Shakespeare said "Comparisons are odious." And so they are, but at a time when beautiful
voices are in short supply, Ireland, a country just slightly larger than our state of West
Virginia, can boast of so many lovely voices. And it can also take pride in "Ireland's Greatest
Tenor"-Count John McCormack, and in our own time, "Ireland's Best Living Tenor"- Anthony
Kearns. So it would seem inevitable that the two men and their voices would be compared.
Especially as Anthony Kearns is singing a tribute to John McCormack-Icon of an Age, this
month at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin.
John Francis McCormack was born on June 14, 1884, in Athlone, Ireland, and began
his singing career within the Catholic Church, in Dublin. In 1902, with very little vocal
training, he won the gold medal at the Irish National Music Festival, the Feis Coeil. He
studied in Italy, under Maestro Sabatini, and returned to London in 1906, looking for
opportunities to sing professionally. It took less than a year - the fall of 1907 - for him to
make his debut at the great opera house at Covent Garden in London, at age 23 the
youngest principal tenor ever to sing there. In less than 3 years, he was singing in the
United States, his adopted country, where he became a citizen in 1919.
McCormack commented that until 1903 (age 19), he had never heard an opera. In that year
he attended his first operas, "Cavalleria Rusticana", and "Pagliacci", which are usually
performed together as a double bill. In his own assessment of his vocal strengths and
weaknesses, he said "two objects engaged the chief attention of Maestro Sabatini in
our work: the acquiring of a "mezza-voce", which I did not have by nature, and the
freeing of my high tones." And later, an assessment of his progress in the Spring of 1906:
"my high tones at last were coming with freedom and had the quality corresponding to
those in the lower part of the voice. And that elusive, to me, mezza voce seemed well-nigh
conquered. Musically I was well along and the repertoire one of respectable proportions....."
McCormack made his Italian debut as Alfredo in "La Traviata" in Naples. Alfredo was
also the role of his American opera debut, at the Manhattan Opera House (Nov.1909),
and he also chose it for his Metropolitan Opera debut in November, 1910. But it was
as a recitalist that he was incomparable. His repertoire ranged from the works of the
great masters to popular Irish songs. Both in performance and on recording, John McCormack
is known for his signature "closing pianissimi", (the softest of ending high notes), a skill
successfully achieved by few in the vocal world. His solo recitals included songs such as
"Where e'er You Walk" by Handel, Mendelssohn's "On Wings of Song", Thomas Moore's
"The Last Rose of Summer", "The Old House", "Lagan Love", "I Hear You Calling Me",
"Mother Machree", "Kathleen Mavourneen", as well as operatic arias and German Lieder.
He received a number of honors, including being made a Papal Count by Pope Pius XI, in 1928.
I see several similarities between John, Count McCormack, and Anthony Kearns, besides
the obvious Irish heritage. Both of course, possess beautiful, lyric tenor voices. With very
little vocal study, McCormack won the gold medal at the Irish National Music Festival, and
Anthony has said that when he auditioned for his first vocal competition, he was the only
singer without any training. As stated earlier, McCormack is known for his
"closing pianissimi", as is Mr. Kearns. Both made important operatic debuts in the role
of Alfredo in "La Traviata"; both, of course, have had successes in the role of "Faust."
And both are known for their solo recitals. As his accompanist, McCormack had Edwin
Schneider from 1912 - 1937. Schneider was by all reports a quiet, self-effacing man, and
a fine musician who actively participated in the building of McCormack's repertoire,
and may have had a say in what songs were considered suitable for the concerts. At
the end of his career, McCormack was often accompanied by Gerald Moore, generally
regarded as one of the great accompanist/partners of the century. Anthony Kearns is
blessed to have the talent and friendship of the wonderful Patrick Healy, certainly
regarded as one of the best accompanist/partners, and raconteurs of our time.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians has this to say about
John McCormack: " To this day, only a few tenors have been unequivocally known for
their lush vocal quality, elegant phrasing, outstanding diction, and remarkable breath
support. " I believe Anthony Kearns has earned a place on that short list.
John McCormack Society