His was a classic rags-to-riches story, almost too good to be true: the 4th of 11 children, raised in a row house in Athlone, Ireland, who by his mid-30s became an international singing star adored by millions.
John McCormack (1884-1945) earned worldwide fame as a recitalist who performed a unique repertoire, combining classical music, folk ballads, and sacred music - all sung with his distinctive tenor voice. His recordings sold in the millions, and his popularity led to international tours and appearances in two feature-length films. He also was honored by Pope Pius XI for his work on behalf of Catholic charities.
On Nov. 14, Boston College will formally mark the 125th anniversary of McCormack's birth with a film, symposium, lecture, and musical performances. In addition, the John J. Burns Library at Boston College is hosting an exhibition through December 11, "John McCormack, Tenor: Celebrating 125 Years," which includes handwritten pages from McCormack's unpublished memoirs, correspondence, photographs, and sheet music from McCormack's personal collection.
The McCormack tribute is co-sponsored by the Boston College Institute of Liberal Arts and Center for Irish Programs, and held as part of the Gaelic Roots Music, Song, Dance, Workshop, and Lecture Series.
Sullivan Artist in Residence Seamus Connolly, director of Irish music programs at BC, says that McCormack, like renowned harpist Mary O'Hara - who appeared at BC in October and donated her papers and other materials to Burns Library - "lifted the music's profile, and brought it to a much wider audience.
"McCormack was able to tell the story of Ireland through his voice, his singing, and he helped bring the Irish experience to the world. He was a celebrity, paid as much as today's rock stars, but was known for his generosity and charity.
"So it's very appropriate for Boston College, a university with such strong Irish connections, to recognize his contributions."
The McCormack tribute will begin with the screening of the 2006 documentary, "John McCormack: The People's Tenor," at 12:30 p.m. in the Jenks Honors Library of Gasson Hall. At 2 p.m. in Gasson Hall, noted Irish musician, folklorist and scholar Mick Moloney, the Global Distinguished Professor of Music at New York University, will join New England Conservatory Professor Hankus Netsky for a symposium, "The Legacy of John McCormack." Paul Brock, a distinguished traditional musician from McCormack's home town of Athlone, will present a lecture at 4 p.m. in Gasson, "Impressions of the Great Irish Tenor."
Burns Library will hold a reception at 5:30 p.m., with a viewing of the McCormack exhibit. BC Assistant Professor of Music Ann Spinney will give a short talk titled "Treasures of the McCormack Archive."
The tribute finale will be a 7 p.m. concert in Gasson featuring music organized by Connolly. The concert will include performances by: operatic tenor Bryan Griffin, who has been affiliated with the Lyric Opera of Chicago; ballad singer Ciaran Sheehan, a star of the Broadway hit "Phantom of the Opera"; Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Bonnie Bewick Brown and pianist Timothy Steele, who will present the music of McCormack's long-time collaborator, Fritz Kreisler; and a quartet of Connolly, Moloney, Brock, and singer and multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Donohue.
"John McCormack, Tenor: Celebrating 125 Years" is free and open to the public. The list of events is available at bc.edu/schools/cas/mccormack-weekend/. For more about the McCormack exhibit at Burns Library, see bc.edu/libraries/about/exhibits/burns/mccormack.html.
Mary O'Hara Dropped By BC for
an Afternoon Chat
Mary O'Hara, whose expressive soprano voice and Irish harp playing has charmed audiences world-wide - and was an integral part of the modern Irish folk music revival - offered a multi-media presentation about her life and career at Boston College on Sun.,Oct. 11.
"Travels with My Harp: An Afternoon with Mary O'Hara" was sponsored through the Gaelic Roots Music, Song, Dance, Workshop and Lecture Series by the Boston College Center for Irish Programs and Irish Studies Program.
O'Hara's appearance coincided with an exhibit "Mary O'Hara, Singer and Harpist: A Retrospective" now on display at the Boston College John J. Burns Library. The exhibit features posters, recordings, correspondence, books and other materials O'Hara has donated to BC - including her first professional harp, made in Scotland by Henry Briggs.
O'Hara has performed on many of the world's major stages, including the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall. Beginning with her 1956 debut recording, she recorded 20 long-playing albums, 10 of which feature traditional songs of Ireland and Scotland on harp and voice.
The Irish folk music tradition was at something of a nadir when O'Hara first began performing in the 1950s, and the Irish harp - often regarded as an icon of Ireland - seemed a relic of the distant past. But O'Hara, along with such performers as Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, helped spark a revival of Irish music that has proved durable and wildly popular.
"The purity in her soprano voice, her diction and expression, the feeling in her songs, the dynamics in her performance - they all made a big impression," said Sullivan Artist in Residence Seamus Connolly, director of Irish music programs at BC. "She also excelled at harp, and not just her technique: Her arrangements were very clever, and she found new ways of using the harp to accompany songs."
O'Hara's life took a drastic turn, however, when her husband died in 1957; she continued performing, but in 1962 she entered a Benedictine monastery, where she stayed for nearly 13 years. She took up her career again in 1975, recording 13 more albums, hosting her own TV series and publishing three books, including her autobiography The Scent of Roses. Although O'Hara is now retired, her story lives on in a recently staged play, "Harp on the Willow," that was based on The Scent of Roses.