Saturday Special: Björling and Nilsson

2010-11-20. Published in Language & Culture
by Nils Pasi

[caption id="attachment_3949" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Jussi Björling's Plats can be found outside the Gothenburg Opera House."][/caption]

For our two week music theme, there are two artists that simply must be mentioned: Jussi Björling and Birgit Nilsson. If you have not heard of them before, I am not surprised. Both of them were Swedish opera singers, and opera singers are not mentioned as often in media as singer in other genres. Nonetheless, both singers had tremendous international careers and reached the absolute top within their respective fields (both were opera singers, of course, but Björling a lyric tenor and Nilsson a dramatic soprano and celebrated Wagner interpreter). Björling is, in fact, continually counted as one of the greatest tenors in recorded history, together with italian tenors Beniamino Gigli and Enrico Caruso, the latter of whose early recordings helped establish the music recording industry.

Jussi Björling's (1911-1960) father, a talented singer himself, taught his three sons to sing from a very early age. Indeed, Jussi was only 4 when he performed in public for the first time with his brothers and their father's other pupils. Following this performance, the 'Bjoerling Male Quartet' began touring the country, and in 1919 went on a 18 month tour to the USA. So, it is safe to say that Jussi started singing at a very young age. He debuted in his first major roll as an opera singer at the Stockholm Opera House in 1930, setting out on a career that would make him famous around the world. He continued to sing up until his early death caused by a failing heart in 1960.

Among opera fans, Björling is well-known for his impeccable singing technique and beautiful voice. His repertory included not only opera, but also other classical songs and Swedish folk songs. He became one of the foremost interpreters of Jean Sibelius's songs, but to the average Swede he is perhaps most well-known today for his recording of O Holy Night, which is still included on many Christmas collection CDs being sold and released around Christmas every year. Seeing how Christmas is quickly approaching, I will include a link to his recording of O Holy Night on YouTube.  The second YouTube link is a video performance of Till Havs (To the Sea), a Swedish song which he often included in his recitals and concerts, and which is generally considered to be one of his hallmark pieces.
Did you know...:
There were talks of making the Swedish song 'Sverige' (Sweden) the new Swedish national anthem following a recording Jussi Björling made of the song. It never happened, but it is indicative of Björling's phenomenal voice and standing among the Swedish populace at the time.

Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) recorded Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot together with Jussi Björling, but otherwise there are few points in time where their careers intersect, despite both being Swedish opera singers. Nilsson proved superb as princess Turandot, but it was her Wagner performances that made her really famous all over the world. Björling, however, was not a Wagnarian tenor, and although he occasionally did sing Calaf's part in Turandot, it was not a role best suited to his lyric tenor. If you ever happen to compare and contrast Björling's performance as Calaf with that of italian spinto (spinto = a tenor combining dramatic and lyric singing) Franco Corelli you will hear that although Björling's technique did allow him to take on the more dramatic part of prince Calaf, the music is better suited to the dramatic voice of a true spinto.

So, while Nilsson and Björling did not meet often on the opera stage, both of them reached the absolute top within there respective fields. Björling was, and is still, considered one of the greatest tenors in recorded history, together with Beniamino Gigli, Enrico Caruso, and personally I would also include Luciano Pavarotti on that list as well. Birgit Nilsson, with her large, dramatic voice, is remembered as one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos in recorded history, together with Kirsten Flagstad, and her recordings of princess Turandot rank amongst the absolute best. That is why I thought it fitting to include a link to a video performance on YouTube where Nilsson performs the famous aria In Questa Reggia from Giacomo Puccini's Turandot. In this video you also see the great Franco Corelli as prince Calaf.
Did you know...:
Nilsson was once asked to record an aria using very old recording equipment as part of a 'test' to see how opera critics would react to and judge a modern recording made with dated technology. The critics were told it was a recently discovered, very old recording, and their judgement of the singer was harsh. They became quite upset and very angry upon being told that the performer was none other than the great Birgit Nilsson. I find this interesting, as both Nilsson's and Björling's recordings are starting to show their age – who knows what these two greats truly sounded like live...

Next week we'll have a look at another Swedish phenomenon on the world music stage: ABBA!

Additional Info and glossary (very basic!):

  • Next year (2011) it is 100 years since Jussi Björling was born. To celebrate this, world famous Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel comes to Sweden to give a special recital at the Stockholm concert hall. If you are interested, here is the link: Stockholm's concert hall

  • Opera – opera has its root in 16th century Italy. The first opera is considered to have been completed in 1594. Unlike musicals, there is, as a general rule, no speech in operas, only singing. The singers' voices are also not amplified by microphones and loudspeakers, which means that opera singers have to go through many years of rigorous training in order to master a vocal technique that will allow them to fill an entire opera house unaided by modern technology. Some exceptions do exist, though. Mozart's fantasy opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) does contain spoken dialogue, and the Gothenburg Opera House recently used loudspeakers to imbue the voice of a returned-from-the-dead character with unearthly qualities. But these are rare exceptions.

  • Aria – in opera, you generally do not talk about 'songs'. Instead, there are arias and duets. Technically, there are recitatives, quartets, et ceterea, und so weiter. But generally speaking, as long as you are familiar with the words aria and duet you'll do fine. Aria is basically a song for one singer, whereas a duet is a song for two singers.

  • Tenor & soprano – I guess you are all familiar with high notes and low notes. Some singers can go lower than others; some singers can reacher higher tones that others. In musical terms, the bass is a male singer who can sing really low notes. The baritone is the male middle voice, whereas the tenor is the male voice who can take the highest tones. Granted, there is something called a counter-tenor as well, who can go even higher than the tenor, but generally speaking there are basses, baritones and tenors. Sometimes there are people who does not seem to fit perfectly in any range. Brynt Terfel is one such person, who is therefore referred to as a Bass-baritone. For women, the contralto is the lowest voice type, followed by mezzo-soprano and, the highest voice type, soprano.

  • Lyric, dramatic, spinto – these adjectives are placed before the voice type – i.e tenor, soprano, etcetera – in order to describe the type of voice further. So, a lyric tenor is a male singer who can sing high tones and usually has a robust, powerful and large voice suited for dramatic singing.

  • Check out my 'The Native' article on Thursday for more info on where to go for operas in Gothenburg!

/Nils, team 2010