I’m reading Jussi, a biography of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling from his widow Anna-Lisa Björling, and a surprisingly honest look at the life of a famous singer.
It’s an appropriate week to think about Jussi. He used to celebrate his birthday on February 2nd , not realizing that his actual birthday was February 5th (as explained in Anna-Lisa’s book). Jussi liked the numbers of that wrong birthday, 2-2-11, observing that the 22 was double the 11. The tenor has been dead over 60 years, having passed away in the night September 9th 1960. So whichever day you choose for the celebration (speaking of lucky 11s) he would be having his 110th birthday this week.
I borrowed the book from my mom, expecting to escape from the horrors of the present into a kinder gentler world. I didn’t expect so much truth… There’s all sorts of uplifting stuff in this book, and it’s not as innocent as I expected. We read about Jussi’s alcoholism, the occasional temper tantrums, his child with another woman out of wedlock (from his teens, before he knew Anna-Lisa), and we read Anna-Lisa describing her heroic attempts to integrate young Rolf into the household with the other children, mostly by getting out of the house to let the kids (hers plus Rolf) get along.
Jussi started singing very early. By the time his voice changed in his teens he had already been singing for over a decade with his brothers & his father (the strict figure you see in the photo below), including touring in the United States.
Björling’s childhood was far from easy. He lost his mother at the age of six, his father at the age of 15, forcing the boys to disband their singing troupe.
While Anna-Lisa would report the increasing size of Jussi’s fees (surpassing $1,000 for a single performance at the Met in the 50s, to become their highest paid singer of the time) but when he began? He was like any other artist, just trying to make a living, and sometimes doing other jobs to support himself.
In those early days when Jussi was young & just starting out he made some popular music recordings: because he needed the money. John Forsell who was both Jussi’s Artistic Director and voice teacher insisted that if he must make recordings at the same time he was working for the Royal Swedish Opera, he must not bring his employers into disrepute or worse. “If you’re going to make these records, at the very least you must change your name!”
And so Jussi had a pseudonym. And he sang with a slightly different vocal tone so he wouldn’t be recognized. Or at least that was the plan. His other name was Erik Odde. Here’s one example, where Jussi –as “Erik”—ascends into the stratosphere with his light lyrical voice.
Jussi is a book full of great anecdotes about famous artists, and a few lectures about how to sing, including a few from Jussi himself. He may or may not be your vocal ideal. His vocal toolkit is considered ideal by some yet heavily criticized by others. The voice was sometimes very smooth, sometimes called “cold” by those who missed a more Italianate approach to vocalization. I love his singing including his occasional tendency to go sharp on climactic notes.
His acting? I never saw him in person, but only on recordings of old TV appearances, so I can’t really tell. But he is not considered a great singing actor, indeed he’s marginally competent in most assessments when it comes to the dramatic side of the opera equation. There are lots of testimonials in Jussi from colleagues defending his acting, which is a bad sign, at least an indication that the perception was that he was a good singer whose acting was weak.
One of the joys of opera biographies is the chance to encounter famous singers & artists of the past. If you enjoy that sort of thing, Jussi is a treasure trove, indeed I’d go so far as to call it an unparalleled glimpse of its time. It seems very authentic, very accurate.
We met Hugo Alfvén, the composer of “The Forest Sleeps” (or “Skogen sover”), who we discover was another admirer of the tenor, especially when he sang that song.
You see Regina Resnik and Robert Merrill not just as singers but coping with Jussi’s alcoholism, his hangovers & his bad temper, and all working together to make opera onstage.
You hear tell of the Björling children terrorized, overwhelmed by kisses in their backstage encounters with an affectionate Bidu Sayâo. We hear of Jussi’s strength, challenging & beating Errol Flynn or anyone else who tried to best him at arm-wrestling, the short stocky guy with a barrel chest, strong hands and a shy smile. We get to see beyond the onstage personas to an environment of collegiality & genuine love for art & fellow artists.
And there is the episode of the Ballo recording in 1960 with Georg Solti & John Culshaw. If you know what happened, especially if you’ve read Culshaw’s account, you might be surprised by Anna-Lisa’s version of events. At one time I used to see Solti the stubborn egomaniac as the villain of the story but reading Jussi I am now more inclined to take issue with the corporate creature Culshaw, doing his job. The tenor, on loan from another label, was expendable…
At best it’s heart-breaking, at worst a disgusting parable to illustrate the realities of business as it bursts into an otherwise happy story. I guess you can tell that I am not pretending to be objective about this. I believe this sorry event shortened Jussi’s life.
There are many inspiring moments before & after. Anna-Lisa tells us the details of Jussi’s final days, and his passing, a surprisingly moving account. I can’t deny Jussi is one of my favorite singers, a largely simple & straight-forward man afflicted with an addiction, and an artist of remarkable depth. On the occasion of Jussi’s 110th anniversary the book makes wonderful reading, but it must be said: it’s also largely about Anna-Lisa and the romance between the tenor and his most ardent fan.
I find myself liking her a great deal. She passed in 2006.