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Johan Jonatan "Jussi" Björling (/ /, Swedish pronunciation: [ˈjɵsɪ bjœ̞ːɭɪŋ]; 5 February 1911 – 9 September 1960) was a Swedish tenor. One of the leading operatic singers of the 20th century, Björling appeared for many years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and less frequently at the major European opera houses, including the Royal Opera House in London and La Scala in Milan.
Björling (surname also spelled as "Bjoerling" and "Bjorling" in English-language sources) was born in Borlänge, Dalarna, Sweden, in February 1911. The midwife's register shows he was born on 5 February; however, the church baptism records erroneously show 2 February, and this was the day on which he celebrated his birthday throughout his life. He was initially taught to sing by his father, David, an accomplished vocalist, and made his debut public appearance at the age of four with the Björling Male Quartet. The group performed in concerts throughout Sweden and the United States for eleven and a half years. He later studied opera with John Forsell.
Björling made his professional operatic debut as the Lamplighter in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in 1930. This was soon followed by Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Arnold in Rossini's William Tell, Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville and as Rodolfo in La bohème with Hjördis Schymberg, his favourite soprano in Sweden, as Mimi. This in turn led to engagements in Europe and the United States. Björling made his American concert debut at the Carnegie Hall in 1937; the following year, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Rodolfo in La bohème.
Björling went on to become one of the principal singers at the Metropolitan Opera during the 1940s and 1950s, with an interruption during World War II. He sang many major tenor roles in operas in the French and Italian repertoire, including Il trovatore, Rigoletto, Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Cavalleria rusticana, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Manon Lescaut.
In December 1940, Arturo Toscanini invited him to sing the tenor part in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in New York, a recording of which exists. He also performed the Verdi Requiem under Toscanini in 1939 in Lucerne, Switzerland, and in November 1940 in New York, another performance eventually transferred to recordings.
One of Björling's first LP sets was a 1952 studio recording of the complete Il trovatore, with Zinka Milanov, for RCA Victor. In 1953, he recorded the role of Turiddu in a complete version of Cavalleria rusticana opposite Milanov for RCA Victor, but because Victoria de los Ángeles was under contract to EMI, the recording of the complete Pagliacci, made concurrently with Cavalleria, was not released by RCA, but by EMI. Robert Merrill appeared on both albums, but Leonard Warren was featured only on the Pagliacci one, as Tonio.
In the summer of 1954 Björling recorded Puccini's Manon Lescaut in Rome with Licia Albanese as Manon, and in 1955 he recorded the role of Radames in Verdi's Aida opposite Milanov in the title role. With de los Angeles and Merrill, Björling made a widely admired recording of Puccini's La bohème conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Björling's recording of Madama Butterfly, with de los Angeles in the title role and conducted by Gabriele Santini, is also widely celebrated. In Victoria de los Angeles' s biography by Peter Roberts (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1982), de los Angeles noted that "In despite of technical developments, none of the Jussi Björling recordings give you the true sound of his voice. It was a far, far more beautiful voice than you can hear on the recordings he left".
Björling sang the part of Mario Cavaradossi in the 1957 complete stereo recording of Tosca, recorded by RCA Victor in Rome with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. The tenor was awarded the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance - Vocal Soloist (With Or Without Orchestra) for his recording Björling in Opera.
In 1956, he appeared in an episode of the NBC television anthology Producers' Showcase. The episode was one of two programs entitled Festival of Music, and was hosted by Charles Laughton (José Ferrer hosted the second Festival of Music program.) Björling can be seen with soprano Renata Tebaldi in two arias from La bohème. Both Festival of Music programs, originally telecast in color, have since been released on black-and-white kinescopes on DVD.
Björling was known as the "Swedish Caruso". His son Rolf, a successful tenor in his own right (although not at the level of his famous father), and his grandson Raymond are inheritors of the "sound".
His widow, Anna-Lisa Björling, published a biography with the cooperation of Andrew Farkas that described Björling as a loving family man and generous colleague. However, Anna-Lisa did not attempt in the book to hide the destructive influence of Björling's alcoholism.
On 15 March 1960, Björling suffered a heart attack before a performance of La bohème at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. However, he still performed that night. He died of heart-related causes (enlarged heart) six months later in Siarö, Sweden, aged 49. One of his final recordings was the Verdi Requiem conducted by Fritz Reiner for RCA Victor Records, which was recorded as late as June 1960 with Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Giorgio Tozzi, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the chorus of the Society of the Friends of Music (Vienna). He is buried in the little church cemetery at Stora Tuna, Sweden.
- Gröna Lunds Tivolis Jussi Björling-stipendium (The Gröna Lund Jussi Björling Award) was established in 1963 by the Stockholm amusement park where Björling often sang, for its 80th anniversary.
- Jussi Björlings Minnesstipendium (Jussi Björlingstipendiet) was established in 1970 and is administered by Stiftelsen Kungliga Teaterns Solister (The Royal Opera Soloists Foundation) in Stockholm.
- The Jussi Björling Recital Hall was dedicated at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, in 1970.
- The Jussi Björling Tenor Competition took part in Borlänge in 1994. 125 tenors from 38 countries participated and winner was the Chinese Deng Xiao-Jun.
- Jussi Björlingmuseet (The Jussi Björling Museum) was opened in Borlänge in 1994.
An archive of nearly all of Björling's recorded performances, photographs, letters, recital and opera programs, reviews, obituaries, and other items related to his career is maintained at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington.
Luciano Pavarotti, in a 2007 interview for the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, stated that "When I'm about to train a new opera, I first listen to how Jussi Björling did it. His voice was unique and it's his path that I want to follow. I would more than anything else wish that people compared me with Jussi Björling. That's how I'm striving to sing."
Awards and citations
During his lifetime, Björling received many orders, decorations, honorary citizenships and other kinds of honors from monarchs, governments and cultural and charity organizations in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Belgium, Greece, Hungary and the U.S.A.
- Appointed Hovsångare (Royal Court Singer) by the King of Sweden in 1944.
- Elected member of Kungl. Musikaliska Akademien (Royal Swedish Academy of Music) in 1956.
- Received Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance, 1960 (for LP "Bjoerling in Opera")
- Ranked greatest singer of the century by Classic CD (United Kingdom) "Top Singers of the Century" Critics' Poll (June 1999).
- He has a chair dedicated to him in Kilbourn Hall at the internationally renowned Eastman School of Music
- Entered Gramophone's Hall of Fame in 2012.
- Complete works issued on CD
- Aida, RCA (studio), 1955.
- Un ballo in maschera, Met, 1940; New Orleans, 1950.
- La bohème, Met, 1948; RCA (studio), 1956.
- Cavalleria rusticana, RCA (studio), 1953; Stockholm Opera, 1954 (other singers in Swedish); Decca/RCA (studio), 1957; Met, 1959.
- Don Carlos, Met, 1950.
- Faust, Met, 1950 & 1959.
- Madama Butterfly, EMI (studio), 1959.
- Manon Lescaut, Met, 1949 & 1956; RCA (studio), 1954; Stockholm Opera, 1959 (other singers in Swedish).
- Missa Solemnis (Beethoven), NBC broadcast, 1940.
- Pagliacci, RCA (studio), 1953; Stockholm Opera, 1954 (sung in Swedish).
- Requiem (Verdi), NBC broadcast, 1940; Decca/RCA (studio), Vienna, 1960.
- Rigoletto, Met, 1945; RCA (studio), 1956; Stockholm Opera, 1957.
- Roméo et Juliette, Stockholm Opera, 1940 (sung in Swedish); Met, 1947.
- Tosca, RCA (studio), 1957.
- La traviata, Stockholm Opera, 1939 (sung in Swedish).
- Il trovatore, Covent Garden, 1939; Met, 1941 & 1947; RCA (studio), 1952; Stockholm Opera, 1957 & 1960.
- Turandot, Decca/RCA (studio), 1959.
- Larger general collections on CD
- Jussi Björling: The Swedish Caruso, EMI Classics 2 17313 2 (5 CDs, 2008)
- Jussi Björling: The Complete RCA Album Collection, RCA 88697748922 (14 CDs, 2011)
- The Very Best of Jussi Björling, EMI Classics 6 78997 2 (2 CDs, 2012)
- Jussi Björling Collection, Naxos 8.101101 (11 CDs, 2012. Comprises studio recordings. CDs 1-8 earlier issued separately. Released in Sweden with notes in Swedish only.)
- Jussi Björling: The Swedish Caruso, Documents 600034 (10 CDs, 2013)
- A selection of special collections and concerts on CD
- Jussi Björling Live: Holland 1939, Norway 1954, Bluebell ABCD 006 (1 CD, 1987)
- Jussi Björling: The Atlanta Recital April 13, 1959, Bluebell ABCD 020 (1 CD, 1989)
- Jussi Björling in Song and Ballad, Bluebell ABCD 050 (1 CD, 1993)
- Jussi Bjoerling: Rarities, VAI Audio VAIA 1189 (1 CD, 2000)
- Jussi Björling: Fram för framgång: Film and Radio Recordings, Bluebell ABCD 092 (1 CD, 2002)
- The Jussi Björling Series: Radamès, Alfredo, Roméo, Bluebell ABCD 103 (2 CDs, 2006)
- Jussi Björling In Song, Testament SBT 1427 (1 CD, 2008)
- Jussi Björling Live: Broadcast Concerts 1937-1960, West Hill Radio Archives WHRA-6036 (4 CDs, 2010)
- Bjoerling Sings at Carnegie Hall, RCA 88697858222 (1 CD, 2011)
- Jussi at Gröna Lund: Complete recordings 1950-1960, Bluebell ABCD 114 (3 CDs, 2011)
- Jussi Björling in Concert: Finland & the U.S.A. (1940-1957), Bluebell ABCD 116 (2 CDs, 2012)
A complete list of Björling's recordings and their CD and DVD issues is available on the Jussi Björling Museum's website.
- "Jussi Björling 1911-1960". www.jussibjorlingsallskapet.com.
- "Metropolitan opera rebuilds with new blood and fresh young voices". Life (Time Inc) 6 (3): 60. 16 January 1939. ISSN 0024-3019. Retrieved 27 February 2011. "Jussi Bjoerling, called the "Swedish Caruso," is only 27, sang in U.S. music halls at the age of 10."
- "Mr Björling taken ill on stage". The Times. March 16, 1960. p. 12. "A spokesman for Mr Björling said 'I think he had a minor heart attack.'...'But when he was told that the Queen Mother was in the audience this gave him an extra fillip and he sang the role.'"
- (Swedish) "Hemma hos Pavarotti" Svenska Dagbladet. Retrieved 29 June 2013.
- "Jussi Björling (tenor)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
- Henrysson, Harald, A Jussi Björling Phonography. Second ed. Stockholm: Svenskt Musikhistoriskt Arkiv, 1993. ISBN 91-85172-10-3.
- Björling, Anna-Lisa, & Farkas, Andrew, Jussi. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1996. ISBN 1-57467-010-7.
- Forsell, Jacob, Ranelid, Björn, & Henrysson, Harald, Jussi: Sången, människan, bilderna. Stockholm: Norstedts, 2010. ISBN 978-91-1-302783-8. (Extensively illustrated book in Swedish with a complete chronology in English of Björling's performances from 1915 to 1960 on an enclosed CD.)
- Stenius, Yrsa, The Heart of Jussi Björling. Stockholm: Brombergs bokförlag, 2011. ISBN 978-91-7337395-1. (English edition only as e-book.)
- Hastings, Stephen, The Björling Sound: A Recorded Legacy. New York, NY: University of Rochester Press & Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2012. ISBN 978-1-58046-406-2.
- The Jussi Björling Museum (Swedish and English)
- The Jussi Björling Society - Jussi Björlingsällskapet, English site
- Jussi Björling profile
- Jussi Björling Collection at Indiana University
- The Jussi Björling Society of USA
- Discography at SonyBMG Masterworks
- History of the Tenor - Sound Clips and Narration
- Björling and his wife Anna-Lisa Björling sing "O soave fanciulla" on YouTube
- Video showing Björling's grave and the Jussi Björling museum on YouTube
- Björling sings "O Holy Night" on YouTube