Listening Room: Jussi Björling

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Very early on, my musician father decided that, in terms of classical singing, I should be raised on four voices: soprano Victoria de los Angeles, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, tenor Jussi Björling and bass Ezio Pinza. It was not that there weren’t other great singers in opera and recital and the great interpreters of the American songbook, but Dad felt that these four would give me a foundation for loving all singing. Perhaps this group is a bit short on Wagner and Strauss, but they are great on Lieder and all kinds of art song.
The first recital I ever attended was by de los Angeles, at New York’s Town Hall, and I was fortunate to hear her a few more times, though never in opera. I heard Horne for the first time in 1970 and it is no secret that to me she is in a category of one as a singer. Pinza died a day before my first birthday.

The great Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling, died September 9, 1960 at the age of 49. For many people he was the greatest tenor since Caruso. To this day I meet people who heard him and speak in soft, reverent terms about him. I have always wondered why people lower their voices when they talk about him. Is it a sign of respect and awe? Although he died of a heart attack, is it the delicate issue that he battled alcoholism at a time when that topic was not discussed so openly?
I did my first work in the Metropolitan Opera House in 1979 and got my first job with the company in 1981. At the time, there were many “Old Met” people who remembered Björling. An elderly receptionist at the stage door named Winnie knew all the greats and they all knew her. She had a discernible sangfroid if you were to mention names such as Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov, Tucker, Merrill, Warren and Pinza. But I was warned to never say the name Jussi Björling to Winnie.
As I came to know Winnie and enjoy her stories, I decided to see if I could perhaps bring up the delicate topic with her by telling her the names of the four great singers I was raised on. Winnie’s eyes teared up and her voice lowered, as everyone else’s seemed to when talking about Björling. “There is only one god, apart from God, and that was him.” It seems that Björling was unusually kind to Winnie, held her hand at the stage door, sang to her, wrote to her when he was away. “God gave him that voice,” she said, “but the way that man sang....” and she would burst into tears again.  Clearly there was something in Björling’s vita interiore (as the Italians call that mix of emotion, experience, exuberance and regret) which, when matched with his voice and musicianship, produced singing that moved people so powerfully. Before reading any further, listen to him sing Beethoven’s “Adelaide” to get a sense of what he could do with a song:

Born in 1911, Björling made his debut in 1930 in a small role in Manon Lescaut. His first major role, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, came five weeks later. He was a fast learner who could immediately imbue his interpretations with character and texture in addition to amazingly secure high notes. By age 26 he knew more than 50 roles. By contrast, Luciano Pavarotti made his debut at age 26 and added ten more roles by the age of 32. This is not to criticize Pavarotti but to point out that certain singers, such as Björling and Domingo, have prodigious gifts that few musicians of any kind can claim.
It is a blessing, then, that so much of his singing in the 1950s was recorded and there even is documentation of earlier performances. Believe it or not, his first recording was made in 1920, in New York, where he performed as part of a group called the Björling Male Quartet. His first opera recordings came in 1930. He sang everything, including opera, in Swedish until 1936, when he began learning and performing roles in their original languages. Here is a stunning performance of “Nessun Dorma” recorded live, out of doors, in Stockholm in 1944. Notice that the Swedish audience did not start applauding until after all the music ended. We can learn from that:

Many of his greatest performances were done for RCA, which has just released a splendid box set of 14 Björling disks called Jussi Björling: The Complete RCA Album Collection. Many of the opera disks are highlights recordings, so that you get a sense of the major arias and scenes, as was often done at that time. Björling completists can seek out the full sets where they exist. We have a gorgeous Roméo et Juliette from 1947 in which he and Bidu Sayao give rapturous performances of Gounod’s music. His Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut opposite Licia Albanese makes a case for those who claim that this opera has Puccini’s most beautiful music. I defy you not to get goosebumps as you hear him sing “Donna, non vidi mai.”
There is a complete recording of Cavalleria Rusticana with Zinka Milanov as Santuzza. They may not be the most Sicilian of couples but they cover the music in glory. Other disks in the set in which both artists appear are highlights from Aïda, Tosca and Il Trovatore in which his rendition of “Di quella pira” will knock you out of your chair. There is a fine Rigoletto disk with Roberta Peters, Robert Merrill and Giorgio Tozzi in which Björling is stirring in the three arias of the Duke of Mantua. And the highlights from his final opera recording, 1959’s Turandot with fellow Swede Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Renata Tebaldi as Liù, are in every way golden. It is odd to think that Nilsson was only seven years younger than Björling because she outlived him by 45 years and remains much more of a presence in the minds of opera lovers.
The RCA boxed set also has five wonderful disks of songs and arias. You may not speak Swedish, but will nonetheless experience the tenor’s love of country with his passionate singing of music in his native language. Then there are German Lieder, French and Italian art songs as well as a splendid album of duets with Robert Merrill that remind us how fine a singer the baritone was. For many people, he is associated with singing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium, but he was a first-rate opera singer.
In the 1950s, Björling made opera recordings with Victoria de los Angeles with the RCA Victor Orchestra and Chorus that are issued on EMI. Among these are Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci and a La Bohéme for the ages that only the Freni/Pavarotti version can rival. Here are my Dad’s top soprano and tenor in heavenly form as Mimi and Rodolfo:


By now, you have fallen madly in love with Jussi Björling, you might consider meeting like-minded people at the Jussi Björling Society of America:

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