The McCormack farewell

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The retirement of John McCormack is unlike that of most others who work in the art of music, because with singers age is the dominating factor. His admirers rightfully regard him as a living embodiment of the minstrel of romance, yet they could hardly fail to notice that the voice heard at the farewell concert on November 27th at Albert Hall is not quite the one we knew and loved twenty years ago. The former power and pristine quality have faded, if only a little. McCormack has what no other living singer known to us possesses: a power of reaching the spirit of the song he sings, from the ditty of the land of his birth to a Wolf Lied, revealing all that is in it. And his art, so simple and intimate and modest, is the supreme negation of fuss and singers’ effrontery. He cannot evade popularity, such as goes also to our Kreislers and Paderewskis. He has the fame that went to Sims Reeves: both tenors had a long and successful career in opera and oratorio before acquiring a greater popularity as singers of songs.

Thousands of Englishmen who never heard Sims Reeves in opera or in oratorio retained and passed on their vivid impressions of his singing of Tom Bowling or Come into the garden, Maud and just as McCormack has made popular the Lieder of Hugo Wolf, so did Reeves succeed with Beethoven’s Adelaide and the song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte. Whether Reeves ever filled the Albert Hall as easily as McCormack does now, I do not know; but the novelty and vastness of the edifice may have brought overflowing crowds such as we cannot imagine. The fact is, I was very young in the ’seventies1 and when I reached the years of presumed discretion, the greatest of all English tenors had fallen to the low estate of a music hall ‘turn’, which in those days had not the repute that has come to them with the BBC lamentations over the alleged past glories of ‘artistes’.

The quality of Reeves’s voice must have been very different from that of McCormack’s. Reeves began as a baritone: but McCormack was always the genuine lyrical tenor. Both singers served long apprenticeship in Italy, a type of inevitable drudgery unknown in these days of haste. He told his friends the other night that when in Italy he was kept on scales for two and a half years. Several records exist of Donizetti and Mozart arias sung by McCormack: and these I would advise young singers to study as perfect examples of phrasing and breathing, quite apart from the matchless quality of the voice. They serve to remind us why he was acknowledged to be the finest Mozart singer at Covent Garden thirty years ago. In his perfection of vocal technique, plus the innate facility for slipping inside his songs, giving the impression of an art careless, easy and free, one feels that the song is sung for one alone.

Who is to take the place vacated by McCormack? I see no immediate successor, though such may be near, if the gods are propitious. Sims Reeves’s artistic farewell also took place at the Albert Hall (in 1891) though this, like Patti’s, was succeeded by so many tours and ‘last’ appearances that a ‘farewell’ became a misnomer if not a jest. But whatever lies in the future, at McCormack’s farewell we found his singing, style and enunciation were as matchless as ever. Each song was in a different mood, even the Irish ones, and these were the most popular, meeting with a generous response in encores.

The high mark in interpretation was, however, reached in Hugo Wolf’s Herr was trägt der Boden hier, — a heart-reaching song and wonderfully well done. That such unique interpretations have now come an end is a calamity. Gerald Moore, at the piano, gave wonderful help to the singer; and Eleanor Warren’s cello solos were smoothly played. Betty Humby2, by her superb playing of a Bach chorale, disclosed an insight into musicianship we had not suspected from her playing of a Chopin group.

Some may wonder what John McCormack will do with his time after retirement, for he is only fifty four. The answer is, I believe, that he will be associated in business with his own concert agent. Mr Frank Cooper, at Steinway Hall, George Street, W1.

  1. Indeed, he was only three years old when they ended! ↩︎

  2. Later Lady Beecham. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1939, pp. 198–299