McCormack on Singing a Simple Song

Many of the older recordings of great singers feature songs that by common standards wouldn’t appear to be ‘grand’, ‘theatrical’, or ‘operatic’.  Many singers sang art songs, simple church anthems, and other chestnuts.  Will Crutchfield mentions in this article “Any number of 19th Century singers to be heard on early recordings” could produce a “simple melody” with a tone that is “clear, steady, agile, reliable”.

This ideal should never leave the forefront of your mind as you are training your voice.

The ideals of classical music are such that one should always be singing the most elevated music that one can at all times. This is also a very common trait in classically trained actors who dread appearing in commercials when they’d rather perform Hamlet.  Many people in the classical music world PREFER the elevated, esoteric, and operatic material to more simple melodies, art songs, and Lieder. But to really keep the voice agile in its scope, simple and serious songs should be equally under consideration for singers throughout their careers. I once went to a concert/recital given by Delora Zajick, complete with arias and not a simple art song among them. Impressed by the scope of the instrument, I longed for something simpler and less overt.

Songs such as “The Salley Gardens” arranged by Britten, songs of Michael Head, or chestnuts from the turn of the century such as “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”, and “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” could be touching and wonderful fodder for recital programming.

These simpler songs can also charm and beguile newer listeners who may not be familiar with opera or classical music. In my own experience, I came into opera through the films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who performed parlor songs as well as grand opera in their films together. Once I was exposed to opera, I wanted to learn more about it, and then I was hooked.  And not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can’t sing the simplest of songs well, why WOULD someone want to hear you sing a Verdi or Puccini role?

John McCormack, the famous tenor and also a singer who was trained in the Italian tradition, put it rather well himself:

I like the songs of simple melody and with simple harmonic construction. I mean, of course, the finer examples of such songs, in which the melodic line had genuine beauty and the treatment is of proportionate value…

…I emphatically do not mean trash…The songs like those of Stephen Foster are what I refer to; and their beauties are unquestioned because they have endured and because they unfailingly arouse our sincere emotions.

If a man or a woman does not happen to understand a Bach fugue it does not follow that the man or woman has no perception of musical beauty. The musical potentiality may be there, without having been cultivated. Give it food and light and air, in the form of understandable songs sung in a language that the hearer knows, and the hearer comes to appreciate and, presently, begins to acquire musical intelligence.

But – and this I hold to be vitally important – the song must be sung to people in their own tongue, and with an enunciation that makes every word understood.”

And what was Adelina Patti’s favorite song to sing?: “Home, Sweet Home”.

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