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John McCormack

John Count McCormack (14 June 1884 16 September 1945), was a world-famous Irishmarker tenor and recording artist, celebrated for his performances of the operatic and popular song repertoires, and renowned for his diction and breath control. He was also a Papal Count.

Early life

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

McCormack received his early education from the Marist Brothers in Athlone, and later attended Summerhill College, Sligomarker. In 1903 he won the coveted gold medal in the Dublin Feis Ceoil and it was this event which set him on his climb to success. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and the couple had two children, Cyril and Gwen.

In March 1904, McCormack became associated with James Joyce, who at the time had singing ambitions himself. 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.


Fundraising activities on his behalf enabled McCormack to travel to Italy in 1905 to have his voice trained under Vincenzo Sabatini (father of the novelist Rafael Sabatini) in Milanmarker. Sabatini found McCormack's voice naturally placed and concentrated on perfecting his breath control, an element that would become one of the foundations of his renown as a vocalist.

In 1906 he made his operatic début at the Teatro Chiabrera, Savonamarker. The following year he undertook his first important operatic appearance at Covent Gardenmarker in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, becoming the theatre's youngest principal tenor. In 1909 he launched his career in America. Michael Scott ("The Record of Singing" 1978) notes 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.

In 1911, McCormack 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.

By 1912 he began to turn his attention increasingly to the concert stage, where his voice quality and charisma ensured that he became the most celebrated lyric tenor of his day. He did not, however, retire from the operatic stage until 1923 in Monte Carlo (see biography below), although by now 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, the first on phonograph cylinder in 1904. His most commercially successful series of records were those for the Victor Talking Machine Company in the 1910s and 1920s. He also regularly broadcast on the radio and appeared in a number of sound films.
John McCormack in the 5000 seat New York Hippodrome c.1915-1916
McCormack was the first artist to record the World War I hit song It's a Long Way to Tipperary, in 1914. In addition to deeply felt sentimental airs, he presented an openly political face: his recording of The Wearing of the Green, a song about the Irish rebellion of 1798, gave encouragement to the 20th century movement for Irish Home Rule Bill and endorsed the Irish Nationalist estrangement from the United Kingdommarker. McCormack was particularly associated 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 1917 McCormack became a naturalized citizen of the United Statesmarker. In June 1918 he donated $11,458 towards the USA's war effort in the First World War. By now his career was a huge financial success, earning millions in his lifetime from record sales and appearances, though he never was invited to sing at La Scalamarker in Milanmarker.

In 1927 McCormack moved into Moore Abbey, Monasterevanmarker, County Kildaremarker and lived an opulent life by Irish standards. He had central apartments in Londonmarker and New Yorkmarker. He hoped that one of his racehorses, such as Golden Lullaby, would win the Epsom Derby, but was unlucky.

McCormack also bought Runyon Canyon in Hollywood in 1930 from Carman Runyon. McCormack fell in love with the estate while there filming Song o' My Heart (1930), an early all-talking, all-singing picture. McCormack's 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.

McCormack toured often, and in his absence the mansion was often rented out to celebrities such as Janet Gaynor and Charles Boyer. The McCormacks made many friends in Hollywood, among them Will Rogers, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Charles E. Toberman and the Dohenys. After his farewell tour of America 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.
Grave of John McCormack
McCormack originally ended his career at the Royal Albert Hallmarker in London, in 1938. However, one year after that farewell concert, he was back singing for the Red Cross and in support of the war effort. He did concerts, toured, broadcast and recorded in this capacity until 1943, when failing health finally forced him to retire permanently. Ill with emphysema, he bought a house near the sea, "Glena", Booterstownmarker, Dublinmarker. He is buried in Deansgrangemarker Cemetery.


He was much honoured and decorated for his services to the world of music. His greatest honour came in 1928, when 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, Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great and Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester. He was also a Knight of Malta and a Privy Chamberlain of the Sword and Cape, an honour which today is known as a Gentlemen of His Holiness.

To many people the highlight of McCormack's Irish career was his singing of César Franck's Panis Angelicus to the thousands who thronged Dublinmarker's Phoenix Parkmarker for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

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

In his hometown of Athlone, he is commemorated by Athlone Institute of Technology who named their performance hall after him. It is called the John Count McCormack Hall. As well as musical performances, it also hosts various functions and social events.


The Great Irish Tenor: John McCormack, by Gordon T Ledbetter, Town House, 2003. ISBN 1-86059-178-7

"John McCormack, Icon Of An Age" DVD Box Set

Notes and references

  1. Douglas, Nigel (1994). More Legendary Voices, pp 131-152
  2. cf. biography at
  3. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p.151.
  4. *
  5. He also bought and owned a property in County Wicklow called the Old Conna, which later became a private hotel, a private property and subsequently Aravon School and Golf Course.

See also

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