I believe I first heard the voice of Jussi Bjorling when I was ten years old. My mother was listening to the radio (my father had set his face against acquiring a TV believing it would curtail his children’s reading activities) and was tuned in to Alan Keith’s ‘Your Hundred Best Tunes’, her habit of a Sunday evening. She said to me that the duet from ‘The Pearl Fishers’ was coming on and that I might like it. Suffice to say I was blown away by the beauty, heft and thrilling sound of the American baritone Robert Merrill and the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, and although Merrill was excellent, it is Bjorling’s uniquely powerful yet sensitive voice which has entranced me for sixty years. One critic has characterised the voice as ‘replete with unshed tears’, attributing this quality to the fact Bjorling was orphaned at fifteen; whether or not you consider this theory as over fanciful or romantic, there is no doubt that his voice has a captivating individual timbre which, in my view, marks him out as the greatest tenor singer of all time. I have listened to recordings and, in some cases, live performances of all the famous tenors and none of them can hold a candle vocally to Bjorling. He is always unerringly accurate, sings with impeccable taste, has effortless towering high notes when required, and a touch of melancholy that gives an individuality to anything he sings, from any of his fifty-five operatic roles to the Swedish songs he loved so much. My one regret is that I never heard him sing live.
And so, at the end of June this year, my long-suffering wife and I set out to achieve a life-long ambition, to visit his birth place and museum, with a view also of supplementing my pretty substantial collection of vinyl discs and CDs. The trip involved flying from Edinburgh to Stockholm, and then a two hour plus train journey to Borlange, a somewhat sleepy town north west of the capital. The morning visit to the museum did not disappoint, as it is full of photographs and memorabilia of the great man, who in his comparatively short life made 931 opera appearances on top of hundreds of concerts. In addition, there are 4550 reviews of his concert, opera and record performances and material relating to his 3118 known public appearances. The listening and study room contains two listening stations, but I possessed nearly all of the recordings available for listening. However, I did manage to buy a CD version of his legendary 1956 recording of ‘La Boheme’ with Victoria de los Angeles.
I appreciate that far from everyone is interested in operatic and classical singing, but if you have any interest at all, there is a host of clips on YouTube that are testament to his art. You might want to try:
1.O Helga Natt (O Holy Night) which is played on Swedish Radio every Christmas Eve. Bjorling sings it in a key higher than written and produces a majestic top note near the end. It is one of the most popular songs at Christmas, but I find it difficult to listen to anyone else singing it.
- Jungfrun under lind (Maiden under the linden tree), a beautiful song by Peterson-Berger which illustrates the sensitivity and melancholy of Bjorling’s voice.
- Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) from Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’. Pavarotti eat your heart out! To be fair, when asked how he compared with Bjorling, Pavarotti said, ‘I am only human’.
- Salut! Demeure chaste et pure (All hail thou dwelling pure and holy). This is Faust’s address to Marguerite’s humble abode in Gounod’s opera. Bjorling’s voice is perfect for this beautiful but difficult song and he absolutely nails the climactic top note near the end.
- Ah! Leve-toi soleil (Arise o sun). Romeo is serenading Juliet beneath her balcony. As always, Bjorling sings elegantly without any loss of passion or dramatic force.
A fatal heart attack at the age of 49 robbed the world of a singer still at the height of his powers but this possibly added to his mystique. It is indeed fortunate that he was a prolific recording artist and I know that my life has been enhanced by the power of his music. I am so glad that I was able to visit his home turf and investigate further everything connected with this God-given voice.
After two nights in Borlange, we returned to Stockholm for three nights in the capital; it was only fair that my wife had a city break in return for indulging me. Stockholm is a beautiful city, but some of the prices are eye-watering. The cheapest bottle of wine in a mid-price restaurant was £46. Just by chance (honest!) I discovered another opera-related exhibition in the Concert Hall. The famous Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson would have been 100 this year, so Joyce was dragged round more memorabilia and photographs.
Birgit Nilsson had an immensely powerful voice and on two occasions reportedly literally cracked glass when in fortissimo. Specialising in Wagner and Richard Strauss, she was able to cope comfortably with the huge orchestras these composers demand. She was also very aware of her artistic worth and drawing power and was a formidable negotiator when performance fees were being discussed. Unsurprisingly, she fell out with conductors and fellow singers on a regular basis and took no prisoners. For example, after a spat with the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, she described him as a great artist but a small human being. Again, there are opportunities to hear Nilsson on YouTube. Her signature roles were Salome, Turandot, the Dyer’s Wife and Isolde. Don’t look for subtlety, just a huge soprano voice.
After all of this, I felt I could not deprive Joyce of a visit to the Abba Museum, even though the entrance fee was 5 times the price of my two exhibitions combined. And, I have to admit, it was a bit of light relief and there is no doubt the group’s music has affected positively the lives of vast numbers of people.
As Goethe said:
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” I believe that God intends that music should ennoble and elevate us and bring us closer to Him.
I believe that I tried to develop my sense of the beautiful in my visit to Sweden. And that sense of the beautiful is available in all music, whether it be classical or pop, instrumental or vocal. We must make the most of the many gifts God has given us. We owe it to Him.
E S Tweedlie