Jussi Bjorling

Jussi Bjorling’s secret to singing: line up ears up directly over shoulders (from David L. Jones)

OK, it’s not true, but anything about Jussi Bjorling fascinates me. The great Swedish tenor was born in 1911 and died in 1960. I have recordings made a few days before his death of a heart attack in August of that year, and the singing in that magnificent last concert  pours out in full voice and with all his incredible, expansive tone, as if nothing held him back, nothing restrained him. He knew, though, his heart, already weakened from previous attacks, could go at any moment. His singing is always moving, but this is especially moving.

I first heard him on ABC radio in 1971. I was sitting in my car in the car-port of the house I was lodging at when the announcer introduced, then played, two of Bjorling’s most famous arias from 1944 – O Paradiso and Nessun Dorma. I was simply transfixed, overwhelmed. Sometimes a voice can do that. I couldn’t move, couldn’t contemplate leaving the car no matter how automatic that would be. I have been listening to him addictively ever since. Back then almost no one I met had ever heard of him. I had only seen one or two photos of him and could find almost nothing written about him.

Despite that his voice kept me company for pleasure and for solace year after year. He made me sing more, he kept me sane, I’m sure. Well, happier when I wasn’t. I have most of his recordings now, often in vinyl and again on CD, and as the years have passed, more opera house recordings, rough in sound quality but fascinating, have become available. His radiant but melancholy voice is my most glorious happiness.

In recent years he has been voted in the UK and the US as the greatest opera singer of the century.  He is  without any doubt one of the greatest, regardless of polls. All thanks to CDs, of course, which resurrected his singing for us – and now you can see and hear him on YouTube. I even have a biography now, a book co-written by Andrew Farkas and Anna-Lisa Bjorling, Jussi’s widow. It tells of his career and of his chronic alcoholism. Amazing he could sing, from the years of vocal work and the drinking, and yet his extraordinary technique carried him through it all.

Below is a piece – written by music teacher David L. Jones – about his observations of Jussi’s technique. Perhaps it is true about the ears.

From A Visual and Audio Study of the Artistry of Jussi Bjorling  by David L.Jones. … ‘A list of concepts to remember that I noticed in the singing of Jussi Bjorling’.

As I sat in my living room on the Upper West Side in New York City viewing a Firestone video of Jussi Bjorling I took long detailed notes of his performances. This particular television series was broadcast from approximately 1950 to 1963. The name of this video tape is Jussi Bjorling in Opera and Song, produced by Video Artists International. As I began my study of Mr. Bjorling’s presentation, I noticed one thing immediately: the slight look of discomfort in the singer’s eyes while appearing on live television. I know this intense feeling from appearing on live television myself at a very early age. The pressure is immense to perform to your maximum capability with few mistakes. No matter how much rehearsal a singer has, there is still that realization that a camera is taking your performance to thousands of people. I actually was relieved that I was not the only singer in the world that felt nervous in such a situation.

As I watched and listened carefully, I decided to study the tape from the beginning taking detailed notes. The first selection from this broadcast of March 6, 1950 is Victor Herbert’s Neopolitan Song from Princess Pat. The absolute first thing I noticed about Bjorling was his posture. His weight was slightly forward on the front of the feet (Italian appoggio). Immediately this set up his breath to be low from the start of the performance. There was a slight bend at his hip sockets which allows the breath to go lower in the body. As he began the first note, he leaned slightly more forward to engage the lower back muscles even more. This brought the cords together immediately for the perfect attack or onset of sound. As he approached the upper register, his head tilted slightly up (skull away from the jaw) and this created a slight curve in the back of the neck. The result of this slight physical action allows the root of the tongue to relax. It also allows the singer to realize a wide and spread dome of space in the soft palate. One more thing I noticed was that Mr. Bjorling’s ears were always lined up directly over his shoulders. His head never pushed forward as he sang. This keeps the back of the throat more open allowing for the vowels to be more pharyngeal in nature. As he starts the Faust aria, he repeats the similar posture in order to get the body support under the voice. There is definitely a “gentle chewing motion of the jaw” that Lindquest spoke about extensively. On sustained tones, there was a space between the back teeth (molars) which helped to sustain a more open acoustical space as well. His ‘ee’ vowel is extremely rounded with an oval mouth shape and the vowels are NEVER spread. Mr. Bjorling was fortunate to have a rather rosebud mouth. This shape encouraged him to round the vowels consistently. In his pronouncing in this aria one never sees the jaw thrust downward. Many tenors develop the thrusting downward of the jaw and it causes a ‘gag reflex’ at the base of the tongue. Bjorling never does this. He stays with the gentle down and back motion of the jaw which allows more of a legato line.