The most historic aria Renee Fleming ever sang?

The most historic aria Renee Fleming ever sang?


norman lebrecht

September 02, 2018

Singing Danny Boy at Senator John McCain’s funeral was not just a national moment.

It might even be a national turning point.


  • Alex Davies says:

    Out of interest, do most people know this piece as a song, Danny Boy, or as a tune to which words were only relatively recently added? I grew up in an area without any substantial Irish community and had never heard of Danny Boy until I overheard somebody saying that she had been to a funeral at which Danny Boy had been performed, and she said it as if it were particularly poignant. At school, on the other hand, I did learn a folk tune arrangement by Percy Grainger called The Irish Tune from County Derry. Only some time later did I realise that this was what people were referring to when they talked about Danny Boy. Personally, I’ve always preferred it just as a tune without a song to accompany it. In fact, is the song Danny Boy even particularly popular in Ireland, or is it more of an Irish American thing now?

    • steven holloway says:

      The words were written by the English lyricist Fred Wetherly in 1910.

    • Mary Ann says:

      I heard it growing up in late forties in British movies about WW2. Soft and simply sung, it was unforgettable and beautiful. Meant for a tenor I would say. No struggle or broken passages. Just a voice that floats poignantly and with good range.

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Pudding, well over-egged. Not unexpectedly by RF.

    • V.Lind says:

      Hadn’t played it before I answered Alex, above. Worst arrangement, one of worst performances and definitely some of the worst playing of it I ever heard. And I grew up with it all my life — one of the first songs ever sung to me.

  • V.Lind says:

    It’s the Londonderry Air and is ancient. Words came later. Much used in Northern Ireland, as well as in the Irish diaspora.

  • Petros Linardos says:


    To my ears the performance sounded so deeply felt that I didn’t care to criticize any vocal or stylistic flaws.

  • Bylle Binder says:

    Could it have been any kitschier?
    One really wonders where her once so lovely voice is gone …

    • Saskia Ellmer says:

      No, it definitely couldn’t have been any kitschier.

      It’s such a pity that people don’t know when they should stop to sing. I remember when I heard Renee Fleming in different roles many many years ago. Her voice was so beautiful. Now unfortunately it’s unbearable to listen at her. The voice is ruined and this horrible vibrato hurts my ears.

      • Una says:

        In your opinion …

        • Saskia Ellmer says:

          No, the destroyed voice are facts, very bitterly facts.

        • The View from America says:

          It was absolutely unbearable — cringeworthy to the max. I had to turn the volume off.

          I was shocked, too, because in its prime, Ms. Fleming’s voice was perfection.

      • Bill Oxford says:

        This was a memorial service, not a classical performance. I think it to be in very poor taste that anyone criticised Ms Fleming’s voice in this context.

      • Danna Dewan says:

        You are a most unfortunate person….Renee is live and well and doing just fine….her voice is found in many award winning films….she has spent the last 8 months on Broadway. I just saw and heard her at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (the capital of Canada for the U.S. who don’t know who we are)….she go 6 encores ….Danny Boy was meant to be soulful

  • Kundry says:

    V.LIND you are too kind 🙂 I know this tune very well and this is, by far, the most horrible rendition imaginable on all musical aspects, starting with Fleming and ending with how out of tune everyone is. A tiny piece of musical advice Renee – this song is at its most moving when it is sung simply. It is not “Inneggiamo..” from Cavalleria Rusticana.
    The choir behind her would have done a much better job singing it a capella., but Renee was specifically requested by McCain.
    John McCain ever a show off even in the afterlife. I give it a thumbs down.

    • Olassus says:

      “John McCain ever a show off even in the afterlife.”

      Indeed … and they need a maggot watch on that coffin, yesterday in the fourth day of a five-day funeral.

      What kind of man plans a five-day funeral for himself?

      • norman lebrecht says:

        A better kind of man than the one who writes a comment like this.

        • Olassus says:

          Postmortem arrogance.

        • Anonymous says:

          Wow! I actually agree with NL for once. Strange days!

          Yes, he planned a grand exit, but let’s be real: he would not have been allowed to lie in state in either Arizona or the US Capitol without the permission of the state and federal governments. I can assure you many a politician feels they deserve to lie in state but only few deserve it. Whether you agreed with his politics of not (and I did not!), he earned the right to a state funeral for his service to this country.

          As for Renee, I was not impressed with her singing but my catty, judgmental feelings fell away when I saw Cindy McCain finally break downand rest her head on her son’s head for comfort. In that moment I’m sure she was not thinking about the terrible arrangement or how Renee just isn’t what she used to be so maybe I shouldn’t either.

          • Jon Freeman says:

            I agree. This is hardly a time for a musical critique. McCain requested the song and the singer. Basta.

          • Mona says:

            True. Perhaps noone should. Wrong place, wrong moment.

          • ED says:

            My thoughts exactly. I’d be intrigued to meet some of the commenters on this site. I’m semi-convinced that they’re Mr Lebrecht’s provocative bots, which would be sheer (evil) genius. I can’t imagine any people I know would ever stoop as low as some here do on a regular basis.

        • Jack says:

          Thank you, Norman

        • Bill Oxford says:

          Quite, Mr Lebrecht. Some people have absolutely no decency.

      • Ms.Melody says:

        De mortius nil nisi bonum.

      • anon says:

        Context is everything:

        1) The left needed the 5 day funeral life to shut Trump up for a week. And to stick it to Trump.

        2) Trump has a point, how is it “heroic” to be a POW? Every survivor of the Nazi camps should have gotten 5 day national funerals, not just the son of a general/senator/one time party nominee for the presidency.

        3) How is it heroic to bomb the Vietnamese? American should have never been in Vietnam.

        Just saying.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          1. I have to agree that a 5-day funeral is a bit over the top.

          2. Mccain’s service in Vietnam was way more than being POW, not to mention refusing the Vietkong’s offer of early release.

          3. Soldiers don’t make political decisions.

          I disagreed with most of Mccain’s political positions, but deeply appreciated his approach to congressional service, not to speak of how he saved countless lives by voting down the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Actually, McCain is just the type of elected representative who makes parliament (or congress) work well. Even when wrong (which he often was), he makes others think much harder about policy, which makes the solutions eventually arrived at better. And since others knew that he made his points not just for party advantage, they took his criticisms much more seriously.

      • Jack says:

        I say they need a maggot watch for your mind, but judging from your comment, I’m afraid it’s way too late.

        In case you’re actually interested, Senator McCain planned yesterday’s service at the National Cathedral. Period.

      • Mona says:

        Did you need a whole night to cook up this nasty slander of a decent (and even more important just deceased) man, or did it just rush out? Goodness. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Mary says:

      Do I agree! Well put. Simplicity. That’s the beauty of it.

    • Martain smith says:

      Agree entirely, Kundry. The song demands simplicity and unaffected delivery.
      Talk about gilding the lily! (But I’m not surprised. Artistry has nothing to do with a timbre blessed by nature).

  • Caravaggio says:

    Fleming did what Fleming always does best. Meaning overcooking the waffles and then oversyruping them while unable to keep a tune. An ugly, hideous, tasteless mess.

    • Ms.Melody says:

      While I would agree that Renee Fleming’s voice isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and I am relieved that she will not be appearing in “Der Rosenkavalier” again, I think you are being much too hard on her. Yes, she became mannerly and overly sentimental later in her career, but her voice was beautiful and she sang a wide variety of music which was not often performed. Can you name one singer who sounds as good at 50+ as they did at 30?. Her performance was heartfelt, she honored the wishes of the departed. To compare her to the great E.Steber’s recording is just not fair. Obviously, it was not recorded at a funeral in front of the grieving family. So, IMHO ” Ugly, hideous, tasteless mess” is over the top and out of line here.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Contrast with

    or with

    Danny Boy and Carry Me Back To Old Virginny respectively (and respectfully).

  • william osborne says:

    The harsh (and sometimes tasteless) criticisms of the performance are ridiculous. Her voice is gorgeous, her control throughout all registers impeccable, her intonation accurate, her highly expressive nuance the very essence of Gaelic keening. And there is nothing particularly objectionable in the arrangement either.

    • Martin Bookspan says:

      Bravo, Willam Osborne…….

    • william osborne says:

      The Irish keening tradition is very interesting, but it has all but vanished. The church objected to it, and it isn’t in keeping with modern sensibilities, but I think studies of the tradition could be a source of profound musical and dramatic inspiration as Ireland continues the long journey of reawakening its cultural identity. Perhaps its just me, but one senses untold depths hidden in the fragmented remains of Europe’s Gaelic folklore. Even Yeats only scratched the surface. For those interested, a bit of info about Irish keening in this short video:

    • Nick2 says:

      Agree with William Osborne about the voice, but I thought the arrangement dreadful.

    • Caravaggio says:

      Um, no. Her intonation was not accurate at all. And the former beauty of the voice is now a memory.

  • Jeremy Moeller says:

    For any of you idiots criticizing her performance, go try to sing or perform at a funeral. It’s an extremely difficult place to perform anything (and yes, I have performed at two funerals). Maybe her voice isn’t what it was in her prime (obviously one of the all time greats), but its still a beautiful instrument, and it’s unbelievable to me that anyone would criticize someone singing at a funeral.

    • Vincent Freeman says:

      I completely agree with Jeremy Moeller. Who wouldn’t get a little choked up.The funeral service was one of the saddest I’ve seen, and I’m a Catholic. Renee Fleming’s singing was heartfelt and in-the-moment, and her rendering of Danny Boy was of the moment and rang true. That is all that matters.

  • Mary Lou Fallis says:

    The words to Danny Boy were written by Frederick Weatherly in 1923, separately from the tune Londonderry Air, and was originally published to no great success. His American sister in law sent him the old Irish tune in 1912 which everyone now knows as Danny Boy and with which his words fitted perfectly. It was published in 1913 and quickly became a standard.
    Weatherly, was a barrister in Bath and wrote over 3,000 lyrics. He wrote the words to Roses of Picardy(music,Hayden Wood] and the well known, The Holy City( music, Stephen Adams)

  • J. Gould says:

    To the critics of Renee Fleming:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
    The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy;
    there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.”

    – Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena” speech, April 23,1910

    • laurie says:

      This is wonderful. Thank you.

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:


    • Alan says:

      Thanks, J. Gould.

    • Caravaggio says:

      To be sure, there is truth to this. It is however hypocritical to imply that you may be above the fray. May he or she who has not critiqued cast the first stone. Anyone who dares to make music in a public setting, regardless of context, instantly opens him/herself up for criticism. It’s par for the course. That Fleming sang poorly despite the sorrowful scene around her does not rescue her singing nor make it any better nor recuse the quality of her performance from discussion and opinion making. We are all critics and we are all guilty.

      • Una says:

        Really? I’ve only ever supported my fellow singers as we are not robots.

      • J. Gould says:

        I implied nothing about myself whatsoever. I posted the Teddy Roosevelt speech in its entirety that Obama cited in his eulogy. He cited it to reference Trump the draft dodger’s criticism of McCain the prisoner of war. I refer to the critics of Fleming.

        It’s very Caravaggio (and Bernini) of you to try to start a war over nothing, but as they say “What if they made a war and nobody came?”

  • Albert de Meillon says:

    To those critics of Renee singing danny boy.Stop sucking lemons and get a life.Her rendition was touching and quite elegant.

  • Mary Lou Fallis says:

    Damn autocorrect…Fred wrote the words to Danny Boy in 1910!

  • MacroV says:

    I’m not going to comment on Renee’s peformance; it was good of her to sing. But I do like the Granger arrangement and the band they had on hand (from the Naval Academy, I would gather) could have done a fine rendition of that version.

  • anon says:

    She couldn’t sing it simply and be beautiful, so she emoted it up, to make it more “raw”, but nothing can hide her ruined voice, she switches registers like she’s switching elevators. Good thing she wasn’t invited to the Aretha Franklin funeral. *Those* divas wouldn’t have any of it.

    • william osborne says:

      When singing popular music she very consciously uses register coloration. I die for her sensual chest tones and how she can then move to such beautifully transparent and light head registers. Sonic ecstasy. I hope her exploration of new bel canto performance concepts will be widely emulated.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Guys and dolls–this was not a performance to be critiqued. It was meant to fulfill a promise from one human being to another, to provide solace during a sad time in many lives. That’s one of the purposes of music, right? C’mon. Remember the origins of music and forget the opinions. And for my taste, anything Renee Fleming is beautiful. Few can cross the styles and she does so effortlessly. And don’t think for a minute her subconscious was not aware that millions upon millions of eyes, ears and hearts were on her for that moment. Her job was to give the McCain family peace in accepting the inevitable. And she did so with elegance, pride and beauty.

    • Ms.Melody says:

      Beautifully stated.
      Thank you

    • John Rook says:

      I do not know of any Slipped Disc contributor so consistently generous and level-headed as Jeffrey Biegel. Thank you, sir, and please do not stop commenting.

    • Richard Bloesch says:

      And that last beautiful note she sang was without any vibrato whatsoever. By the way, I loved the arrangement for string quartet and accordion.

    • Una says:

      Well said and thank you for suxh generosity of spirit. So many armchair singing experts who know it all!. But singing Danny Boy at any funeral is never a walk in the park for any singer, and in those curcimstances, it pays to be generous and even show some kindness. If you dont like Renee Fleming, simple, don’t listen to her! Go find someone you like but it was Renee who was invited to sing on that occasion – not you, me or anyone else! .

    • AMetFan says:

      Sadly, Ms. Fleming has been in the twilight of her operatic career for several years now, but that is beside the point of her participation in the funeral service for a great American hero. She performed with honesty and heart and dignity, and that is what was called for. It was what John McCain wanted in celebration of his life and what he richly deserved.

      How often can we feel more uplifted than sad when someone departs this earth? RIP and thank you, Senator McCain.

  • Mike_T says:

    I found the camera’s relentless gaze at Mrs McCain to be crass, tasteless and intrusive.

    • anon says:

      I found her décolleté crass and tasteless.

      Cover up woman, you’re in church, you know you’re being filmed, you know the camera is above you!

      • Nick2 says:

        Two comments that have absolutely nothing to do with Renee Fleming – and both utterly childish.

        • P says:

          It is incredible that this trivial,insignificant episode has caused more
          Of an outrage than a murder of a fellow musician. Really???

        • Ms.Melody says:

          It is incredible that this trivial,insignificant episode has caused more
          Of an outrage and reaction than a murder of a fellow musician. Really???

        • Ms.Melody says:

          I am referring to the entire debate about Renee Fleming ‘s rendition, not the camera work.

    • AMetFan says:

      Then don’t look. She is his widow, and through her many of us were able to process the tremendous sense of loss we felt. Both appropriate and necessary. We see many crass and tasteless things in the media (many on this site), but this was not one of them.

  • Hugh Morton says:

    A wonderful arrangement for organ of the Londonderry Air was made by Noel Rawsthorne, who for many years was organist at Liverpool Cathedral.

  • Mary says:

    This song was very popular during WW2 I believe. The best versions I’ve heard come from tenors with good range and a light touch. I’d love to know what version McCain listened. As I’ve heard it, it leaves an ethereal feeling of sweet sad missing of someone. Also I believe more popular in Great Britain than US. I remember it from old war movies set in Great Britain. Normally a really beautiful song and easy listening.

  • Mary Lou Fallis says:

    Let’s all give this a rest now,please.

  • David Hilton says:

    Why do the critics in this discussion repeatedly suggest that Miss Fleming should have sung the song in a way different from the way that Renee Fleming characteristically sings? Sen. McCain requested Renee Fleming sing this song at his funeral. He clearly wasn’t imagining it sung as it might have been by an Irish folk singer or other contrasting artist to Miss Fleming. He must have imagined it sung in a way very similar to how it was sung.

    It is like the Hollywood producer in the film Barton Fink who wants to make a film “with that Barton Fink feeling”. So, as he explains to his scriptwriter, Barton Fink, that’s why he hired him because he should have that Barton Fink feeling in spades. Renee Fleming has that Renee Fleming feeling in spades too.

    To sing precisely as she sang, is clearly why Renee Fleming was selected on this occasion.

  • Mary Lou Fallis says:

    My understanding was that Senator McCain asked for the piece”Danny Boy”. He asked who would they get to sing it? And a staffer who knew abit about music said” Renee Fleming would be great if we can get her”
    So the senator chose the piece but not the singer..

  • Mary Lou Fallis says:

    I stand corrected. Thank you,Mr.Hilton. MLF