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Classical 101

St. Patrick's Day and a Family Legend

There's a legend in my family concerning my maternal Grandmother. Annie Murray was born in Ireland, Athlone, Co. Westmeath in 1887 and came to the states in 1915. She and my grandfather settled in Arlington, Massachusetts. I was lucky to have them both in my life until their deaths in the late 1970s. Here's the legend: Athlone is the geographic center of Ireland. Annie's family owned a dairy. Down the lane a bit was the McCormack family. They owned a farm. It seemed like a match made in heaven. The eldest McCormack son was Annie's age. The families knew one another, they had complementary businesses and it seemed obvious that Annie Murray should marry John McCormack. It didn't happen. Annie went to the states and never returned. There had been trouble with John. He was a big, hardy boy, built for farm labor. He wasn't interested. He sang at Mass in the local parish. His voice was admired, but fine singing voices are not uncommon in rural Ireland. But John had the 'bug.' He went to Europe to study music. This was a scandal. Music was not a profession and certainly not compared to a working farm. Long story short. A few years pass and John McCormack becomes one of the world's greatest and most successful tenors. He would sell out New York's Hippodrome, which has 6,000 seats, seven or eight times a year. He sang in every great opera house. The story is told of his meeting the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, out for a stroll on a sunny New york afternoon. "Hello Enrico!," said John. "How is the world's greatest tenor this fine day?"  To which Caruso replied, "Since-a when , Giovanni, did you become a baritone?" McCormack's recordings were huge sellers and made him very rich. He owned estates in England and Ireland. He bred race horses. He toured Australia at the behest of Dame Nellie Melba, who was a curmudgeon, and according to McCormack "a bloody fat old bitch".  He made a movie in 1930 called Song of My Heart. It is a terrible movie, but it does preserve a long sequence of McCormack in concert. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnuUwY8bX1w McCormack was made a Papal Count at the Vatican and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France. He died rich in 1941. My grandparents would go and hear him in Boston's Symphony Hall at his annual concerts. They'd take the streetcar down Massachusetts Avenue, and after the show they'd take the same streetcar back home. To my knowledge, they made no attempt to speak with him after the concert. It would have been like asking the Pope for cab fare. McCormack didn't need Annie and she, not the sentimental type, was married to my grandfather for 65 years. My mother used to say that "Grammy cried over the dinner dishes" when the news of McCormack's death came over the radio. I doubt it. What I do know is that John McCormack's recordings, some 100 years old are still exquisite listening.  He would sing French and German and then do a dozen Irish songs for encores. I visited Athlone in 1988.  John McCormack's birthplace is now a cafe, and a national shrine.  Annie's farm in long gone, but my memories of her are as lovely as an Irish rose.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.