John McCormack (tenor)

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John, Count McCormack
John McCormack cph.3a03759.jpg
Born(1884-06-14)14 June 1884
Athlone, Ireland
Died16 September 1945(1945-09-16) (aged 61)
Booterstown, Dublin, Ireland
OccupationSinger, songwriter
Nationality Irish
Notable works"It's a Long Way to Tipperary"
SpouseLily Foley

John Francis McCormack, [1] [lower-alpha 1] KSG, KSS, KHS (14 June 1884 16 September 1945) was an Irish tenor, celebrated for his performances of the operatic and popular song repertoires, and renowned for his diction and breath control. [2] He was also a Papal Count. He became a naturalised American citizen before returning to live in Ireland.

Order of St. Gregory the Great Honorary Order of Knighthood of the Holy See

The Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great was established on 1 September 1831, by Pope Gregory XVI, seven months after his election to that seat by the College of Cardinals.

Order of St. Sylvester Papal Order of Knighthood

The Pontifical Equestrian Order of Saint Sylvester Pope and Martyr, sometimes referred to as the Sylvestrine Order, or the Pontifical Order of Pope Saint Sylvester, is one of five Orders of Knighthood awarded directly by the Pope as Supreme Pontiff and head of the Catholic Church and as the Head of State of Vatican City.

Order of the Holy Sepulchre Roman Catholic order of knighthood

The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, also called Order of the Holy Sepulchre or Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, is a Roman Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the Holy See. The Pope is sovereign of the Order. Founded as Milites Sancti Sepulcri attached to the Augustinian Canons Regular of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, recognised in 1113 by Papal bull of Pope Paschal II and of Pope Calistus II in 1122. It traces its roots to circa 1099 under the Frankish Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, "Defender of the Holy Sepulchre", one of the leaders of the First Crusade and first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is an internationally recognised order of knighthood.


Early life

McCormack's birthplace, The Bawn, Athlone. Birthplace of John McCormack, Athlone.jpg
McCormack's birthplace, The Bawn, Athlone.

John Francis McCormack was born in Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children of Andrew McCormack and Hannah Watson on 14 June 1884, [3] and was baptised in St. Mary's Church, Athlone, on 23 June 1884. His parents were employed at the Athlone Woollen Mills.

Athlone Town in County Westmeath, on the River Shannon, near the geographical centre of Ireland

Athlone is a town in County Westmeath, Ireland. It is located on the River Shannon near the southern shore of Lough Ree. It is the second most populous town in the Midlands Region with a population of 21,349 in the 2016 census.

County Westmeath County in the Republic of Ireland

County Westmeath is a county in Ireland. It is in the province of Leinster and is part of the Midlands Region. It originally formed part of the historic Kingdom of Meath. It was named Mide because the kingdom was located in the geographical centre of Ireland. Westmeath County Council is the administrative body for the county, and the county town is Mullingar. At the 2016 census, the population of the county was 88,770.

McCormack received his early education from the Marist Brothers in Athlone, and he later attended Summerhill College, Sligo. He sang in the choir of the old St. Peters church in Athlone under his choirmaster Michael Kilkelly. When the family moved to Dublin, he sang in the choir of St Mary's Pro-Cathedral where he was discovered by Vincent O'Brien. In 1903 he won the coveted gold medal of the Dublin Feis Ceoil. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and they had two children, Cyril and Gwen.

Marist Brothers Catholic religious institute of brothers and affiliated lay people

The Marist Brothers of the Schools, commonly known as simply the Marist Brothers, is an international community of Catholic Religious Institute of Brothers. In 1817, St. Marcellin Champagnat, a priest from France, founded the Marist Brothers, with the goal of educating young people, especially those most neglected. While most of the Brothers minister in school settings, others work with young people in parishes, religious retreats and spiritual accompaniment, at-risk youth settings, young adult ministry and overseas missions.

Summerhill College

Summerhill College is a Roman Catholic voluntary secondary school for boys located in the town of Sligo in northwest Ireland.

Sligo Town in Connacht, Ireland

Sligo is a coastal seaport and the county town of County Sligo, Ireland, within the western province of Connacht. With a population of approximately 20,000 in 2016, it is the second largest urban centre in the West of Ireland, with only Galway being larger. The Sligo Borough District constitutes 61% (38,581) of the county's population of 63,000.

In March 1904, McCormack became associated with James Joyce, who at the time had singing ambitions himself. [4] Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce, states that "Joyce spent several evenings with him" (i.e. McCormack), practising; along with Joyce's acquaintance Richard Best; McCormack persuaded Joyce to enter the Feis Ceoil that year, where the famous writer was awarded the Bronze Medal (3rd prize). [5]

James Joyce Irish writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer's Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

Richard Ellmann American literary critic and biographer

Richard David Ellmann was an American literary critic and biographer of the Irish writers James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. He won the U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction for James Joyce (1959), which is one of the most acclaimed literary biographies of the 20th century. Its 1982 revised edition was similarly recognised with the award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Ellmann was a liberal humanist, and his academic work focused on the major modernist writers of the twentieth century.

Feis Ceoil is an Irish music organisation which holds an annual competitive festival of classical music. It was first organised in Dublin in 1897 by Dr. Annie Patterson and Edward Martyn for the purpose of stimulating musical studies in Ireland and encouraging native performers and composers. It was a result of the general Gaelicising programme of the Gaelic League. It consisted of competitions for performance and composition and was supported by all musicians of the day, both traditional and classical. Prizes aggregating £800 were distributed among the successful competitors.


Fundraising activities on his behalf enabled McCormack to travel to Italy in 1905 to receive voice training by Vincenzo Sabatini (father of the novelist Rafael Sabatini) in Milan. Sabatini found McCormack's voice naturally tuned and concentrated on perfecting his breath control, an element that would become part of the basis of his renown as a vocalist.

Rafael Sabatini Italian-English writer

Rafael Sabatini was an Italian-English writer of romance and adventure novels.

Milan Italian city

Milan is a city in northern Italy, capital of Lombardy, and the second-most populous city in Italy after Rome, with the city proper having a population of 1,395,274 while its metropolitan city has a population of 3,245,308. Its continuously built-up urban area has a population estimated to be about 5,270,000 over 1,891 square kilometres. The wider Milan metropolitan area, known as Greater Milan, is a polycentric metropolitan region that extends over central Lombardy and eastern Piedmont and which counts an estimated total population of 7.5 million, making it by far the largest metropolitan area in Italy and the 54th largest in the world. Milan served as capital of the Western Roman Empire from 286 to 402 and the Duchy of Milan during the medieval period and early modern age.

In 1906, he made his operatic début at the Teatro Chiabrera, Savona. The next year he began his first important operatic performance at Covent Garden in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana , becoming the theatre's youngest principal tenor. In 1909 he began his career in America. Michael Scott ("The Record of Singing" 1978) writes that at this stage of his career he should be considered a tenor of the Italian style—and he sang (and recorded) French operatic arias in the Italian language. Steane ("The Grand Tradition" 1971) stresses that, for all his later devotion to the concert platform (and his Irish identity), he was (for albeit a relatively brief period) in essence an Italian operatic tenor.

Savona Comune in Liguria, Italy

Savona is a seaport and comune in the west part of the northern Italian region of Liguria, capital of the Province of Savona, in the Riviera di Ponente on the Mediterranean Sea.

Royal Opera House opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London

The Royal Opera House (ROH) is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented. A year later, Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there.

Pietro Mascagni Italian composer known for operas

Pietro Mascagni was an Italian composer primarily known for his operas. His 1890 masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana caused one of the greatest sensations in opera history and single-handedly ushered in the Verismo movement in Italian dramatic music. While it was often held that Mascagni, like Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was a "one-opera man" who could never repeat his first success, L'amico Fritz and Iris have remained in the repertoire in Europe since their premieres.

In February 1911, McCormack played Lieutenant Paul Merrill in the world premiere of Victor Herbert's opera Natoma with Mary Garden in the title role. Later that year he toured Australia after Dame Nellie Melba engaged him, then at the height of his operatic career aged 27, as a star tenor for the Melba Grand Opera Season. He returned for concert tours in subsequent years.

John McCormack in the 5000-seat New York Hippodrome c.1915-1916 John McCormack in New York Hippodrome c.1915-16.jpg
John McCormack in the 5000-seat New York Hippodrome c.1915–1916
Keep The Home Fires Burning

By 1912, he was beginning to become involved increasingly with concert performances, where his voice quality and charisma ensured that he became the most celebrated lyric tenor of his time. He did not, however, retire from the operatic stage until after his performance of 1923 in Monte Carlo (see biography below), although by then the top notes of his voice had contracted. Famous for his extraordinary breath control, he could sing 64 notes on one breath in Mozart's "Il mio tesoro" from Don Giovanni , and his Handelian singing was just as impressive in this regard.

McCormack made hundreds of recordings, his best-known and most commercially successful series of records being those for the Victor Talking Machine Company during the 1910s and 1920s. He was Victor's most popular Red Seal recording artist after tenor Enrico Caruso. In the 1920s, he sang regularly on radio and later appeared in two sound films, Song o' My Heart, released in 1930, playing an Irish tenor, and as himself appearing in a party scene in Wings of the Morning (1937), the first British three-strip Technicolor feature.

McCormack was one of the first artists to record the popular ballad "I Hear You Calling Me" written in 1908 by Harold Harford and Charles Marshall; he recorded it twice for Odeon starting in 1908 and a further four times for Victor between 1910 and 1927 – it became his best seller. [6] He was the first artist to record the famous World War I song "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" in 1914. He also recorded the song "Keep The Home Fires Burning" in 1917, though he was not the first to do so. He also sang songs expressive of Irish nationalism — his recording of "The Wearing of the Green", a song about the Irish rebellion of 1798, encouraged 20th century efforts for Irish Home Rule — and endorsed the Irish Nationalist estrangement from the United Kingdom. McCormack was associated particularly with the songs of Thomas Moore, notably "The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls", "The Minstrel Boy", "Believe Me If All (Those Endearing Young Charms)", and "The Last Rose of Summer". Between 1914 and 1922, he recorded almost two dozen songs with violin accompaniment provided by Fritz Kreisler, with whom he also toured. He recorded songs of Hugo Wolf for the Hugo Wolf Society in German. In 1918, he recorded the song "Calling Me Home to You".

In 1917, McCormack became a naturalised citizen of the United States. In June 1918, he donated $11,458 towards the USA's world war effort. By then, his career was a huge financial success, earning millions in his lifetime from record sales and appearances.

By 1920, Edwin Schneider had become McCormack's accompanist and the two were "inseparable". When Schneider retired, Gerald Moore took over as accompanist from 1939 to 1943. [7]

In 1927, McCormack moved into Moore Abbey, Monasterevin, County Kildare, and lived an opulent life by Irish standards. He had apartments in London and New York. He hoped that one of his racehorses, such as Golden Lullaby, would win The Derby, but the horse did not.

McCormack also bought Runyon Canyon in Hollywood in 1930 from Carman Runyon. McCormack saw and liked the estate while there filming Song o' My Heart (1930), [8] an early all-talking, all-singing picture. McCormack used his salary for this movie to purchase the estate and built a mansion he called 'San Patrizio', after Saint Patrick. McCormack and his wife lived in the mansion until they returned to England in 1938.

The grave of John McCormack in Deans Grange Cemetery John mccormack grave.JPG
The grave of John McCormack in Deans Grange Cemetery

McCormack toured often, and in his absence the mansion was often let to celebrities such as Janet Gaynor and Charles Boyer. The McCormacks made many friends in Hollywood, among them Errol Flynn, Will Rogers, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Charles E. Toberman and the Dohenys. After his farewell tour of in 1937, the McCormacks deeded the estate back to Carman Runyon expecting to return to the estate at a later date. World War II intervened and McCormack did not return.

McCormack originally ended his career at the Royal Albert Hall in London, during 1938. However, one year after that farewell concert, he was back singing for the Red Cross and in support of the war effort. He gave concerts, toured, broadcast and recorded in this capacity until 1943, when poor health finally forced him to retire permanently. [lower-alpha 2]

Ill with emphysema, he bought a house near the sea, "Glena", Booterstown, Dublin. [lower-alpha 3] After years of increasingly poor health, and a series of infectious illnesses, including influenza and pneumonia, McCormack died at his home in September 1945. He is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.


John McCormack blue plaque in London Blue plaque re John McCormack - - 1090140.jpg
John McCormack blue plaque in London
John McCormack statue in Iveagh Gardens, Dublin John McCormack statue.jpg
John McCormack statue in Iveagh Gardens, Dublin
Statue of McCormack outside Athlone Town Hall Count John McCormack statue, Athlone.jpg
Statue of McCormack outside Athlone Town Hall

McCormack was much honoured and decorated for his musical career. In 1928, he received the title of Papal Count from Pope Pius XI in recognition of his work for Catholic charities. He had earlier received three papal knighthoods, Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (KHS), Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great (KSG) and Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester (KSS). He was also a Knight of Malta and a Privy Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape, an honour which is known now as a Gentlemen of His Holiness.

One of the most famous performances of McCormack's Irish career was his singing of César Franck's Panis angelicus to the hundreds of thousands who thronged Dublin's Phoenix Park for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

A life-sized bronze statue of McCormack by sculptor Elizabeth O'Kane was established in Dublin on 19 June 2008. The statue stands in the Iveagh Gardens, close to the National Concert Hall. [9]

In his hometown of Athlone, he is commemorated by the Athlone Institute of Technology who named their performance hall after him, the John McCormack Hall.

He is also commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque on the house near Hampstead in London, 24 Ferncroft Avenue, where he lived from 1908 until 1913.

A silver €10 collectors coin with a mintage of 8,000 pieces was issued by the Central Bank of Ireland in January 2014 featuring a portrait of McCormack; the coin was issued as part of the EUROPA star series in keeping with the 2014 theme of European musicians. [10]

A statue of the tenor was unveiled in a square newly named in his honour outside the Civic Centre in Athlone on 24 October 2014. The sculpture, created by the Irish artist Rory Beslin, was celebrated by free admission to an exhibition of the celebrated singer's memorabilia. [11]

See also

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Informational notes

  1. Note: he was often named in Ireland by official sources as John Count McCormack, including as such at his grave stone.
  2. One of his last recordings was his 1941 Mighty Lak' a Rose rendition of the song by Frank Lebby Stanton (lyrics) and Ethelbert Nevin (music). For the recording, click here on YouTube
  3. He also bought and owned a property in County Wicklow known as the Old Conna, which later became a private hotel, a private property and subsequently Aravon School and Golf Course.


  1. "John Count McCormack". Athlone at the heart of it. Archived from the original on 5 February 2015. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  2. Nigel Douglas (1994). More Legendary Voices, Limelight Editions, pp. 131–152, ISBN   978-0-87910-193-0.
  3. The John McCormack Society (ed.). "John McCormack Biography, Beginnings, 1884 - 1907". The McCormack Experience. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  4. Richard Ellmann (1959). James Joyce, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, p. 151.
  5. Feis Ceoil medal winners
  6. Robert & Celia Dearling with Brian Rust (1984). The Guinness Book of Recorded Sound, Guinness Books, p. 135, ISBN   0-85112-274-4.
  7. The John McCormack Society (ed.). "John McCormack Biography, Later Career and Retirement, 1931 - 1945". The McCormack Experience. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  8. Gregory Paul Williams (2005). The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History. BL Press LLC. p. 284. ISBN   978-0-9776299-0-9.
  9. "New Sculpture of John McCormack for Athlone". Journal of Music. 7 January 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  10. Alexander, Michael (21 January 2014). "Ireland 2014 John McCormack 10 Euro Silver Coin". Coin Update. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  11. "Athlone commemorates world renowned tenor John Count McCormack". Athlone at the heart of it. 24 October 2014. Archived from the original on 29 October 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2015.