Merikanto (with his "Fairy Story by the Fire" in the McCormack film "Song o' My Heart", and also on record), Hungary's (and America's) Sigmund Romberg and many many more. John's lovely voice, exquisite singing and superb interpretation graced, and often lifted to new heights, the works of many song-writers and composers. Like his two great Italian tenor-friends Enrico Caruso and Tito Schipa, John was not averse to writing, himself; his words for "The Derry Air" ("O Mary, Dear") and his Italian translation of the aria from Donizetti's "Le Fille du Regiment" were indications that he could do what Michael Kelly and other singers before him had done. Of course, predominant in his repertoire were the music and the words of Irish composers, musicians and musicologists. The music of Arthur Sullivan, Michael Balfe, Vincent Wallace, the words and arrangements of Thomas Moore, the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the lyrics of Clifton Bingham and items from the collections of Herbert Hughes were John's stock-in-trade; his singing and their music and poetry belonged together.
So very many of the tenor's accompanists or guests, in concert as well as on records, were exceptional musicians from his friend, teacher and mentor Dr. Vincent O Brien through Teddy Schneider, Gerald Moore, Percy Kahn (whose songs John recorded with the composer as accompanist), 'cellist Lauri Kennedy, organist Reginald Goss-Custard, violinist Donald McBeath and on to his later concert-career with artistes like pianist Ania Dorfmann, pianist and composer Joan Trimble (from Enniskillen, some of whose music has been released on CD and whose song-cycle based on the life of the Mayo 19th century poet, Anthony Raftery - called "County Mayo" - has been broadcast and recorded) and violinist Guila Bustabo, whose recorded output was recently released on CD (Guila, an American prodigy, was very closely linked with composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari from whose opera "I Gioielli della Madonna", John recorded a duet).
Greater, perhaps, than even the huge number of musicians all 'supporting' the Irish tenor's 'claim to greatness' is the array of singers who by singing with him acknowledged the Irishman's prominence in the musical world of the 20th century. It was tenor Giuseppe di Stefano who, in reply to the remark that 'John McCormack had his critics', said: "We, the singers, are the real experts on singing, not the critics; we know how good a singer is". John was literally surrounded by such experts, many of them his colleagues on the opera or concert stage and others performing with him in the recording studios. Most of them were stars of the first rank, some of them were almost legendary. Among them were Nellie Melba, the Mathilde Marchesi pupil who made her debut in Brussels when John McCormack was three years old and who was advised by Sir Arthur Sullivan, after an audition, to try for a place in the chorus of one of his Savoy operas! Despite a clash of temperaments and tempers and, it was alleged, an exchange of some rather raw language between the soprano and the tenor at their first and only recording session (when they were joined by famed Sicilian baritone Mario Sammarco and English contralto Edna Thornton) - Melba took John as leading tenor with her own opera company on a tour of her native Australia. And John was the only tenor with whom she commercially recorded, with the sole exception of the one recording she made with Enrico Caruso. Of other sopranos, the Italians Luisa Tetrazzini, Amelita Galli-Curci and Claudia Muzio had temperaments and voices that blended much better with that of the Irishman; most compatible of all, perhaps, was the Spaniard, Lucrezia Bori, with whom John made several of his greatest records. Sicilian Carmen Melis (famous, later, as teacher of Renata Tebaldi) also partnered him on stage, as did the Scottish Mary Garden, the American Geraldine Farrar, the New Zealander Frances Alda (Marchesi pupil, great personal friend of the McCormacks, wife of Metropolitan Opera manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and the Mimi of the eventful "La Boheme" with Caruso, Scotti and De Segurola in Philadelphia), the Czech dramatic soprano, Emmy Destinn and the Monagasque lady, Alice Zeppilli, who at the age of 19 sang in the Monte Carlo Opera opposite Caruso. Among the men were the two baritones Mario Sammarco and the American Reinald Werrenrath, both of whose very different voices, in size and style, blended beautifully with the silver tones of the Irishman. One of the many fine records which Mario Sammarco made with John McCormack was that of the "La Boheme" duet "O Mimi, tu piu non torni"; interesting is the fact that the Sicilian recorded that selfsame duet with no less than four other top tenors, including Giovanni Zenatello (to whose Otello John had sung the second-tenor role of Cassio). One baritone who figured very prominently in John's early career was fellow Irishman Wilhelm Ludwig (William Ledwidge) in whose concert-tours, in 1903-4, the young Feis Ceoil gold medallist was singing, as was a young lady, Lily Foley - later to marry John. And not to leave out the basses there was the great Polish bass, Adamo Didur, Spain's Jose Mardones and that other stylish Spaniard, Andres de Segurola (who had the "cameo part" of Guido in the McCormack film "Song o' My Heart", and had the distinction of having Caruso sing in his stead the "Vecchia zimmara" aria from "La Boheme" during a performance in which he couldn't because he had lost his voice!). And there were many others!
Those who criticize John McCormack's musical taste or standards were and are invariably those who either do not understand, have no appreciation of, or simply know nothing about tradition. Traditions, local, national and international, played a significant part in what Michael Kelly sang, in what Joseph O Mara sang and very much in what John McCormack sang. The traditional songs and ballads of his homeland and even the popular songs of his own and earlier generations were "part" of him; and like the two who went before him, he remained faithful to those traditions all his life. The tradition of his strong faith, nourished in the family of eleven in which John was the 4th child, though the three before him had died as did the one born after him and later his brother Tommy, aged 15, was also one to which he remained ever-loyal. In the area of sacred music and religious and devotional hymns and songs there was probably no other world-famous singer, certainly no other internationally-acclaimed tenor, who sang and recorded so much in honour of his God, so much about Jesus, so much about the Mother of God (including five different "Ave Marias"). There cannot be too many genuine religious sentiments which are not touched on, in a most reverent and inspiring manner, among the numerous devotional pieces which he recorded. A pew in our local St. Muredach's Cathedral in Ballina carries the dedication "Presented by Dr. & Mrs. Keane". The late Dr. Francis Keane was a friend and schoolmate of John McCormack in Sligo's Summerhill College, (some forty miles north of here) and told me of John's marvellous vocal and musical talents while a teenage student at the College. About the same distance west of Ballina is Ballycroy where, during the summer of 1939 John spent his only holiday in County Mayo. There, for the Parish Priest, Fr. Anthony Timlin, and for a young Ballycastle (County Mayo) priest on holidays from Maynooth, John sang the "Pater Noster" from the Gregorian chant. Many years later that young priest became Bishop of Killala, his diocesan church being St. Muredach's Cathedral. Very shortly before his death, in 1987, Dr. Thomas McDonnell - the Bishop - asked me if I had John's recording of "I Hear you Calling Me" and if so could I put it and some other items on tape for him. I was privileged and very happy to do so. We can all have some idea of how Bishop McDonnell felt listening again to a voice which had so thrilled him all those 48 years before, in Ballycroy.
Much has been written about John's very early years but few people seem to know that his singing talent had the 14 year old Summerhill College student on stage in Loughrea, Co. Galway, and in Dublin where he sang in the Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street, now Pearse Street, in a concert organized by Edward Martyn, Lady Gregory and Dr. Douglas Hyde (later to be first President of Ireland), a concert celebrating the centenary of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. So, five years before he won the Gold Medal in the Dublin Feis Ceoil John had appeared on stage in the capital. Three years after that "great win" and following closely on his training and operatic debut in Italy, John was back in Dublin and at a Grand Concert in the Theatre Royal in late November 1906, John sang "O Amore" from "L'Amico Fritz" (the opera of his debut in Italy) the song "In Sympathy" and the duet "Parigi, o cara" ("La Traviata") with Australian soprano Fanny Bauer. At that same concert the already-established and hugely-popular Joe O Mara sang "The Lord is My Light", "Ah, Moon of My Delight" and "Celeste Aïda". Patrick Delany on the violin, played Vieuxtemps' arrangement of "St. Patrick's Day", that evening. Less than six months later, in that same theatre, John performed in "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Faust" both conducted by tenor Barton McGuckin - the two which had been Joe O Mara's first operas (in the Italian season in England) and the first of which was to be John's debut opera in Covent Garden in 1907. A year later he would sing at a London Concert (Wilhelm Ganz diamond jubilee) sharing the stage that evening with the legendary Adelina Patti renowned bass Edouard de Reszke (Jean's brother) and violinist Mischa Elman evoking memories of the concert in which Joe O Mara had appeared with Melba, Plançon and Kubelik. Eight years later, in that same month of May, John was singing at a Benefit Concert in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. On that occasion the MC was the ubiquitous bass, Andres de Segurola; Spain was represented also by internationally-acclaimed soprano Maria Barrientos and by world-renowned 'cellist Pablo Casals, as the concert was for the orphaned children of Spanish composer Enrique Granados. Casals was joined by Fritz Kreisler and Poland's legendary pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski in a Beethoven trio. John sang among other items "The Lord is My Light" and "The Goddess in the Garden" (by Granados) with Kreisler accompanying on the piano. Kreisler took violin in hand and later joined John for "Angels Guard Thee" and "Le Nil", Teddy Schneider accompanying them both. Surely an event reminiscent of Mick Kelly's experience with Mozart, Haydn, etc.; and there was our own John McCormack surrounded by those giants of the musical world and in no way eclipsed by any of them.
My home county of Mayo has been mentioned already and it must be mentioned at least once more because from the County-town of Castlebar came the final member of our quartet, the cailín (colleen) Margaret Sheridan (1889-1957) who preferred herself to be called 'Maggie from Mayo'. She had won the mezzo-soprano Gold Medal in the Dublin Feis Ceoil in 1909 and within a year was on stage at a concert which starred none other than John McCormack. She had, unsuccessfully, tried to coax her Dublin friend, Florrie Ryan - later to become one of Ireland's most distinguished contraltos, to tour with baritone Walter McNally's Company and finally to settle in Ballina as Mrs. Florence Hewson - to go to Italy to train with her. Before that training was complete, however, the now-soprano Margaret Sheridan seized an opportunity she felt she could not let pass, the leading-role of Mimi in "La Boheme" came up, due to the indisposition of Monaco soprano Alice Zeppilli, and "La Sheridan" was launched on her meteoric, but tragically short, operatic career (1918-1930) mainly in Italy and England. Maggie, with her "operatic" temperament and her experience of singing with the many intense and dramatic tenors then in Italy "made no bones" about expressing her opinion that John McCormack was not much more than a ballad singer. In an "appreciation", after his death, she referred to John solely as a great "Lieder-singer"!!. John, in turn, apparently didn't take very well to the Castlebar soprano. It was the eminent Irish musician, pianist and conductor, Charles Lynch, who told me that John and Maggie never "hit it off together" - and he knew both of them, personally. In 1944, when the pair of them were joint Honorary Patrons of the Dublin Grand Opera Society, Maggie gave a short speech from her 'box' in the Gaiety Theatre at the end of that year's opera-season in which she referred to Irish operatic stars of the past but made no mention of her fellow joint-Patron! (Note 9) So the colleen from Mayo who was just as outspoken as the lad from Athlone - she was only five years his junior and would outlive him by thirteen years - made her point then even by what she did not say. John wrote, late in his life, that he re-lived and dreamt of the operas and concerts in which he had had his measure of success during his musical career. Maggie, later in her life, apparently "lived" in her own niche in that "other world", "thinking and dreaming" of the days and nights she "trod the boards" and sang her Irish heart out in the language she so dearly loved - Italian - when she partnered the greats of the European and world opera-scene. There was Caruso's "successor", Beniamino Gigli, who, on his final concert-appearance in Dublin in 1954, asked especially for her, the pair of them then fondly renewing old acquaintance of almost a quarter of a century earlier. She sang and recorded with Aureliano Pertile, whose intense and dramatic singing was internationally acclaimed, and admired by so many including none other than Maestro Arturo Toscanini, and who was teacher of the famous soprano, Virginia Zeani (to whom Maggie presented her Melba fan after a performance of "La Traviata" in Dublin in the mid-1950s). A third famous tenor she partnered was the Chilean, Renato Zanelli, who had a short but successful career as a baritone before "turning tenor" and whose brother, baritone Carlo Morelli, was the teacher of Placido Domingo. The baritones with whom she sang included Carlo Galeffi, Dennis Noble, Giovanni Inghilleri (later to star in the first commercial LP recording of "La Boheme" with Renata Tebaldi), and Mariano Stabile; among the basses was the famous "buffo", Salvatore Baccaloni.
In the early 1950s Maggie was again actively involved in music, this time in the US and in the capacity of adviser rather than singer where she worked closely with greats like conductors Bruno Walter and Serge Koussevitsky, composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams and her friend the world-famous bass, Ezio Pinza (Note 10). Back in Dublin she broadcast a biographical series of programmes from Raidio Éireann retaining her Celtic traditional practice of being outspoken, to the end, as Mick and John had done before her. Her origins in my native County, a county which had been graced by both Joe and John, her being one of the select band of great Irish singers who had brought their art and talents to Europe and the world, her membership of this "Irish Quartet" which reminded and continues to remind Europe and the world of the musical and vocal excellence of our Celtic people all make me wish for her and for those other Irish greats the reward of immortality. "Go dtuga Dia duais mhór na beatha síoraí dóibh uile" (May God give them all the great prize of eternal life").
1. "Coel na Cruite" (The Music of the Harp) (article) by Sean O Riada.
2. Collins "Encyclopedia of Music."
3. "Solo Recital." Edited version of Michael Kelly's "Reminiscences" by The Folio Society.
4. Collins "Encyclopedia of Music."
5. "Joseph O Mara" by Robert Potterton with additional information by Mrs. E.O Mara Carton (article in The Record Collector magazine, March 1970).
6. "Memories," (article), Dublin Grand Opera Society Souvenir Programme, Winter Season, 1984.
7. From Robert Keyes, Covent Garden.
8. "John O Sullivan" by Michael F. Bott, with added information by Jacques O Sullivan for Symposium Records.
9. D.G.O.S. Souvenir Album 1944.
10. "Prima Donna - Margaret Sheridan" by Anne Chambers.
Back to John McCormack Studies Index