John McCormack: Sunday Miscellany

by John Boland

When John McCormack was at the pinnacle of his popular fame, Rachmaninov said to him: “John, you sing a good song well but you sing a bad song magnificently.”

Rachmaninov was not alone in this lofty view of the songs that McCormack favoured, especially in the latter half of his career when he had abandoned the operatic stage and concentrated his genius on the concert hall. Referring to his growing love of sentimental ballads, the Grove Dictionary of Music commented sniffily: “By this time, he could no longer be taken seriously as a musician.” And WB Yeats, attending a McCormack concert in Dublin’s Theatre Royal, was heard to mutter “If it weren’t for the damnable clarity of the words!” – which was both a condemnation of the lyrics being sung and a backhanded tribute to McCormack’s famously perfect enunciation of them.

Other commentators were more understanding. The great musicologist Ernest Newman wrote on the occasion of McCormack’s death in 1945: “He never stooped to small and modest things; he invariably raised them, and with them the most unsophisticated listener, to his own high level.” And the Dublin-born critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor observed that “even when singing the trashiest of shop ballads, he sang without cynicism or condescension – he always sang from the heart.”

This was a quality he shared with other great interpreters of popular song. In the same year (1936) that he was in EMI’s Abbey Road studio recording his incomparable version of Thomas Moore’s She is Far From the Land, Billie Holiday was in a New York studio with Teddy Wilson and Johnny Hodges performing These Foolish Things – which could be described as the trashiest of shop ballads but into which, through her innate musicianship and her undisguisable honesty of emotion, Billie breathed immortality. Indeed, Philip Larkin chose Billie’s version of These Foolish Things as one of his Desert Island Discs precisely because of her ability to take an unremarkable song and to discover such depths of feeling in it that it becomes utterly transformed.

This is a rare quality, though you’ll hear it also in Sinatra (even if he was generally more picky than either Holiday or McCormack in what he chose to record), and in Pavarotti, too, who bestowed as much loving reverence on a simple Neopolitan song as he did on the greatest of operatic arias. And you’ll hear it in every note that McCormack ever sang.

I grew up listening to John McCormack, first on Radio Eireann and then on record, and I loved him from the instant I heard him, just as I loved everything that Kathleen Ferrier sang, but it was their inimitable way with a ballad rather than an aria that really enchanted me, and that remains true to this day. Each of them recorded uniquely heartfelt accounts of Silent Noon, that beautiful Vaughan Williams version of Rossetti’s swooning poem, but it was in the most seemingly simple and trite of songs that their genius was at its most affecting. Has there ever been a more heartbreaking expression of loss than that conjured up by Ferrier in the two minutes that it takes her to sing I Will Walk With My Love? (“I once loved a boy, just a bold Irish boy…”) Or of how time undoes us all, as McCormack persuaded us in his 1940 version of Moore’s Oft in the Stilly Night?

McCormack had recorded the song thirty years earlier, but he hadn’t really felt its meaning then, just as  Frank Sinatra didn’t really know what Ol’ Man River was about when he first attempted Kern’s great song in the 1940s. But as both men grew older, the deep truth of what they were singing – about  the passing of time and the transience of life and of love and of friendships – became clear to them and they brought to their later versions of these songs an aching and almost unbearable sadness.

But whereas Sinatra’s 1963 performance is almost operatic in its despair, McCormack opts for an unadorned directness of phrasing and feeling that’s even more affecting, aided by the beautful understatement of his great accompanist Gerald Moore. 

Commenting on this performance, Desmond Shawe-Taylor said of McCormack: “He felt, and makes us feel, the tears at the heart of things”

Certainly Thomas Moore never had a greater interpreter, nor Ireland a greater singer.

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