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ClassicsOnline Home » BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 2: Songs in Swedish (1929-1937)
Jussi Björling: Collection,Vol. 2
Songs in Swedish (1929-37)
Jussi Björling was born in February 1911 (on 5th according to the midwifes register, though he celebrated his birthday on 2nd in accordance with the church register) in the Swedish province of Dalarna (Dalecarlia), near the centre of what is today the city of Borlänge. Stora Tuna, often given as his birthplace, is the name of the village where the family was then living and which is now a part of Borlänge. Jussis father David was also a tenor and singing teacher, who taught his three oldest boys Olle, Jussi and Gösta to sing from their earliest childhood. He let them perform in public before Jussi was five and as the Björling Quartet they toured extensively in Sweden, and, in the years 1919-21, also in the United States. Jussis mother Ester had already died in 1917, soon after having given birth to a fourth son. Not long after David Björlings death in 1926, the group (now also including the fourth brother Karl) disbanded, and Jussi entered the Stockholm Conservatory in 1928. Here, and at the Opera School, his teacher was the famous baritone John Forsell, also manager of the Royal Opera.
In 1930, at the age of nineteen, Jussi made his official début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm as Don Ottavio in Mozarts Don Giovanni and in the next few years he sang a wide repertoire of rôles there. His first major breakthrough came at a recital at Tivoli in Copenhagen in the summer of 1931. As an opera singer, he made his first solo tours outside Sweden in 1936 and 1937, still singing his rôles in Swedish. He then appeared in Czechoslovakia and Germany but primarily at the Vienna Opera, and was everywhere greeted with great acclaim. In the autumn of 1937 he gave his first London recital en route to the United States, where his schedule included three General Motors radio concerts from Carnegie Hall and opera performances in Chicago in Rigoletto and La bohème. Jussi Björlings successful Metropolitan début came in November 1938 as Rodolfo.
In 1939, Jussi made his Covent Garden début in Il trovatore in Florence and in 1940 he opened the Met season for the first time in the new production of Un ballo in maschera where he appeared as King Gustaf III of Sweden. During the later war years, he mainly remained in his native country. His Italian opera début, however, took place in 1943 in Il trovatore in Florence.
In the autumn of 1945, Jussi Björling returned to the United States for an eight-month tour and during the rest of his life he sang extensively there, as an opera artist with the Metropolitan, San Francisco and Chicago operas but still more in recital and concert, often on radio and television in programmes like Ford Sunday Evening Hour, Voice of Firestone and Standard Hour. Björling always returned to Sweden and spent the summers with his wife Anna-Lisa and their three children at Siarö in the Stockholm archipelago. He also sang often in opera and concert in Sweden and the other Nordic countries, where he enjoyed enormous popularity. He appeared twice in Milan with the La Scala company (Rigoletto in 1946, Un ballo in maschera in 1951) but returned to Covent Garden only in 1960 (La bohème), though he was heard in recital many times in Britain in the 1950s. In 1954 he made an extensive concert tour to South Africa.
Jussi Björlings complete opera and operetta repertoire comprised 55 rôles, but most of them were abandoned on his road to world fame. Thus, his total opera repertoire after the war consisted of twelve rôles. He continued to sing ten operas which he had learned in Stockholm up to 1936: Aida, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, La bohème, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in the Italian repertoire and Gounods Faust and Roméo et Juliette in the French. In later years, he added Puccinis Manon Lescaut and Verdis Don Carlo, the latter in the famous production which in 1950 opened the Mets season and Rudolf Bings era as general manager. Jussi Björling was also an excellent interpreter of lieder and other art songs, and on his concert programmes, songs of mainly German and Scandinavian origin were featured prominently and appreciated along with the opera arias.
During his last years, Jussi Björling suffered from heart disease. His life was prematurely ended by a heart attack in his sleep at his beloved Siarö on 9th September 1960. It is now more evident than ever that the world then lost one of its most outstanding artists; for instance, in several polls in different countries he has been selected as the greatest singer of the last century. Fortunately, he left behind a vast recorded output through which we are able to experience his artistry. Björlings was a voice of rare beauty and unmistakable timbre with a characteristic slight sadness in it. It was even throughout the whole register up to the splendid and easily produced top notes, was produced with a perfect technique and great musicality and sense of style. His singing communicated immediately, and he could reach great dramatic intensity without resorting to non-musical effects.
Jussi Björling began to record very early, even if one disregards the unique childhood recordings of him and his brothers, of which two examples are given at the end of this recording. On 4th October 1929, almost a year before Jussis début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, he signed his first recording contract with the Skandinaviska Grammophon AB, the Swedish HMV representative. Before November 1933, when he began a series of opera recordings, he made about sixty recordings in Swedish, the great majority of which belonged to the lighter repertoire. This CD of popular songs comprises eighteen Swedish HMV recordings from that period, beginning with his first preserved tenor recording, Gondolsång (Torna a Surriento), made in December 1929, when Jussi was eighteen. There are also two recordings from 1936 and 1937, when his international career had already started.
The HMV recordings here were all conducted by Nils Grevillius. Grevillius, who became Royal Court Conductor in 1930, was almost always in charge of Jussi Björlings opera recordings in Sweden, but the conductor also had interest in and a sensitive feeling for lighter music. He had already been a jazz pianist during his student years in the second decade of the twentieth century, and in 1929 he recorded dance music with a special studio orchestra called Grews Jazz Band. His popular recordings with Jussi Björling are all tightly held together with clear outlines and fine coordination between soloist and accompaniment. During the same period, Jussi also recorded popular music with other conductors and dance and entertainment orchestras. Those recordings will be presented in another release in the present series.
The early tenor recordings show an astonishing maturity in the young singer, but it is important to remember that Jussi Björling had been singing in public since the age of four and had been taught a sound technique by his father. Of course the interpretation would develop considerably over time, but the perfect intonation and the easy breathing are already there and there is an especially charming, innocent and dreaming quality in the youthful voice. Jussi Björling shows he had the ability to make rather trivial tunes sound attractive.
Most of the songs here did not belong to Jussi Björlings concert repertoire, which at an early stage assumed a markedly serious character, but he performed them, as far as known, only in the gramophone studio. The three exceptions to this are Henry E. Geehls För dig allén (For You Alone), Ruggero Leoncavallos Mattinata and Ernesto De Curtis Gondolsång (Torna a Surriento).
For You Alone seems to have been one of Jussis earliest favourites. He had already sung it at his first radio appearance in March 1928, and it was also one of the two songs which he offered at his entrance examination for the conservatory the same autumn. Then his performance was given the highest possible mark, 150 points. The original version in English would in 1937 become Jussis first recording in that language. Leoncavallos Mattinata had already been sung by Jussi when he was still touring with his brothers at the age of fifteen, and it was heard at one of his earliest radio appearances in the same year as the recording. When he had become an international artist, he began singing both Mattinata and Torna a Surriento in Italian. The composer of the latter song was Ernesto De Curtis and the author of the original text his elder brother Giambattista, who himself wrote Carmela, the other Neapolitan song here included.
Three of the present songs are of Danish origin, and it is worth remembering that Jussi Björlings first international breakthrough took place at the Tivoli in Copenhagen. And suddenly there comes a twenty-year-old Swede all the way from Dalecarlia and sings so our hearts melt ... a brilliant lyric tenor with the most beautiful timbre, the critic Axel Kjerulf wrote. Hugo Gyldmarks charming serenade Gitarren klingar (Guitar Sounds) was dedicated to Jussi by the composer. The topic of Michael Handberg-Jørgensens Klownens tango (The Clowns Tango) may remind the listener of Vesti la giubba, later one of Jussi Björlings favourite arias. The most popular of these Danish tunes in Sweden is without doubt Mogens Schraders serenade Sommarnatt (Summer Night), which hauntingly catches the atmosphere in the subdued light of the midsummer nights. Jussi recorded this song twice, and the first version included here - in a gentler mood than his often reissued version from 1936 - is a real rarity.
Bliv min, så är världen min (Be Mine and the World is Mine) once became known through the Irish tenor John McCormack. Jussi Björling made a unique contribution to the discography of the British composer Edward Elgar with Violer, an arrangement of Elgars piece for violin and piano Salut damour. This composition soon became very popular and 87 recordings of various kinds have been noted during the first half of the twentieth century alone, but, as the text of an Elgar anthology says: perhaps none of them was more uncommon than the version with Swedish words sung by Jussi Björling. The Swedish text tells about dewy fragrant little violets as symbols of faithfulness.
The Italian Enrico Toselli once became world-famous through his Serenata, like Elgars composition distributed in numerous arrangements. The title of Tantis serenad (Tantis Serenade) alludes to the Italian clown and circus director Bedini, who took the stage-name Tanti and spent the latter part of his life in Sweden. It has been supposed that the charming Italian-style tune would be identical with one which Tanti used to sing to his own concertina accompaniment. According to a note in the publishers archive, the text, Bright moonbeams are gleaming..., depicting a serenade scene in Venice, was written by Arvid Ödmann, one of Jussi Björlings greatest predecessors as first tenor at the Royal Opera.
Jussi Björling is also heard here in a few examples of Swedish popular music, typical of their time: Axel Åströms I lyckans tempelgård (In the Sanctuary of Happiness), Folke Törnquists O milda sång (Oh Sweet Song), and Min sommarmelodi (My Summer Tune) by the pseudonymous Bickvor. A gifted but adventurous composer, also active internationally, was Johnny Bode, who wrote the tango-serenade Min längtan är du (You Are My Yearning). Gypsy romance, so popular internationally at this time, is represented by the well-known Svarta ögon (Dark Eyes - the Russian Ochi chernye) and by Varför älskar jag (Why Do I Love). An international hit was Ninon by Walter Jurmann and Bronislaw Kaper, known through the film A Song to You where it was sung by the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura.
The two last HMV recordings here included were recorded much later than the others, in 1936 and 1937, about the same time as Jussi Björling began his international recording career. Ay, ay, ay, written by the Chilean-born composer Osman Pérez-Freire, is a charming example of South American music. Originally subtitled Memories from Cuyo, it may be based on a folk-tune from this part of western Argentina. The song, once especially associated with the tenor Miguel Fleta, offers the 25-year-old Jussi an excellent opportunity to show his delicate pianissimo singing. Enrico Caruso, the composer of Ungdomsdrömmar (Dreams of Long Ago), was of course far more celebrated as a performer than as a composer. As the most famous tenor of his time, he was much admired by Jussi, who has often been compared with him, and by Jussis father David. Caruso had recorded this song himself in 1912.
The concluding items come from one of the three 78s (the two others were of religious character) which the boys trio Olle, Jussi and Gösta Björling recorded for the Columbia Record Company, probably in New York in February 1920. This was at the beginning of their successful tour with their father through the Swedish immigrant communities in the United States, which began in November 1919 and lasted for eighteen months. It is remarkable to have recordings which let us hear the voices of Jussi and his brothers at this young age, and which give an idea of the unique ensemble David Björling created. Remarkable, too, is the fact that a singer who here started his recording career by making acoustical recordings through a horn would, during the last years of his life, make hi-fi recordings in stereo.
Märta Kärn, a cousin of the boys who sometimes helped David with housework, has remembered how she once happened to introduce the cheerful tune Sommarglädje (Summer Joy) to the family. An amusing detail in the recording is the gentle laughter at the end, when one of the boys - according to Märta, probably Gösta - could no longer restrain himself.
The tune and original text of Barndomshemmet (My Childhood Home) were written by the American Paul Dresser (brother of the famous novelist Theodore Dreiser). On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away, as the well-known original is called, was adopted in 1913 as the State Song of Indiana. In its Swedish version, the song became a favourite among Swedish-Americans. The text kept the nostalgic setting of the original, but the childhood home which occurs there was described as a red little cottage, and in the new setting an old Swedish immigrant lets his thoughts run from the country in the West, home to dear old Sweden now and then, with nostalgia for his parents - sweetheart Mary is no longer involved.
Our intention with this remastering was to recreate as much as possible of Jussi Björlings unique voice and rich spectrum of overtones. For that reason we have taken great care not to apply all the noise reduction that todays finest equipment can achieve. The idea was that the listener should have the opportunity to experience the atmosphere and the feeling of nostalgia that these 78rpm shellac discs from the 1920s and 1930s can offer. The participation of members of the Jussi Björling Society served as a listening reference.
This disc is dedicated to the memory of the late Lars Bampe Karlsson, who worked at the gramophone archive of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation from 1970 onwards. Bampes creative and innovative skill in the transfer of older recordings has been a guiding light for all of us who work with transfers of 78s and wax.
Stefan Lindström has worked in the field of recording techniques and sound reproduction since the 1970s, and has made many gramophone recordings of everything from pop and jazz to chamber music. At an early stage he started to act as a consultant on the restoration of old recordings for various archives and institutions. During the past decades he has worked with sound restoration and archiving, and has restored a large number of reissues of old material from wax cylinders, wire recorders and shellac going back to the earliest infancy of recording technology.
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