Legacy of the Irish Tenor: A Tradition Revived

Just the other day I was wondering how many tenors there really are. Of course there are “The Three Tenors,” who actually consist of a spinto, a somewhat aging lyric, and a baritone. There are the countertenors, familiar fixtures on the early music scene who are also known to the fans of PDQ Bach—because his music calls for the “bargain counter” variety—and the bel canto tenors, whose schooling seems closer to “can belto” in many cases. Finally, there are the Irish tenors, some of whom are about as Irish as the average setter.

There are certain exceptions to that characterization, however. The prototype of the Irish tenor, as any member of the pre-Woodstock generation will tell you, was John McCormack. In fact, his entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera begins just that way: “Irish tenor, later naturalized American.” Of course, it is better not to ask what a “naturalized-American” tenor is, though there are a lot of them, too.

McCormack was born June 14, 1884, in Athlone, and died not in America but in County Dublin, on September 16, 1945. His career as an opera star was relatively brief, though it included a number of engagements at Covent Garden and the Met between 1907 and 1919, as well as frequent stage appearances in Boston and Chicago. As a recitalist, however, McCormack was without peer. From about 1910 until the mid-1930s he enjoyed immense popularity, yet he might well have ended up a footnote in musical history had it not been for one thing: the phonograph. The arrival of its vogue as a home-entertainment device coincided precisely with the peaking of McCormack’s career on the stage—and being a not-very-good actor but a smart man and a magnificent singer, the tenor was quick to take advantage of the opening the new technology offered him. Thanks to shellac, McCormack became a household name to generations of Americans, his voice instantly recognizable and indelibly imprinted on the consciousness of the century.

His 791 surviving recordings, made between 1904 and 1942, cover a formidable range of material, much as his recitals did. From the start, though less so in later years, McCormack championed the songs and ballads of his native Ireland, and it is with these, rather more than with any particular part of the operatic or art song repertory, that his name is typically associated today.

Many of McCormack’s finest registrations were made for the Victor Company, later RCA Victor and now BMG Classics. A CD entitled My Wild Irish Rose, containing 21 memorable Victor recordings made between 1910 and 1930, was released a few years ago (RCA Gold Seal 68668) and is already out of print. But some of the same material, and some interesting and rarely encountered archival treasures (including unpublished takes from the soundtrack of the 1929 film Song O’ My Heart and three broadcast recordings from 1936), can be found on a 1988 Pearl CD entitled John McCormack in Irish Song (Pearl GEMM CD 9338), which is still very much in circulation. The transfers, by Denis Hall, are outstanding, so that one can get a good idea of how McCormack sounded in this repertory.

McCormack’s vibrant timbre and clarion brilliance—so refreshing to encounter, even in 70-year-old transcriptions—utterly expose the wimpy insignificance of popular modern-day “voices” like Andrea Bocelli. Here was someone who really knew how to sing, who cultivated a burnished beauty of tone from bottom to top, whose delivery sparkled. On the Pearl CD he tosses off The Garden Where the Praties Grow with a gleam in his eye, at a spritely pace, and with a breathless delight that sounds almost like laughter in his voice. It’s delicious. We, his listeners, most of us not yet born when he died, become his confidants, smiling as he tells us a story in music. The three broadcast transcriptions, which include one of McCormack’s last performances of The Londonderry Air, are a special treat: The sound is quite immediate, and even though the voice is diminished (McCormack was 52), the artistry is as assured as ever.

It has been said that the popularity of the tenor voice crashed along with the stock market in 1929, and to an extent that is true. It is hard to imagine a tenor singing Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? or crooning a wartime ballad like I’ll Be Seeing You in front of one of the big bands. The Depression and the Second World War set the stage for a new kind of singer, typified by Bing Crosby, whose pleasant, reassuring baritone suited a nation desperately in need of mellowness.

But taste, like so many other things, is cyclical, and by the 1960s the tenor voice was making a comeback. A truck driver from Philadelphia named Alfredo Arnold Cocozza had paved the way, achieving movie stardom in the ’50s after playing the title role in a film called The Great Caruso. Better known as Mario Lanza, he’d become immensely popular, and then just plain immense—leading to his untimely demise, at the age of only 38, in 1959. Lanza was scarcely what one would call an artiste, but in opera houses around the world such luminaries as Franco Corelli, Fritz Wunderlich, Nicolai Gedda, Luciano Pavarotti, Alfredo Kraus, and Placido Domingo soon began to usher in a new golden age. Their careers, unhappily short in the case of Corelli and Wunderlich, and blessedly long in the remaining instances, would prove that the tenor voice not only had widespread appeal, but that its crossover potential could once again be profitably tapped.

The time was ripe for another classically trained Irish tenor to make his mark, and that tenor was Robert White. Despite the fact that he was raised in the Bronx, White’s credentials were impeccable. His mother was born in Galway and his father’s family had come over from Kerry, so belting out Irish ballads came naturally to him . . . so naturally that by the time he was nine, White was a professional. In later years he got a Juilliard diploma, mastered six languages, and built a successful career singing the classical repertory—everything from medieval mysteries to song settings by John Corigliano. But he never let go of his first love, Irish song.

It would be no exaggeration to say that White, who was born in 1936, learned the art of ballad singing at his father’s knee. He was three when his father, Joseph White (who played NBC radio’s Silver-Masked Tenor), started coaching him in the John McCormack repertory. He sang in the choir at St. Jerome’s Parish in the Bronx and frequently entertained the guests at Cardinal Spellman’s Christmas party for the New York Foundling Hospital at the Waldorf Astoria. At one of these events, White was seated next to Mrs. John McCormack, whose son, Count Cyril McCormack, gave him a silver cup, Irish harp, and roses for his contribution to Irish song.

As a child White was soon appearing on broadcasts of his own. He started with Milton Cross and Madge Tucker on a weekly children’s show called Coast to Coast on a Bus. Later he became a regular in the soap operas, and he made numerous appearances on Fred Allen’s show in the late 1940s with such stars as Crosby and Beatrice Lillie. On one of those shows he did a skit with Humphrey Bogart, playing a scoutmaster to Bogart’s Boy Scout. Once, he even got to sing with 01′ Blue Eyes himself—he came away from that gig with a silver watch inscribed “To Bobby White, from Frank Sinatra.”

White began his serious musical education in high school, continuing his studies at Hunter College and later at the Juilliard School. One of his fellow students at Hunter was pianist Samuel Sanders, with whom White would go on to make a number of recordings. After graduation, White sang with the New York Pro Musica under Noah Greenberg, did a good deal of traveling throughout the United States and Europe, and performed a substantial amount of new music, including works by Milton Babbitt, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber. All that time he kept singing his Irish ballads, waiting for someone to notice.

White’s big break came in the mid-1970s, while he was teaching music history at Hunter College and the Manhattan School of Music, in addition to singing on the professional circuit. Following a performance of Schubert’s Mass in G on a Musica Aeterna program, he attended a dinner party at which Alice Tully was a guest. “During our dinner conversation,” White told a New York Times reporter several years later, “Alice got very misty-eyed remembering John McCormack. She asked me why nobody sang his songs any more, and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She named one of them, ‘Mavis,’ that she hadn’t heard in years, so I sang it to her right on the spot, and she started to cry.”

America was about to celebrate its Bicentennial, and White realized that a big nostalgia kick was building. He felt that if his singing of Irish songs could get to someone like Tully, he should try to capitalize on it. He made a tape and took it to several New York producers. When Thomas Z. Shepherd, who was then at RCA, heard it, he agreed that there should be a recording. White got hold of his school chum Sam Sanders, and together they made a record called When You and I Were Young, Maggie. It was followed by a whole series of discs for RCA, including one called Songs My Father Taught Me.

Not too long ago White recorded a CD called Favorite Irish Songs of Princess Grace (Virgin Classics CDC 59666), a tender reminder that Monaco’s beloved princess was, after all, originally Grace Patricia Kelly of Philadelphia, the daughter of a hard-charging Irish immigrant. Unfortunately the RCA recordings have not been reissued on CD, and the Virgin CD is currently out-of-print. Those interested in sampling White’s artistry are advised to seek out two compact discs on the Hyperion label. Bird Songs at Eventide (Hyperion 66818) is a beautiful exploration of some of the less well-traveled byways of English and American song, in which White and pianist Stephen Hough present songs by Coates, Chadwick, Sullivan, and Bantock, among others. Sure on This Shining Night (Hyperion 66920) features songs by Friml, Malone, and Barber, and finds White partnered once again with Sam Sanders. Also, many of White’s songs, including the RCA recordings, are available on a three-CD set, With a Song in My Heart, distributed by VAL

America continues to produce a hefty supply of Irish tenors, of whom one of the more appealing is the Texas-born Gary Lakes. Lakes, now 48, had a short-lived career at the Metropolitan Opera between about 1985 and 1990. His huge frame marked him as a Heldentenor, but his voice was essentially that of a lyric tenor. He was excellent as Walther von der Vogelweide in Tannhäuser, but found himself over-parted as Siegmund, Florestan, and Parsifal—all of which he sang at the Met in the 1980s. Lakes may not have had the vocal weight or color for the heavier roles, and he may have gotten by more on his natural gifts than on technique, but he was a sensitive artist and known for his likeable personality offstage.

In 1995, Lakes and pianist Kevin Murphy teamed up on a CD entitled Ireland, Mother Ireland (Centaur CRC 2243). You can tell from the very first track that Lakes has a feel for the idiom of Irish song—the way he gently scoops the word “beauty” in the first line of the disc’s title song (“Oh, land of love and bee-yoo-ty”), the way the voice softens as the line goes up. This CD contains a number of standards, including “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” “The Bard of Armagh,” “Mother Machree,” “The Garden Where the Praties Grow,” and “The Londonderry Air.”

There is much to admire in the way Lakes sings here, beginning with his diction, which is absolutely perfect. The r’s are flawless, every word clearly enunciated. He doesn’t overdo the brogue, a strong temptation for many singers, but deftly avoids American-sounding vowels and diphthongs. Harder to pin down, though it will be obvious to anyone who listens to this disc, is the heart Lakes shows in these selections. He’s not afraid to show sentiment in his singing, and every drop of it seems genuine. The sensitive arrangements and Murphy’s admirable restraint in playing them add greatly to the disc’s appeal. Especially fine are the renditions of “Mother Machree” and “The Garden Where the Praties Grow.”

The current king of Irish tenors is Frank Patterson. Born in Tipperary, though now a resident of New York City, he is a prolific recording artist with several film credits to his name, including John Huston’s rendition of Joyce’s The Dead. During a recent public television membership drive, viewers of PBS stations around the country were treated to several airings of a special featuring Patterson, with the result that many of the tenor’s albums are currently out-of-stock or unavailable. Their number includes My Irish Molly O on the Colleen label and Ireland’s Best-Loved Ballads on Rego Irish Records.

Patterson, who in addition to being a singer and an actor is an avid golfer, has successfully made the green—as in Ireland—his niche. While his recital repertoire includes settings by Purcell, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Berlioz, he has long concentrated as a performer on the ballads and religious anthems of his native land. While the recordings featuring Patterson’s work as a balladeer are in short supply at the moment, one can readily find two CDs on which he appears as soloist in various hymns and sacred settings, both recently released. Faith of Our Fathers (FOOF 15020) and Faith of Our Fathers II (FOOF 15022), recorded in Ireland and licensed and distributed in this country by Valley Entertainment, are lavishly produced anthologies featuring the so-called Irish Philharmonic (a pickup orchestra), the monks of Glenstal Abbey, and assorted soloists including Patterson. Some of the settings go beyond sentimental to syrupy, but the recording and production are thoroughly respectable.

Patterson himself has said that the highlight of his career came in 1979 when he sang at a papal mass in Dublin celebrated by John Paul II and viewed by a worldwide television audience estimated at 500 million. Now, 20 years later, Patterson may not possess the instrument he did then—there is an edge to the voice and at times a lack of roundness and softness in the top notes—but he clearly sings with as much spirit and conviction as ever.

Like his countryman John McCormack, Patterson has succeeded in harnessing his talent to the prevailing media of the day. And one senses he has done it for the same reasons: not only in order to reach the largest possible audience, but to spread the message inherent in so much of Ireland’s music—the value of adherence to faith and tradition—as widely as possible.


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