WHEN HE WHO ADORES THEE – MARGARET BURKE SHERIDAN
There are some recordings you hear for the first time which stop you in your tracks. Something about the music and / or the performance just hits you in the emotional solar plexus – and you find your eyes burning. It takes you by surprise. Your reaction is inexplicable. One such is a recording by an almost-forgotten opera star singing an Irish song called ‘When he who adores thee’. I’ll never forget when and where I first heard it.
Back in 1991 I’d turned up at EMI in Manchester Square to meet my friend Tim Chacksfield who was going to take me out to lunch. I’d done a series of compilations for Tim and we were going to discuss future projects. ‘Just before we go,’ he said, ‘have a listen to this. It’s a track I’ve put on this new compilation of old Irish songs.’ He told me the singer was a soprano called Margaret Burke Sheridan. I’d never heard of her – and he gave me a potted history. She was born in 1889 in County Mayo, was orphaned as a child and raised by nuns in the Dominican Convent in Dublin. Soon she was winning singing prizes in Ireland and a number of prominent people raised enough money for her to travel to London to study. There she was befriended by Lord Howard de Walden and Guglielmo Marconi. The two men raised further funds to send Margaret to Italy for further study. She made her debut in Rome as Mimi in La Bohème standing in at short notice for Lucrezia Bori. Puccini befriended her, describing her as ‘the perfect Mimi’ and the ‘only Madame Butterfly’. (Sheridan later recorded some of Mimi and was the eponymous heroine in the second complete recording of Madame Butterfly.) From Rome, she was invited to sing at La Scala, appearing there season after season. In 1919 she made her debut at Covent Garden when Gigli chose her to sing with him in Andrea Chenier. What a story – what a glittering rags-to-riches tale! Then it all went wrong. There are several versions of what happened: she became engaged to an Italian Count, only to discover that he was already married; she fell in love with the manager of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and he with her, but as he too was married, the relationship was never consummated; or, most vividly of all, a man who had fallen in love with Sheridan and been rejected blew his brains out in a box while she was singing on stage.
Whatever the truth, she lost her voice and confidence, and vowed never to sing in opera again, a vow she kept till her death in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin in 1958. Saddest of all was that she used to traipse the streets of Dublin in full stage make-up singing to anyone who would listen – an old bag lady mocked by passers-by. So, having told me all this, Tim put on this recording of Sheridan made in 1944 in the Aula Maxima, University College, Dublin (now the National Concert Hall). The intensity of the performance, the vocal ardency, the uncompromising emotion was unexpected – it sounded as though she was singing for lost love, maybe her lost Italian Count – I didn’t know, but the lyrics seemed to imply that. I sat there in Tim’s office with tears streaming down my face. Perhaps you’ll think Margaret Burke Sheridan too heart-on-sleeve, too obvious and over the top. I hope not. For me it’s one of the great vocal recordings.
Years later I found out about the song. The music is a traditional Irish air called The Fox’s Sleep. The lyrics are by Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Moore became friends with the Irish patriot and rebel leader Robert Emmet (1778-1803) at Trinity College, Dublin and was nearly dragged into the plots of the United Irishmen. Emmet was executed for high treason in 1803 and his famous address to the judges – ‘Let no man write my epitaph’ – was enshrined in one of Moore’s lyrics: ‘Oh, breathe not his name’. ‘When he who adores three’, it transpires, is not a love song between a man and a woman, but a love song for Ireland, owing its inspiration to Emmet’s fate.
Here are the lyrics:
When he who adores thee has left but the name
Of his fault and his sorrows behind,
O say wilt thou weep, when they darken the fame
Of a life that for thee was resign’d!
Yes, weep, and however my foes may condemn,
Thy tears shall efface their decree;
For Heaven can witness, though guilty to them,
I have been but too faithful to thee.
With thee were the dreams of my earliest love;
Every thought of my reason was thine:
In my last humble prayer to the Spirit above
Thy name shall be mingled with mine!
Oh, blest are the lovers and friends who shall live
The days of thy glory to see!
But the next dearest blessing that Heaven can give
Is the pride of thus dying for thee.