|La Scena Vocale - Vol.2, No.3 Novembre / November 1996|
|French translations of articles will be available in 1997.
Calendrier de novembre/November Calendar (expired)
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Dead Singers' Column
Jussi Björling (b. Magasinsgatan, Borlänge, Sweden, February 5, 1911; d. Siarö, Sweden, September 9, 1960)
At last an English Biography of the late, great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. For too long Björling fans have had to make do with the skimpy information in recording inserts and occasional articles in periodicals. Three years ago, Amadeus Press published A Jussi Björling Phonography by Harald Henrysson. Now Björling's widow Anna-Lisa and Andrew Farkas have co-authored a fascinating, generously illustrated biography predictably entitled Jussi (Amadeus Press- $57.95 Cdn).
Björling was born into a musical family in Sweden. His father, David, was a tenor trained in New York and Vienna who narrowly missed a career with the Swedish Royal Opera. From earliest childhood Jussi and his two brothers were taught by their father in the traditional vocal technique based on breath management and natural singing. Jussi's fabulous legato and natural technique is a result of this foundation. Between their mother's death in 1917 and David's in 1926, the Björling Male Voice Quartet toured extensively including a 1920 visit to the United States where they made a few interesting recordings (now included on Gala GL 100.514)
At the age of 17 Jussi won a scholarship to the Stockholm Conservatory. His voice teacher John Forsell quickly became a father-figure for the orphaned young man. He helped Jussi refine and polish his style, though Jussi still relied on his brothers' criticism when it became clear that Forsell's method was producing a forced, unnatural sound. Thereafter when Forsell corrected his technique, Jussi said "I must sing my way or not at all!" Jussi was a quick study and a marvellous mimic. It is reported that he acquired his prodigious top notes in just one session with Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop.
Though not much of a natural actor in his early career, Jussi's phenomenal breath control, effortless technique, and emotionally expressive voice carried him to the stages of all the world's great theaters in opera, oratorio and lieder. His lyric tenor combined a silvery, sweetly resonant nordic timbre with the easy power of the greatest italian voices, hence his reputation as the Swedish Caruso. One never tires of listening to Björling's voice. All of his colleagues attest to his great musicianship, and how his voice moved them when they sang with him on stage. Though he was in great demand everywhere from the Met to La Scala, his roles remained limited to the basics - Alfredo, the Duke, Faust, Romeo, Rodolfo, Radames, Manrico, Des Grieux, Pinkerton. With a wife and children to support, financial security was a priority. Björling preferred lucrative concert recitals to opera. As Pavarotti wrote, "Singers go where the money is."
Sadly, Björling suffered from excessive drinking. From his father David he inherited both his great voice and a weakness for the bottle. Jussi had made a promise never to touch alcohol at his father's death bed; it was a promise he was unable to keep and it proved to be his greatest failure. At home in Sweden, burdened by the demands on him, he often withdrew from his family to go on long binges, aided and abetted by his buddies from the conservatory days. Contrary to rumor, however, he rarely performed drunk or cancelled due to alcohol.
Björling died on September 8, 1960 after having suffered from arrhythmia, a heart condition, for three years. His voice was in prime condition. At this time his voice still retained most of the lyricism while possessing more shades of darkness and weight. Otello and Lohengrin, two of the dream roles that he had put off till he felt vocally ready, were within his grasp. Plans were being discussed for the next years ahead. Indeed, one month before, in his last orchestral concert, Björling sang "In fernem Land" from Lohengrin. Fortunately for us, this was recorded (on Gala GL 315) and stand as perhaps the most lyrical interpretation.
Björling's recorded legacy is rich and rewarding. Of these, Anna-Lisa singled out the acclaimed Il Trovatore on RCA with Milanov and Warren, Manon Lescaut with Albanese, the Pearl Fishers' Duet (RCA 77992-RG) with Merrill as highlights. Her favourite Björling role was Canio in I Pagliacci. In addition to these every fan should have his rendition of Ingemisco from Verdi's Requiem, Federico's Lament from L'Arlesiana (the interpolated high B is unsurpassed), Beethoven's Adelaïde and R. Strauss' Morgen. Many of these are available from EMI (CDH 7647072 &CDH 7610532). The London compilation (421316-2) of Verismo arias was my early favourite and shows him in great mature voice, though now I find the Decca recording technique of that era rather dry, lacking the brightness found on other labels.
Co-author Andrew Farkas, a university librarian, chose to take a scholarly approach to the manuscript. As such, comments from other singers, managers and people who had direct contact with Björling are plentiful. The book is an easy read full of anecdotal information, such as a description of the occasion when Björling gave a lesson in conducting to a young conductor. "I have to breathe," said Björling as he took the baton and conducted the orchestra while singing. There was also the time he finished an aria for a soprano who lost her voice during an operatic performance. Björling was also a man of incredible strength and he could boast never having lost an arm wrestling match.
From Jussi we find that Björling was born to become a singer. Björling's voice remained pretty much the same through his career. He overcame an early tendency to emulate Caruso by listening to his colleagues and family. Unlike many singers, he never took on roles that were not well suited for his voice. Björling was not without fault. He fathered two illegitimate children, one of whom was born before he met Anna-Lisa. He drank when depressed.
This is an engaging portrait of a humble man, a consummate artist troubled by the label of the greatest tenor of his generation. He is today accepted amongst the top three of this century.