A Singer Passes - 22nd Sept. 1945


A Singer Passes: Text Version

22nd September 1945


It was with a shock we learned last Monday morning that John McCormack was dead. It seemed unthinkable that he should die, he whose golden voice won fame and renown in the concert halls of the world. A great singer is rare, and McCormack was great; he towered above the singers of his generation.

Nothing can surpass the music of the human voice. No instrument, however sensitive or delicate, can interpret sensitive or delicate, can interpret our feelings, and passions, and emotions as can a gifted singer, and when he passes we are keenly aware of a great gap in our midst. A painter lives on his pictures, a composer in his music, a writer in his books; but with a singer it is different; his art is transient, it grows, and flowers and dies with him.

His countrymen were immensely proud of McCormack. Whether they were opera fans, or lovers of the old ballads of the countryside; whether their tastes lay in the arias of Mozart or Verdi, or in the songs of Moore, they all were proud of the man who won for himself a foremost place in the ranks of the world's greatest singers. Like Moore, he was an ambassador of song, and as they years journeyed on, and his fame grew, he came to be identified with the music of Ireland in the minds of many foreigners. He was essentially a part of Ireland, and Ireland is the poorer for his passing.


He was born in Athlone a little over sixty-one years ago. He was educated at Summerhill College Sligo, and, but for the fact that he just failed to win a scholarship, the world might never have heard of McCormack as a singer. He was nineteen when he won his first medal for singing. It is interesting to recall that he made two appearances in Limerick before he went to Italy. At the age of eighteen he sang in the Athenaeum, in the programme of the San Toi entertainments. He made little impression then. Later he came back to sing at a concert in aid of the Dominican Church, given in the Theatre Royal. This time he was hailed as a sensation.

In 1905 he went to Milan to continue his musical studies in that home of song. His teacher was the famous Sabitini, who had earlier trained the great Enrico Caruso. Sabitini is said to have remarked when speaking of his famous pupils: "I had a big task to place the voice of Caruso, but God had placed McCormack's.

In mentioning Sabitini, I might add that he was father of the celebrated novelist, Rafael Sabitini, who wrote equally well in several languages, and who is best known to English readers for historical novels like "Scaramouche," "Tavern Knight," "St. Martin's Summer," and "The Trampling of the Lilies."


In 1906 he made his professional debut at Savona in "L'Amico Fritz." He had now entered the world of grand opera. In 1907 he appeared at Covent Garden, London. Then began his great tour –- Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, London and back again to Italy. Later he toured Australia with Madame Melba, and when he returned to London in 1913 he had covered 75,000 miles and given 110 converts.

In America, where there are thousands of Irish, and millions of Irish descent, he was received with unbounded enthusiasm. He did not confine himself to operatic arias, but sang the old familiar songs of Ireland; and what that must have meant to the exiles we can well imagine.

McCormack used to tell how, when on the stage, he would let his eye rove round the audience until he picked out some old woman who looked like an Irish exile to him. Then with his eyes fixed on her he would sing an Irish song specially for her – "The Rose of Tralee," "The Star of the County Down," or "The Snowy - Breasted Pearl." Then after the performance he would send for her, and ask her if she was Irish, and in almost all cases the answer was "yes."


McCormack loved the old songs and ballads of Ireland; they were indeed the songs of his heart. Through him the world came to know many of our loveliest lyrics; through him it learned a little of our country's story, for he was "the sweetest singer of her saddest wrongs." People who thought that Ireland's best efforts at song writing lay in the compositions of Lever. Lover and Percy French were introduced to the real repertoire of the nation's song, and were charmed with beautiful pieces like "The Gentle Maiden," "She Moved Through the Fair," "The Lark in the Clear Air," and "The Dawning of the Day."

It is to be regretted that he did not know enough Irish to sing in the Irish language. The English words of his most famous songs were wedded to airs that dated from times when all Ireland was Irish speaking. If these old airs were so beautiful and enchanting, then surely the original Irish words, composed by the makers of the melodies, must have been beautiful and enchanting too. How wonderful it would be to hear his rich tenor voice rendering "Eibhlin a Riuin," or "Sean |O Duibhir a' Ghleanna," or "Eamon a'Chnuic," or "Una Bhan"! Then we'd see the full treasure of our folk song of which he, on account of the medium in which he sang, had captured but the reflection.

Well, John McCormack is no more. The last of all his silver songs are sung, and he has passed into the shadow of the golden land. But we owe him a deep debt of gratitude, for he won honour and renown for his native land in a field that few are privileged to enter. His voice will live with us in his renderings, but the singer is gone, and "silent in the clay is the mouth of song." Go ndeanaidh Dia Trocaire air!

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