This article appeared originally in The Record Collector, under the editorship of Mr. Larry Lustig. XXXVII, no. 1, pp. 62-69 (Jan-Mar 1992).
It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and of Mr. Lustig.



John Ward

Biographies of John McCormack pass quickly over his early London struggles. There are fragmented references to the Bernhardt brothers, Brighton Pier, Camille Clifford, Edna May, Margaret Cooper, and others. But how did the young tenor come to appear with these artists and what was the Brighton connection?

McCormack came to London in the late summer of 1906 after two frustrating months in Milan with many operatic auditions and no permanent engagements. With funds low and his wife, Lily, expecting a child he could not remain in Italy. He decided instead to pursue a career in London and even sought recording-contracts there whilst still in Milan. He could easily have returned to Ireland and the modest but comfortable security of the popular Dublin singer. But this, in the light of his impatient operatic ambition, would have been seen as merely marking time. McCormack wanted to get on with his career and London was the place to do it.

The McCormacks obtained rooms at a theatrical boarding-house at 12A Torrington Square, Bloomsbury, and almost immediately he secured a recording-contract with Arthur Brooks of the Odeon company. The overtures from Milan had proved worthwhile. But engagements outside the recording-studio did not come so easily. McCormack was after all a singer whose name meant little in the metropolis, and it was probably in a bid to overcome this difficulty that he was taken, perhaps by a Torrington Square theatrical, to the Philharmonic Concert Direction, a West End concert agency situated at 82 Regent Street and run by the brothers Henry and Louis Bernhardt.

The Bernhardts - Henry was the active partner - were perhaps not the ideal representatives for an aspiring Covent Garden tenor. They seem to have represented mainly popular artists, with Margaret Cooper, who sang songs at the piano and subsequently recorded for the Gramophone Company, as their star. A typical Bernhardt advertisement would read:

Leading Artists for At Homes, Receptions etc. London and provincial concerts and recitals arranged. Managed and personally superintended on moderate terms. New talent introduced to the public under the most favourable auspices.

Bernhardt did not just arrange concerts for others; he was also a concert promoter in his own right. This dual role of impresario and agent enabled him to parade "New Talent" in supporting roles at his own concerts. McCormack was accepted and used in this way; he appeared as an assisting artist in "H. Bernhardt's Popular Concerts", held every Sunday on the Palace Pier at Brighton. This was the Brighton connection.

Bernhardt had been successfully running these concerts for over two years, usually with a West End musical comedy star as top of the bill. Lily Langtry, Gertie Millar, Marie Dainton and Zena Dare had all appeared in the theatre at the end of the pier. Peter Dawson had also appeared as a supporting vocalist McCormack made his debut there on September 9th, 1906 supporting Louis Bradfield. The Brighton Gazette of September 13th, in a brief review which may really have been Bernhardt publicity material, noted that "Mr. Giovanni Foli, a gifted tenor, obtained a flattering reception". The use of McCormack's Italian pseudonym was probably suggested by Bernhardt. Happily this was the only time that it was used outside of Italy. He had always sung under his own name in Ireland, and another name for mainland Britain would simply have confused matters. A dual musical identity was the last thing be wanted.

The next appearance was two weeks later on Sunday September 23rd, when the famous musical comedy actress Edna May topped the bill. Some pre-concert publicity in the Brighton Gazette of the previous day claimed that Bernhardt was paying a record fee for Edna May and descrbed McCormack as "the wonderful young Irish tenor, about whom everyone is ta1king in London, and who is to appear at the Royal Opera next month". The record fee may have been true but the McCormack details are exaggerations. A letter written by the tenor three days after the concert and reproduced in Mrs Claude Beddington's All That I Have Met gives a truer picture:

12A Torrington Square

Dear Mrs. Beddington,
I thank you so much for your kind letters and for being so good as to write to Tosti again on my behalf. I have just written to him asking him to make an appointment to hear me. You will be glad to hear that I am getting on very well here in London. Madame Liza Lehmann heard me and immediately engaged me for her opera, The Vicar of Wakefield, with David Bispham as baritone, and this week I am to be heard by Mr. Harry Higgins of Covent Garden, in view of a prospective engagement. Thanking you for all your kindly interest and that you will put in a kind word for me when you can.

I remain
Yours truly

The naive optimism of the letter was soon dashed. The Tosti audition, if it ever took place, led to nothing. He was dismissed from The Vicar of Wakefield in October and replaced by Walter Hyde; he had probably been engaged on the strength of his singing and then rejected when rehearsals revealed his lack of stagecraft. The Covent Garden audition was unsuccessful and served only as publicity material.

McCormack sang operatic selections at the Dublin Operatic and Choral Society concert on November 7th, but he was back at Brighton on Sunday, November 11th to assist the actress vocalist Marie Tempest. The Brighton and Hove Society noted that "Mr J. F. McCormack and Mr Joska Szigeti added further to the amenities of the concerts with vocalism and violin solos respectively". A famous violinist also served part of his apprenticeship on the Palace Pier.

The contrast between McCormack's Irish and English engagements became even more marked at the end of the month. On November 28th he sang at a concert in the Theatre Royal, Dublin, with another Irish tenor, the famous Joseph O'Mara, as the star. He immediately returned to London to appear with a very different star, the statuesque Miss Camille Clifford.

Camille Clifford had, with the aid of a sensational hour-glass figure, created a furore as the "Gibson Girl" of Edwardian musical comedy and was also in the public eye because of an aristocratic romance with the heir of Lord Aberdare. The opportunity was too good to miss and Bernhardt engaged her for a series of concerts. McCormack was one of the assisting artists at flying-matinees at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, on November 30th and at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, on December lOth. The latter was almost certainly his first appearance beyond the south of England.

Clifford's appeal was hardly musical. She sang "Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl" from The Belle of Mayfair followed by the "famous Gibson Walk". The Walk was encored; the song was not. McCormack did manage to get a mention in the midst of all this. The advertisements for the Portsmouth concert again falsely described him as "the new tenor who will appear at Covent Garden this season". A review in the Birmingham Daily Mail noted that "Mr John F. McCormack, a tenor of the robust order evidently schooled in the Italian arte del canto, sang several excellent songs."

No more engagements have been traced for December, but it was probably the month of two more auditions, both frequently mentioned in McCormack biographies. An advertisement in The Daily Telegraph of December 11th read:

An opportunity occurs for young gentleman with good tenor voice to under-study leading part on tour, under the management of Mr. George Edwardes. For particulars apply with music next Thursday Dec.13 between eleven and one o'clock to Gordon Cleather, 256 Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park.

The mention of Edwardes and Cleather indicates that this was almost certainly the occasion of the unsuccessful Waltz Dream audition when McCormack, accompanied by Cleather, was eventually rejected by J.A.E. Malone deputising for the absent Edwardes.

The second audition, for the Moody-Manners Opera Company, cannot be so precisely dated, but we know from Lily McCormack's I Hear You Calling Me that she, Charles Manners and the company's Italian conductor were all present. This suggests a date just after Chistmas when the McCormacks, Manners, conductor Ronaldo Sapio and the opera company were all in Dublin. The audition was successful but they argued about money. Manners pointed out McCormack's inexperience and that his acting was not on a par with his singing. McCormack retorted that if it were he would be at Covent Garden. This reply suggests that money was not the real issue for him. His ambitions were firmly focused upon the Royal Opera House and an engagement with a provincial touring-company would have been in his own eyes a failure.

On his return from Dublin McCormack began the new year back at the Palace Pier; he appeared on Sunday, January 6th with the famous Polish pianist Nathalle Janotha. At the end of the month, on January 28th he assisted Margaret Cooper at a Bernhardt concert in the Guildhall, Cambridge. Once again the pre-concert publicity linked him with Covent Garden by falsely claiming that he had been engaged for the summer season. There may have been another audition about this time but there was no engagement. It was all depressingly familiar.

On Friday, February 1st McCormack sang at a concert for the Choughs Musical Society held in the Great Hall of Cannon St. Hotel in the City of London. As far as is known this was his first non-Bernhardt concert apart from his Irish engagements. He was encored for his rendering of the "Fower Song". His colleagues included Ernest Pike and Charles Mott. A week later, on February 7th, he appeared at a concert in the Dublin Rotunda and then returned once again to London but this time to a dramatic change of fortune.

The Irish Club in Charing Cross Road held a Thomas Moore Memorial Concert on Friday, February 15th in which McCormack, Dennis O'Sullivan, Kate Rooney and other artists took part. The Irish composer Alicia Alice Needham organised the event and played some of the accompaniments. The Weekly Freeman of February 23rd commented that "No individual vocalist, however, scored a greater success than Mr J. F. McCormack". The following day he appeared at an Alexandra Palace concert with the band of the Scots Guards. Then on Sunday February 17th he sang at a National Sunday League Concert at the Queen's Hall in support of Marie Hall, the violinist, and then dashed around to the Queen's Hotel in Leicester Square to take part in an after-dinner concert.

Suddenly he had four engagements in three days; everything was happening at once, and he was meeting people. At the Queen's Hall his colleagues included Harry Dearth and the pianist Irene Scharrer. At the Queen's Hotel be met Signor Barbirolli, the father of the famous conductor, and the accompanist Charles Marshall, who wrote the music for "I Hear You Calling Me".

The Irish Club appearance, which may have been without fee, produced handsome dividends. He was heard there - perhaps a few days earlier at a rehearsal - by Henry Mills, the secretary of the National Sunday League, an organisation which promoted Sunday concerts. Mills, who also provided artists for the Alexandra Palace, offered him the two weekend concerts. The Queen's Hotel appearance may have been obtained through Bernhardt. But there was even more to come, for a few days later, after an abortive introduction, he successfully auditioned for Arthur Boosey. He appeared at the Boosey Ballad Concert at the Queen's Hall on March 1st, and his early London struggles were over.

All this was not lost on Bernhardt. His publicity from early March onwards increasingly plugs McCormack with extracts from favourable press criticisms. He was now "The New Tenor" available for "0ratorios, Musical Festivals, At Homes, etc." with Bernhardt as his sole agent. But these did not come immediately, for on March 29th (Good Friday) he sang at Bernhardt concerts at the Kennington and Camden Theatres. Two days later, on Sunday, March 31st, he was scheduled to return to the Palace Pier with a more prominent place on the hill. The concert did not live up to expectations as both Margaret Cooper and McCormack were unable to appear. Bernhardt felt obliged to write to the local press apologising for their absence; both artists were indisposed and would soon reappear. McCormack was not absent through illness; he had actually hastened to Dublin to see his newly born son.

A fortnight later, on Sunday, April 14th, McCormack, supported by the Imperial Austrian Band conducted by Herr Franz Meisel, was the star attraction. The Brighton Gazette prophesied a few days later that "This gentleman is undoubtedly destined to rank in the very forefront of singers". He was again the star attraction on Sunday, July 14th. Shortly afterwards he successfully auditioned for Covent Garden and was engaged for the autumn season. His next Brighton appearance, also a Bernhardt concert, was in December at the Dome with the Duke of Devonshire's Private Orchestra. He had graduated from an unknown at the end of the Pier to star singer at Brighton's major concert hall in just over a year.

There is a sequel to all this. The first McCormack biography, John McCormack, His Own Life Story, published in America in 1918, quotes recollections of his early days in London. The following revealing extract (Pages 146-147) is from a conversation with Michael Keane, the American representative of Boosey and Company who had previously been associated with the management of the Queen's Hall:

Shortly after McCormack came to London upon finishing his studies in Italy, he made a contract with a London agent. The boy was inexperienced in the ways of business, and being generous himself he did not question the equity of any contract which might be drawn for him to sign. But this agent did not succeed in getting him any really serious engagements. Some idea of the character of this contract may be gathered from the fact that it was for the duration of McCormack's life. Fancy such an arrangement. Of course it couldn't last. Yet the cancellation of that document cost the tenor, years afterwards, ten thousand dollars.

This can refer only to Bernhardt, as he was McCormack's agent until at least the end of 1909 and probably for some time after that. But the criticism that he "did not succeed in getting him any really serious engagements" requires clarification as the tenor had operatic, concert and oratorio engagements at good fees during these years.

Keane's recollections together with a study of the early appearances (See Appendix) and publicity suggest that Bernhardt originally used and advertised Mccormack as a supporting artist at his own concerts and nothing more. Six months later, when the tenor had broken through on his own initiative, he recognised his potential, promptly signed him for life and then presented him as his star artist. The exact details of the contract are unknown. McCormack certainly prospered, but their association was probably on balance advantageous to Bernhardt, who benefited from a career which he had initially done very little to promote. McCormack had to take his own road from Brighton Pier.


This appendix lists the available information about the concerts mentioned in the text. There was usually an afternoon and evening concert on the Palace Pier; it was customary for the artists to appear at both of them.

Bernhardt concert with Louis Bradfield, Carrie Moore (Comedienne),
Ivy Angove violin), Celia Gordon, Mr Pennington-Gush, Arthur Appleby,
Dora Barrington, Charles Pond (Elocutionist).
McCormack sang as Giovanni Foli.

Bernhardt concert with Edna May, Percy Frostick (violin), Herr Jacques Presburg (Piano),
Margaret Wiley (Recitations), J. F. McCormack, Dorothy Wiley, Archie Anderson.

Choral and orchestral concert by the Dublin Oratorio and Choral Society.
McCormack sang in the "Miserere" from Trovatore and the "Brindisi" from Traviata.
The conductor was Vincent O'Brien; the other artists are unknown.

Bernhardt concert with Marie Tempest, Ethel Leginska (Piano), Ellen Borwick (Elocutionist),
Constance Milestone, J. F. McCormack, Joska Szigeti (Violin).

Grand Charity Concert with Joseph O'Mara, Mr W. F. Cope, Patrick Delaney (Violin),
J. F. McCormack, Jay Ryan, Fanny Bauer, Annie McBride, Stella Bowman, Mrs O'Connell Miley,
Master Joseph Gerard. McCormack sang '0 Amore' from L'Amico Fritz,
Leoni's "In Sympathy" and "Parigi 0 cara" with Bauer.
The accompanists were Vincent O'Brien and J. F. Larchet.

Bernhardt concert with Camille Clifford, Margaret Cooper, Clara Alexander,
Violet Elliott, J. F. McCormack, Nellie Ganthony (Society Entertainer), and other artists.

Bernhardt concert with Camille Clifford, Margaret Cooper, Clara Alexander
Violet Elliott, Nathalle Janotha (Piano), George Grossmith junior,
J.F. McCormack, Ivy Angove, Alan Turner, Clara Evelyn Smith, Abbas (Cello).
The accompanist was Miss Louie Risby.

Bernhardt Concert with Nathalle Janotha, J. Dorosami (Violin),
J.F. McCormack, Katherine Wylie, Ellen (Allan?) Turner,
Madame Augusta Von S. Heinbockel (Elocutionist).

Bernhardt Concert with Margaret Cooper, Winifred Siddons, Ada Wood, Fay Temple,
John F. McCormack, Cherniavsky Brothers.
McCormack sang "In Sympathy" (Leoni) and "Mattinata" (Leoncavallo).

Choughs Musical Society concert with Conway Dixon, Ernest Pike,
J. F. McCormack, Percy Frostick, Charles Mott, Alfred Heather, Sydney Walter.
McCormack sang "Flower Song" from Carmen.
The accompanist was Mr. G. D. Cunningham.

Smoking Concert for the Irish Branch Railway Benevolent Fund with
J.F. McCormack, J. C. Doyle, George Shellard, J. F. Jones, W. Lee (Humorist),
E. H. Kearney (Humorist), W. H. Huish (Humorist), Dublin Glee and Madrigal
Quartette (Messrs J. Morgan, Melfort Dalton, T. E. Marchant and Harris Watson),
and mandoline trio of Messrs Richards, Brady and Ramsey.
The accompaniat was Mr. George Hewson.

Thomas Moore Memorial Concert with Annie MacBride, Hon. Mrs Clifford,
Kate Rooney, Edith Kirkwood, Kathleen Purcell (Harp), Isabel Bowers,
Dora Grenville, Dennis O'Sullivan, Ivor McKay, J. F. McCormack,
Dennis Bendon Ayres, Charles O'Sullivan and P. J. Kirwan.
Dr. John Todhunter also read a paper on Moore.
The accompanists were Mrs. Alicia A. Needham and Miss Agnes MacHale.
McCormack sang 'Peace Be Around Thee' and 'How Dear to me the Hour' with
Clifford, MacBride and Dennis O'Sullivan. His solo was
'Believe me if all those Endearing Young Charms'.

Carrie Tubb, Violet Elliott, John F. McCormack, Master Gordon Travis (Boy Soprano)
and Band of the Scots Guards conducted by Mr. F. W. Wood.
The accompanist was Mr. G. D. Cunningham.

National Sunday League Concert with Caroline Hatchard, Mildred Jones,
Irene Scharrer (Piano), J. F. McCormack, Harry Derth and Master Gordon Travis.
McCormack sang '0 Flower of All the World' (Woodforde-Finden), 'Mattinata' (Leoncavallo),
and took part in Leoni's song-cycle Fairy Dreams.

After-dinner concert with Dora Barrington, Carrie Herwin, J. F. McCormack
and Charles Marshall (Piano).

London Ballad Concert (Boosey and Co.) with Lonise Dale, Edith Evans, Verena Fancourt,
Ada Crossley, Mildred Jones, Maud Wright, Pauline and Ethel Hook,
John McCormack, Plunket Greene, H. Lane Wilson, Mischa Elman (Violin).
The accompanists were Samuel Liddle and F. A. Sewell.
McCormack sang the 'Flower Song' and 'A Farewell' (Liddle).

Bernhardt concerts with Phyllis Dare, Adrienne Augarde, Nellie Ganthony,
Carmen Sylva, Mabel Green, Margaret Cooper, Harrison Brockbank,
John McCormack, Bransby Williams, Richard Green, Cherniavsky Brothers, and Courtice Pounds.
The accompanists were Lucy Gerrard and Victor Marmont.

Bernhardt concert with John McCormack, Florence Vann (Elocutionist), Abbas (Cello)
and the Imperial Austrian Band conducted by Herr Franz Meisel.
McCormack sang 'Che gelida manina' and 'A Farewell'.

Bernhardt concert with John McCormack, Ethel Pender-Cudlipp, Alice Clifton,
Robert Michaelis, Maggie Neil (Elocutionist), Maud Meldrum (Violin),
Deszo Santo (Piano).
McCormack sang 'Thora' (Adams), 'White Rose' (Fraser-Simson),
'A Child's Song' (Marshall) and 'Beloved All I Have' (?).

Bernhardt concert with John McCormack, Harry Dearth, Margaret Adela,
Violet Elliott and the Duke Of Devonshire's Private Orchestra.
The accompanist was Miss Louise Risby. McCormack sang 'Che gelida manina'
and 'Myrrah' (Clutsam).


Beddington, Mrs Claude. All That I Have Met, London, Cassell, 1929.

Key, Pierre V. R. John McCormack - His Own Life Story, Boston, Small Maynard & Co., 1918.

McCormack, Lily. I Hear You Calling Me, London, W. H. Allen, 1950.

Strong, L.A.G. John McCormack, London, Methuen, 1941.

Periodicals and Newspapers:

  • Birmingham Daily Mail
  • Birmingham Daily Post
  • Brighton and Hove Society
  • Brighton Entertainments
  • Brighton Gazette
  • Cambridge Daily News
  • Catholic Herald
  • City Press (London)
  • Daily Telegraph
  • Dublin Evening Mail
  • North Middlesex Chronicle
  • Portsmouth Times
  • Sunday Times
  • The People
  • Weekly Freeman
  • Westmeath Independent

Copyright, John Ward, 1992

Reproduced with the permission of John Ward
and Larry Lustig (Editor, The Record Collector)

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