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February 5, 2011

Remembering this weekend's other notable centennial: tenor Jussi Bjorling

OK, so he didn’t lead a country or challenge anyone to “tear down that wall.” But, in his own realm, Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling is every bit as loved and lionized as Ronald Reagan is in his.

Saturday marks Bjorling’s centennial, an event that will not get as much attention as Reagan’s on Sunday, but I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to the singer I’d happily defend as the greatest lyric tenor of the 20th century.

Caruso enjoyed more fame and made a bigger impact historically, and the Italian tenor's fabulous vocal resources remain overwhelming, even through the limited sonic means of early recordings. But Bjorling had something that I find even more appealing, more thrilling.

His is a voice I could listen to for hours on end without growing weary. Part of that is the eloquent style behind the singing, the avoidance of anything manipulative or tacky (he was not the type to add sobs to the big aria in “Pagliacci”). But the main thing is the exquisite purity of the tone, with a hint of sweetness making it ever more personal and inviting. There's something of the sun in his voice, and it's that radiance that gets me every time.

Bjorling died, absurdly young, at 49 in 1960 (he had heart trouble and a weakness for drink), but what a legacy he left behind. If you haven’t yet explored that legacy, please seek his out recordings (there are a few video souvenirs, too) and see if you don’t fall quickly under the vocal spell. I’ll help get you started by

sharing these few favorites of mine -- Puccini, Strauss and a haunting Swedish song -- to celebrate the Bjorling centennial:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:59 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


For those born this side of 1960, and now looking outside of popular music for alternatives, JB is like finding gold treasure. If you grew up on rock 'n roll, chances are you've never heard of him. I happened upon his body of work by pure chance. However, for even casual fans of the human voice, there is no mistaking his greatness. His elegant phrasing, natural technique and purity of tone really sets him apart. We may not see his equal again, despite many fine new tenors. His recording legacy is vast and his biographer wrote that he might possibly have been the only artist to have recorded both acoustic/electric 78s, and mono/stereo LPs in the 20th century. One thing is for sure though, in another 100 years they will still be writing about this great artist long after others like Lady Gaga are forgotten.

Lady who? Hey, thanks for the great words about this amazing artist. TIM

I remember hearing Jussi Bjorling sing Rudolfo on a recording of: "La Boheme." I was so impressed, I started buying every recording I could find, that he was singing on. I eventually went to all his New York recitals, I saw and heard him at two recitals at Carnegie Hall and two at Hunter College recital hall. I shall never forget his beautiful voice, I saw grown men cry, from the beauty of that wonderful voice, I was one of them! The world lost a treasure when he passed away, he was far too young, if only he had taken better care of himself. To me, there was Jussi and everyone else! He was one of a kind!

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I envy you for having heard JB live. I'm so glad I discovered his recordings when I first started accepting the possibility that operatic voices were not scary aliens. If time travel ever comes around, I'd like to go back to one of his recitals or opera appearances -- maybe the legendary 'Trovatore' he sang with Callas that, apparently, was never recorded. That would be my ideal of vocal heaven. TIM

I was born in 1959, but my father was a huge Bjoerling fan. I was in the record business and had every JB album he could find. So, I was blessed with hearing this great voice. I have attended operas now for over thirty years and I just smile when someone raves about a tenor. I still have yet to hear one that compares.

What a terrific voice and yet another stilled so young, like Lanza. I recall reading that during Bjorling's last year of life, he continually suffered with gastric hemorrhaging and several heart attacks. Supposedly, during one particular opera performance he was in the midst of an acute episode. I don't know if this is semi-myth like the portrayal of Caruso dying at the final curtain in the movie Great Caruso, but imagine some of today's divas going on with more than a head cold!

Watching him sing effortlessly and sweetly as in the Che Gelida Manina clip is wonderful. Having watched others like Domingo as their heads appear ready to explode is quite the contrast. Hmm...maybe that's why he's no longer a tenor.

I wish young singers would study Bjoerling. It was a basically lyric voice but, because of it's pure focus and bright top, he managed Rhadames, Don Carlo and Manrico (normally dramatic tenor roles) without straining his voice. and his heart was in every note he sang. In his final radio interview, of which I have a copy, he discussed his plans to record Otello and Lohengrin. What might have been! Just one word of warning - the Met in collaboration with Sony just issued his classic 1947 Romeo and Juliette broadcast with Bidu Sayao on Cds. Unfortunately, they did not do a very good job on the mastering. It's a performance that should be heard by every opera lover - just not in Sony's remastering!

I had the great pleasure and honor of presenting Jussi Bjoerling in recital at the Lyric Theatre on April 21st, 1959. It was a night I will always remember. We did not sell out(i lost money but who cares) His fee was $3,000. I have never hear such singing in all my life. Every-one there just went wild. And such a very, very nice man!!

Hey, thanks so much for writing. Sorry to hear it was a money-losing concert. I would love to have heard JB in those acoustics. Shortly after moving to Baltimore I found a poster for that concert in an antique shop and it quickly became one of my favorite items. TIM

I also grew up hearing his recordings, and my parents were great fans. He is still my all-time favorite tenor.

In 1957, I was keen to buy a 78 of Gigli singing Nessun Dorma but the record shop did not have the disc. The young assistant asked 'Have you heard it by Juicy Borling? (her pronunciation!)' I hadn't but soon did and was hooked for life. I didn't hear JB live, the nearest being 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' in 1958 on TV. Someone once commented 'he has a voice heavy with unshed tears' and every time I listen to that glorious sound, I am in tears. I have, sadly, seen little or no mention in the UK of the centenary of JB's birth.

Thanks so much for those memories. 'Juicy Borling,' indeed. And I love that 'unshed tears' description. TIM

I remember discovering J.B. in my third year of undergrad at Peabody while studying voice with Wayne Conner. I came in one afternoon for my lesson after listening to JB’s recording of Pagliacci with Victoria de Los Angeles (Nedda), Robert Merrill (Silvio), Leonard Warren (Tonio) for the better part of the previous 48 hours. I remember distinctly how excited Mr. Conner got when he heard of my enjoyment and description of this operatic legend. At the time I had no clue who this tenor was, I thought he was a relative unknown I bought it because of L.Warren, but Conner quickly straightened that out, and recommended many recordings for me to check out. Over time Conner told me of JB’s sad ending brought on by too much drinking and hard living. Eventually leading to a story of a performance he had heard in Dallas towards the end of JB’s career. Apparently after the opera Mr. Conner went back stage to discover that JB was passed out from drinking too much and had actually sung the opera “in the bag” as they say. Mr. Conner said to me, “Chris, Jussi sang better that night drunk, then any tenor I have heard since”. Mr. Conner was my first voice teacher, and I miss him very much. his knowledge of Classical Music was unmatched especially of opera. He passed away in 2008 and I can picture him where ever it is we musicians go when we meet our end talking it up with Jussi. Thanks Tim for posting these. JB was one of the “golden voices” we will likely never find again. Let me know if you figure out that time travel thing, so I can hear JB too!

Thanks for posting your thoughts and memories of Mr. Conner (and his great description of the drunken performance). It is amazing how wonderful Bjorling's voice was, from the early days to the very end. He'll be inspiring people for generations to come, I'm sure. TIM

Hi Tim,
Thanks for this fine appreciation of this great singer! Your selection of excerpts from opera, and German and Swedish song, were wonderfully apt. There are new books and recordings of Jussi B. still becoming available, those wanting more can learn about that via a society formed to celebrate his artistry, see

And thanks for reminding me (and others) about that Web site. TIM

Virtually every recording Jussi made is engraved on my heart. He touches and thrills me as no other has or undoubtedly will. For those of us who vibrate with his frequency, the beauty, the artistry, and the pure wordless soul-touching of every note is indescribable and emotionally overwhelming (in a good way). More than in my own life, I find myself in magical thinking about how "if I'd only" done this or that, perhaps I could have seen Jussi in performance. I fantasize about sitting mouse-quiet in a chair on stage at one of his recitals (Atlanta?). I can feel the slats of the chair, see the worn boards of the stage and the dust motes swirling in the spotlight. And most of all, I can hear. Tears slip down my face.

Thanks you so much for sharing your thoughts about the one and only Jussi. Now you've got my misty-eyed. TIM

When I was ten years old, my mother took me to my first opera, "Il Trovatore." The cast included Leonard Warren, Chloe Elmo, Jerome Hines, and Regina Resnik when she was a soprano. The tenor was Jussi Bjorling, whose voice blew me away even considering my operatic naivete. I was hooked and he's been my favorite ever since. I think I own every recording he ever made.

What a fabulous introduction to Bjorling. I'll always regret that I came along too late to hear him in person. Thanks fro writing. TIM

When Jussi Bjorling was about 10 years old, he toured in America with his father, a voice pedagogue, and his brother. They came to Duluth MN, with its considerable Swedish immigrant population, and performed in a Swedish Lutheran church. My mother was organist at that church, but attended the concert as a member of the audience. She often spoke of it when I was growing up and Jussi had become famous. In the 1940s, her friend, who had also heard Jussi in that early (soprano?) performance in Duluth and had saved the program, went backstage at Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis when Jussi toured with the Metropolitan Opera and had him sign that old program from his childhood. I now have that autograph -- along with a stack of Jussi CDs. He was the greatest tenor of the 20th Century, hands down.

Thanks so much for sharing that great memory of this amazing artist. TIM

There are few things that need to be preserved forever - Jussi Bjorling is one of them. His centennial should have been observed by every opera house in the world, but sadly it wasn't. How I wish I could have witnessed him live. A national treasure for Sweden and a treasure for the entire world of opera. Tears are shed at every listening for the tenor filled with those unshed tears. Always that unspoken but truly heard sadness in a voice from God.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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