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Jussi Bjorling – “The Supreme Singing of a Shy Man.”

Bjorling
So this 18 year old kid walks into a recording studio and records two songs in Swedish with piano accompaniment. If all goes well he’ll return in a week or so to cut four sides with full orchestral accompaniment. He’s a bit insecure since this is his first solo recording and his voice does not yet have the power or depth it would gain later, but his vocal beauty and an elegance of style were superior to almost any other tenor then or now.

Jussi Bjorling wasn’t an amateur. He had been singing professionally with his father and his brothers since he was eight years old. A year before making this recording he had auditioned for acceptance by the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. The maximum possible score a singer could receive for an audition was 150. Jussi’s score was 150.

Johan Jonathan Björling was nicknamed “Jussi” by his Finnish grandmother when he was a child. His mother died when he was only six years old. His father, David Björling, was a tenor as well known for his temper and his stubbornness as for his singing. After his wife’s death, David began touring with his sons as “The Björling Male Quartet.” He trained the voices of all three of his sons. He taught them how to sing, how to use and preserve the voice, and emphasized a naturalness of voice production. Never force a tone and never sing it if it doesn’t feel comfortable. David’s method of voice production so suited Jussi that he never allowed anyone to change it.

The Bjorling Quartet toured for several years with reasonable success traveling throughout Europe and the United States. They performed in auditoriums or churches wherever there was a large Swedish community. In 1920 they were in New York where they recorded six songs.

On hearing those recordings many years later, none of the brothers were able to identify which of them sang the solo parts and, inasmuch as all three boy sopranos had similar sounding voices and were trained alike, we will probably never know which voice was Jussi’s. Iif you are curious as to how his brothers sounded, go to www.youtube.com and search for Gosta Bjorling or Olle Bjorling. While you’re at it, try his son Rolf as well.

As an adult, Jussi Bjorling idolized Enrico Caruso. But in 1920 he was only 9 years old and when his father announced to his sons that he had afternoon matinee tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, and that Enrico Caruso would be singing, Jussi said that he would rather go to the movies. He would bitterly regret that choice throughout his later life because, of course, Caruso never sang again after 1920.

David Bjorling died when Jussi was only 15 years old. He and his brothers had idolized their father and the defining moment in shaping Bjorling’s personality probably occurred when his father lay dying. Jussi’s friend, baritone Robert Merrill, wrote that Jussi told him that his beloved father called his three sons to him as he lay dying and confessed to them that was an alcoholic, something they had never suspected. “Promise me,” he demanded, “That you will never drink a drop of liquor.”

Jussi’s wife, Anna Lisa Bjorling, who gave up her career as a soprano to marry him, wrote that Bjorling’s later inability to keep this emotionally charged promise to his father filled him with agonizing guilt for the rest of his life. Because Jussi Bjorling was an alcoholic. Each time he drank he felt that he had failed his father and was wracked with self-loathing. He rarely drank before a performance, in fact a full schedule of performances seemed to help him stay sober, and the alcohol never seemed to affect either his voice or his performance onstage. But it’s effect on his personality and his family was profound. He was tortured by his alcoholism and its devastating effects on his family but the alcohol had no effect at all on his voice, no signs of aging, no deterioration of the voice or his amazing breath control.

At the age of 17, he was granted a full scholarship to the Swedish Royal Academy which paid for his room and board with a local family, and for clothing, but for nothing else. He was in constant search of money for small pleasures such as extra food or movie tickets for a date. Being extremely muscular, he formed a habit of visiting the docks of Stockholm and having arm-wrestling matches with the stevedores, loser to buy a meal. His wife wrote that he never lost a match.

The young Björling supplemented his scholarship by signing a contract to record popular dance tunes. To avoid contractual problems with the Swedish Royal Academy and EMI records, he used the pseudonym of Erik Odde (which translates as “Eric Nobody.”) FRom 1929 to 1933 he recorded nearly two dozen tunes with a Swedish dance orchestra. He used a softer style of singing to avoid being easily recognized and the records became quite popular.

Like Caruso, Björling was a short, stocky man with a barrel chest and enormous strength. He was shy and reticent and his acting was reserved at best. He loved fishing and sailing, and quiet conversation with friends. Away from the stage he avoided the spotlight. Like Caruso, he fathered two children out of wedlock, although unlike Caruso he remained faithful to his wife once he married. Also like Caruso, he was an international star by the age of 26 and, of course, neither singer lived to be 50.

Almost from the beginning of his career, Jussi sang with a relaxed but perfect legato line, so effortless that it often seemed he was creating the music as he sang it. A quality of unforced naturalness, along with an absolute technical mastery, both taught him by his father, were the most notable aspects of Björling’s artistry along with what was once described as “a voice heavy with unshed tears.”

While he accepted coaching all his life, he never allowed anyone to change the basic vocal technique his father had taught him. As a young student at the Royal Academy, Jussi was a protégée of John Forsell, the director of the Academy. Forsell was a famous baritone who had performed with great success on operatic stages all around the world. Forsell carefully directed the growth of Björling’s talent, instilling into his pupil his own experiences and refining both his technique and his phrasing. All of his life Björling retained a warm sense of gratitude to his teacher and spoke of him with sincere awe.

Nevertheless.

When the teen-aged Björling was assigned by Forsell to learn a vocal method that conflicted with that of his father, he thought about it and discussed the matter with his brothers over the weekend; then on the following Monday he stood up in class and told the director, “I must sing it my way, or not at all.” To the astonishment of the rest of the class, the autocratic Forsell recognized the uniqueness of his student and agreed.

Did I mention that Bjorling could be stubborn? Very stubborn.

Björling had early problems with his upper register, particularly the High C. Personally, I would rather hear a Bjorling B flat than a Pavarotti High C, but a High C is important to a tenor and Bjorling once asked Joseph Hislop, a well known tenor who was coaching him, how to approach the High C. Hislop demonstrated his method by singing the note. Jussi listened once and immediately sang a perfect High C.

Joseph Hislop wrote,“he got as much out of one single lesson as an average singer after six months instruction…His musical taste, his phrasing, and feeling for rhythm reminded me of the violinist Jascha Heifetz’s playing.” With his voice fully matured, Björling now had full command of himself and of his performance. The voice became fuller and more assured, he had begun to master musical phrasing, and finally had full control of that High C, even tossing off an unwritten D flat over High C on occasion.

By the age of 25, Bjorling had performed on opera stages throughout Europe and was known as a rising star. In 1937 he made his London debut at Covent Garden, his American radio debut, two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall, and appeared in Chicago in a production of “Rigoletto” opposite Lawrence Tibbett. The next year he made his Metropolitan Opera debut and was soon the most sought after tenor of his time, equal in popularity to the veteran Beniamino Gigli.

He was also blessed with a near photographic musical memory, which enabled him to listen to (or read) a musical score once and know it forever. He knew over 75 operatic roles that he could, if necessary, perform on a moment’s notice without rehearsing. Possibly because of this, or possibly due to simple laziness, rehearsals were anathema to him.

Soprano Eileen Farrell recalled appearing with Bjorling in “Il Trovatore.” I was in awe of Bjorling. I would get so caught up in the gorgeous sounds that came out of his throat that I would forget to sing!” But she also recalled Bjorling showing up for a final dress rehearsal in street clothes, then arguing with the conductor and storming off the stage, leaving her on opening night with no idea of which way he was going to move in the scene. At his last performance of “Il Trovatore,” Björling arrived just before curtain time, greeted the conductor, and went on stage having had no rehearsal at all. He sang beautifully. How his colleagues felt may be another matter.

Enrico Caruso’s widow said that of all tenors, Björling’s voice reminded her most of her husband’s. That was more of a compliment than an accurate assessment. Caruso had a warm, golden, sound which deepened and darkened as he aged. Björling’s voice had a quality usually described as “silvery” in tone, and which remained unchanged all his life, although it did become richer as he aged.

Björling had stage presence, but in the beginning his acting was perfunctory. His acting improved as he aged and colleagues who sang with him said that his eyes displayed an intense understanding of his character’s emotions, but that simply wasn’t sufficient to communicate to an audience. Bjorling acted with his voice. He brought passion and intensity to his singing combined with flawless musicianship and one of the most beautiful voices in history. For modern listeners, many of whom have never been to a live opera performance, the auditory experience is what matters and Björling has no equal there.

He sang “Romeo et Juliette” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1947 with Bidu Sayao as his Juliette. In the great love duet they sing with a passionate urgency, as if each simply cannot wait to speak their love to the other. Bjorling often sounds as if he’s rushing ahead of the beat, but he isn’t. He’s right on the beat, but his focused voice speaks a split second faster on each note than whoever he’s singing with. One critic spoke of Björling’s Romeo as giving “state of grace performance.”

Bjorling lacked a commanding stage presence, but with the possible exception of Caruso, he had the finest tenor voice of the last two centuries and an even more perfect technical command of that voice than Caruso. He set the bar of musical perfection and vocal beauty so high that no one since has matched, let alone surpassed him. Where many tenors will approach a climactic high note by attacking it at full force and then maintain it to the end, Bjorling seemed to almost caress the note and then let both the volume and the richness of his tone swell to a thrilling climax.

His stage fright could be near paralyzing. Preparing to record a series of duets with Robert Merrill for RCA which included the duet from “Otello,” he stayed up half the night listening to Caruso’s recording. In the morning, his fear of not equaling Caruso was so strong that Merrill had to walk with him around the block more than twenty times before he could summon the courage to go into the recording studio. They recorded the aria twice but they needen’t have bothered. The first take was superb and it was the one released.

Björling’s voice was not large but it had great expressive power. In an opera house, he would turn his head from one side to the other and back again while singing so that everyone in the audience could hear and feel what he sang. Basically a lyric tenor, he described himself as a “spinto” – a lyric tenor capable of dramatic roles. When singing with large voiced dramatic colleagues, his voice still rang out above theirs with what was once described as a “controlled intensity.” Other tenors might strain, Björling simply poured out gorgeous sound effortlessly.

While he was generally modest and unassuming, Björling clearly knew his own value and he was as capable of minor vanities as the least of tenors. During a recording of “Rigoletto” session in Rome, the conductor felt that Björling was upsetting the musical balance of the quartet by singing too loudly. He pointed this out and the tenor nodded in agreement, then proceeded to sing out just as loudly on the next take. Noticing the conductor’s frustration, Robert Merrill asked his friend about it. Björling replied’ “But you see the quartet … it is my solo!”

Bjorling could be temperamental and demanding, cancelling performances and recordings with little or no notice. His critics attributed this to capriciousness or to his drinking. His friends saw it as a reflection of his fears and his uncertainty. Certainly he disliked working with performers or conductors who he felt were unprofessional. Yet without exception, every colleague who ever worked with him commented on his selflessness and spontaneous generosity towards them.

In March of 1960, just before a performance of “La Boheme” at Covent Garden, Bjorling suffered a major heart attack (his third in as many years) while in his dressing room. Because the British Royal Family was in the audience, he insisted on singing anyway. Two months later he gave his last concert showing absolutely no sign of any vocal stress. Four weeks later, in August of 1960, Jussi Bjorling died at home of heart failure. He was 49 years old.

For more information on Jussi Bjorling, I suggest you try the Jussi Bjorling USA site:
http://www.jussibjorlingsociety.org/

7 Responses to Jussi Bjorling – “The Supreme Singing of a Shy Man.”

  1. Don says:

    Hi Duff,

    I’m supposed to get notices of comments but I didn’t get this until today. Sorry for the late reply.
    Colorado is nice – I live about 12 miles from downtown Denver in Aurora. I can send you a Powerpoint Video of my Bjorling talk if you’d like – feel free to appropriate whatever you can use. And Nelson Donley sent me a .mpg of Jim Svedja’s 3-part Opera Box series on Bjorling from the 1980’s. Would you like that?
    I’ve dealt with Dan Shea from the JB Society. He seems a good fella.
    Best,

    Don

  2. mozartoperaman says:

    Hi Don,
    Glad to find you after your departure from SoCal. The JB Society USA has asked me to speak at its Salt Lake City event in June. It seems to me that you should be the no to deliver a talk on JB.
    Notwithstanding, I hope you are as well as your writing sounds.
    Good to know that you have found a quiet space to rattle around in.
    Many, many good regards.
    Duff

  3. Don says:

    Uncle Junior: The story is that Caruso before their recording of the Madame Butterfly duet, Caruso had a nip. Farrar admired him but they weren’t friends so she supposedly interpolated that “He’s had a highball” line in the aria. I can’t find it there but it’s possible.
    As to my quick response, it happens that I am giving a class in Denver this March on Great Voices and one of my subjects is Farrar so the reference was at hand.
    Don

  4. Uncle_Junior says:

    Dear Don,

    There’s no point in discussing Jussi Bjorling’s greatness, as it’s clearly evident. My favorite tenors are Pavarotti, Bjorling, Melchoir, & Wunderlich. I have others, but these are the ones I most often listen to. Bjorling’s voice is simply haunting. I admire your ability to come up with such a quick answer to my question. I’m truly amazed. I have a very large music library, but I couldn’t find the “highball” reference. As for Geraldine Farrar, I’ve always wondered what really went on between her & The Maestro. http://www.lifeaintkind.com

  5. Uncle_Junior says:

    Thanks for the information.

  6. Don says:

    To Uncle_Junior: The “He had a highball” actually refers to what Geraldine Farrar supposedly once sang in a recorded duet with Caruso. Doesn’t refer to Bjorling at all.
    The story about breaking into the liquor cabinet came from a book by John Culshaw, whose accuracy is highly questionable (see page 337 of Anna-Lisa Bjorling’s book “Jussi.”)
    But I’m sure there must have been times he slipped. Eileen Farrell mentions one – but also pointed out that it had no effect on his singing at all.

  7. Uncle_Junior says:

    Regarding Jussi Bjorling’s alcoholism & that he abstained from drinking while performing, that may not be completely accurate. According to KUSC’s Jim Svejda, he had broken into the liquor cabinet at the Met & in one of his operas, his breath was so strong of alcohol that the soprano changed the line to “He had a highball.” I don’t remember the exact source, but my memory is pretty good. I also knew a man who used to work at the met in the ’50. He told me that his job was to keep an eye on Jussi Bjorling. His name was Ralph Tiebout & he used to repair violins. Ralph told me that he found a bottle that Bjorling had stashed, hidden in the tank of one of the toilets backstage. It is well documented that Bjorling suffered sever hangovers during recording sessions, as noted by Robert Merrill. He had one of the greatest voices I have ever heard & I have, at least, a dozen of his CDs that I treasure. http://www.lifeaintkind.com

Your comments or questions are welcome.