Jussi Björling

5.02.1911 - 9.09.1960


Johan Jonatan "Jussi" Björling  (sometimes spelled "Bjoerling" in English-language sources) (5 February 1911 – 9 September 1960) was a Swedish operatic tenor. Appearing frequently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and other leading opera companies, Björling was one of the most prominent opera singers of the mid-Twentieth Century.


Björling was born in Borlänge, Dalarna 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 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.

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, Arnoldo in Rossini's William Tell and Almaviva in Rossini's The Barber of Seville. This in turn led to engagements in Europe and the United States. Björling made his American concert debut in 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, Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, La bohème, Tosca, and Manon Lescaut. Many of his recordings of these roles are still considered the best by any tenor in this repertoire.

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 1950 performance of the complete Il trovatore, with Zinka Milanov, for RCA Victor. In 1953, he recorded the role of Turridu 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.

Bust of Björling in Stockholm

Again with de los Angeles and Merrill, Björling made a complete recording of Puccini's La bohème conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, a recording considered by some to be the finest ever made of the work, although Toscanini enthusiasts might disagree (Toscanini conducted the premiere of the opera in 1896, and in 1946 conducted a radio performance of it that is considered definitive by some - and was also released on records and CD).

Björling sang the part of Mario 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 much admired for his innate musicality and his seemingly effortless technique. His limited acting ability was considered his main weakness, but at that time lack of acting ability in opera was not considered a negative. In hindsight, what he might have lacked in acting skills, he more than made up for with his exquisite sense of modulation and his beautiful timbre and soft tone - always with a sublime kernel of melancholy. He 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".

Bust of Björling in front of the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge

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 also acknowledged the destructive influence of Björling's alcoholism.

On March 15, 1960, Björling suffered a heart attack before a performance at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. However, he still performed that night. He died of heart-related causes six months later in Siarö, Sweden at the age of forty-nine. One of his final recordings was the Verdi Requiem conducted by Fritz Reiner for Decca Records which was recorded as late as June 1960 alongside Leontyne Price and Giorgio Tozzi. That recording proves that even in his dying days he could give startling performances with velvet voice and beautiful style.

He is buried in the little church cemetery at Stora Tuna, Sweden.

His name is now used with the prestigious Jussi Björling Music Scholarship at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, and also adorns the concert hall there named in his honor.

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 in Bloomington, Indiana.

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