Jussi Björling was one of the great tenors of the 20th century. His timbre won his audience over with its remarkable clarity and warmth; his sound excelled in its plasticity, suavity, and flexibility, and was at the same time full of ardor. Throughout its entire range, the voice was produced evenly and freely. His upper register was shining and resonant, the middle captivated with its sweet flexibility. His voice was italianate and free. He followed, in essence, the bel canto style of singing. As an aside, there is a recording of La Bohème that is known as the “desert island” Bohème, meaning that if you had to go to a desert island, this would be one of the recordings that you would bring with you. This 1956 recording was organized quickly in New York, with Victoria de Los Angeles and Jussi Björling. Additionally, Robert Merrill sings on this recording, and Lucine Amara is Musetta. The conductor was the great Sir Thomas Beecham. While this recording is not highlighted here, I cannot recommend it enough, and Björling is nothing short of magnificent. Victoria de los Angeles and Renata Tebaldi will be covered in future posts.
Mi chiamano Mimì
Mi chiamano Mimì,
ma il mio nome è Lucia.
La storia mia è breve.
A tela o a seta
ricamo in casa e fuori.
Son tranquilla e lieta,
ed è mio svago
far gigli e rose.
Mi piaccion quelle cose
che han sì dolce malia,
che parlano d’amor, di primavere,
che parlano di sogni e di chimere,
quelle cose che han nome poesia…
Mi chiamano Mimì.
Il perché non so.
Sola, mi fo il pranzo
da me stessa.
Non vado sempre a messa,
ma prego assai il Signor.
Vivo sola, soletta,
là in una bianca cameretta;
guardo sui tetti e in cielo.
Ma quando vien lo sgelo
il primo sole è mio,
il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!
Il primo sole è mio.
Germoglia in un vaso una rosa,
foglia a foglia l’aspiro.
Così gentil è il profumo d’un fior.
Ma i fior ch’io faccio, ahimè,
i fior ch’io faccio,
ahimè non hanno odore.
Altro di me non le saprei narrare.
Sono la sua vicina
che la vien fuori d’ora a importunare.
I am called Mimì
They call me Mimì
but my name is Lucia.
My story is brief.
I embroider silk and satin
at home or outside.
I’m tranquil and happy,
and my pastime
is making lilies and roses.
All things please me
that have a gentle magic
that speak of love, of spring,
that speak of dreams and fancies
everything that is called poetry . . .
Do you understand me?
They call me Mimì
I don’t know why.
I live all by myself
I eat alone.
I don’t often go to church
but I pray a great deal to the Lord.
I live alone
in a tiny, white room;
I look at the roofs and the sky.
But when the thaw comes
the sun’s first rays are mine,
the first kiss of April is mine!
The sun’s first rays are mine.
A rose blossoms in my vase,
leaf by leaf petal by petal, I breathe its perfume.
How sweet is the flower’s scent.
But the flowers that I make, alas
the flowers that I make,
have no scent.
What more can I say of myself.
I am your neighbor
disturbing you at this impossible hour.
Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten,
Mild vom lieblichen Zauberlicht umflossen,
Das durch wankende Blüthenzweige zittert,
In der spiegelnden Flut, im Schnee der Alpen,
In des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölke,
In Gefilde der Sterne strahlt dein Bildnis,
Abendlüftchen im zarten Laube flüstern,
Silberglöckchen des Mais im Grase säuseln,
Wellen rauschen und Nachtigallen flöten,
Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe,
Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens.
Deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen:
Our friend wanders lonely in the spring garden,
Gently bathed in the magical sweet light
That shimmers through swaying boughs in bloom,
In the mirroring waves, in the Alpine snows,
In the golden clouds of the dying day,
In the fields of stars your image shines,
Evening breezes whisper in the tender leaves,
The silvery bells of May rustle in the grass,
Waves murmur and nightingales sing:
One day, O miracle! there shall bloom on my grave
A flower from the ashes of my heart;
On every purple leaf shall clearly shimmer:
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte,
kom med röda händer. Modern sade:
“Varav rodna dina händer, flicka?”
Flickan sade: “Jag har plockat rosor
och på törnen stungit mina händer.”
Åter kom hon från sin älsklings möte,
kom med röda läppar. Modern sade:
“Varav rodna dina läppar, flicka?”
Flickan sade: “Jag har ätit hallon
och med saften målat mina läppar.”
Åter kom hon från sin älsklings möte,
kom med bleka kinder. Modern sade:
“Varav blekna dina kinder, flicka?”
Flickan sade: “Red en grav, o moder!
Göm mig där och ställ ett kors däröver,
och på korset rista, som jag säger:
En gång kom hon hem med röda händer,
ty de rodnat mellan älskarns händer.
En gång kom hon hem med röda läppar,
ty de rodnat under älskarns läppar.
Senast kom hon hem med bleka kinder,
ty de bleknat genom älskarns otro.”
The girl came from a tryst with her suitor
The girl came from a tryst with her suitor,
Came with red hands. The mother said:
“Why are your hands red, my girl?”
The girl said: “I have picked roses
And stung my hands on the thorns.”
Again she came from a tryst with her suitor,
Came with red lips. The Mother said:
“Why are your lips red, my girl?”
The girl said: “I have eaten raspberries
And with the juices painted my lips.”
Again she came from a tryst with her suitor,
Came with pale cheeks. Her mother said:
“Why are your cheeks so pale, my girl?”
The girl said: “Make me a grave, mother!
Hide me there and put a cross on top,
And on the cross carve, what I say:
Once she came home with red hands,
Since they had become red between her suitor’s hands.
Once she came home with red lips,
Since they became red under her suitor’s lips.
Lastly she came home with pale cheeks,
Since they had paled with her suitor’s unfaithfulness.
Madama Butterfly Love Duet
Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia
ora sei tutta mia.
Sei tutta vestita di giglio.
Mi piace la treccia tua bruna
fra candidi veli.
Somiglio la dea della luna,
la piccola dea della luna
che scende la notte
dal ponte del ciel.
E affascina i cuori…
…E li prende, e li avvolge
in un bianco mantel.
E via se li reca
negli alti reami.
Ma intanto finor non m’hai detto,
ancor non m’hai detto che m’ami.
Le sa quella dea le parole
che appagan gli ardenti desir?
Le sa. Forse dirle non vuole
per tema d’averne a morir,
per tema d’averne a morir!
l’amor non uccide,
ma dà vita, e sorride
per gioie celestiali
come ora fa
nei tuoi lunghi occhi ovali.
Adesso voi siete per me
l’occhio del firmamento.
E mi piaceste dal primo momento
che vi ho veduto.
Siete alto, forte.
Ridete con modi sì palesi!
E dite cose
che mai non intesi.
Or son contenta. Or son contenta.
Vogliatemi bene, un bene piccolino,
un bene da bambino
quale a me si conviene.
Noi siamo gente avvezza
alle piccole cose,
umili e silenziose,
ad una tenerezza
sfiorante e pur profonda
come il ciel, come l’onda del mare.
Dammi ch’io baci
le tue mani care,
Come t’han ben nomata
Dicon ch’oltre mare
se cade in man dell’uom
ogni farfalla d’uno spillo
ed in tavola infitta!
Un po’ di vero c’è:
e tu lo sai perché?
Perché non fugga più.
Io t’ho ghermita…
Ti serro palpitante.
Sì, per la vita.
Via dall’anima in pena
È notte serena! Guarda:
dorme ogni cosa!
Sei mia! Ah! vien!
Ah! dolce notte! quante stelle!
Non le vidi mai sì belle!
Trema, brilla ogni favilla
col baglior d’una pupilla.
Oh! quanti occhi fisi, attenti,
d’ogni parte a riguardar!
pei firmamenti, via pei lidi,
via pel mare…ride il ciel!
Ah! dolce notte!
Tutto estatico d’amor,
ride il ciel!
Madame Butterfly Love Duet
Dear child, with eyes full of witchery,
now you are all mine.
You’re dressed all in lily-white.
I love your dark tresses
amid the white of your veils.
I am like the moon-goddess,
the little goddess of the moon,
who comes down at night
from the bridge of heaven.
And captivates all hearts…
…and takes them and folds them
in a white cloak.
And carries them away
to the higher regions.
But meanwhile, you haven’t told me yet,
you haven’t told me you love me.
Does that goddess know the words
that satisfy burning desire?
She does. Maybe she’s unwilling
to say them for fear of dying of it,
to say them for fear of dying of it,
Foolish fear –
love does not kill,
but gives life and smiles
for heavenly joy,
as it does now
in your almond eyes.
For me you are now
the eye of heaven.
And I liked you from the first moment
I set eyes on you.
You are tall and strong.
You laugh out so heartily.
And you say things
I’ve never heard in my life before.
I’m happy now, so happy.
Love me with a little love,
a child-like love,
the kind that suits me.
Love me, please…
We are a people used to small,
modest, quiet things,
to a tenderness gently caressing,
yet vast as the sky
and as the waves of the sea.
Give me your dear hands
and let me kiss them!
How well you were named,
They say that overseas
if it should fall into the hands of man
a butterfly is stuck through
with a pin
and fixed to a board!
There’s some truth in that;
and do you know why?
So that it shouldn’t fly away again.
I’ve caught you…
Quivering, I press you to me.
Yes, for life.
Come along, come…
Cast all sad fears
out of your heart!
The night is clear! See,
all things sleep!
You are mine! Oh, come!
Oh, lovely night! What a lot of stars!
Never have I seen them so beautiful!
Every spark twinkles and shines
with the brilliance of an eye.
Oh! What a lot of eyes fixed and staring,
looking at us from all sides!
In the sky, along the shore,
out to sea…the sky is smiling!
Oh, lovely night!
In an ecstasy of love
the sky is smiling!
Björling’s father, David, was a blacksmith at first, then changed to a singing career, studying as a tenor at the Met Opera School in New York and afterwards at the Music Conservatory in Vienna. He became a singing teacher and the proof of his educational success is to be found in David’s four sons. Jussi Björling was born in 1911 in Borlänge in the Swedish province of Dalarna. Already in 1915, David’s three oldest children, the boys Olle, Jussi and Gösta, made their first public performance in a church. They toured extensively with their father in Sweden and 1919-1921 also in the US, where six recordings were made in 1920.
In 1928, Jussi began his studies at the Stockholm Conservatory and in August 1930, he made his official debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. He had begun to make recordings as a tenor in 1929, and in 1930 he made his first opera recordings.
In 1931, Björling had a breakthrough outside Sweden with a recital at the Copenhagen Tivoli. He continued to sing at the Stockholm Opera and made many recordings in Swedish, mostly of popular and operetta songs. He even recorded dance music under the pseudonym “Erik Odde”.
Björling’s success steadily increased at the Opera in Stockholm, where he took on many new roles.
In 1936, he made his first tour to Central Europe, and had great success in opera and recital in Czechoslovakia and Vienna. This brought him his first international record contract, and he began to record opera and songs in the original languages. One of his first international recordings was “Celeste Aida”.
In 1937, besides singing opera in Stockholm, Björling made a longer tour to Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the spring. In the autumn, after having given his first recital in London, he went on to the United States for a tour which included radio concerts, recitals and his American opera debut in Chicago.
In the autumn of 1938, Björling went back to the United States and had his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in November (Bohème). He would then return to that opera house as a leading tenor almost every year, with the exception of the late war years.
In 1939, Jussi Björling’s permanent contract with the Royal Opera in Stockholm expired, but he often returned to that opera house as a guest during his career. He made his opera debut in London in May (Trovatore), and a little later he gave a radio concert in the Netherlands.
In August, he sang for the first time under Arturo Toscanini, when the Verdi Requiem was performed in Lucerne in Switzerland. Another of the soloists was the Swedish mezzo Kerstin Thorborg.
In the autumn of 1940, Jussi Björling made his opera debut in San Francisco (Bohème), sang two concerts in New York under Toscanini (Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) and opened the Metropolitan Opera season for the first time, as King Gustavus III of Sweden in Verdi’s Ballo in maschera. In the spring, he had made his first recordings in the USA, where he demonstrated his ability as a lieder singer in several Schubert songs.
After he had come back to Sweden in the spring of 1941, Björling remained in Europe and mostly in his native country for the rest of the War. His most important appearance abroad was his Italian opera debut in Florence (Trovatore) in the spring of 1943. He toured extensively in Sweden, partly as a field artist, and appeared many times on Swedish radio.
In October 1945, Jussi Björling returned to the USA after the war for an 8-month tour, and in the next years he spent a large part of the year in America, singing in opera and concert. However, much of the summer was always spent in Sweden, at his summer home on Siarö in the Stockholm archipelago. In August 1946, he sang for the first time with the La Scala ensemble in Milan (Rigoletto at Sports Palace), and in May/June 1951 a second time (Ballo in maschera). In 1949, Björjling took on a new role, Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, and the next year another one, the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo, which opened the season of the Met. The first of his many recitals at Royal Albert Hall in London took place in 1951. In 1950, he began a series of opera recordings in New York, of which the “Pearlfishers duet” with Robert Merrill, recorded 1951, is the most famous.
In 1953, Jussi Björling once more opened the Metropolitan season, this time in Faust, but this was followed by a period with voice problems caused by laryngitis. Björling’s only appearances outside Europe and America took place in the autumn of 1954, when he made a concert tour to South Africa. In 1955, he sang for the first time at the Lyric Theatre (later Lyric Opera) of Chicago, to which company he later often returned. Puccini’s Bohème was an opera which Jussi performed much more than any other work in his repertoire, and the complete recording which was made in New York in the spring of 1956 is one of the most famous opera recordings of all time.
During the last years of his life, Björling continued to sing much in the U.S. though he was absent from the Met between April 1957 and November 1959. He began to suffer from heart problems, but still had a hectic schedule. In March 1960, he sang his last performance at the Royal Opera in Stockholm (Trovatore), and later in the same month returned to the Covent Garden Opera in London for the first time since 1939 (Bohème). His very last opera performance took place in San Francisco with the Cosmopolitan Opera ensemble on April 1,1960 (Faust), and his last recital at Skansen in Stockholm on August 20. Early in the morning of September 9, Björling died in his sleep at his summer home on Siarö.