Throughout history, many works of literature, music, theatre and the arts in general have come into being due to the financial support of third parties or institutions. The church, for instance, was the instigator of much famous architecture and music, even in the early Christian era. From the days of the Renaissance until the 19th century, figures as diverse as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo, Shakespeare and Beethoven relied to some extent on the patronage of wealthy individuals in producing some of their most inspired work.
More recent times have seen a growing recognition by civil society of the importance of support for the arts, thereby conferring on the public some sense of ownership of the results. The 20th century witnessed the rise of commercial sponsorship of many ventures, motivated sometimes by the profits that increased exposure brings, but often by a genuine desire on the part of wealthy individuals to make a contribution of a philanthropic nature to society. The internet age has seen the rise of concepts such as crowdfunding and the use of social media as the means of facilitating the realisation of large-scale creative projects.
Ventures such as the proposed John McCormack Electric Edition are made possible by a variation on all of these methodologies – that is, by subscription. The combined, relatively modest, contributions of a large group of like-minded individuals enable a concept to become a reality. Subscription concerts, an earlier iteration of this practice, were a feature of many European countries from the 18th century. Similarly, in literary circles, it was often the custom for books to be printed listing the names of the subscribers who had underwritten the publication.
In terms of sound recordings, one thinks of the Hugo Wolf Society, and the five sets of 78 rpm discs issued by it between 1931 and 1938, as perhaps the most visionary endeavour of this kind. The brainchild of the great record producer and impresario, Walter Legge, the Society, whose subscribers were limited to 500 in number, enabled some 145 of the composer’s Lieder to be published – about half of his entire output – in performances of surpassing quality; indeed, it may be said to have established the recognition of the hitherto neglected Hugo Wolf as one of the pre-eminent composers in this exacting genre.
The wonderful support given by so many individuals for our last effort, The John McCormack Odeon Edition, gives me hope that we may also be successful in this much larger enterprise. The figure to be raised is not small, but, emboldened by the example of the past, I have every confidence that not only collectors and music lovers, but in particular teachers of vocal art and their pupils, as well as established performing artists, will recognise the unique opportunity that is presented to us here – to complete the issuing of the entire recorded oeuvre of John McCormack by adding the electrical recordings to the sets already engineered by Ward Marston.
Of all the great singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era commonly referred to as the Golden Age, perhaps McCormack was the most worthy of emulation by future practitioners. Part of his particular genius was to combine the sterling virtues of a rigorously perfected technique with consummate musical taste and scrupulous attention to detail. Ernest Newman wrote of McCormack that “He was a supreme example of the art that conceals art, the sheer hard work that becomes manifest only in its results, not in the revolving of the machinery that has produced them.” While many musicians, both vocal and instrumental, are gifted to the extent that they may be described as virtuosi, in only the greatest is there the awareness and humility to place their talent entirely at the service of the music – to be the conduit for the wishes of the composer, rather than using the music as a vehicle for their own self-aggrandisement.
In McCormack’s case, however, there is a further gift that sets him apart: one that cannot be taught, nor perhaps adequately described. It seems to manifest itself in his ability as a communicator and to transcend even music itself in the directness with which the listener is connected to the heart of the message.
Something in the nature of the greatest creative artists seems to be liberated to speak directly from the core of their being through the medium of their art, however fallibly human they may be in other areas of their lives. Edward Elgar, for instance, so notoriously prickly and sensitive to the opinions of others, wrote to his friend, August Jaeger, about his setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius that in composing it he had written out his “insidest inside”. Beethoven himself, in a dedication above the Kyrie of the Missa Solemnis, inscribed “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” (“From the heart – may it return to the heart!”).
Of the musicians whose work has been captured by the gramophone, itself an invention so imperfect and capricious in the early decades of sound recording, something transcendent in the soul of the greatest artists still shines through to the extent that it seems to touch us directly and individually. Names such as Casals, Kreisler, Caruso and Rachmaninov are often mentioned in this regard, but doubtless everybody pays homage to those they would select for their own particular pantheon. What artists such as these seem to share, beyond their undisputed technical prowess, is an unconstrained openness of spirit and, as Caruso put it, “something in the heart”.
John McCormack’s art places him firmly in this company. While his vocal technique, with its evenness of line, mastery of breath control and purity of tone may have equipped him to be worthy of the accolade “the true redeemer of bel canto”, as bestowed by the great Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, such attributes would remain little more than vocal scaffolding were it not for his supreme gift of communication. It is this above all – art rather than artifice, sentiment rather than sentimentality – that elevated him to become what Ernest Newman was inspired to describe as “a patrician artist, dignified even in apparent undress, with a respect for art that is rarely met with among tenors.”
On the demise of any great personage, what lives on after them to benefit future generations? Reputation and biography survive, certainly, and in the case of everyone from statesmen to artisans, their various works. Happily, in the world of the arts, composers leave their scores to be performed, writers leave their books, poets their verse and painters their canvases. In the case of musical interpreters, however, those of the distant past are but footnotes in history: we know of the reputations of great singers such as Farinelli in the Court of Spain, of the celebrated Mrs Cibber in Handelian London and Dublin, and of figures such as Giovanni Battista Rubini, Maria Malibran and Jenny Lind in the opera houses of the 19th century. Numerous tributes exist detailing the extraordinary talents of these performers, with meticulous descriptions of their voices, their singing style and their often colourful lives. Of their great art, however, not a note survives.
For this reason alone, I believe that the task of restoring and preserving for posterity the existing vocal legacy of one as seminally important in the history of vocal art as John McCormack is too vital to be left to chance. At the end of the day, all we have is the recordings. We owe it to future generations to ensure that, as with old master paintings being allowed to reveal themselves in their original beauty by the painstaking removal of centuries of accretions, these fragile sound documents are afforded the highest possible quality of expertise in transferring them to a permanent medium. We could not ask for the services of one more qualified or more passionately committed to this vocation than Ward Marston.
The prospect of realising this dream, then, is within our grasp. I invite you to join our number, so that you may have the satisfaction of knowing that, when the opportunity arose, you were there – that you were part of the achievement of something worth doing.
Jeremy Meehan – Ballinora, Easter 2016.