Listening Room: Jussi Björling

Monday, August 22, 2011 - 12:00 PM

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: http://www.jussibjorlingsociety.org/

Follow Fred Plotkin on Twitter!

More in:

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Comments [18]

Sonia Kellogg from Huntington, New York

I heard him sing at a recital at Carnegie Hall when I was quite young and could still hear his beautiful, soulful voice which moved me so. So special. His notes just carried to the top of the Hall where I was seated and his pianissimo so soft but such projection. The only other voice which moved me to tears was my late husband whose beautiful lyric bass stood apart as was Jussi Bjorling's. My husband was also a professional singer as was I and who stopped singing at a young age but not before being soloist four times with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Andre Kostelanetz. These two singers will always remain the two that can bring tears to my eyes. Both missed by me.

Aug. 05 2014 08:31 AM
les gardner

this message is for frank puccilli- i heard tagliavini in person years ago and i also heard bjoerling in person years ago and tagliavini was a complete joke compared to the great bjoerling. so who are you trying to kid.

Jul. 28 2014 11:34 PM
tom campbell from Ottawa, Canada

I saw and heard Jussi at St Andrew's Hall, Glasgow twice about 1955. He was in glorious voice and his musicianship shone through in every item. He sang Stephen Foster's 'I Dream of Jeannie with the Light-Brown Hair' ravishingly.

I once saw an every-day Hollywood movie, set in New York City and starring Shelley Winters. She was a housewife and a fan of Jussi, listening to the Saturday afyernoon broadcasts from the Met and celebrating whenever Jussi was the tenor. Does anybody know the movie?

Apr. 29 2014 07:10 PM
Frank Puccilli from Huntington Beach Ca

I heard J. Bjorling sing La Boheme at the Shrine in Los Angeles
about 1950. He was just like any other good tenor. The audience
sat in their seats and applauded. I've heard persons reply," Well,
The Shrine is a big house." I have also heard persons state," Recordings do not do Jussi justice." Seems any excuse will do.

I heard Ferrucio Tagliavini sing Una Furtiva Lagrima also at The Shrine.
At the end of the aria, the entire audience stood applauded and shouted;
the audience would not permit the opera to continue yelling encore! bravissimo! Tagliavini eventually quieted the uproar by saying," I'm sorry
it is not permitted."

Jul. 08 2013 03:28 PM

Oops! Sorry for the two similar (almost duplicate posts). When, for some reason the first post did not appear, I joined as a member and posted the (almost) same message again.

Allan B.

Jul. 07 2012 09:24 AM

Fred, thank you for this wonderful post.

I am basically writing this comment to correct an error that was posted by
R. Neil Haugen from Oregon. The error is apparently not his, but rather concerns something that he read. He stated:

"I once read a comment from a man who'd seen both Caruso and Bjorling perform Canio at the Old Met. As to what was the difference, he noted they were both incredible experiences ... but almost diametrically different.

After Caruso finished the final phrase, the audience leaped up screaming in joy over the amazing vocal feat they'd just experienced. After Bjorling finished, the audience applauded from their seats, through loud and long sobs over the tremendous grief they'd just experienced together."

Well, it never happened -- at least not with respect to Jussi, for Jussi never sang Canio at the Met. According to the Jussi Björling Performance Database Page 6, on the Jussi Björling Society-USA website, http://www.jussibjorlingsociety.org/database6.html, Jussi only performed Canio live twenty times. Other than three performances in 1937, two in Vienna and one in Nuremberg, all performances as Canio in Pagliacci were at the Royal Opera, Stockholm.

If I remember correctly, the only time Jussi sang the full role of Canio in Italian was for the RCA studio recording. In fact, he learned it in Italian specifically for that recording. Other than that, all complete performances were in his native Swedish.

AllanB

Jul. 06 2012 10:58 PM
ALLAN BUCHALTER from North Bellmore, NY

Wonderful article, Fred.

Basically, I'm writing this to correct an error. It is in the long comment by R. Neil Haugen from Oregon. The error is apparently not his, but rather in something that he had read.

He states:

"I once read a comment from a man who'd seen both Caruso and Bjorling perform Canio at the Old Met. As to what was the difference, he noted they were both incredible experiences ... but almost diametrically different.

After Caruso finished the final phrase, the audience leaped up screaming in joy over the amazing vocal feat they'd just experienced. After Bjorling finished, the audience applauded from their seats, through loud and long sobs over the tremendous grief they'd just experienced together."

Well, it never happened, at least not with respect to Jussi. If you check Page 6 of the Bjorling database posted at the Jussi Bjorling-USA website, you will discover that Jussi sang 20 performances as Canio in Pagliacci. NONE OF THEM WERE AT THE MET. Except for 3 performances in 1937, 2 in Vienna and 1 in Nuremberg, all 17 other performances were at the Royal Opera, Stockholm.

You can verify that information here: http://www.jussibjorlingsociety.org/database6.html

Also, if I recall correctly, Jussi only sang the full role of Canio in Italian for the RCA studio recording. All live performances of the complete role were in his native Swedish.

Allan

Jul. 06 2012 10:33 PM
David Dunn Bauer from San Francisco

Rather a nice quartet, that (to say the least!). Your dad had good taste.

In what could you cast all four? Almost a Verdi Requiem (which VDLA never sang, I think). Faust would waste Horne's talents. Carmen, maybe with Victoria as Micaela.

Aug. 25 2011 03:40 PM
Carlos from Caracas, Venezuela

Very happy that you reminded me of very good times when I had the great pleasure of listening Jussi Bjoerling in many operas during the 1947 and 1948 seasons at the old Met. I had a 78rpm record of Nessun Dorma wchich I wore out, his rendition of Nessun Dorma has not been surpassed yet.
Carlos Bendayan

Aug. 23 2011 09:58 AM
Eileen from New York, NY

What more can I add? I could go into all the perfect techniques he posessed but we all know that. He was a brilliant man when it came to "his" music and portraying its interpretation, my only regret is that I never was able to hear him "live" - he was just a little before my time but, never the less for my part he was and still is the best - what a voice!

Aug. 23 2011 09:13 AM

Good heavens ... Never heard an "Adelaide" like that. Bjorling's the first to make me think the poem's about an eternally lost love -- a dead girl.

Aug. 23 2011 06:02 AM
William V. Madison

A wonderful summation of a brilliant singer who is sometimes too easily forgotten. While it's hard to choose favorites, I've got a soft spot for Björling's account of Lensky's aria from the Carnegie Hall album. It really sounds as if Björling, like Lensky himself, feels the end of life approaching. A stunning piece of artistry, and it's sung in Swedish, making it seem all the more personal.

Having come to Björling rather late myself, I worry that younger listeners may not have been exposed to him -- and so, as soon as I meet an operatically inclined kid, I give her a Björling recording.

Aug. 23 2011 04:38 AM
R. Neil Haugen from Oregon

Wonderful essay, Fred. And that quartet your father suggested ... wow.

Few male singers have the ability to put so much of the emotional content of the text into the sound of the voice as many of the finer female singers can. Listening to some of the sad art songs sung by wonderful male singers and say, de Los Angeles, is a fascinating study in that part of the art of singing.

The finer female singers carry so much of the emotion in the tone of their vowels, they need do little to change tempi, dynamics, or consonants to show emotion ... and can make you sob just on a subtle difference in tone or timbre without any strain or stress on the instrument itself.

Bjorling is one of the very few male singers that could ingest so much emotion into the sound carried on the vowel, rather than relying on using the way the consonants and tempi/dynamics come across to evoke emotion. And he could do it without straining the instrument, a major feat in and of itself. Many men who try don't really succeed, and in the process damage the instrument.

For a good example of this, listen to the back-to-back arias in Turandot, Liu/Calaf, "Signore escolte" and "Non piangere, Liu". For example, Caballe/Pavarotti ... Caballe is one of the most liquid and expressive voices ever, and Pav weren't too shabby ... yet clearly, she carries her emotion in her "sound" and in his voice, it's in the expression of the words.

Then go to de LosAngeles/Bjorling ... what a pairing.

I once read a comment from a man who'd seen both Caruso and Bjorling perform Canio at the Old Met. As to what was the difference, he noted they were both incredible experiences ... but almost diametrically different.

After Caruso finished the final phrase, the audience leaped up screaming in joy over the amazing vocal feat they'd just experienced. After Bjorling finished, the audience applauded from their seats, through loud and long sobs over the tremendous grief they'd just experienced together.

I thought that was quite an explanation of the differences possible and inherent in the capabilities and approaches of different artists with the same material. And personally, I would *love* to have experienced both!

Ah ... but to have heard de LosAngeles live ... oh my. Oh my! And I would dearly love to have heard Msr. Bjorling perform also. Rare and amazing artistry.

Aug. 22 2011 06:45 PM
Vivienne DeStefano from Brooklyn, NY

Wow! - I haven't thought of Winnie for years and years. She was such a warm, wise and lovely woman...affable and unassuming. My goodness what a treasure trove of experiences and memories there! Thank you for the tribute to Jussi Bjorling and the wonderful essay. He was revered in my house as well and these clips are evidence of his magnificent gift. (Whatever would we do without YouTube!)

Aug. 22 2011 06:35 PM
Sidney Goldman from Baldwin, New York 11510

Jussi Bjorling is certainly one of the great tenors. And what you are doing is very much appreciated.

Now maybe WQXR will finally acknowledge the voice of Ferruccio Tagliavini as anoth excellent tenor. In his career he sang for our World War II troops in Italy, was invited to the White House by President Harry S. Truman and of course became a fine singer at The Met.

His recordings arrived from 78s to CDs,
though they sound quite listenable. They deserve to be played and discussed by your listeners.

I would be very happy to lend those in my collection that I have to help you out.

Aug. 22 2011 06:00 PM
Stefano from Cefalu, Italia

Wonderful piece, Fred. I've found that Björling's one of a small handful of singers whose voice penetrates through the poor audio quality of historic recordings and grabs the listener by the lapels. We may have better audio quality now, but we don't have better singers.

Aug. 22 2011 05:15 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Bravo, Fred, för denna underbara hyllning till Jussi!

Aug. 22 2011 03:12 PM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I really can't appreciate any other tenor as Des Grieux in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" other than Bjoerling. From "Amor... to "mio dio...," there's that pathos and honesty and that awesome glorious ringing top that carries me away, both in the live Met performances and in the recording. I also think his recording of "Non piangere, Liu" sets the standard. The first recording I heard of his was my father's "Ch'ella mi creda libero" from "La Fanciulla del West." Then there's the "Cujus animam" from the Rossini "Stabat Mater." I think his "Nessun Dorma" is equalled only by Gigli's recording in style, though the latter was certainly past his prime in 1949. I also think Bjoerling's Riccardo in "Un Ballo in Maschera" is the finest I've heard.

Aug. 22 2011 12:47 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Follow WQXR 

Sponsored

About Operavore

LISTEN TO THE OPERAVORE 24/7 STREAM

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

Follow Operavore 

Feeds