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Jussi Björling in London

John Steane gave his talk unscripted. This is an edited version, preserving the spoken idiom but reconstructed slightly for purposes of readability.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring greetings for the conference from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She asked me the other day: “What are you doing?” And although that question may sound a little accusatory it was in fact very friendly and I said: “I’m going to Stockholm.” She said: “Oh! How lovely! What are you doing there?” And so I told her. And she said: “Ah! I sang with him you know. And it was one of the great events in my life.” She said: “Will you please give my kinds regards to all the people present and tell them how I join with them in honouring a great artist and a very great man.”  So I pass these greetings on to you from her.

It’s with a quotation from her husband, Walter Legge, that I wanted to start anyway. In the book Jussi there is one entry under the name of Legge in the index. And it does refer to that one concert that his wife gave in 1955 in Oslo. They sang the second half of the first Act of La Bohème and they hoped to make a recording together but that was one of those great recordings of the century that never got made. I always speculate on what their program might have been. You know what I would like them to have done? I would like them to have sung the Love duet from Otello  (The intended program is listed in Stephen M. Stroff’s Guldstrupen, a biography of JB (Bokad, 1979): Duets from La Bohème, Mefistofele, Carmen, Otello, Martha, L’amico Fritz and Madama Butterfly).  In that year they could both have done it very well and it would have been a treasure in the catalogue. Now, although Walter Legge never produced Björling on record as far as I know (there’s nothing in the discographies of either the singer or the record producer), he did play a part in Björling’s career at an important time. He was the assistant of Sir Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden and he made jolly sure that in the 1939 season Björling was perhaps chief among the artists who made their debut there. If things had gone normally, that is if there hadn’t been a little event like the 1939-1945 war, it would no doubt had been the beginning of a regular association between Björling and the Royal Opera House in London, but of course that didn’t happen.

Legge also, I think, must have had an influence over the very willing adoption by international HMV/EMI of Björling when he was not quite yet an international artist. I mean his first records were issued in Britain on the Celebrity label, rather exceptional for a more or less unknown artist. They were putting their faith in him. He went straight into the catalogue in the Celebrity issues and also, and perhaps even more prestigiously, he had an immediate entry into that section at the back of the HMV catalogue, in those days the biographical section. If you were in that you were somebody. People took their bearings from those twenty-to-thirty pages at the end of the catalogue. Björling was there. He was up with the greats of recording and that was important. But it’s a sentence written by Walter Legge, though under a pseudonym, that I wanted to quote from Gramophone magazine. Under the pseudonym (and Schwarzkopf said “how typical”) of Beckmesser, Walter Legge wrote a retrospective of some seasons at Covent Garden in the 1930s and when he came to 1937 he wrote a sentence which brings together, in one sentence, two of my own very great heroes. He said that the hero of that 1937 international season was the veteran tenor Giovanni Martinelli and he said of him that although his voice obviously wasn’t what it had been, it still had “a ring and golden glow unlike any other tenor in the world,” and then he put in brackets “perhaps except Björling’s whose records hold promise of a voice great beyond even the cavil of ‘fans’ who write stupid letters about the objects of their indiscriminate admiration.” Now if there was any need to identify Beckmesser with Walter Legge, that phrase does it.

These records which were available at the time when he wrote, that was June 1937, numbered only three in the catalogues. Actually of course, if you look at the [Henrysson] discography, the British catalogue starts with record number 89 and 90, something like that in the chronological discography but still at that time we knew him through three records only. That is four arias and two songs. The first of those records came out in March 1937 and since I’m talking about Björling in London, well, of course before London heard him in the flesh, a lot of Londoners and a lot of British people knew him through these records which became instantly very popular. But it’s interesting to see how these very first records were received by the reviewers of those times, so that the very first record of all had this review in The Gramophone of March 1937. The writer said:

“Through the medium of this record a young Swedish tenor makes his bow to British Gramophiles. Past disappointments are apt to make a reviewer extra cautious of assuming the prophet’s mantle. Otherwise I might be rash enough to speak of HMV having discovered a second Caruso. I disclaim any such prophecy and dismiss the idea that Björling’s voice resembles Caruso’s but I do say that a young singer with such a splendid voice and obvious skill and intelligence should go very far indeed if he takes himself and his art seriously.”

Now the first record had Verdi on one side and Puccini on the other. The reviewer preferred the Puccini as indeed do I but we will play a little of the Verdi. We will now hear the second verse of a ditty with which you are well familiar. RECORD 1 (see list below)


   Now, the idea of playing that was that you would put yourself in the imagination into the place of hearing that voice, that artist, for the first time. What would you say? Well, you would say that it actually is school of Caruso to the extent that it is tested at any rate by the cadenza. A generation of listeners had got used to the cadenza as sung by Gigli. Now Gigli sings a marvellous ‘La donna è mobile’ in his own style but is not so good in the cadenza. He is all right coming down but is hopeless going up. Martinelli also had a record of ‘La donna è mobile’ in the catalogue of that time. He doesn’t even try. I mean, he takes a sort of easy passage down and then he doesn’t bother about the up at all. He takes a stunning high B at the end, but here, in Björling’s record, they found an exemplary cadenza very much in the model of  Caruso who had sung it perfectly in his record. The critic said about this first record of Björling: “In both arias the words are very clear and this serves to show up his mistakes in Italian pronunciation.” That’s true: he sings ‘Misera appina’ instead of ‘appiena’. I’m not sure if it wasn’t ‘felise’ instead of ‘felice’ but certainly there were some oddities of pronunciation. “But,” says the critic, “further experience ought to make most of these errors vanish.” 

Well, the next Björling record that came out in June of that same year, 1937, and this was the famous one. It was my first Björling. DB3049 I think, of ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘Celeste Aida’. Of course it does not take long before the Gramophone   critic begins to make some rather niggling criticisms. This one was too loud. It’s the usual complaint, isn’t it, with someone who has a real voice. “Turn it down. Yes, yes, yes, very nice, very impressive, but no, no, no.” Well, actually, yes, yes, yes. We love the sound of a good, full ringing voice and I remember the great excitement of the sheer sound, the amplitude of that voice as we heard it in those records but the Gramophone  reviewer said “A splendid voice, a voice in a million, I only hope that in due course it will be matched with a style of equal beauty.” So what’s the matter with the style? The ‘Celeste Aida’, he says, “is not sung as by a daydreamer” And that’s true. What’s the first marking in the score? Mormorando . Oh my! Tell me one who does it like that [murmuring ]. As a matter of fact I can think of one: most unexpectedly, Auelinao Pertile. His opening of ‘Celeste Aida’ is exactly that. Mormorando . Björling doesn’t really do that. He addresses : very forthright, very public. The critic continues: “On the whole he shapes his phrases with skill. His breath control is admirable. The irritating Italian gasp at the end of a phrase is conspicuous by its absence. He can steal a breath with speed and silence. The effect is to create an illusion of wonderfully long phrases.” Of the ‘Che gelida manina’ he said that the failure to appreciate the significance of well-timed pauses was a feature. Yes, ‘chi son? chi son?’ And you remember Gigli’s little chuckle, ‘come vivo, ha, vivo.’ Gigli chuckles, Björling doesn’t. It’s a matter of the pacing and the sense of the thing. The critic says: “Björling and Grevillius do not altogether miss the spirit of the piece.” Well that’s nice to know. “But they only half realize it, as usual on records.” The next issue was of songs: ‘O sole mio’ and ‘Ideale.’ The critic thought they didn’t mean much to him. But then in the January of the next year, 1938, there came ‘O Paradiso’ and ‘Cielo e mar’. Of this issue he wrote that it was “one of the finest operatic records I have heard for a long time. This seems to me to be easily the best of the Swedish tenor’s records and I have much pleasure in recommending it.”

And then came the war. And in the beginning of the war was the release of the Trovatore coupling and the reviewing in Gramophone had now fallen to whoever felt like taking it up. This was a character called F Sharp who writes of this superb record, “The record is as if you sat in the stalls with the orchestra between you and the young Danish [sic] tenor on the stage. An audition rather than a performance.” Well, well, well. She doesn’t say anything about ‘Ah si, ben mio’ at all and concludes: “Now that he has scratched ‘Di quella pira’ off his list he may well turn to gentler arias which display the loveliness rather than the power of his voice.” And so in the major gramophone reviewing journal of the time, as I hope it still is, that classic of the gramophone went virtually unreviewed. But we will hear the ‘Ah si ben mio’ side now. RECORD 2

Now, there are various things you look for, various testing things, in ‘Ah si, ben mio.’ One is as he comes down on “il braccio più forte” that you don’t have a series of explosive notes, and you don’t. Then there is “Ma pur, se nella pagina de’ miei destini e scritto.” Verdi writes ‘con dolore.’ You very often don’t get that. Björling doesn’t quite but he does it softly and then absolutely beautifully, that joining note, the G flat, “trafitto”, the note which bridges the two halves of the aria, sung exquisitely there with a real pianissimo and various other things as you go on. The question of the trill. Well, it’s very rare that anybody of the Italian type of tenor actually tries the trill, at all. Björling has a go at it. It’s a bit sketchy, is it not, the first time. The second time it’s much more precise. Now I’m going to play the recording live from Covent Garden, in the 1939 season. There were only a few months between his recording of that in the studio and, previously, his performance at Covent Garden. Now, you’ll hear the ‘Di quella pira,’ which is very exciting, in the second half of the morning’s program. I’ll finish at the end of ‘Ah si, ben mio’. But you see, it’s interesting to ask as record collectors, isn’t it, one of the things which is always asked: “How far can you believe your records? How far do they square with what an artist was actually doing in the flesh, how he sounded, the care he took over details. Don’t they take a lot more care over the studio recording than in the hurly burly of stage production?” Well, when you listen to this — this is his Covent Garden performance, this was his debut at Covent Garden in 1939 — I think you’ll find that almost point for point, he does the same on stage as he did in the recording studio, but if there is a choice to be made, still more exquisite is his singing in the flesh. We’ll start with the beginning of that scene. The Leonora is Gina Cigna. RECORD 3

No applause incidentally. The Times noted that, after that aria which they said he sang exquisitely, there was nothing from the audience, which reserved its applause for after ‘Di quella pira’, which they said brought down the house. The Times didn’t have all that much to say but very perspicaciously did tell its readers that Covent Garden had found a real tenor. The best review — that is, the most full, intelligent, useful review — came in the Manchester Guardian from a critic called William McNaughton. We don’t remember him at all, but he wrote at length. I’ll read as much as I can:

“Jussi Björling’s progress towards Covent Garden has been unhurried and unspectacular and none the worse for that. By way of advanced publicity, not the verbal bunting employed by persuasive agents, but a succession of far more persuasive gramophone records from which we have learned that he possesses voice and artistry out of the common. The unresolved question was whether the voice had been flattered by gramophonic reproduction, as voices frequently are. When the test came at Queen’s Hall [in 1937], he gave the impression of singing rather smaller than his mechanical alter ego and on that no one ventured to dub him the Nth Caruso. But if the occasion produced only modified rapture in the public breast it was largely on account of a program that was neither here nor there. It was not because the gramophone records had lied. Apart from the mere dimensions of its fortissimo , Björling’s voice has qualities that no machine could invent. It has a beautiful tone that can assume quiet changes of hue and a flexibility that can point a word or phrase while the tone colours it. Its firmness is no less effective than stentorian force in conveying heroism and its delicacy can weave poetry and sentiment without a trace of affectation.”

 He likes the personality too. He says he is not much of an actor but never mind, perhaps in time that will come. He says in any case, he might have acted a bit better if he had had a Leonora with a bit more life in her as a character than he was offered on that night. “He wandered through the opera as something of a stranger.” And he goes on to say that “the real denizen of this outlandish world” of Il trovatore was the Swedish mezzo, Gertrud Wettergren, who sang Azucena. We’ll have one more excerpt from this performance. We’ll hear them together in the duet in the final scene. Exquisitely sung. Björling always sang that scene particularly beautifully but I do think, as I do of ‘Ah si, ben mio’ that this is the best, this is the most refined of him. In a way it’s the most musical and creative. RECORD 4

  I must leave the Covent Garden Trovatore,  though I can’t without recalling the one dissenting note by a critic. It’s amusing. In The Gramophone, Harold Rosenthal had taken over from Walter Legge doing this retrospective of the Covent Garden season. He wrote: “Jussi Björling made his Covent Garden debut at an exceptionally early stage in his career. He is still in his twenties. His voice is one of great beauty as his records have shown but it will require many years before he becomes the golden tenor of the age! He is still immature and showed an apparent lack of even the most rudimentary acting. Moreover, his voice is lyrical and not dramatic.” Now we wonder, who is this wise, experienced man who condemns this callow youth on stage. Well, Björling, according to one of Rosenthal’s books, was born in 1907. We know that is not right but even taking the right date (1911) we note with some glee that Rosenthal himself was not born until 1917. So he was then a callow critic of, I think, 22.

A sentence, which I didn’t read, from the Manchester Guardian critic, links the only two operas that Björling sang at Covent Garden. The Guardian critic said Trovatore was not really quite his opera, not at that stage at any rate. He says “His artistic home is surely Puccini’s Bohemia and there I hope to meet him some day.” I don’t know if he lived to see that day. It was twenty-one years’ absence, and then when Björling did return, it was of course in the last year of his life. He was not in the best of health, probably from the first performance, and in the third at which the Queen Mother was present, he collapsed in the wings with a heart attack. He went on after a delay of 35 minutes, and an announcement was made from the stage to the effect that he might never sing again. But he sang. And I myself went to the last of the four performances, and what I remember there was that certainly the voice seemed small in the first Act among the four Bohemians in that first half. That’s not totally exceptional: I’ve known other very famous tenors of whom one has had the same impression at that stage in the opera (it’s actually the way the parts are allocated). He did sing well in ‘Che gelida manina’ but it was in Act 3 that I remember — I was way up in the gallery — that I said to myself “This is Björling.” This was the sound. When he came to ‘Non lo son, invan,’ you know, there it was. It was quite a thrill. Then you could hear the Björling you had known and loved on records since childhood, boyhood anyway. And by God it was the same even then. I will take a little bit from a recording made at the Met in 1948. That’s a long time before the 1960 after all. But here he is singing with tremendous passion in this part. You know, they sometimes say that to Italian ears his singing was cold. Well, I can’t hear anything cold about the singing in this excerpt from the Met performance in 1948. RECORD 5

The tearful Mimi is Bidù Sayao. His Rodolfo at Covent Garden, one looks back at rather sadly now of course. It was in the March of 1960, and the papers which were reviewing it then, rather highhandedly actually, were recording his obituaries in September. That was the only time I myself heard Björling in opera. I heard him several times in recital. He gave many London recitals. The first, as I said, was in 1937 but then very regularly from 1952 onwards mostly at the Albert Hall, some at the Festival Hall. He also, incidentally, sang at Swansea, Cardiff, and Glasgow. The recitals were lovely occasions. I suppose I have to say one thing. It is that my memory of all of them (I think) coincides in this: that it was always several items, several songs into the program before it seemed to me he had sungthrough. Now this is rather hard to say, but it was to my ears a kind of patina, a surface. It was not exactly extraneous sound, it was of some extra frequencies or something like this which impaired the actual purity of sound to my ears and always, I think, for about the first half dozen items. It was as if he was singing through that until the pure metal of the voice came through. I can remember that suddenly, for instance when he sang Ch’ella mi creda libero as an encore, the same sensation came, the thrilling “this is the voice, this is the voice I’ve known all these years and this is absolutely it.” I’d be interested to know if anybody else remembered the same kind of thing. It did seem to me that in the first group of songs, perhaps longer, there was this extraneous sort of element above the main body of the voice. I also remember encore time. It wasn’t quite like it was with Gigli. Now Gigli loved encore time and his chubby face and his gestures and everything showed it. All the shouts would come out “Bohème, Mamma, Santa Lucia, Pagliacci” We had the same thing with Björling. He did not respond in quite the same chubby, beneficent way, loving it all, but he waited for Pagliacci to come out among the demands and he said “Right! Pagliacci!” and everybody applauded. So of course, what did they expect? They expected ‘Vesti la giubba’ but what did they get? This RECORD 6

  At the first of his recitals in London, in 1937, the very first item he sang to a London audience was of Mozart. And I would have played you the very first thing he sang there, not a recording from that occasion but later. His first aria was Tamino’s from The Magic Flute and then he sang Don Ottavio’s two solos from Don Giovanni but we must pass on. I ought to read you some of what again, another very good critic had to say. This was in the Musical Times on the subject of that first recital. And will you recall that excerpt from the Manchester Guardian in 1939 and note this one here, 1937, and then ask yourselves: “Can I imagine reading such criticisms now?” And my answer is “No”. Because, if they go to the opera, the critics never talk about the singing at all. If they mention the singers it’s to do with their acting only. If they go to a concert, well they can hardly avoid talking a little bit about the singing but it’s nearly always interpretation, not vocal quality or vocal technique or anything like that. It’s interpretation. I think it puts a very wrong emphasis on things, but here is one critic who does succeed, I think, in telling us something about the phenomenon of Björling’s debut:’

“Singers so often disappoint expectations. We want the singer to reveal the poet in himself or at least to commit himself to be the pipe upon which the muses’ fingers delight to play. Is Jussi Björling this man? Not at the present but I think he will be. His Mozart has grace, he treats Schubert tenderly. To think of comparing him with Caruso is in itself a tremendous compliment. Well, he has not the savage intensity of his illustrious exemplar when an emotional tour de force is required. Neither has he that sensuous quality in legato which has such a caressing effect on the listener’s ear. On the other hand Björling used effects of which Caruso would never have dreamed. Long-drawn pianissimi and delicate shadings such as are usually associated with an entirely different type of voice.” [Musical Times 1937]


Now, there is more to it, but time presses very cruelly and I must go on. Although the critic at that time said that Björling’s art would develop and that he had much to learn, on the other hand, when I listen to certain of the records made in 1939 particularly, I’m not sure this wasn’t a kind of artistic apogee as far as the imaginative, creative artistry was concerned. Take the example we’ll have now. Let me play a little bit of him singing a song which was a favourite of his in recital, Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide.’ Here he is in his Carnegie Hall recital of 1955. We’ll just hear the very opening. RECORD 7

That’s very nice isn’t it? It’s fine, it’s fine but now listen to what he did in 1939. Now this is a studio recording, but remember we established with the Trovatore that what he did in the studio was almost exactly the same as he did in the flesh. So it isn’t studio conditions prevailing over live conditions, I think. You listen to this opening of ‘Adelaide’ as recorded in 1939. RECORD 8

  The date of that recording, 15 July 1939, is the same as the Trovatore,  and it’s the same date as one other that I’ll perhaps finish with, in a minute. You remember the phrase in the Musical Times critic’s remarks about his recital, that phrase about long-drawn pianissimi  and delicate shadings. Now it’s interesting, isn’t it, that this was a feature of his singing then. I think that later it became not so, or very much less so. Now, it may be simply that he was moving with the times, that is with musical taste because you know what the critics would have said if he had sung ‘Adelaide’ in the 1950s in that way. “Self indulgent, oh dear, dear, no, no, no we can’t have that! Diminuendos, rallentandos all over the place. No, no, no” they would say, “Self-indulgent! Why, we might almost be listening to Fernando De Lucia,” and it would not do by the musical taste established, say, by the 1950s and 60s. So perhaps he was moving with that. Perhaps that earlier time, roughly 1939 and maybe those wartime years of which we hardly have records at all, maybe those were the years of real artistic growth. The time when he knew ... As a young man you are learning  your songs, you’re feeling  them, you’re getting them into your head and you have your own way of doing them, and later it becomes ... I won’t say routine, for heaven’s sake ... but something, perhaps, of that creative youthful spirit is subsumed in later years.

  And I do believe that in these recordings of this time, the late 1930s and particularly as it happens the studio recordings of that particular day, we really do have Björling the artist at his most creative. I would say, in a way at his most mature. Oddly, at the time everybody was saying “He is immature now, he will develop.” Well, I don’t think he was immature then, and I rather feel that that was the time when he was singing with these things which they so loved then: these delicate shadings, these creative touches in songs which we don’t always associate with him very regularly.

Here I really will end, with one which was recorded on that same day and which I did hear him sing in London, Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen.’ You’ll hear how beautifully he takes these soft notes in a head voice, which you don’t expect your operatic tenor to do, with the imagination which he was sometimes criticized for lacking, and an imaginative, creative sensibility. I have the feeling that this little group of recordings, made on that particular day (July 15, 1939), operatic and lieder, actually goes far to represent the best of him. RECORD 9

1 Rigoletto La donna è mobile verse 2 (1936) Naxos 8.110701

2 Trovatore Ah sí, ben mio (1939) EMI CDH 7 61053 2

  3 Trovatore Quale d’armi fragore ( Covent Garden 1939) Legato Classics LCD173 2

  4 Trovatore Se m’ami ancor (as above)

  5 Boheme Ebbene no (Metropolitan 1948) MYTO 916.47

  6 Pagliacci O Colombina (Grona Lund 1950) Bluebell ABCD057

  7 ”Adelaide” Beethoven, first section (Carnegie Hall 1955) RCA 53379 2

  8 As above First 3’44’’ (1939) RCA 40626 2

  9 ”Morgen” Strauss (1939) Naxos 8.110789 S

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