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Thread: What Exactly Is an Irish Tenor?

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    Senior Member Bellinilover's Avatar
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    Default What Exactly Is an Irish Tenor?

    I get the impression that an "Irish tenor" is not simply a tenor from Ireland but rather a tenor who has a particular type of sound -- perhaps one that is higher than the average tenor sound or has a particular type of vibrato. Or is an Irish tenor simply a tenor who sounds best singing traditional Irish ballads? Can anyone here explain this oft-used term to me, and maybe give me some examples of specific singers? Thanks.
    Last edited by Bellinilover; Feb-10-2016 at 20:39.

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    The "Irish tenor" is generally just a light, lyric tenor like John McCormack.

    Luciano Pavarotti could never be mistaken for an "Irish" (light, lyric) tenor. His milieu is more opera by Verdi, Puccini, and other Italian composers And certainly not Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior, who is a dramatic Wagnerian tenor. BIG voice, good for Wagnerian roles like "Siegfried" and "Lohengrin."

    Many of them sang in variety shows rather than "classical" music.

    Finbar Wright singing So Deep is the Night - a set of words written to the music of Fredrick Chopin's piano Étude Op. 10, No. 3.

    Josef Locke singing I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen.

    John McCormack singing Panis Angelicus (César Franck).
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bellinilover View Post
    I get the impression that an "Irish tenor" is not simply a tenor from Ireland but rather a tenor who has a particular type of sound -- perhaps one that is higher than the average tenor sound or has a particular type of vibrato. Or is an Irish tenor simply a tenor who sounds best singing traditional Irish ballads? Can anyone here explain this oft-used term to me, and maybe give me some examples of specific singers? Thanks.
    I think it is a light tenor who is Irish and sings the John McCormack type traditional or early 20th century ballad song repertoire. I say 'who is Irish' because you wouldn't apply the 'Irish tenor label to, say, Kenneth McKellar or Stuart Burrows, who sang those songs long after they became museum pieces, but who were obviously from elsewhere in the British Isles. (Burrows' straightlaced woodenness and general lack of panache in these songs is most unIrish...) Someone like James Melton, perhaps. I know there are some good modern examples because I've stumbled across them on YouTube and once on this forum even, but unfortunately their names didn't stick in my mind. One thing the 'Irish tenor sound' isn't used to describe would obviously be the heavier voiced operatic tenors who happened to be Irish, such as Barton McGuckin (from what little survives of his voice) or the Anglo-French vocal powerhouse John O'Sullivan.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    The "Irish tenor" is generally just a light, lyric tenor like John McCormack.

    Luciano Pavarotti could never be mistaken for an "Irish" (light, lyric) tenor. His milieu is more opera by Verdi, Puccini, and other Italian composers And certainly not Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior, who is a dramatic Wagnerian tenor. BIG voice, good for Wagnerian roles like "Siegfried" and "Lohengrin."

    Many of them sang in variety shows rather than "classical" music.

    Finbar Wright singing So Deep is the Night - a set of words written to the music of Fredrick Chopin's piano Étude Op. 10, No. 3.

    Josef Locke singing I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen.

    John McCormack singing Panis Angelicus (César Franck).
    Pav was a light lyric tenor, who sang heavier roles in front of the microphone. François Nouvion, the leading expert on historical tenors, says that Pavarotti was 'an Opera Comique tenor' who should have stuck to that repertoire. Of course, he wasn't an Irish tenor, in spite of good diction and an easy top, not to mention better English than his two tenor buddies.

    Lauritz Melchior wasn't Irish?!! Are you sure?!!

    Josef Locke was an interesting singer who sang the Irish tenor repertoire, but his vocal production doesn't sound much like John McCormack's or indeed any of his compatriots, and I believe he modelled himself on Richard Tauber. Whereas one of the most Irish-sounding tenors IMO was John's protégé Father Sydney MacEwan, a Scotsman who made some interesting records in Gaelic, indicating perhaps that he possessed a deeper cultural connection with the music of the Celtic fringe than did McCormack, who tried and failed to learn the Irish language from his wife, the former concert singer Lily Foley. (Did MacEwan have Irish ancestry? I thought he did but can't find the reference.)
    Last edited by Figleaf; Feb-10-2016 at 21:45.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bellinilover View Post
    I get the impression that an "Irish tenor" is not simply a tenor from Ireland but rather a tenor who has a particular type of sound -- perhaps one that is higher than the average tenor sound or has a particular type of vibrato. Or is an Irish tenor simply a tenor who sounds best singing traditional Irish ballads? Can anyone here explain this oft-used term to me, and maybe give me some examples of specific singers? Thanks.
    I missed that part of your post the first time I read it, but you could be right. I think the general trend since Caruso has been for star tenor voices in opera to become deeper, more baritonal, and more heavily produced, and in recent times vibratos have certainly become very wide- so the idea of the 'Irish tenor' as a sort of Edwardian throwback makes sense, especially since their core repertoire dates back to before the advent of what we could loosely call modern tenor singing.

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    If you have a tenor voice, simply sing "Danny Boy" and pinch your nostrils at the same time.
    Last edited by hpowders; Feb-11-2016 at 02:17.

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    for some reason, all Irishmen sound like tenors to me (except the basses, they sound like lyric baritones XD)

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    You folks have me thinking of Joe Feeney, and watching the Laurence Welk show again. Talk about a lot of family memories watching that show...

    Last edited by Lukecash12; Feb-11-2016 at 02:37.
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    When the world was young, a very popular Irish tenor was Dennis Day. He was a regular on the Jack Benny show, on radio and then on TV. Born Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. Here he is in 1946.

    Last edited by KenOC; Feb-11-2016 at 02:44.


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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    When the world was young, a very popular Irish tenor was Dennis Day. He was a regular on the Jack Benny show, on radio and then on TV. Born Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. Here he is in 1946.

    Oh yes, I know Dennis Day because a local radio station plays "Jack Benny" most Sunday nights. I was hoping someone would mention him. He was of Irish descent and did have an exquisite voice for lighter music.

    And while we're on the subject of pop-like tenors I thought I'd put in a word for one of my favorite male non-operatic singers, Michael Crawford. Surely he has/had all the makings of an Irish tenor (Irish ancestry, high and light timbre). I even have a recording of him very touchingly singing an Irish medley in a concert.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Figleaf View Post
    I missed that part of your post the first time I read it, but you could be right. I think the general trend since Caruso has been for star tenor voices in opera to become deeper, more baritonal, and more heavily produced, and in recent times vibratos have certainly become very wide- so the idea of the 'Irish tenor' as a sort of Edwardian throwback makes sense, especially since their core repertoire dates back to before the advent of what we could loosely call modern tenor singing.
    Yes, I think the term can refer to more than just repertoire, because I've heard people say, "He has an Irish tenor," as though "Irish tenor" is a particular sound.
    Last edited by Bellinilover; Feb-11-2016 at 04:03.

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    Sr. Moderator Taggart's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Figleaf View Post
    Whereas one of the most Irish-sounding tenors IMO was John's protégé Father Sydney MacEwan, a Scotsman who made some interesting records in Gaelic, indicating perhaps that he possessed a deeper cultural connection with the music of the Celtic fringe than did McCormack, who tried and failed to learn the Irish language from his wife, the former concert singer Lily Foley. (Did MacEwan have Irish ancestry? I thought he did but can't find the reference.)
    Wiki says his mother came from Portadown in Armagh. He grew up in Springburn going to St Aloysius church there which had a mixed Highland and Irish congregation and went to St Aloysius College in Garnethill. He would, therefore, have been exposed to both Scots and Irish Gaelic. I just checked his discography and the only Gaelic I can find is the Lewis Bridal Song (Morag Bheag). Most of it is the standard Irish / Scottish repertoire that you would expect.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    Wiki says his mother came from Portadown in Armagh. He grew up in Springburn going to St Aloysius church there which had a mixed Highland and Irish congregation and went to St Aloysius College in Garnethill. He would, therefore, have been exposed to both Scots and Irish Gaelic. I just checked his discography and the only Gaelic I can find is the Lewis Bridal Song (Morag Bheag). Most of it is the standard Irish / Scottish repertoire that you would expect.
    Thanks Taggart, that's really interesting! I'm glad I didn't cause offence by including great Scottish singers such as MacEwan and McKellar within the Irish tenor tradition. I did accidentally annoy somebody on YouTube by mistakenly referring to the Welsh lyric tenor Walter Glynne as English- and this in spite of his obviously Welsh name and Celtic sounding voice! My favourite MacEwan record is the lovely Gaelic song 'Maighdeanan na h'airidh' (I thought there were a few more in Gaelic but I might be wrong...)

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yx7Uz8UK3U8

    This is kind of off-topic, but I'm wondering if there will be or is being some kind of Gaelic revival among the Scottish and Irish diasporas. I've noticed that it's trendy for English children of my kids' generation who have Scots/Irish ancestry to be given Gaelic names like Tadgh and Mhairi.
    Last edited by Figleaf; Feb-11-2016 at 12:06.

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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    When the world was young, a very popular Irish tenor was Dennis Day. He was a regular on the Jack Benny show, on radio and then on TV. Born Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty. Here he is in 1946.

    What a lovely record, thanks! I never heard of Dennis Day before. My new favourite 'Danny Boy', along with Elvis' of course. I prefer Day's sound to that of Joe Feeney (also new to me) who is clearly an 'Irish tenor', yet sounds pop-influenced and American. The Irish tenor has evolved more than I realised, and mostly on the other side of the Atlantic.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Figleaf View Post
    Thanks Taggart, that's really interesting! I'm glad I didn't cause offence by including great Scottish singers such as MacEwan and McKellar within the Irish tenor tradition. I did accidentally annoy somebody on YouTube by mistakenly referring to the Welsh lyric tenor Walter Glynne as English- and this in spite of his obviously Welsh name and Celtic sounding voice! My favourite MacEwan record is the lovely Gaelic song 'Maighdeanan na h'airidh' (I thought there were a few more in Gaelic but I might be wrong...)

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yx7Uz8UK3U8

    This is kind of off-topic, but I'm wondering if there will be or is being some kind of Gaelic revival among the Scottish and Irish diasporas. I've noticed that it's trendy for English children of my kids' generation who have Scots/Irish ancestry to be given Gaelic names like Tadgh and Mhairi.
    Interestingly, being able to sing in Gaelic doesn't mean you have to speak Gaelic. My mother's family came from the Donegal Gaeltacht but she had no Irish. The one Gaelic song she did sing was the"Cockle Gatherers" which is Hebridean and she probably picked this up from the singing of the Orpheus Choir in Glasgow.

    Maighdeanan na h'airidh or the Sheiling Song is Scots Gaelic again from the Hebrides. Scots Gaelic songs enjoyed great popularity as a result of the Mòd started in 1892. The Irish tradition of Sean-nós singing is much less common and has never enjoyed the same popularity.

    Father Sydney MacEwan came to St Aloysius College in the 1960's to do some recording in the church. The whole school (self included) were wheeled down as "background". At the end of the recording, when the take was played back there was a round of applause which was discouraged by the Fathers - this was a church not a concert hall!

    Scots Gaelic is taking off. There seems to be a big push in the Scots Gaeltacht areas to teach Gaelic and this is spreading as part of a general Scottish nationalism. The Irish picture is a bit different. Many people were taught Gaelic since it was a requirement for the Civil Service and University. It was disliked because it was a minority language spoken in "backward" parts of the country. However, it has become a badge of Irish identity so people will name their children Grainne or Pronsias even if they can't properly pronounce them.
    Last edited by Taggart; Feb-11-2016 at 13:01.
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