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Interview of William V. Arneth, Jussi Björling’s Public Relations Manager, on February 2, 1962
by Walter Stegman, Music Commentator for Radio Station WNYC in New York City.

(Recorded off the air at time of broadcast, and transcribed on October 10, 2000 by Harold Sokolsky)

Transcriber’s notes:   (1)   During the week of January 29, 1962, Walter Stegman paid tribute to Jussi Björling with a retrospective broadcast of his recordings. During the last six years of Mr. Björling’s life, William V. Arneth was his public relations manager.  Transcribing this interview was not easy. Both Mr. Stegman and Mr. Arneth interrupted each other frequently, and they also tripped over each other’s lines, and also at times talked under their breaths.  However, this transcription is virtually complete. 

(2) We may question some of the statements made by Mr. Arneth:  Did Björling speak Russian, as Mr. Arneth says?  Apparently he did not sing in Russian.  And in Lohengrin, Mr. Arneth says that Björling sang the Farewell from the third act (“Mein lieber Schwan”)There is no evidence that he ever sang this aria. Also, where are the selections he sang as a baritone (other than the Pagliacci Prologue)? So one may assume that Mr. Arneth played loose with the facts.  

Editor’s note:   In particular, taking advantage of the print format of this transcription, let us agree that when a date or statement given below seems in error, we will enclose it in {curly brackets}.

 

Announcer:    Presenting “Critics Choice,” a survey of the better records with your commentator, Walter Stegman.

Walter Stegman: Today, February 2nd, had Jussi Björling been alive, he would have celebrated his 51st birthday anniversary.   And so today logically enough we end the five day presentation devoted exclusively to records by the late tenor. In the first two days of the week we drew from the second and third volumes of the Capitol series, “The Beloved Bjoerling” and from the recent RCA Victor issue, “The Incomparable Bjoerling.”  These as well as the first records in the Capitol series where Björling sings so many familiar articles in Swedish are all a must for the collector. Let me caution you: the ways and means of record companies are sometimes inscrutable. These records may very well be collectors items before too long and real rarities in a few years, so be forewarned, collectors.  One lives in hope of course that so much of Björling that was preserved on tape or records will eventually be put on long playing disks and made purchasable by those who cherish his glorious voice and the refinements of his art. Some of the items in this category you’ve already heard this week. More will come to you in this program. But this program will have still more. More time to begin with - an hour and a half instead of fifty five minutes. This is because after the tape recording of the interview with Björling’s erstwhile public relations manager, William V. Arneth, I found we couldn’t possibly include all the music we would like. Our director of WNYC, Seymour M. Siegel, lent a sympathetic ear to our request and made it possible for us to run for an hour and a half this one day. The evening we broadcast may be delayed in starting because of a previous and important broadcast commitment  by the station, but Björling is certainly worth waiting for. It seemed to me highly appropriate, if it were possible, to have a talk with Bill Arneth who made so many of this week’s selections available from his own precious collection. He agreed, and we taped the talk together some weeks ago although not under the easiest conditions. I know you’ll find his observations most interesting. And well they should be after having spent six years with Björling as his public relations manager, watching him in concerts, traveling with him, spending time with him and his wife socially. And here, after a bit of necessary editing here and there, is where that tape and our program begins

A San Francisco music critic once wrote after a Björling opera performance, “The enthusiasm was an act of justice as well as gratitude. Too often the opera world waits until top rank singers are past or dead before it starts [bruiting about] their greatness. Here and now is the time to applaud Björling for what he truly is: one of the best tenors of all time.”  Björling was, of course, not exactly neglected. And if I can express a personal regret, coupled with a hope, it is that some of the rarities you’ve already heard and will be hearing in this week dedicated to Björling will eventually be made available to everyone. Meanwhile, the privilege of hearing them calls for an expression of profound thanks to Bill Arneth, his former public relations director. I want to set the rules first for this hour by having you hear a song by the Swedish composer Hugo Alvén, “Jag längtar dig” recorded in {1958}. 

The voice of Jussi Björling [plays record: “Jag längtar dig” by Hugo Alvén, sung by Jussi Björling with Nils Grevillius conducting].

Walter Stegman :  Bill Arneth, I know you’ve already won the gratitude and admiration of our listeners for your really wonderful thoughtfulness and generosity for making so many Björling performances available for the first time here. Having spent six interesting years with the tenor, what would you give as a summing up observation?

William V. Arneth : Well first, Walter, thank you very much for the privilege of being on your program to celebrate this for Jussi. Jussi was the most enigmatic personality probably I’ve ever come across - warm hearted, generous, not too temperamental, but decidedly stubborn. This stubborn quality was both an asset and a liability.  He was, nevertheless, to my mind, the outstanding singer of the twentieth century.

WS  : Well, what assets and liabilities do you refer to?

WA:  Jussi inherited his stubbornness from his father and his grandfather. But this stubbornness came from his singularly high standards that he had set for all his musical projects. Many people have remarked to wonder for instance why many more operas were not recorded by Björling.  It was not Jussi’s lack of knowledge of the role, for he learned Turandot and {Pagliacci} very quickly even though he had never sung them on the stage. But to be specific, Jussi had long wanted to record Roméo, which was his favorite role.

WS  : You mean Gounod’s Roméo and Juliet?

WA:  Gounod - Roméo.  Which became, by the way, very memorable for Jussi, even though he gave but two performances at the Metropolitan Opera. After Bidú Sayão had retired from the stage it was very difficult for any recording company to find a suitable soprano for Juliette. Many were mentioned I assure you but none met with the approval of Jussi. However, it was to come about in 1960 that the recording would finally be made. The conductor was to be Beecham but the soprano was still unnamed. A point in case is the Otello. Jussi had a decided fixation for the role. He felt that once it could finally be done, with the lyrical content that the music had. He knew that he could record it without any difficulty. You may have heard in the previous program the Otello duet with Robert Merrill which they recorded in {1950} for RCA. Both sang it so eloquently. 

I was in on the discussion for the recording of the complete Otello and Jussi was absolutely adamant that he would not do the recording because of the other two protagonists. The soprano, in Jussi’s estimation, was simply not suitable. The other leading singer was a difficult personality.

[Note:   It’s easy to guess here that Arneth is referring to Milanov and Warren, being proposed to Jussi by RCA as partners for this recording project.   He surely wanted de los Angeles and Merrill in the other roles, don’t you think?   Ed.]

WS:  You mean difficult for Björling? He presumably worked with these artists before?

WA:  Many, many times - both in recordings and on the stage. There you have a positive effect of Jussi’s stubbornness - the integrity he demanded before he undertook any project. The negative aspect of his stubbornness, however, is the aftermath of the situation I described - namely, the cancellation of many of the recordings Jussi was to have made. To enumerate them is very disheartening.  Carmen, Manon, the complete Fledermaus, Faust, Samson, Il Tabarro, and of course, the two tragic Masked Balls that were cancelled. There were countless art songs, Swedish songs and arias that were to have been recorded in both Sweden, America, and London, that time and time again were postponed. Nevertheless, he always felt that there was a little more time left, that he could do this at a later date. Unfortunately, for all of us, time has run out. We should, though, be thankful for the magnificent legacy which he has left us. A propos the standards that Jussi has left us, here is a recording taken from a public performance with orchestra of the aria “Ah! Fuyez, douce image.” One could only conjecture what he would do with the complete role which unfortunately he never sang on a full stage [plays record].

WS:    “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” from Massenet’s Manon sung by Björling, recorded in {1958}, and this was from a private lacquer copy given by the late tenor to his public relations manager Bill Arneth who has made it available for us today. Bill, am I right in feeling that Rodolfo in La Bohème was a particularly strong favorite role with Björling?

WA:  It certainly was, Walter. In fact Jussi appeared in about {eleven hundred} opera performances throughout the world, many of them in America. uh... Bohème led the way of all the operas that he performed, and followed closely by Faust, Manrico, the Duke in Rigoletto, Mario in Tosca, Roméo, Turandot, Riccardo, and, of course, something that he's never sung in America, Count Almaviva in the Barber of Seville. Jussi sang practically {every} tenor role that there was, with the exception of Don José, Lohengrin, and Andrea Chénier, the last ever to be lamented.. Jussi’s next presentation that we’re going to hear, the fantastically dramatic reading of Rodolfo’s aria from the first act, “Che gelida manina” with an electrifying climax.

WS:  Just before we play the record, when was this made? What’s the story behind the actual recording?

WA:  This was a record that Jussi made in a public appearance about 1950 [plays record].

WS:  That, of course was “Che gelida manina” from the first act of La Bohème sung by Jussi Björling. I notice in your collection here that you brought with you,… Bill Arneth, the aria “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes

WA:  Walter, this was one of the most popular numbers that Jussi ever sang.

WS:  Did he like doing the early opera - different kind of opera?

WA:  No, decidedly not. No, he only stayed usually within the repertoire of the operas that are popularly performed.. However, to get back to the song in question, the aria I should say in question, this was taken at a festival in Bergen and Jussi had lacquers made from it, and this was the introduction, the first number that he did and it was recorded back, I think, in the year 1954. Peculiarly enough, in all his recorded collection, the Björling family does not have a single, or did not have a single number of this - one of the most favorites in the family, and when they were in New York last March, I gave them - had a copy made from this for I which I think they’re quite grateful [plays record].

WS:   That was a Handel aria, “Ombra mai fu” sung by Jussi Björling. The Don Carlo duet, Bill, that you have a recording of here, is sung with whom? - Robert Merrill?

WA:  Yes

WS:    And what are the circumstances surrounding this?

WA:  This is recorded in {December and January of 1950-51}.

WS:    He liked working with Merrill?

WA:  Oh, Jussi thought that Merrill was one of the finest baritones in the world. Ah...admired him as a person and admired him as a singer.  And the duets that Merrill and Björling have done together for RCA are some of the finest, that bear comparison with any of the former deLuca and Gigli ...

WS:  We’re stepping on dangerous ground - you’re going to get some listeners who are going to say “Oh no, you can’t beat the old timers,”  but this is your opinion of course.

WA:  Oh, oh, alright then, although I frankly could say, if you put it against this particular …

WS:  This stands up very favorably.

WA:  The Otello?   Absolutely.  The New York Times in fact said it was superior. But, this recording was taken right after the opening of Bing’s new season and Jussi, believe it or not, sang the role of Don Carlo at the Metropolitan almost as much as he sang anything else. He sang the role fourteen times  — only less than the Trovatore which he sang seventeen times at the Met [plays record].

[Editor’s note:  J.B. sang Tosca 16 times with the Met, and Bohème and Faust 15 times, according to HHP = Harald Henrysson’s “A Jussi Björling Phonography,”  2nd Ed.]

WS:  Jussi Björling with Robert Merrill in a duet from Don Carlo.  There’s a Swedish song here which I’m afraid I can’t quite pronounce, Bill, but I want to know something else about it, because he sings in Swedish.  When I was in Finland some years ago, and met...and was introduced to Björling, and talked to some Finns about him, they said that you know, he always denies that he’s a Finn, but to us he’s a Finn  - the name Jussi is Finnish.

WA:  That’s correct.

WS:  Is this true?

WA: Jussi’s favorite... has favorite countries where he has sung.   Of these, Finland, Denmark, the cities of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, are closest to his heart. In Finland the name Jussi of course is Finnish - it came about, Walter, when the family was naming him - they decided to name him after one of the relatives, in the Finnish jargon.   They dropped Johan Jonatan, they dropped everything else and came to the name Jussi. 

WS:    But did he admit that he was Finnish? Was he ...?

WA:    No. I’ve never come across it. 

WS: You haven’t? 

WA:    He was Swedish - decidedly.

WS: There’s a point that bears verification.   Another song by {Hugo Alvén}   sung by Jussi Björling. 

[plays record, which they misidentified as by Alvén. The song was actually “Trollsjön” (The Enchanted Lake) by August Söderman].   

A song by Hugo Alvén, the Swedish composer and the tenor Jussi Björling. I did a Björling program some weeks back, Bill, and one of the selections on it sounded so much like a baritone, that I expressed – as a matter of fact, I may as well tell the story – this is how I met you. I expressed doubt over the air as to whether it was really Björling or not. This was sort of a collectors’ reissue of things from Canada, a local record company, and I got lots of calls and lots of letters, and I guess the longest and probably the most detailed came from you. This song, “L’alba separa dalla luce ...” – tell me again what you said then about it.

WA: Well, a long time in {1950}, Jussi was doing quite a few Telephone and Firestone broadcasts and he was looking for a new song to arouse the audience and this came from Fred Schang, his manager in New York who had this old Caruso recording from 1917 and Jussi heard the recording and liked it so much that he immediately went out to the {recording} company and had it published again “as sung by Jussi Björling.” It was, without doubt, the ... one of the great concert pieces in his repertoire.

WS:  Did he use it as a regular thing or as an encore?

WA: Mostly as an encore.  

WS: And probably had to sing it a second time?

WA: No, he no, Jussi never in all the concerts I have been with ...

WS: ... repeated a number?

WA: ... never repeated a number. But, he sang more numbers, more songs and arias than {any} singers ever did on the concert stage. He rarely sang under twenty – most were twenty five to twenty eight.

WS: Now this song he sings like a baritone?

WA: In some instances. He has an HMV recording, he has about {five or six} [Ed.: 10, according to HHP] off the air recordings of it, and he has one that we’re going to hear on a lacquer that Jussi gave me that sounds not like a baritone but like a tenor.

WS: So this is a song by Tosti?

WA: Right.

WS: “L’alba” the dawn “separa dalla luce” separates from the light [plays record].

WS: Tosti’s song “L’alba separa dalla luce” sung by Björling, and as Bill Arneth has told us he had made a number of recordings of it, some with the voice almost that of a baritone.  Did he like to do this? To sing ... I understand ... of course Caruso used to like to do it. Björling did it quite well according to at least that particular recording.

WA: I have some very interesting private tapes that we’re unable to play over the air, Walter, where Jussi does sing as a baritone – he sings the Prologue from Pagliacci quite masterfully and a few other excerpts from Beethoven that unfortunately we’re not allowed to play on the air. 

WS: Well, here we have another song by Richard Strauss - “Zueignung” – it’s one of my favorites, and I haven’t yet heard this, I’m going to hear it for the first time now. Can you say something about it? Is this with piano, by the way?

WA: It’s –  this is with full orchestra.

WS: With full orchestra.

WA: ... and it’s quite beautifully ... Jussi does it with a magnificent ecstasy [plays record]. 

WS: Jussi Björling singing “Zueignung” by Richard Strauss. “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo another favorite of Björling’s ...wasn’t it Bill?

WA: Decidedly. Audiences would ask him time and time again to sing it. It was a piece done on most of his concert programs, especially in the larger cities where they did like the old chestnuts and Jussi would repeat them time and time again. He sang it at his Carnegie Hall Concert in ‘58 which is in the vaults at RCA and which we look forward to being released this year.

WS: To my perhaps inexperienced ears, Björling singing in whatever language sings rather clearly in the language. He didn’t speak all these, did he?

WA:  No. He spoke English beautifully, he spoke some French, Italian, very fine, Swedish, of course, Finnish, and the other Scandinavian languages. However, his articulation and his diction were unparalleled on the musical stage. {There was no language that he couldn’t sing in. Indeed, he sang in Russian. } His concert performances would have six languages and each one would be faithfully adhered to.

WS: Tell me this while it comes to mind, was he interested in any sort of musical career for his children - did he feel at all that they had anything in them that might blossom later on?

WA: Absolutely not! He did not want his children to have anything to do with the musical field. 

He wanted one son to become a banker or a diplomat, the other son to work in ship building as a businessman, and the daughter, perhaps, if she’d like - Ann Charlotte, to work, in part in perhaps musical comedy, but as a professional musician, he didn’t want his children to have anything to do with it.

WS:  Well, as the children have - a -have grown, I don’t know how old they are now ...

WA: The boys are {23, 21}, and Ann-Charlotte is close to - is about 19.

WS: Have they followed ...

WA: The precepts is [sic] put down to the tee – there is {no musician in the family}.

[Ed.: “The seedlings are far from the tree”? Of course, Arneth is completely wrong here.]

WS: Of course they all love music.

WA: Yes, they love it but they do not pursue it.

WS: Well, Mrs Björling was a singer, wasn’t she?

WA: Anna-Lisa was a soprano, indeed. Anna-Lisa sang with a coast-to-coast tour of the United States and Canada in 1950 and ‘51 with Jussi in over {thirty} cities. She did some broadcasts coast- to-coast, and she sang, believe it or not in {three} performances of Roméo et Juliette at the San Francisco Opera with Jussi.

WS: What does she do today? Is she simply retired?

WA: Yes.

WS:  In Sweden?

WA: Yes, in Stockholm.

WS: The big aria – I guess we call it the big aria because it’s probably one of the most taxing of all those you brought here today is the one from Turandot.

WA: The Calaf was the performance that Jussi has never sung on the stage, but in the recording, his is destined to be the recording that one goes back again and again to hear.     He was in magnificent voice when he recorded it, fine spirits, and - uh - did justice to the role, in all its Puccinian beauty. This particular song also is one of the foremost that Jussi was asked to sing after all his concerts. When it came to the encore time ...

WS: This is “Nessun Dorma”?

WA: “Nessun Dorma.” And this is the one that the audiences would beg him to sing, again and again – in every town, in every junction, and even the New York audience, with all its intellectual coldness would scream and holler asking him to do it.

WS: Well, I won’t really accept that intellectual coldness [nervous laugh from Arneth], Bill, but there again it’s your opinion – I - I don’t think we’re quite that cold here. On the other hand this is Puccini, which is quite different from the Puccini of Bohème. Was it a hard role for him to learn?

WA: There is [sic] no roles hard for Jussi to learn. He was such a ...

WS: ... he had basically a good memory ...

WA: Excellent! He had fifty seven leading tenor roles and the last time that he sang Aida was in {1938} and he went to Chicago and sang it in Italian without the least bit of difficulty – the only other time he worked on it was the operatic recording in {‘53} for RCA.

WS: When was this Turandot aria made ... in {1950} I see. What was the significance...

WA: Well, this is another one of the lacquers that Jussi had of a special program that he did with full orchestra, and actually I think it is even a more impassioned and finer than the recording that he made in 1959 on the complete Turandot.

WS: This is the RCA Victor recording? 

WA: Yes.

WS: And - who are the sopranos?

WA: Nilsson, Tebaldi {and Tozzi}. 

WS: Oh, yes.

WA: Tozzi is a great favorite of Jussi. By the way, he believes that Tozzi will become one of the great singers of the future.

WS: Giorgio Tozzi, this is a Chicago American, incidentally ...

WA: Yes. Jussi liked Americans singers ... he thought most highly of them.  He rarely ... Jussi was a person that rarely said ill about any singer.

WS: Where do you think he was happiest singing? Audiences...?

WA: Audiences ...? Chicago. 

WS: Really.

WA: Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco, and then, of course, his entrances at the Metropolitan which were something to behold. And you may want to reiterate one thing ...other legacy that Jussi has left, and that is the fact that with Madam Milanov ... in full for 1956, Jussi and Madam Milanov at that time set the house record for curtain calls at 25 at the Metropolitan. One year later on the 27th of February - with Madam Tebaldi, in a ... as the New York press headline the next day ... “The All Stars Keep The Met In a Tizzy.” Björling and Tebaldi had 28 curtain calls to set a modern record for the Metropolitan which has not been surpassed to this day. The previous record was in the 1930's with Flagstad and Melchoir. 

WS: Jussi Björling died of a heart attack. Had he ever had any signs of ill health up to that time?

I can expect one could speculate fatigue ... this is hard work – studying, traveling, insufficient time for rest, but were there any signs ... did he have a heart condition, as they say ... before that time?

WA: Well, we should start at the beginning, I guess. You said studying. Jussi rarely studied. Rehearsals! Jussi hated rehearsals – he wouldn’t go to them – he didn’t care for them.

WS: How did he get away with that?

WA: He didn’t think they were necessary. The only ones that he did go to, as much as he had to, were the Metropolitan – ah – he made a worldwide tour with {twenty seven} concerts in South Africa with Irvin Newton, as his  ...

WS:  Ivor Newton ... the British ...

WA:  Ivor Newton, the ... pianist as his accompanist.  Not once did he do a rehearsal, with or without orchestra. Twenty seven concerts. He was in excellent health until 1955. And in ‘55 he began to have a little trouble with his heart. But is was not until WW II, ‘58 that he had four ... almost four consecutive heart attacks.

WS:  Was he willing at the time to do any more singing?

WA:  Oh yes. I’ll even go a little further. He was not ... he was warned to rest, which he was going to do physically, more than mentally.  He came to New York and he brought the cardiographs that were taken in Stockholm.  At this time, he was to have a season at the Metropolitan and a rather exhaustive recording session with ...

WS:  This is ‘58?

WA:  This is 1958 .. And he had just ... well this is in {September ... he was opening the Carnegie Hall season ... believe it or not, in mid-September} – which he did.

[Of course Arneth refers to the March 2, 1958 concert.  Ed.]

WS:  This is the thing that was recorded?

WA:  No... this is right. This is the one that is not ... has not yet been released ... which opens, of all things with the Verdi Requiem ... as the opening number.

WS:  Ingemisco?

WA:  Yes. If one can imagine such a thing. But ... Jussi had four heart attacks and was laid up the entire month ... 

WS:  In Europe?

WA:  ... in August of 1958.

WS:  Not in New York?

WA:  No, in Sweden ... and, uh, he went through his entire programs, but near the end of that year, he made a lot of cancellations and was beginning to feel very tired, and from thereon in he deteriorated on and off with one very disastrous attack in Ft. Lauderdale following a concert in {1959}, at which time he was in the hospital for three weeks, and when he came out, continued his concerts to conclude the schedule, but then flew back to Sweden to recuperate.

WS:  Did his wife accompany him most of the time ...

WA:  Anna Lisa was with Jussi practically everywhere in the world at all times.

WS:  Now the {1950} recording by Björling of the aria from Turandot [plays record].Jussi Björling singing “Nessun Dorma” as perhaps known in our lifetime, certainly mine, ... from Puccini’s opera Turandot.   Bill Arneth, before you go, a few more questions occur, and I wonder if you might be able to answer them.  First of all, did Björling find that he had to vary the kind of repertoire he presented in his recitals, depending upon the country he was singing in?

WA:  That’s an interesting point, Walter. Jussi sang practically the same concert from 1934 until 1960, even though he had in his repertoire a potential of about {700} songs, and gosh knows how many arias. He would sing it usually the same. He always felt the audience liked to hear the same things, which they did to a certain extent. But in Europe Jussi would open his concerts in most cases, with of all things, the Lohengrin narrative or {Farewell from the last act}. In America, Jussi would open with ... as he did in Carnegie Hall such tremendous pieces of music as the Req…, the “Ingemiso” from the Verdi Requiem, an aria from the Magic Flute, an aria from Don Giovanni, “Ombra mai fu” which of course most tenors did ... but by and large Jussi’s concert pattern was the same through the years, with the exception that he sang anywhere from eighteen to twenty six and to twenty eight numbers during each of his concerts.

WS: People really got their money’s worth.

WA: Always. Jussi always gave the audience everything he had to give.

WS:  Now we began in one of the previous programs ... we had him singing in the Björling quartet ...and of course this was with his two brothers and his father.

WA:  Yes. There’s an interesting story about that, Walter. That was a recording made by the Stockholm radio station in {1953}, and it was the first time the brothers came together again to sing since the early 1920 recordings that you heard previously. And this record, believe it or not, was given away to a winner of a television program, as one of the grand prizes, and after the people had heard it, they subscribed in such amounts that the radio station decided to ... and made it available to the general public in Sweden.

WS:  And this was the recording of ...

WA:  ... the Björling quartet ...

WS:  ... the Björling quartet.

WA:  ... in 1953, the brothers singing together.  Except it was not the quartet at that time ... it was, I think ...

WS:  Well, in any event ... those two brothers were both singers ...

WA:  Gösta, a very fine lyric tenor...

WS: Who is singing today ...?

WA:  Oh, Gösta passed away ... two years before Jussi ...

WS:  Then the other brother ...?

WA:  No longer singing.

WS: And the father? Did he have much of a singing career?

WA: Father had a very interesting singing career. The father ...

WS:  Well, where did they sing.  Where did they go around singing as a quartet in the early years?

WA:  All throughout the United States, but mostly in the midwest, and they would do it in these Swedish communities, and the Scandinavian communities ...

WS:    ... and nobody then ... none of our critics ... uh, uh, able to appraise, or at least gauge what the possibilities were in hearing Björling, at least,  in the quartet ... or wasn’t that possible.

WA:  That was not possible ... there was some talk that David Björling, the father, was favored upon by Caruso, but, of course, this may be legend, and not even though Jussi in his autobiography mentions that Caruso taught his father a few things ... this has never been verified in fact. But, don’t forget, Jussi was only nine and a half years old when he toured the United States in the quartet.

WS:  Were they well received?

WA:  Oh, yes .. In their own ...

WS:  What was it ... folk music ...?

WA:    Folk music, and ...

WS:  ... so I suppose it attracted mostly Swedish speaking audiences ...

WA:  ...well, it was, because they did it in the native costumes of Sweden.

WS:  You know, Bill, something that always interests me, how we...any music lover, will idolize a particular artist. I often wonder whom these artists idolize?  Did Jussi have a particularly strong feeling ... a feeling of ... what will I say ... indebtedness to John Forsell for instance, his teacher who turned out so may wonderful tenors, among others?

WA:  Jussi was individual.

WS:  Well, he could still be individual, but to what extent did he have a personal vanity or conceit that would completely block out ever any reference to anybody who may have been instrumental in shaping ...

WA:  No, no ... In Jussi’s autobiography he gives much thanks.  However, Jussi’s affiliation with Forsell was excellent, because the basic tutoring that he received from Forsell taught him the discipline that was necessary and that was so valuable to him in later years.  Jussi had a discipline in music that was ... is unparalleled  in our time. Jussi never rehearsed before concerts.  This is an impossibility but he never did.  Jussi would go into a concert at Carnegie Hall and just open his voice a few times in the back room, take a slug of water with a drop of brandy or two and then go out and sing the whole concert.  Jussi never warmed up. He said I know what I’m to do – my voice is ready all the time. He was a well trained singer who knew his job. This is the way he felt.

WS:  How did he get along with accompanists?

WA:  Well, sometimes ... he led, they followed ... in fact that’s one of the few difficulties Jussi ever got in with … everything that I can see from his younger days was that even at the Metropolitan … continually used to say, it’s a great voice, but Jussi, stop conducting – sing.  Jussi used to lead the orchestra many times, because he always felt that their beat was too slow, especially in the music of Manrico in Trovatore.   Jussi would sing that with a blend of lyricism that has never been heard in America. It was one of his great roles. But he was continually at odds with the conductor.

WS:  Well, Bill, I don’t know where to begin to say thank you.  It seems so inadequate, but for all the effort, and all the time and all the preparation you’ve given us in not only being here today in preparing for this particular talk but for the two preceding programs with all of these wonderful rarities I simply feel that our listeners .. the best I can say to you is that I’m sure all of our listeners feel like I do. We’re wonderfully grateful. Thanks infinitely ... and good luck to you.

WA:  Thank you.  Walter, may I say one parting remark?

WS:  Sure.

WA:  There’s a ... we should mention it someplace ... and that is the fact that there is a tremendous inexhaustive supply of Björling tapes from his Toscanini performances, and his Metropolitan performances, all off the air that are available for ... under certain conditions, I know, throughout the country. These should ... if people are really interested in the Björling legacy and recorded art ... I am sure that if they contacted either you or someone ...

WS:  of course, the wonderful thing is that Björling was alive and active in singing in this great period of the development of recordings, so that what might have been just the Björling legend became the Björling legacy.

WA:  One of the most prolific recorders in the history of the recording art.

WS:  So that fifty years from now, people won’t be able to say, well...Björling ... like they say today, Adelina Patti – well you can’t tell from these old records. But you can tell from Björling’s. Thanks infinitely, Bill, and it’s really been our pleasure.

WA:  Thank you, Walter.

WS:  Who knows what course vocal history would have taken had Björling continued to live?  Speculation stirs the imagination. Some felt his voice was darkening and continuing to mellow, that in time he would have become a real Wagnerian heldentenor. When you consider the paucity of real Wagnerian tenors today, ever since Lauritz Melchoir left the opera stage, Björling might have been his logical successor, opening up an entirely new career for himself and adding glories to the pages of music history. But all of us would have been quite content to have Björling go on just as he did in the roles through which we came to know the rich, velvety, trumpet voice, and the musicianship which spells art as we rarely experience it. Björling still lives for us.  His voice will not be stilled.  And happily, the magic of recordings reassures us in this respect.

[Mr. Stegman then replays some of the selections from the week’s tribute to Jussi Björling.]

The transcriber thanks Sue Flaster for identifying the Alvén song referred to above, and   Yoël L . Arbeitman for pointing out some discrepancies and for his copy editing.

Editor's note: Hal Sokolsky has CD copies of this interview available, for information see www.operaphile.com or sok@operaphile.com.

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