Skip to main content
Hochdramatische Sopran (High Dramatic Soprano)

Birgit Nilsson, high dramatic soprano

By April 26, 2020April 5th, 2023No Comments

Although this blog posting is ostensibly about the great Swedish dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson, it is going to take us little a while to actually listen to clips. The reason for this is that Nilsson did not record particularly well, and this is because the way that Nilsson (and everybody else who sings or plays an instrument) creates harmonics. A harmonic is one of an ascending series of sonic components that sound above the audible fundamental frequency. That is, if one were to strike a middle c on the piano, the piano string would not just vibrate at 261.626 Hz. This level of vibration is called the fundamental pitch. Harmonics are positive integer multiples of the fundamental overtones. Another word for harmonics, or a harmonic series, is overtone.

An overtone is a sound accompanying the main tone produced by a vibrating body. So if the main tone were middle C, there would be a series of overtones above that note produced at the same time as the fundamental pitch. The number and loudness of overtones determine the timbre, or tone color, of a musical sound. Overtones are present in the human voice and in the sound produced by musical instruments.

To give another example, when a stretched string is plucked, it vibrates in a number of different ways at the same time. Vibrating as a whole, it produces its lowest tone. This tone is called the string’s fundamental, or first harmonic. The string also vibrates in halves, producing a sound with twice the frequency (number of vibrations per second) of the fundamental. This tone—an octave above the fundamental—is called the first overtone, or second harmonic. Vibrating in thirds, the string produces a sound with three times the fundamental frequency. This second overtone, or third harmonic, is one octave plus five whole tones higher than the fundamental. The string vibrates at even higher frequencies, but at each higher frequency, the overtone becomes weaker.

Now, before you run away, I am going to post a clip from youtube about overtones. The reason that I feel this is important is because of what recording technology, and sound engineers, do to music when they are engineering it. More often than not, they muck around with the overtones and change the way that a pitch-producing instrument sounds. We’ll come back to this after the clip, and I will explain this circuitous route to Birgit Nilsson.

There is much more information on the Harmonic or Overtone series on the internet, if this interests you. Just keep in mind that it is a basic property of the physics of sound.

Why does any of this have to do with Birgit Nilsson? Well, the human body when it produces sound, produces overtones. This is why a singer sounds different from a clarinet or why one singer singing a pitch will sound different from another singing the same pitch. Dramatic voices (that is, the biggest voices that we have) produces overtones that are high in amplitude. In other words, the amplitudes are so loud that you cannot hear a good chunk of the voice unless you are listening to it from far away. Recording instruments are not sufficient to pick up all these overtones, especially when the microphones are placed very close to dramatic singers. Most of the higher overtones are lost, and what the lister hears is only a shadow of what the singer sounded like live in a performing hall.

To achieve the overtone series for a pitch, any pitch, requires a free sound. What I have been calling the overtones is really the same thing as resonance. In other words, the voice has to be unimpeded so that the entire resonance /overtone series will be produced. The difference between one singer and another is vocal freedom and the internal structure of the air passing through it.

Birgit Nilsson, in most of the studio recordings that I have heard, has sounded screechy, shrill, and metallic to my ears, and I never understood why the world thought that she was so wonderful. In an effort to find out why the world and I have such different opinions about Nilsson, I looked on youtube for clips where she was singing live and/or the microphones were not too close to her. And when I found these clips, I did not hear a metallic voice at all. I heard a warm, beautiful voice with amazing power. In other words, I was hearing more of the overtones that she produced live, and which were not always recorded successfully.

I have some clips were you can get a sense of what the voice sounded like in the hall, and I have some clips that use standard recording techniques that don’t do Nilsson justice. I would add one more thing. Recording engineers can try to create an average sound. By this, I mean averaging the harmonics. They do this very frequently when trying to reduce noise. This is the reason that I end up remastering older records because I can feel how much is missing. Recording engineers are not dramatic sopranos’s friends. This also accounts for the way that Nilsson sounds on studio recordings. The engineers just blunt her sound.

This is a recording of Nilsson singing “In questa reggia” from Puccini’s Turandot. I am not going to give you the lyrics, because this not my point. What I want to you to hear is a piercing voice that is metallic not warm. This is the standard sound that Nilsson has in studio recordings. It is why I never liked her voice. Having spoken with people who saw her live, I am convinced that I never heard the real voice on studio recordings.

I can hear that this has been remastered, but many more overtones are present in the voice, and this is closer to what she sounded like in the house. Notice how much warmer the voice sounds.

Vissi d’arte

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
quante miserie conobbi aiutai.
Sempre con fè sincera
la mia preghiera
ai santi tabernacoli salì.
Sempre con fè sincera
diedi fiori agl’altar.
Nell’ora del dolore
perchè, perchè, Signore,
perchè me ne rimuneri così?
Diedi gioielli della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
perchè, perchè, Signor,
ah, perchè me ne rimuneri così?

I lived for art

I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes of which I knew.
Always with sincere faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with sincere faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In my hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
so that they would shine more beautifully.
In my hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

In the first part of this clip, I think that you can hear Nilsson with much better sound and thus with a much warmer beautiful voice. In the latter part of the clip, when she goes to the back of the stage, I can’t tell you why the microphones aren’t picking her up correctly.

Wien, Wien, nur du allein

Wien, Wien, nur du allein
Sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein!
Dort, wo die alten Häuser steh’n,
Dort, wo die lieblichen Mädchen geh’n.
Wien, Wien, nur du allein
Sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein!
Dort, wo ich glücklich und selig bin,
Ist Wien, ist Wien, mein Wien!

Vienna, Vienna, you alone

Vienna, Vienna, you alone
You should always be the city of my dreams!
There, where the old houses stand
There, where the lovely girls walk
Vienna, Vienna, you alone
You should always be the city of my dreams!
Over there,where I am happy and overjoyed
It is Vienna, Vienna, my Vienna!

Even here, the voice is at times too big for the microphone.

Panis Angelicus

Panis angelicus
Fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus
Figuris terminum
O res mirabilis
Manducat dominum
Pauper, pauper
Servus et humilis

The Bread of Angels

May the Bread of Angels
Become bread for mankind;
The Bread of Heaven puts
All foreshadowings to an end;
Oh, thing miraculous!
The body of the Lord will nourish
the poor, the poor,
the servile, and the humble.

Original German Text
Mild und leise, wie er lächelt
Wie das Auge hold er öffnet,
seht iht, Freunde?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Immerlichter, wie er leuchtet
Sternumstrahlet hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihrs nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm muthig schwillt
Voll und hehr im Busen ihm quillt?
Wie den Lippen, wonnig mild,
süsser Athem sanft entweht
Freunde! Seht!
Fühlt und seht ihr’s nicht?
Höre ich nur diese Wiese
Die so wundervoll und leise
Wonne klagend, Alles sagend,
mild versöhnend
Aus ihm tönend, in mich dringet,
auf sich schwinget
Hold erhallend um mich klinget
Heller schallend, mich um wallend,
sind es Wellen sanfter Lüfte?
Sind es Wolken wonniger Düfte?
Wie sie schwellen, mich umrauschen,
soll ich athmen, soll ich lauschen?
Soll ich schlüfgen, untertauchen?
Süß in Düften mich verhauchen?
In dem wogenden Schwall
in dem tönenden Schall
In des Weltathems, wehenden All
Ertrinken, versinken, unbewusst

Höchste Lust

English Translation
Softly and gently, see him smiling
How the eyes that open fondly,
see it, Friend?
Don’t you see?
Ever lighter, how he’s shining
Borne on high amongst the stars?
Don’t you see?
How his heart so bravely swells
Full and calm it throbs in his breast?
As from lips so joyfully mild,
sweet the breath that softly stirs
Friends! Look!
Don’t you feel and see it?
It is only I that hear this way
So wondrous and gentle
Joyously sounding, telling all things,
Sounding from him, penetrating me,
rising upward swinging on itself
Echoes fondly around me ringing
Ever clearer, wafting round me,
are they waves of gentle breezes?
Are they clouds of gladdening sweet fragrance?
As they swell and murmur round me,
should I breathe them, should I listen?
Should I sip them, plunge beneath them?
Breathe my last amid their sweet smell?
In the billowy surge,
in the gush of sound
In the World’s Spirit’s, Infinite All
To drown now, sinking, unconscious, void of all thought

Highest Desire!

Birgit Nilsson

Nilsson was born on May 17, 1918 and died on December 25,2005.

Ms. Nilsson made so strong an imprint on a number of roles that her name came to be identified with a repertory, the “Nilsson repertory,” and it was a broad one. She sang the operas of Richard Strauss and made a specialty of Puccini’s “Turandot,” but it was Wagner who served her career and whom she served as no other soprano since the days of Kirsten Flagstad.

A big, blunt woman with a wicked sense of humor, Ms. Nilsson brooked no interference from Wagner’s powerful and eventful orchestra writing. When she sang Isolde or Brünnhilde, her voice pierced through and climbed above it. Her performances took on more pathos as the years went by, but one remembers her sound more for its muscularity, accuracy and sheer joy of singing under the most trying circumstances.

Her long career at the Bayreuth Festival and her immersion in Wagner in general, began in the mid-1950’s. No dramatic soprano truly approached her stature thereafter, and in the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, she began her stately 30-year procession around the opera houses of the world. Her United States debut was in San Francisco in 1956. Three years later she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Isolde under Karl Böhm, and some listeners treasure the memory of that performance as much as they do her live recording of the role from Bayreuth in 1966, also under Böhm.

Like so many distinctive artists, Ms. Nilsson considered herself self-taught. “The best teacher is the stage,” she told an interviewer in 1981. “You walk out onto it, and you have to learn to project.” She deplored her early instruction and attributed her survival to native talent. “My first voice teacher almost killed me,” she said. “The second was almost as bad.”

Birgit Nilsson was born in 1918. Her mother, evidently a talented singer, began Ms. Nilsson’s musical education at 3, buying her a toy piano. She began picking out melodies on it.

She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk. “I even sang in my dreams,” she added. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to study. She entered the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1941.

Ms. Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946, replacing the scheduled Agathe in Weber’s “Freischütz,” who was too ill to go on. The next year she claimed attention there as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky.

Her first splash abroad was 1951, as Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. From there, it was a short hop to the Vienna State Opera and then to Bayreuth. She took the title role of “Turandot,” which is brief but in need of an unusually big sound, to Milan in 1958 and then to the rest of Italy.

Ms. Nilsson was suspicious of opera’s recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning. “Directors and managers don’t care about their futures,” she once said. “They will just get another young person when this one goes bad.”

In today’s opera culture, the best managed voices tend to mature in the singer’s 40’s and begin to deteriorate during the 50’s. Yet at 66, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, Ms. Nilsson sang a New York concert performance of Strauss and Wagner that met both composers head-on.

In sheer power, Ms. Nilsson’s high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway belter Ethel Merman. One high C rendered in a “Turandot” performance in the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy led citizenry beyond the walls to think that a fire alarm had been set off. Once urged to follow Ms. Nilsson in the same role at the Met, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.

Ms. Nilsson was known for her one-liner humor. The secret to singing Isolde, she said, was “comfortable shoes.” After a disagreement with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, Ms. Nilsson was asked if she thought Ms. Sutherland’s famous bouffant hairdo was real. She answered: “I don’t know. I haven’t pulled it yet.” After the tenor Franco Corelli was said to have bitten her neck in an onstage quarrel over held notes, Ms. Nilsson canceled performances complaining that she had rabies.

Ms. Nilsson was also a shrewd businesswoman and negotiated much of her own career. She never ranted or engaged in tantrums. She was also too proud to make outright demands. She would begin contract talks by refusing every offer and being evasive about her availability in general. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Ms. Nilsson’s reply would be “maybe.” Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.

She could stand up to intensely wired conductors like Georg Solti as well. When Solti, in “Tristan und Isolde,” insisted on tempos too slow for her taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart.

Ms. Nilsson appeared at the Met 223 times in 16 roles. She sang two complete “Ring” cycles in the 1961-62 season, and another in 1974-75. She was Isolde 33 times, and Turandot 52. The big soprano parts were all hers: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’s “Frau Ohne Schatten,” Salome, Elektra, Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.” For much of this time, the Met’s general manager was Rudolf Bing. Ms. Nilsson, when signing a contract, was asked to name a dependent. She wrote in Bing’s name.

Ms. Nilsson retired to her childhood home in the Skane province of southern Sweden. Here her father had been a sixth-generation farmer, and here she had worked to grow beets and potatoes until she was 23. A decade ago an interviewer for The Times found her there: happy, serene and as unpretentious as ever. “I’ve always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me,” she said. “Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”