About this Recording
8.110790 - BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 6: The Erik Odde Pseudonym Recordings and Other Popular Works (1931-1935)

Jussi Björling: Collection, Vol. 6
The ‘Erik Odde’ recordings and other Popular Songs in Swedish (1931-1935)

Jussi Björling was born in February 1911 (on the 5th according to the midwife’s register, though he celebrated his birthday on the 2nd in accordance with the church register). His birthplace was near the centre of what is today the city of Borlänge in Sweden’s province of Dalarna. Stora Tuna, often given as his birthplace, was the name of the parish where the family was then living and from which Borlänge had some years earlier been divided as a separate municipality; today, Stora Tuna is part of Borlänge. Jussi’s father David was also a tenor, and a singing teacher who taught his three oldest boys Olle, Jussi and Gösta to sing from their earliest childhood. He let them perform in public before Jussi was five and as the Björling Quartet they toured extensively in Sweden; 1919-21 also in the United States. Jussi’s mother Ester had already died in 1917, soon after having given birth to a fourth son. David died in August 1926, and about a year later the group, which also for some time included the fourth brother Karl, disbanded and Jussi entered the Stockholm Conservatory in 1928. Here, and at the Opera School, his teacher was the famous baritone John Forsell, also manager of the Royal Opera.

In 1930, at the age of nineteen, Jussi made his official début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and in the next few years he sang a wide repertoire of rôles there. His first major breakthrough came at a recital at Tivoli in Copenhagen in the summer of 1931. As an opera singer, he made his first solo tours outside Sweden in 1936 and 1937, still singing his rôles in Swedish. He then appeared in Czechoslovakia, Germany and Hungary but primarily at the Vienna Opera and was everywhere greeted with great acclaim. In the autumn of 1937 he gave his first London recital en route to the United States, where his schedule included three General Motors radio concerts from Carnegie Hall and opera performances in Chicago in Rigoletto and La Bohème. Jussi Björling’s successful Metropolitan début came in November 1938 as Rodolfo.

In 1939 Jussi Björling made his Covent Garden début in Il trovatore and in 1940 he opened the Metropolitan season for the first time in the new production of Un ballo in maschera where he appeared as King Gustaf III of Sweden. During the later war years he mainly remained in his native country, but his Italian opera début took place in 1943 in Il trovatore in Florence.

In the autumn of 1945 Jussi Björling returned to the United States for an eight-month tour and during the rest of his life he sang extensively there, as an opera artist primarily with the Metropolitan, San Francisco and Chicago operas but still more in recital and concert, often appearing on radio and television in programmes like Ford Sunday Evening Hour, Voice of Firestone and Standard Hour. Björling always returned to Sweden and spent the summers with his wife Anna-Lisa and their three children at Siarö in the Stockholm archipelago. He also sang often in opera and concert in Sweden and the other Nordic countries, where he enjoyed enormous popularity. He appeared twice in Milan with the La Scala company (Rigoletto in 1946, Un ballo in maschera in 1951) but returned to Covent Garden only in 1960 (La Bohème), though he was heard in recital many times in Britain in the 1950s. In 1954 he made an extensive concert tour to South Africa.

Jussi Björling’s complete opera and operetta repertoire comprised 55 rôles, but most of them were, like Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia or Arnold in Guillaume Tell, abandoned on his road to world fame. In fact his total opera repertoire after the war consisted of twelve rôles. He continued to sing ten operas which he had learned in Stockholm up to 1936: Aida, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in the Italian repertoire and Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette in the French. In later years he added Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s Don Carlo, the latter in the famous production which in 1950 opened the Met’s season and Rudolf Bing’s era as general manager.

During his last years Jussi Björling suffered from heart disease. His life was prematurely ended by a heart attack in his sleep at his beloved Siarö on 9th September 1960. It is now more evident than ever that the world then lost one of its most outstanding artists: for instance, in several recent polls in different countries he has been selected as the greatest tenor or even the greatest singer of the last century.

Fortunately Jussi Björling left behind a vast recorded output through which we are able to experience his artistry. He began to record very early, even if one disregards six childhood recordings he and his brothers made in 1920 during their American tour. His first published tenor recordings were made in December 1929 in Stockholm for Skandinaviska Grammophon AB, the Swedish HMV representative, and his last gramophone recording was Verdi’s Requiem in Vienna in June 1960.

The recordings on this disc will come as a surprise to many. Most of them were recorded under a pseudonym, whose existence Jussi Björling revealed in 1945 in his autobiography Med bagaget i strupen (My Throat is my Luggage): “There was for a time a jazz singer – ‘whispering’ – whose name was Erik Odde and who became quite popular. He sang hits by Fred Winter accompanied by Hanns Bingang’s jazz orchestra. But Erik Odde disappeared as a gramophone singer - nobody knew where. It is he who has written this book.” Erik Odde was found in the catalogue supplements of the Swedish branch of His Master’s Voice between February 1932 and Christmas 1933. On this disc all Erik Odde’s recordings are gathered together with ten popular songs recorded by Jussi Björling under his own name during the same period, and a few years before and after. Sixteen of the twenty-two tunes are Swedish originals.

Today one might not describe Jussi Björling as a “jazz singer” in these recordings – ‘jazz’ was simply regarded as synonymous with modern dance music – but here he could prove his ability in a genre very different from the opera and art song, of which he had already made recordings in 1929-30. When he used the word ‘whispering’ – quoting it in English – he may have hinted at the singing style used by the English singer ‘Whispering’ Jack Smith, who was very popular at the end of the 1920s. Erik Odde always appeared as a band singer (refrängsångare), with the orchestra mentioned first on the label, and his specialty was dance tunes from the latest films.

By splitting Jussi Björling into two artistic identities, the record company could avoid his name becoming too dominant in their newsletters, and they could more easily use his versatile talent. In his book Björling hinted at the fact that a young boy – not too highly paid by the Royal Opera at the time - was eager to be able to earn some extra money now and then. At the same time the opera singer did not have to be connected with the band singer, and it was far from uncommon in this period for classical singers also to appear under a pseudonym.

Nils Grevillius, who was well-known as the conductor for Jussi Björling’s Swedish opera recordings, for a time had a studio orchestra called Grew’s Jazz Band, and he was often responsible for the orchestra also when Jussi sang light music (see vol. 2 in this series). This CD, however, presents eight other conductors and their orchestras. Björling remembered two of them in the citation from his book: Fred Winter (1-3) and Hanns Bingang (4-5, 7, 14). He refers to Winter as a composer, and Winter, whose real name was Sten Njurling, was indeed one of Sweden’s best known popular composers. He is also represented here as such, but under another pseudonym, Igor Borganoff, with När rosorna vissna och dö (When the roses wither and die) 1. It is the only band song Jussi Björling recorded under his own name, before the introduction of his pseudonym. The German-born Bingang was, like Njurling/Winter, for a period, head of recording at Swedish HMV.

Another composer worth attention is Jules Sylvain, whose real name was Stig Hansson. He may have been the most famous Swedish popular composer of his time and is represented here by three tunes, all from films: Det är något som binder mitt hjärta vid dig (Something is tying my heart to you) 2, Dina blåa ögon lova mer, än dina röda läppar ger (Your blue eyes promise more than your red lips give) 12 and Säg, att du evigt håller mig kär (Say that you will love me for ever) 19.

One of the Odde songs, Helge Lindberg’s foxtrot Bagdad (Baghdad) 3, deserves mention for its quasi- Oriental setting: “In the wonderland on the shore of the Tigris, in the Caliph’s city, a serenade I gave to a bayadere whom I loved”. In 1933 Erik Odde was used to present the winning three “Tunes of Summer”, from a competition separately arranged in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. With Gösta Säfbom’s Soloist Orchestra, he recorded Allting som är vackert, minner mig om dig (Everything beautiful reminds me of you) 9 from Denmark, Kanske att vi på samma drömmar bär (Maybe we are dreaming the same dreams) 10 from Sweden and Sommarens melodi är som poesi (Summer’s melody is like poetry) 11 from Norway.

Of the remaining six Erik Odde tunes, four were of Swedish origin: Varje litet ord av kärlek (Every little word of love) 4, Aj, aj, aj, du (Now, now, boy) 5, Läppar som le så röda (Smiling Red Lips) 8 and Kärlekens sång (Song of Love) 13. The other two were German imports: Varför? (Why?) 6 and Någonstans på vår jord (Somewhere on our earth) 7. When the last Odde recording took place in October 1933, the opera singer Jussi Björling had already appeared on the stage of the Royal Opera in 29 different rôles, among them such future great ones as Roméo and the Duke in Rigoletto. There was no doubt what his career would be and the following month, he began a series of opera recordings in Swedish (available on vol. 1 in this series).

For a concluding characterization of Erik Odde’s singing the Swedish music critic Kerstin Linder can be quoted: “Everywhere, also in this small format, he is singing with a quite natural tenor and the brightest top notes, and he does it with his discreet individuality: an accomplished musical care about the delivery, which brings out the character of the tunes also where one expects the least to find any, a rock-steady characterizing sense of rhythm and an articulation which without artficiality brings out the last syllable.”

Among the tunes on this disc there is also one of of English origin which was recorded even before the Erik Odde period, in 1931. This is Lilian Ray’s The sunshine of your smile, in Swedish called Säg mig god natt (Say good night to me) 14. Slut dina ögon (Close your eyes) 15 by the Swedish composer Gunnar Ahlberg, under his pseudonym Guy Ammandt, was recorded at Jussi Björling’s first session outside Sweden (not counting, of course, his 1920 recordings). It took place in September 1932 in Copenhagen, where he had returned to sing at the Tivoli and follow up his sensational breakthrough in the previous year.

Adrian Dahl’s Bachanal (Bacchanale) 16 and Carl Göran Nyblom’s Brinnande gula flod (Flaming golden stream) 17, recorded in 1933, are two exuberant drinking songs. “I want to live, I want to love”, the singer declares in the former. “I am young, will never get old!”. Brinnande gula flod is a song of praise to a drink which “from the sun borrowed your deep, dark, warm lustre, you who in the rushed dance of life give us the garland of joy! … When you flow through my thirsty throat, cold golden stream… my blood burns!”. The author must have had a special favourite drink in mind, but exactly what remains unclear. Champagne? Or possibly the sweet punsch, so popular in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century? Bachanal is the only song on this disc that Jussi Björling is known to have performed outside the recording studio, and he can be seen singing it on a motor-boat in his film Fram för framgång (1937).

Knut Almroth, who composed Tangoflickan (The Tango Girl) 18, was also one of Jussi Björling’s accompanists in the early 1930s. For the three last mentioned songs the well-known military band and operetta conductor Hjalmar Meissner was in charge of the orchestra. Meissner, born in 1865, was the person who accompanied Jussi at his first test recordings for HMV in September 1929, recently rediscovered in the British EMI archives. The conductor whose name most frequently occurs here is Sune Waldimir (Engström), who would later be known as leader of the Swedish Radio dance and entertainment orchestra and was very active in film music, for instance as conductor of the 1953 film Resan till dej (The Journey to You) with Jussi Björling. Waldimir’s six recordings include two Odde songs (12-13), Var det en dröm (Was it a dream) 20 and the two last songs on the disc, Bröllopsvalsen (The Wedding Waltz) 21 and Lilla prinsessa (Little Princess) 22. These two songs are of very special character. They were written on the occasion of the wedding of Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and Princess Ingrid of Sweden on 24th May 1935, and issued by HMV with an elegant special label adorned by the Royal Couple’s portraits. Jussi Björling also sang at the gala performance with which the Royal Opera celebrated the wedding, and little more than a week later, his own wedding with Anna-Lisa Berg took place. The wedding songs were recorded eighteen months later than any of the others here and Jussi had further developed his technique – listen, for instance, to the exquisite diminuendi in Bröllopsvalsen!

Harald Henrysson

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