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Jussi Björling’s father, David, trained as a tenor in America at the Metropolitan Opera School, after which he returned to Sweden. Here he become a concert singer and singing teacher, with an especial emphasis upon teaching children, including his own, to sing from an early age; indeed Jussi said that he knew how to read notes before he could read letters. His first three sons, of whom Jussi was the second, made their singing début in 1915 and toured America in 1919 with their father for eighteen months. During this time the group, ‘The Björling Male Quartet’, made its first records, in 1920. After the unexpected death of David in 1926 the group disbanded and Jussi worked in a shop. However in 1928 he was introduced to the manager of the Royal Opera Stockholm, John Forsell, who foresaw a future for him. Björling therefore enrolled at the Stockholm Conservatory and the Royal Opera School, with Forsell and Joseph Hislop as his teachers. The following year he made his first solo recordings. His formal operatic début occurred in 1930 as Don Ottavio/Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera Stockholm, although he had already appeared there in the small part of the Lamplighter/Manon Lescaut. Björling attracted further attention as Arnold/William Tell in the same year and as Jonathan in Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David at the start of 1931, shortly afterwards becoming a permanent member of the company. In the summer of the same year he made a sensational début outside Sweden, at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

Between 1931 and 1936 Björling sang many major rôles in Stockholm, including Almaviva/Il barbiere di Siviglia (1931), the Duke/Rigoletto, Wilhelm Meister/Mignon, Nemorino/L’elisir d’amore (1932), Alfredo/La traviata, Roméo/Roméo et Juliette, Cavaradossi/Tosca (1933), Riccardo/Un ballo in maschera, Faust/Faust (Gounod), Rodolfo/La Bohème (1934), Turiddù/Cavalleria rusticana, Manrico/Il trovatore, Radamès/Aida (1935), Canio/Pagliacci and Pinkerton/Madama Butterfly (1936). During this time he also made many records of operetta and popular songs in Swedish, and even of dance music under the pseudonym ‘Erik Odde’.

Björling’s first appearance outside Scandinavia was in a Swedish concert at the World Exhibition in Brussels during 1935, the year in which he also married. He made his first tour of Central Europe in 1936, enjoying great success in recital and opera in Vienna, where he made his début as Radamès, and Prague. This resulted in his first international recording contract, singing operatic arias in their original language. He made a second European tour in 1937, appearing for a longer time at the Vienna State Opera, and after singing in London embarked on a tour of America that included radio concerts, recitals and his operatic début in Chicago (as the Duke and Rodolfo). In the autumn of 1938 Björling returned to America, making his Metropolitan Opera début as Rodolfo. He would return to the Met as a leading tenor almost every season, except during the later war years.

Now effectively launched as a major international opera star, Björling did not renew his contract with the Royal Opera Stockholm in 1939, although he regularly returned there to sing. His last new rôle with the company, in 1938, was Vasco/L’ Africaine. He made his Covent Garden début in 1939 as Manrico and worked with Toscanini for the first time at the Lucerne Festival, singing in Verdi’s Requiem. His American tour of 1939–1940 extended to Canada and Cuba and in 1940 he also made his first American recordings. Björling’s 1940–1941 US tour included his début at San Francisco as Rodolfo in 1940, followed by further concerts with Toscanini and the opening of the Metropolitan season as Riccardo. During the remainder of World War II Björling stayed mainly in Sweden, although he did give concerts in Finland and Demark and made his Italian début as Manrico in Florence in 1943.

Björling returned to America in the autumn of 1945 for an eight-month tour. During the following years he would spend a large part of the winter months there, singing in opera and concerts, while the summers would be spent in Sweden resting, although time was also found for open-air recitals which attracted large audiences. He added two new rôles to his repertoire for the Metropolitan: des Grieux/Manon Lescaut in 1949 and Don Carlo/Don Carlo in 1950. However, although Björling performed often throughout Scandinavia and gave regular recitals in England he sang little in central Europe, exceptions being two appearances at La Scala, Milan, in 1946 as the Duke and in 1951 as Riccardo. Following a period of vocal problems caused by laryngitis, Björling toured South Africa instead of America during the 1954–1955 season, but returned the following year to sing with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which he would revisit regularly, often as Rodolfo. He recorded this rôle in New York in 1956 with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting, a classic version of La Bohème; four years previously, during the spring of 1952, Björling had participated in a complete recording of Il trovatore for RCA-Victor, the first of his twelve complete studio recordings of opera and oratorio.

During the final years of his life, despite heart problems, Björling continued to sing frequently in America, although not at the Metropolitan between April 1957 and November 1959. He gave what was to be his final performance in Stockholm (as Manrico) during March 1960 and shortly afterwards returned to Covent Garden, for the first time since his 1939 début, as Rodolfo. His final operatic appearance was in San Francisco in April (as Faust); his final studio recording (Verdi’s Requiem) in Vienna during June; and his last song recital in Stockholm in August. He died in his sleep at his summer home in September 1960.

Björling possessed a tenor voice of an extraordinarily lambent quality, which has been well-described as continuously hinting at tears unshed. It was extremely smooth and rich throughout the whole vocal range, with a ringing top. On stage his dramatic skills were evidently limited, but audiences came to hear him sing not to see him act. He recorded throughout his career and his discography, of both studio and live recordings, is vast, with very little variation in quality. As his final recordings clearly demonstrate, although his health towards the end of his life may have been poor, his voice remained unaffected. All of his studio recordings may be recommended without reservation.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
BEL CANTO - Tenors of the 78 Era (The) (Documentaries, 2018) (2 Blu-ray Video + 1 DVD + 2 CD Box Set) (NTSC, Blu-ray) Naxos
Opera, Classical Documentary, Vocal
BEL CANTO - Tenors of the 78 Era (The)(Documentaries, 2018) (3 DVD + 2 CD Box Set) (NTSC) Naxos
Opera, Classical Documentary, Vocal
BJORLING, Jussi / BJORLING, Anna-Lisa: Arias and Duets (1949) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 1: Opera and Operetta Recordings (1930-1938) Naxos Historical
Opera, Operetta, Opera, Operetta, Opera, Operetta, Opera, Operetta
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 2: Songs in Swedish (1929-1937) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 3: Opera Arias and Duets (1936-1944) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 4: Opera Arias and Duets (1945-1951) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 5: Lieder and Songs (1939-1952) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 6: The Erik Odde Pseudonym Recordings and Other Popular Works (1931-1935) Naxos Historical
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 7: Swedish National Romantic Songs (1929-1953) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Vocal, Vocal Ensemble, Vocal
BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 8: O Sole Mio (1920-1952) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Operetta, Vocal
CHRISTMAS Julstamning - De klassiska melodierna och de alskade sangerna (Christmas Spirit - The Classic Melodies and Beloved Songs) Naxos
GOUNOD: Faust (Bjorling, Siepi, Kirsten) (1950) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
Italian Popular Songs, Vol. 1 (1930-1950) Naxos Historical
JULESTEMNING (Christmas Spirit) Naxos
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci (Bjorling / Angeles) (1953) Naxos Historical
MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana (Milanov, Bjorling) (1953) Naxos Historical
PUCCINI, G.: Opera excerpts Phoenix Edition
PUCCINI: Bohème (La) (Bjorling, de los Angeles, Beecham) (1956) Naxos Historical
PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut (Albanese, Bjorling, Perlea) (1954) Naxos Historical
PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut (Kirsten, Björling) (1949) Naxos Historical
SOMMAR ETT - Sommar vid Havet och Naxos
VERDI: Aida (Milanov, Bjorling, Perlea) (1955) Naxos Historical
VERDI: Don Carlo (Christoff, Filippeschi, Gobbi) (1954) Naxos Historical
VERDI: Rigoletto (Bjorling, R. Peters, Merrill) (1956) Naxos Historical
VERDI: Rigoletto (Bjorling, Sayao, Warren) (1945) Naxos Historical
VERDI: Trovatore (Il) (Bjorling, Milanov, Cellini) (1952) Naxos Historical
VIENNESE OPERETTA GEMS (1927-1949) Naxos Historical
Vocal Recital: Bjorling, Jussi - ALFVEN, H. / PETERSON-BERGER, W. / NORDQVIST, G. / KORLING, S.A. / SIBELIUS, J. / ALTHEN, R. (Till Havs) (1957-1959) Swedish Society

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