An Appraisal of the Vocal Art of Jussi Björling    By Vsevolod Vasilievich Timokhin   (A chapter from Mastera Vokal’nogo Iskusstva XX veka [Masters of theVocal Art of the Twentieth Century], Moscow, 1974, pp. 72-85.)  The countries of Scandinavia have given the world of vocal art many names which have achieved world renown. What music lover does not know about the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, who was one of the greatest singers of the Nineteenth Century? Or about those other artists, Patti’s rivals, Christine Nilsson and Sigrid Arnoldson? Or about the famous Finnish singer Alma Fohström, who performed for many years on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow? In our century many Scandinavian singers have achieved international fame; but it is interesting to note that almost all of them were adherents of the German, principally Wagnerian, vocal school. We have but to remember the names of the Danes Peter Cornelius and Lauritz Melchior, the Swedish artists Birgit Nilsson, Karin Branzell, Set Svanholm, Joel Berglund, Nanny Larsén-Todsen, and Kerstin Thorborg, the Norwegians Kirsten Flagstad and Ivar Andresen, the Finns Martti Talvela and Tom Krause…. Some of them studied with students of the German school who were working in Stockholm and Copenhagen; others themselves went to Germany or Austria to study. It must be remembered that many of the severe epic Wagnerian music dramas have something in common with the traditions and legends of the northern lands, and therefore the emotional atmosphere of these dramas could not but find a response in the soul of a person who was brought up amidst cliffs, lakes, and fiords.  In any event, although other vocal schools do indeed have their representatives in Scandinavia, only a very few of them succeeded in achieving any recognition. Among them are the Finnish bass Kim Borg, an outstanding interpreter of the Russian repertory, and the Swede Jussi Björling, “beloved Jussi,” “the Apollo of bel canto,” one of the most outstanding singers of the Italian school of our time, whom music criticism has styled the only rival of Beniamino Gigli.  Björling indeed had an unusually beautiful voice which contained distinctly Italian qualities. His timbre conquered with its remarkable clarity and warmth; his sound excelled in its rare plasticity, suavity, and flexibility, and was at the same time saturated with succulent ardor. Throughout its entire range it was produced evenly and freely. His upper register was shining and resonant, the middle captivated with its sweet flexibility. In his masterly performance one could feel characteristic Italian emotion, impetuosity, and openness of heart, although any kind of emotional exaggeration was always foreign to Björling.  He was, as it were, the living embodiment of the traditions of Italian bel canto, an inspired singer of its beauty. The critics are absolutely correct in including Björling in the group of famous Italian tenors (such as Caruso, Gigli, and Pertile) whose beauty of timbre, ease of vocal production, and love of legato were inherent characteristics of their manner. Even in verismo works Björling never strayed into affectation or melodrama, never interrupted the beauty of the phrase with declamation or exaggerated accent. It does not follow from this, however, that Björling was an artist lacking in temperament. With what inspiration and depth of spirit his voice rang out in the dramatic scenes of Verdi and of the verismo composers, whether in the finale of  Il trovatore  or the Santuzza - Turiddu scene from  Cavalleria rusticana ! Björling was an artist with a precise sense of proportion, an interior harmony of the whole; and the famous Swedish singer introduced a great proportion of artistic objectivity and concentrated narrative tone into the Italian style, with its traditional white-hot underlining of emotion.  Björling’s voice, like that of Flagstad, held a special bright, elegant tone peculiar to northern landscapes and the music of Grieg and Sibelius. This soft elegiac shading lent a special pathos and sincerity to Italian cantilena, [especially] in the lyrical episodes which he voiced with bewitching magical beauty.  The singer’s many recordings have preserved for lovers of the vocal art the artistic image of Jussi Björling, just as it was familiar to listeners over the thirty-year period of his brilliant artistic career.  …. [Jussi Björling] made his first recordings [as a tenor] in 1929. His voice had already acquired its warmth and its captivatingly beautiful timbre; thus it is not surprising that the outstanding Swedish baritone John Forsell, director of the Stockholm Opera Theater, recognized the young man’s uncommon gift. So Jussi became a student of the Stockholm Music Academy and a pupil of Forsell.  John Forsell was an outstanding pedagogue who in his almost forty years of teaching activity educated a host of famous Swedish singers. A brilliant artist who performed with great success on many operatic stages around the world in the Italian, German, and Russian repertories, a precise and discriminating chamber artist, Forsell did not at first, of course, detect the Italianate nature of his new pupil’s voice or his artistic inclination to the works of Verdi and the verismo composers. Forsell carefully directed the growth of Björling’s talent, insuring that the young artist’s diapason of interests not be circumscribed by any narrow boundaries of repertory. Forsell also instilled into his pupil his own rich experience as a chamber artist. He was a connoisseur of the classic German  Lied ; the great attention which Björling later paid to that genre (which is absolutely unique for a follower of the Italian vocal school) may be attributed to the artistic influence Forsell had on his student. All his life Björling retained a warm sense of gratitude to his teacher, of whom he always spoke with sincere awe. Forsell died in 1941, having seen the start of the career of one of his most brilliant students, who would reach the heights of world fame.  Jussi Björling made his first operatic appearance in 1930. He sang the role of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s  Don   Giovanni.  The debutant had a great success with the public. At the same time the young artist continued his studies at the Royal Operatic School with the Italian teacher Tullio Voghera, who introduced the singer to the Italian traditions of interpretation of various leading roles of the tenor repertory in the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, and Giordano [sic]. Voghera was Caruso’s  repetiteur  during his first seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and, as the critics believe, instilled and developed typical Italian characteristics in his pupil’s performing style. In 1931 Björling became a soloist of the Stockholm Opera Theater, with which he maintained permanent artistic relations throughout his entire operatic career. Despite much work created by his contracts and agreements with many theaters throughout the world and with many recording companies, Björling sang regularly in Stockholm, and the public always greeted its favorite singer with great enthusiasm. One of his very last appearances, in Puccini’s  Manon Lescaut  [sic], took place on the stage of the Stockholm Opera.  By 1933 the young Swedish singer’s fame had spread to many European musical centers. He made very successful guest appearances in Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, Prague, Vienna, Dresden, [Berlin] and Paris; and in many cities the acclaim of the citizens was such that theater directors were forced to increase the number of Björling performances. … In that same year Björling again went to America, this time with his name famous internationally. On November 28 he appeared in a radio concert, and four days later in a solo recital in Springfield, Massachusetts. [The city’s] newspapers carried reviews of that concert on the front page.  At the end of 1937 the artist made his debut at the Chicago Opera ( Rigoletto ), and the New York concert-going public made his acquaintance. Finally, on November 24 of [the next] year, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut ( La bohème ). Björling sang in a cast which included the famous Italian soprano Mafalda Favero, who herself made her debut in that theater at this performance. The artists were received with great warmth; but Björling’s complete triumph occurred only at the performance of  Il trovatore  on December 2 -- he sang the role of Manrico, as the critics wrote, with such “unique beauty and brilliance” that he immediately conquered America.  The theater’s historians confirm that Björling was the youngest tenor with whom the Metropolitan ever concluded a contract for leading roles.  Björling’s debut at Covent Garden in London in 1939 was no less successful; and he opened the 1940-41 season at the Met as Riccardo in  Un ballo in maschera.  Traditionally, that theater’s administration invites singers who are especially popular with the public to open the season. The Verdi opera had last been heard in New York almost a quarter-century before! In 1940 Björling appeared for the first time with the San Francisco Opera ( Un ballo in maschera  and  La bohème) … .   After 1945 Björling’s name attracted listeners into the concert halls and opera houses in many European and American cities. He returned to the Metropolitan in the 1945-46 season and made guest appearances with the Chicago and San Francisco operas. For fifteen years these American operatic centers regularly received visits from the famous artist. For example, between 1945 and 1960, only three Met seasons passed without Björling’s participation. His appearance in many performances became historic events:  Roméo   et Juliette  of Gounod, with Bidú Sayão, 1947;  Manon Lescaut  of Puccini, with Dorothy Kirsten and Giuseppe Valdengo, 1949;  Don Carlo , with Cesare Siepi and Fedora Barbieri, conducted by Fritz Stiedry, which opened the 1950-51 season;  Faust , with Victoria de los Angeles and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, conducted by Pierre Monteux, which opened the 1953-54 season; and  Tosca , with Renata Tebaldi and Leonard Warren, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, 1957.  Throughout all these years Jussi Björling was in brilliant form. In his review of the singer’s appearance in the 1959-60 season in  Cavalleria rusticana,  a critic wrote that most certainly Caesar himself, returning victorious to Rome, had never been met with an ovation such as that which greeted Jussi when he returned to the Met stage after an absence of two years. As early as the prelude, the public was seized by the expressiveness and warmth of Turiddu’s serenade, and the pathos and passionate emotion of the “Addio alla madre” left an indelible impression. No one in the theater could have imagined that he was present at the artist’s final performances….  Jussi Björling’s death on September 9, 1960, was a heavy loss to the vocal art. He was only 49 years old and in the full glory of his gift as a singer. Performances of Puccini’s  Manon Lescaut had been planned for that fall at the Metropolitan Opera [and many important recording projects] went unfulfilled  Björling’s operatic repertory was rather broad, including more than forty roles; not all of them, however, figured in his permanent repertory. His best and most frequently performed roles were in Italian and French operas:  Rigoletto, Il trovatore ,  La bohème, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana, Un ballo in maschera, Manon Lescaut, Faust,  and  Roméo   et Juliette.  Almost all of these were recorded; moreover, Björling also recorded roles that his listeners associated less often with his name: Calaf in  Turandot , Canio in  I pagliacci , Radames in  Aïda,  and Pinkerton in  Madama Butterfly . Björling also recorded operatic scenes and arias, operetta selections, ballads, and folk songs (for example, for the American recording company RCA alone he made eighty-three recordings). After the death of the artist, work was begun to issue Björling’s entire recorded legacy; a significant portion has already been published, including his earliest recordings.  At home Björling sang in the best works of his native operatic school --  Kronbruden  by Ture Rangström (on a subject by Strindberg),  Engelbrekt  by Natanael Berg (on the subject of a peasant uprising in Sweden),and  Fanal  by Kurt Atterberg (on a subject by [H. Heine]), and also appeared in  Saul and David,  an opera by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. He touched upon the German repertory; in particular, he sang Florestan in  Fidelio , a role seemingly outside the framework of his usual interests. He sang in Russian classical operas: Vladimir in  Prince Igor and Lensky in  Eugene Onegin  were particularly close to the artist. It is well known that adherents of the Italian vocal school were as a rule less than successful artistically in the Russian repertory, because they tried to introduce into the performance of Russian opera expressive devices which were totally foreign to their realization.  Björling’s surviving recordings of the cavatina of Vladimir Igorevich and of Lensky’s final aria disclose that, even if in these instances we cannot say that he becomes totally at one artistically with the character he is portraying, we must nevertheless allow that the artist has achieved a certain stylistic transformation in his conceptualization. Björling sings Vladimir’s cavatina in an exceptionally successful way: he portrays the enamored prince with tender, transparent colors and soft, floating  pianissimi , but there is no Italian sentimentality or sweetness in his cantilena. The primary conception is one of contemplative lyricism, as is completely appropriate to the character of the music. Foreign singers face more difficult problems in Lensky’s aria from Act II of  Eugene Onegin . Too often they treat this aria in an unjustifiably dramatic or veristic manner, as in Cavaradossi’s final aria or Turiddu’s final scene with his mother, as a “farewell to life,” as it were. It is clear that such an interpretation, even when it involves interesting personal discoveries, deliberately contradicts the emotional content of Tchaikovsky’s music and Pushkin’s poetry.  Björling was one of the best foreign interpreters of the role of Lensky. While it may be true that his Lensky is no eighteen-year-old youth [as Pushkin described him], but a man with considerably more experience of life who has felt and endured much, this portrayal of the hero as emotionally more mature does not plumb the fullest depth of the character--his authentic spirit. Björling sings the aria with rather fuller sound in comparison with traditional [Russian] performance practice, but transmits its lyricism, spirituality, and palpitating sentimentality in marvelous manner. There is none of the over-dramatization of the narrative or over-expressivity of accentuation, none of the sentimental delicacy or sense of melancholy, which a singer of the Italian school would misapply here. Björling accurately feels the deep poetry of Tchaikovsky’s music and finds in his voice the intonations and colors which allow him accurately to create soft, pensive hues, lucid sadness, and remarkable warmth.  On the operatic stage Björling, like Gigli, as eyewitnesses unanimously confirm, was more a singer than an actor, but with his voice alone he was able to convey to his listeners the feelings which filled the soul of his heroes, their loves, their dreams, their joy and sadness, with such clarity, emotion, and sincerity that those listeners were able in their imagination to round out fully the stage portrait which the artist created.  On the concert stage, the disproportion between vocal and scenic images naturally disappeared. There, the voice of the remarkable artist in all its inimitable beauty ruled; his ability to reveal a wonderful, unique world in each phrase which he sang reigned. Björling’s concerts invariably met with great success: he was not like those popular tenors whose concert programs comprised basically well-known operatic arias, Neapolitan songs, and a dozen or so classic  Lieder . Björling the concert artist was distinguished by the breadth of his artistic horizon, his uniqueness, and sometimes the originality of his interpretive choices.   Of course Björling sang operatic arias and Neapolitan songs at his concerts, but his programs never gave the impression of stylistic monotony. His concert repertory included works of composers of various national schools and movements -- Beethoven and Grieg, Schubert and Sibelius, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, Tosti and Richard Strauss.  From time to time his interpretations provoked disagreement, but even the listeners who deeply disagreed with the artist could not deny the mastery and conviction with which he carried out those interpretations. The character of Björling’s artistic gift was operatic before everything else, and of a distinctly romantic order, and his interpretations of many classical concert works must be examined from such a point of view. As a sensitive artist Björling understood which works could, in content and form, bear this romantic transformation. And here, one must say, his taste and sense of proportion never betrayed him.  The well-known Schubert songs “Serenade” and “Die böse Farbe” display Björling’s interpretive thrust in this regard. They sound almost like dramatically saturated, impassioned arias from verismo opera, very elevated, expressive, with clear dynamic contrasts. Undoubtedly such concepts as “expression” and “dramatic pathos,” which are of clearly operatic derivation, hardly comprise the essence of Schubert’s vocal style. But even while understanding this, the listener at the same time cannot fail to respond to the impassioned animation with which the artist projects the details of his interpretive plan; and the heart agrees with the emotional transformation of the Schubertian image which suffuses the art of the artist. Of course, Björling offers his reading of Schubert’s songs not because he did not know the traditional interpretations; he was quite sensitive to the boundary which separates the individual, the unique, perhaps even the unusual in the art of interpretation, from the arbitrarily subjective or deliberate, and he never permitted himself to step across that boundary.  As far as Björling’s manner of expression is concerned, he did not routinely exaggerate or resort to operatic declamation and oversimplification.   His recorded legacy contains many outstanding examples of classically strict interpretation (for example, the famous Beethoven song, “Adelaide”), carried out with genuine elegance and refinement, or based in deep and penetrating lyricism (“Traum durch die Dämmerung” of R. Strauss, or “En drøm” of Grieg). And in what masterly manner Björling sang Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” a wonderful pastel portrait of the captivating young girl, painted in the softest, most transparent colors, in the most tender, most evanescent, most melting of all possible  pianissimi.   Björling performed the works of Tosti in true Italian fashion. He sang the dramatically agitated songs with passion, fire, and true meridional temperament, and the lyrical contemplative songs with that warmth and penetration, that rare wealth of nuance of timbre and dynamics, which are epitomized in the art of Gigli. And with what heart-felt trepidation Björling imbued his performances of Scandinavian folk songs! It seems that in the very timbre of the singer’s voice, in its tender beauty and poetic elegance, was distilled the essence of Swedish song, which came to be loved by listeners of many lands all over the world just because of Jussi Björling’s voice.  The singer’s spontaneity and freedom of artistic expression made it seem that, during his concerts, the vocal images, the sketches , were being created before one’s very eyes by improvisation, that they were the result of an eruption of inspiration which engulfed the artist. Björling was a very sincere singer; his enthusiasm was immediately transmitted into the concert hall. His art, directed at the heart of his listeners, found vivid emotional response among them. One has but to hear transcriptions of his live performances in order to feel in some measure the festive, elevated atmosphere which reigned at his concerts….  The years take us ever farther from the times in which Jussi Björling lived and worked. Nevertheless, like many exceptionally gifted artists, he remains our contemporary, and his masterful art, preserved in recordings, is inseparable from our surrounding musical world, for the art of this singer never ceases to move deeply and touch the hearts of men.      This article was translated and edited by Donald Pruitt, with valuable assistance from his wife Alla and Harald Henrysson. Here are some biographical notes on Don (who also was featured in a Spotlight article in Issue 10 of this Journal):     A native Virginian, Don considers himself especially fortunate to have grown up in a time and place where the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts were accessible; these broadcasts made possible his subsequent lifelong fascination with opera. He has a Ph.D. in Russian Languages and Literatures from The Ohio State University. He and Alla have a son, Steven, who currently is studying art history (and who also loves opera).    Don also supplied the following statement, at our request for some biographical information on our author:      “Soviet bibliographical research being what it is, we have been unable to identify this erudite author except tangentially. Vsevolod Vasilievich Timokhin contributed many entries to the five-volume “Theatrical Encyclopedia” which was published between 1961 and 1967; among them are those on J.B., Gigli, Melchior, Svanholm, Callas, Ljuba Welitsch, Margherita Sheridan, Suzanne Danco, Menotti, and two theaters: the Metropolitan Opera and the Kaertnertortheater in Vienna. We have not been able to establish his dates, his professional life, or his associations. For this we must apologize to those who, like us, consider such information about sources indispensible. It must for now suffice to say, without condescension, that his knowledge of the art of singing and of those artists and institutions which he describes are profound and compelling.”   [Needless to say, if our readers can supply some information on this author, we would be glad to pass it along to our readers. –Ed.]

An Appraisal of the Vocal Art of Jussi Björling

By Vsevolod Vasilievich Timokhin
(A chapter from Mastera Vokal’nogo Iskusstva XX veka [Masters of theVocal Art of the Twentieth Century], Moscow, 1974, pp. 72-85.)

The countries of Scandinavia have given the world of vocal art many names which have achieved world renown. What music lover does not know about the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, who was one of the greatest singers of the Nineteenth Century? Or about those other artists, Patti’s rivals, Christine Nilsson and Sigrid Arnoldson? Or about the famous Finnish singer Alma Fohström, who performed for many years on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow? In our century many Scandinavian singers have achieved international fame; but it is interesting to note that almost all of them were adherents of the German, principally Wagnerian, vocal school. We have but to remember the names of the Danes Peter Cornelius and Lauritz Melchior, the Swedish artists Birgit Nilsson, Karin Branzell, Set Svanholm, Joel Berglund, Nanny Larsén-Todsen, and Kerstin Thorborg, the Norwegians Kirsten Flagstad and Ivar Andresen, the Finns Martti Talvela and Tom Krause…. Some of them studied with students of the German school who were working in Stockholm and Copenhagen; others themselves went to Germany or Austria to study. It must be remembered that many of the severe epic Wagnerian music dramas have something in common with the traditions and legends of the northern lands, and therefore the emotional atmosphere of these dramas could not but find a response in the soul of a person who was brought up amidst cliffs, lakes, and fiords.

      Yearning for the Unattainable: A Comparison of Jussi Björling's Four Recorded Performances of Beethoven's "Adelaide"    By Carla Ramsey    If you want a lifetime companion of the feathered variety, all you have to do is show up when a duckling hatches. By a neural process known as "imprinting," the baby bird will bond to and faithfully follow the first object it sees -- whether it's mama duck, a human, or even the family dog -- upon emerging from its shell. Perhaps you have had a similar experience with a favorite piece of music: you became "imprinted" by the first performance you were exposed to, to such an extent that it subconsciously became the standard by which you judge all others. In my case, a first exposure to Beethoven's "Adelaide" (and to JB) was via a CD of his 1958 Carnegie Hall concert. Having fallen in love with this miraculous voice, I soon thereafter purchased the four-CD EMI set through which I discovered JB's 1939 version of the song. But what a difference! Compared to the 1958 performance, this rendition sounded to my ears somewhat sentimental and overwrought. Had I, like the baby duckling, simply become "imprinted" by the first version I was exposed to, irrationally preferring it to all others? Or was my musical intuition correct in telling me that the 1958 performance was, indeed, superior? Were there intermediary interpretations in the years between the two performances? These were the questions I decided to explore by investigating the four extant versions of the song in JB's recorded legacy.   The Composer      One of Beethoven's early publications (Opus 46), "Adelaide" was written in 1795-96 during the composer's "Vienna Period." Interestingly, the song was on the program of the composer's last public appearance as a pianist (due to increasing deafness) which took place on January 15, 1815, when he accompanied the singer Fritz Wild in a performance for the Russian empress. ( Beethoven , by Maynard Solomon, pp. 59-60).     Yearning for the unattainable, exaltation of nature and glorification of death -- recurring themes of "Adelaide" that also typify the Romantic Period -- pervade many of Beethoven's other Lieder. He composed six songs all entitled "Sehnsucht" ("Yearning"), including five set to two poems by Goethe. Additionally, yearning was the subject of Beethoven's song cycle, "An die ferne Geliebte" ("To the far-off beloved"), Op. 96. Indeed, unrequited love seems to have characterized Beethoven's life, most notably seen in his famous letter to the "Immortal Beloved" which voices sentiments similar to those found in "Adelaide": "Oh God, look out into the beauties of nature and comfort your heart with that which must be . . . ."    The Text      The text of the song is the poem, "Adelaide," by Friedrich von Matthison:   Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten, mild vom lieblichen Zauberlicht umflossen, das durch wankende Blüthenzweige zittert, Adelaide! Adelaide!  In der spiegelnden Fluth, im Schnee der Alpen, in des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölke, im Gefilde der Sterne strahlt dein Bildniss, dein Bildniss, Adelaide!  Abendlüftchen im zarten Laube flüstern, Silberglöckchen des Mais im Grase säuseln, Wellen rauschen und Nachtigallen flöten, Adelaide! Adelaide!  Einst, O Wunder! O Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe, O Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe, eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens; deutlich schimmert, deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen, Adelaide! Adelaide! Adelaide. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  Your friend walks alone in the springtime garden which is gently bathed in the lovely magical light that glitters through the swaying flowered branches. Adelaide!  In the reflecting stream, in the snow of the Alps, in gold clouds of the fading day, in the fields of stars, shines your image, your image. Adelaide!  Evening breezes whisper among the soft leaves, Silver bellflowers of May rustle in the grass, Waves roar and nightingales pipe: Adelaide!  Some day -- oh marvel, oh marvel! -- on my grave will bloom Oh marvel! will bloom on my grave, a flower from the ashes of my heart; and on every purple petal will clearly shine, clearly shine: Adelaide!       Matthison's poem portrays the heartsick yearning of one whose love either has been rejected (he "walks alone in the springtime garden") or is for someone unattainable. The lover envisions Adelaide's elusive image in waving flowered branches, a reflecting stream, alpine snow, golden clouds and the starry heavens. He hears her voice in the evening breezes, the rustling of springtime flowers, the rushing of a brook and in the nightingales' song. Mournfully, wistfully, and at times passionately, the distraught lover obsessively returns to the name of his beloved, perhaps hoping that his mantra-like invocation of its magical syllables will bring Adelaide herself into his presence. The fulfillment of his yearning, however, will be brought about only in death, when purple blossoms miraculously springing from his grave will symbolize the young poet's mystical union with his beloved.   The Setting      The poem might easily have lent itself to a traditional ABA or verse and refrain format, but Beethoven's setting is far more adventurous, almost constituting, in its breadth, a recitative and aria or "mini-cantata" in two movements for solo voice and piano.        Larghetto       The opening movement, marked  Larghetto , is characterized by a restless, searching quality, as evidenced, for example, by the setting of "Frühlingsgarten," where eighth notes in the vocal line are pitted against ceaselessly moving triplets in the accompaniment. Beginning with "In der spiegelnden Fluth," intensity is heightened by shortened, overlapping phrase lengths and condensation of the opening upward fourth motif of the song, which first appears as two quarters and a half note, to a dotted eighth and sixteenth.     The text is dramatized by such tone painting techniques as the octave leap on "im Schnee der Alpen," symbolizing an upward journey to lofty alpine peaks, and the falling melodic line on "in des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölke," the setting sun. Intensity is heightened by unexpected phrasal extensions (such as the repetition of "in des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölke, im Gefilde der Sterne") until the melodic line finally crests on the phrase "strahlt dein Bildniss, dein Bildniss," made all the more striking by Beethoven's indication that the phrase be sung "piano." After moving to the dominant, F major, the next four measures take the listener to the relatively remote key of D flat major, and a section which continues to develop the upward fourth motif of the opening. There is additional tone painting: a dramatic downward seventh leap on "Wellen rauschen" (marked forte) depicts a rushing brook, contrasted in the succeeding phrase by high triplets (marked piano) in the accompaniment representing the trilling of nightingales. With two impassioned outcries of "Adelaide! Adelaide!" the movement builds to a climax on a dominant seventh chord preparatory to the final  Allegro molto .        Allegro Molto       With its 2/2 time signature, regular phrase lengths and stepwise melodies, the  Allegro molto  contrasts strongly with the triplets, overlapping and irregular phrase lengths and craggy melodic leaps of the preceding  Larghetto movement . A culmination of the yearnings expressed in the earlier part of the song, the  Allegro molto  might be viewed as a kind of triumphal march in which the young lover exults in a death and a transfiguration whereby he is symbolically united with his beloved. After building to a dominant seventh chord and dramatic pause on "blättchen," the march crescendos and culminates on F above middle C with an impassioned outcry of the beloved's name. The final eleven measures, marked  calando , musically portray an almost post-coital relaxation of the exhausted lover into his lover's arms with a dying, prayer-like exhalation: "Adelaide."   The Four Versions   July 13, 1939 Henrysson Phonography (HHP) 124 Time: 6:46     The only studio performance of the four, this version was recorded in Stockholm with accompanist Harry Ebert when JB was only 27. A tender interpretation, employing much use of mezza voce , this rendition takes most literally Beethoven's  dolce  marking at the beginning of the song. In this version, JB chooses to linger lovingly and almost languidly on phrases such as "lieblichen Zauberlicht umflossen" and "strahlt dein Bildniss," and takes his time on descending sixteenth note and triplet phrases such as "Tages Goldgewölke" and "zarten Laube," as contrasted with the gradual  accelerandi  which build intensity towards climaxes in the 1955 and 1958 versions.     To my ears, this performance, although exquisitely sung by a sweet-voiced youthful JB, presents a lover who is more lovesick than impassioned. The urgency and sense of longing called for by both the text and music are sacrificed for the sake of stretching out certain high notes and phrases which, while they may be dramatically effective individually, cause the song as a whole to die on its feet. Overall, I found my first impressions valid: this interpretation sounds a bit too precious, overwrought and sentimentalized.  August 23, 1949 HHP 4904 Time: 7:00     The only performance with orchestral accompaniment, this version was performed at a Hollywood Bowl Concert Under the Stars under the baton of Izler Solomon. The overall length of the performance (at 7:00, it is the longest) is an indication not of expressive lingering, as in the 1939 version, but of lack of connection between singer and orchestra, resulting in a somewhat wooden performance by JB, virtually devoid of the subtle metric and dynamic contrasts which characterize the three other recorded performances. Accompaniment and performer are so at odds that by the  Allegro  movement it is almost painful to listen to the soloist's attempts to drag along an orchestra which, under Solomon's insensitive direction, lags behind - sometimes by as much as half a beat. One suspects that this is the first time tenor and conductor have performed this  Lied  together (perhaps due to JB's dislike of rehearsals), resulting in a musical mismatch that our champion arm wrestler is destined to lose.     Because of its unique orchestral accompaniment, it is difficult to compare this performance with the other three. More telling would have been an example from this period with piano accompaniment; but, alas, we must content ourselves with the snapshots that these four recordings afford as a record of JB's developing interpretation of the Beethoven song. Overall, I conclude that the comparative stodginess of this version is due to the setting and adverse circumstances of its performance. But even in spite of these considerations, one can hear a change in interpretation from the 1939 version: JB is desperately trying, despite orchestral sluggishness, to move the song forward, rather than languishing on each phrase. Had the orchestra complied, I believe we would have a performance not so different from the two later versions.  September 24, 1955 HHP 5501 Time: 6:08     To my ears, this performance, the shortest of the four, retains the best features of JB's earliest interpretation (especially touching is his use of  mezza voce  in the phrase "strahlt dein Bildniss") while still achieving the forward impetus called for by both text and music.  Ritardandi  are employed effectively in phrases such as "im Gefilde der Sterne," for example, but not to the point of allowing the melodic line to stagnate.     Especially exciting to me in this version is the musical unanimity displayed by JB and Schauwecker in building towards the climaxes of the two sections. Starting with "Silberglöckchen," there is a subtle but gradual quickening of the beat building up to almost unbearable intensity in the two impassioned cries of "Adelaide" that end this movement. Likewise, in the  Allegro , the two performers begin a gradual accelerando at the second "Einst, O Wunder!" moving together with increasingly urgency towards the climactic "blättchen" on the dominant of the home key, B flat. The conclusion of this movement is a marvel: starting slowly, softly and deliberately, singer and accompanist ceaselessly build in both dynamic and metric intensity towards the exultant  fortissimo  on the penultimate "Adelaide." With a palpable synergy between performers, this rendition, even more than the 1958 recording, really "cooks"!   March 2, 1958 HHP 5802 Time: 6:25     This version, originally my favorite, bears many similarities to the 1955 recording, indicating that JB had by now settled on his interpretation. As in the 1955 version, he incorporates lovely ritardandi, fermati  and  mezza voce  on high notes with impeccable breath control and phrasal shaping, but without sacrificing forward impetus. The difference in overall time (6:25 here vs. 6:08 in the 1955 version) is accounted for by a somewhat slower  Allegro molto  which, though it accelerates at appropriate points, does not reach the same level of intensity as that produced by the extraordinary melding of spirit and intention achieved by recitalist and accompanist in the 1955 performance.   Conclusion   Although a singer's slowest rendition of an aria or song (e.g. JB's famed 1944 broadcast version of "Nessun dorma," Tor Mann cond.) is often acclaimed for its greater emotional intensity, such is not the case, in my opinion, with these four recordings. Rather than the more leisurely, but somewhat mannered 1939 performance, I feel it is the musically "tighter" 1955 and 1958 renditions (the high-powered 1955 version being my favorite) which better express the restless yearning for the unattainable inherent in both the text and music of "Adelaide." Perhaps by the time he had reached his late 30's – and certainly by his mid-40's -- JB had discovered that in lieder singing, "less is more"-- a philosophy expressed by Cheryl Studer in a recent  Opera News  interview (December 2000): "Thoughts are energy, and as soon as you think something, the energy of that thought exists. When you 'do' the thought, it becomes mannerism. If you think the thought, that's art. That's the key to the simplicity and deeper meaning of lieder singing."  N.B. The author wishes to thank Bill Clayton for his encouragement and for providing a copy of the 1949 performance from his collection. She also wishes to thank Yoël L. Arbeitman for his help with translation of the text, and some useful suggestions.

Yearning for the Unattainable: A Comparison of Jussi Björling's Four Recorded Performances of Beethoven's "Adelaide"

By Carla Ramsey

If you want a lifetime companion of the feathered variety, all you have to do is show up when a duckling hatches. By a neural process known as "imprinting," the baby bird will bond to and faithfully follow the first object it sees -- whether it's mama duck, a human, or even the family dog -- upon emerging from its shell. Perhaps you have had a similar experience with a favorite piece of music: you became "imprinted" by the first performance you were exposed to, to such an extent that it subconsciously became the standard by which you judge all others. In my case, a first exposure to Beethoven's "Adelaide" (and to JB) was via a CD of his 1958 Carnegie Hall concert. Having fallen in love with this miraculous voice, I soon thereafter purchased the four-CD EMI set through which I discovered JB's 1939 version of the song. But what a difference! Compared to the 1958 performance, this rendition sounded to my ears somewhat sentimental and overwrought. Had I, like the baby duckling, simply become "imprinted" by the first version I was exposed to, irrationally preferring it to all others? Or was my musical intuition correct in telling me that the 1958 performance was, indeed, superior? Were there intermediary interpretations in the years between the two performances? These were the questions I decided to explore by investigating the four extant versions of the song in JB's recorded legacy.

      Singing From The Heart Kissed By The Gods: A Remembrance of the Tenor Jussi Björling    By Jürgen Kesting Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 8, 2000.     “And because of digital re-mastering, the recordings are so hard and shrill that even Björling's richly-overtoned voice stings the ears.”    Ever more frequently the work of record companies results in damage to the legacy of their artists. A current example is a so-called "Ultimate Collection" published by RCA/BMG in the "Artists of the Century" series, marking the death forty years ago (on September 9, 1960) of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling at the age of 49.  The word "Edition" is inappropriate for this mean and indiscriminately cobbled-together collection, comprised of some technically grotesquely-distorted recordings which are falsely dated or not dated at all. They distort and disfigure the image of one of the most brilliant tenors of the twentieth century whom RCA can thank for ten complete opera performances, classics all.Il Trovatore, Manon Lescaut and Aïda are vocally unequalled; Cavalleria, Pagliacci andTurandot are outstanding.  Only through naive ignorance can the project degenerate, as it does here, into a careless assemblage of arias by Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Gounod, Borodin, Giordano, Flotow, Donizetti and Tschaikovski -- sometimes single titles, sometimes scraps cut unclean out of complete recordings, not organized in any way by composer or stylistic considerations. But any singer intends his voice [in a given selection] to express [aspects of] a characterization, for instance the age and mental state of his subject.  And then mistake upon mistake! The November 30, 1950 recording of the duet from Don Carlo is dated June 3, 1951. The duets from Pearlfishers and Otello recorded on that day are ascribed to November 30 of the previous year. The selections from La Forza del Destino and La Bohème, recorded in 1951, are postdated somehow to November 30, 1957. The correct dates can be found not only in the complete Phonography (by Harald Henrysson), but also in earlier RCA/BMG long-playing records. Instead of keeping the duet recordings together as documentation of star vocalism, they are separated by recordings of arias and duets made four or five, or even nine years later. And because of digital re-mastering, the recordings are so hard and shrill that even Björling's richly-overtoned voice stings the ears.   I n any case, it’s comforting that the legacy of the singer has in the last few years spread far and wide, even though that hasn’t happened in a systematic way. From EMI, a four-CD set appeared with opera and operetta arias, lieder and songs, that Björling recorded between 1930 and 1950. Unfortunately, the (six) sides are missing which the eighteen-year old made in September (and December) 1929, with his still purely lyric but already perfectly formed voice. The lad’s singing of “For you alone” perfectly voices the yearning of a young lover, and brings tears to one’s eyes. Bluebell has brought out more than a dozen CDs with excerpts from (and out of) opera performances, radio broadcasts, concerts and diverse rarities, some with alternative takes. A portion of these recordings is from Björling's regular guest appearances in Sweden. These live recordings directly demonstrate with what generous dedication Björling sang to his audiences. But most important is the publishing of [recordings by] Arturo Toscanini Society, Myto, Legato Classics, and on the same level "The Radio Years" excerpts from Verdi's Il trovatore, Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo and Requiem, as well as Gounod's Faust and Roméo et Juliette.   A t the performance of Roméo et Juliette at the Met on Feb. 1, 1947, the tenor , along with the magical Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, must have been kissed by the gods. He sings the passionate cavatina ("Ah, lève-toi, soleil!") of the inwardly burning Roméo with masterful emphases; every phrase spun out in a legato stream and with effortless concentration of tone at the two ascending lines to a high "B" at "parais." Similarly magical is the sudden pianissimo at the phrase "qui vient joue"-- the soft end of the phrase maintaining the same healthy resonance.  The appeal of the shining forte notes lies not in their loudness, but in their intensity. Tender, glowing love lies in the tone of his voice: When he sings "Nuit divine" with his partner in the tomb scene ("Salut! Tombeau") it is saturated with agonizing despair.  It is said that Björling was a lethargic performer. But for him who really listens carefully, there appears through the "eyes of the ears" a passionate human being. That was stressed by his sometime recording partner Victoria de los Angeles. At the death of Mercutio, for example, Roméo takes on a voice of blazing, raging anger at Tybalt. Banned from Verona, he crowns the finale of the act with a high C of sheer unimaginable brilliance. The listener is perceptibly shaken by this passionate cri du coeur.  The voice of the young tenor stood out because it had an unusual luminous shining strength at the top, a silvery timbre of choice quality, richly colored and often shaded with melancholy. If ever any tenor was spared a vocal crisis, it was Björling, even if in some of his recordings in his fiftieth year--namely (Trovatore) and Tosca -- he sounds strained, rougher and grainier , sometimes also sharp, singing a phrase too high and allowing single held notes to tear off, instead of letting them pulsate and end without a perceptible thrust of air. The volume [of the voice] was not great, but he didn't have the slightest trouble projecting into the last rows of the Met.  The proportions of the registers was ideal: a masculine ring in the lower register, a sonorous vibrato in the middle range, an effortless glide into the so-called passagio and above that a secure focused high register up to D-flat, which can be heard in both the tenor solo "Cujus animam" from Rossini's Stabat Mater and the operetta piece "Ich hab' kein Geld, bin vogelfrei" from Millöcker's Bettelstudent. The measurements of Swedish sound engineer Johann Sundberg demonstrate the exceptional concentration of energy in the singer's high range, due to the ideally produced voice at approximately 3500 Hertz. Persons who heard him report that Björling's sound output was of such intensity, that it felt like an electric shock.  Björling never attempted to imitate the Caruso bright-baritonal ring as heard in others such as Beniamino Gigli (or later del Monaco and Domingo) -- except for one single recording, in which he undertook a demonstration of this manner [of singing] in Tosti's "L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra." And unlike Gigli, Aureliano Pertile or Richard Tucker, he didn't allow himself to be infected with veristic mannerisms. Nor did one experience that he imitated emotions as gushed-forth bucketfuls of tears or with antiquated heroic screaming. He was a classicist singer, but no belcantist. He didn't sing ornate music, and if he did, [it was] without ornamentation (perhaps Don Ottavio's "Il mio tesoro" or Nemorino's "Una furtiva").  The pianist Ivor Newton recounted in his memoirs At the Piano that Björling never had to warm up before concerts. Due to the training he got from his father as a boy in preparation for the professional "Björling Quartet" (there are several recordings from 1920), he was spared technical problems with his voice for the rest of his life. After relatively short studies with baritone John Forsell, he was allowed on July 21, 1930, to sing in the Stockholm Opera the small role of the Lamplighter in Manon Lescaut. His major debut was on August 20, as Don Ottavio. After 5 years of study, during which, among others, he sang Arnoldo (William Tell), Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut) [sic], Erik, Almaviva (Rossini's Barber of Seville), the Duke inRigoletto, Wilhelm Meister (Mignon), Alfredo (Traviata), Vladimir (Prince Igor), Cavaradossi, Tamino, Faust, Belmonte, Florestan, Turiddu, Manrico, Faust (Berlioz), Rodolfo, Tonio (Daughter of the Regiment), he came to the Vienna Staatsoper. Under Victor de Sabata, he debuted as Radamès and sang, in Swedish, in an ensemble that sang in Italian. His repertoire included more than 50 roles, plus Masses and 400-500 songs. His musical memory was extraordinary, and once he had studied the music, he remembered it securely and could frequently perform it without rehearsal.   I n 1937, he made his debut in Chicago as the Duke of Mantua, 1938 at the Met as Rodolfo, 1939 in Covent Garden as Manrico -- there is a recording of the performance conducted by Vittorio Gui. He sings the stretta ["Die quella pira"] in C major and crowns it with a fullthroated high C that, with a good wind, one must have been able to hear in Stockholm. But far more important and spellbinding is the lyrical flow of his singing in the duets and the cantabile [“Mal reggendo”], and the dynamic flexibility in the aria "Ah sì" with a fine trill at "para".  Already in 1929, before his debut, he had made recordings -- until 1936 in Swedish, and with a splendid voice and with the limitations of youth. His first Italian recordings, his diction not yet idiomatic, were a sensation -- among the 46 titles which, until 1950, were made for HMV, one finds pearls: "Celeste Aida," "Cielo e mar," "O Paradiso," "Salut demeure," Manrico's arias, "Nessun dorma" (with climactic brilliance), "Ah! Lève-toi, soleil" and Riccardo's "Dì tu se fedele" (sung with closely-controlled verve).  He was supposed to record Riccardo in 1960 under Georg Solti. What blighted the project -- whether problems and unreliability due to the severe alcoholism and heart disease of the singer, or the rigidity of the conductor -- one can scarcely determine. Anyway, the 29-year old Björling, in his arguably best Verdi role, can be heard live: excerpts from the Met under Ettore Panizza, Toscanini's right hand. His partner was Zinka Milanov, who claimed she had the most beautiful voice in the world, and shows here that she didn't have the slightest reason to need faint-hearted modesty. Björling sings his role with incomparable verve, brilliance, elegance, musicality, spontaneity -- paradoxically without Riccardo's aria from the last act "Ma se m’è forza perderti.” [The question is] whether the singer wanted to spare himself -- the part is the longest of all Verdi tenor roles (except the St. Petersburg version of Forza) -- and the aria lies in the most uncomfortable tessitura. In any case, in the portrait gallery of tenor heroes of Italian and French opera, Björling's Roméo and Riccardo are counted among the masterpieces.  ------------------------------------------------------------------------------  Translated by Karl and Toby Hekler, with help on one especially difficult sentence from Yoël Arbeitman and Harald Henrysson. Thanks are also due to Bea Bobotek and Armin Diedrich for their assistance.

Singing From The Heart Kissed By The Gods: A Remembrance of the Tenor Jussi Björling

By Jürgen Kesting
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 8, 2000.

Ever more frequently the work of record companies results in damage to the legacy of their artists. A current example is a so-called "Ultimate Collection" published by RCA/BMG in the "Artists of the Century" series, marking the death forty years ago (on September 9, 1960) of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling at the age of 49.

The word "Edition" is inappropriate for this mean and indiscriminately cobbled-together collection, comprised of some technically grotesquely-distorted recordings which are falsely dated or not dated at all. They distort and disfigure the image of one of the most brilliant tenors of the twentieth century whom RCA can thank for ten complete opera performances, classics all.Il Trovatore, Manon Lescaut and Aïda are vocally unequalled; Cavalleria, Pagliacci andTurandot are outstanding.

      Jussi Björling: The Supreme Singing of a Shy Man    By Stephen Hastings       






       “Of all 20th century tenors, Björling is the one who possessed the most perfectly balanced combination of a voice of unmistakable beauty (sufficiently ample and wide-ranging to cope with a vast repertoire), exceptional musicality and technical assurance.”    On September 9 1960 the newstands of Stockholm were plastered with the news “Jussi död i morse” (Jussi dead this morning). It is rare for newspapers to call an opera singer by his Christian name, but then Björling's relationship with Sweden was a very special one. It had begun forty-five years earlier, when his father David Björling - also a tenor - decided to take little Jussi (born on February 5, 1911) on tour with his brothers Gösta and Olle. The “Björling Male Quartet” could not fail to win audiences over, with the boys dressed in traditional costumes singing music (including compositions by David Björling and the Swedish national anthem) calculated to move. Yet the quartet's survival for twelve years (they remained active until 1927, a year after the father's death), and the success of their United States tour (during which they made six acoustic recordings for Columbia) were attributable to less ephemeral qualities: the uniqueness of the “Björling sound” that the boys had inherited from their father and grandfather, and the superior quality of their musical and vocal training, described by David in a booklet entitled “How to Sing”.      David Björling had studied at the Metropolitan School in New York at the beginning of the century and then at the Vienna conservatory, and was prevented from having a successful operatic career only by his obstinate character. Once, during an argument, he went so far as to kick Count Hans von Stedingk, the manager of Stockholm’s Royal Opera, in the backside. It was thanks however to his training that Jussi (after completing his studies with the baritone John Forsell) was able to enter that same company when he was just nineteen years old, and to make his debut in 53 of his 55 roles in the time span of nine seasons. Only Des Grieux in  Manon Lescaut  and Don Carlo were added later (together with Calaf, performed only on record).      In 1938, after his first United States tour (as an adult), Björling left the company, but continued to sing at the Stockholm Royal Opera every year (excepting 1949) until his death. Most of his career in fact was divided between the United States and Sweden, with much briefer visits (often only for recitals) to other countries. He sang in Italy (Florence and Milan) during the 1943, 1946 and 1951 seasons; at the Vienna State Opera in 1936-37 and at Covent Garden in 1939 and 1960.  Björling was no less precocious in his recording career, which until the invention of the LP was entirely confined to Sweden. As early as October 1929 he signed a contract with Skandinaviska Grammophon, that represented His Master's Voice in Stockholm, and in the years that followed he recorded with them regularly, first for the Swedish market alone (a number of recordings of popular songs were sold under the pseudonym Erik Odde), then - from 1936 onwards - for the international market (with arias sung in the original language). In the 1950's on the other hand, Björling did most of his recording in the United States and Italy, making several complete opera sets (ten in all, plus the Verdi Requiem), almost all of them for RCA, which up to 1957 was linked to EMI. He never entirely stopped recording in Sweden, however, and his final Swedish recordings (1957, 1959) can be heard , together with 85 other recordings made in Stockholm between 1930 and 1953 (including all those originally made for the international label) and four selections recorded in London (1952) with Ivor Newton at the piano, in the EMI anthology entitled “The Jussi Björling Edition”: An edition that includes a booklet with exemplary essays by Harald Henrysson - Curator of the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge in Sweden and author of “A Jussi Björling Phonography” distributed by the Amadeus Press - and English translations of the Swedish songs.      
     “ ... a concert by Björling... It took my breath away.... This “Ingemisco” was probably one of the most beautifully sung five minutes that I have ever, ever heard in my life. So much so that I sat there crying like a child.  ” 
   — Regina Resnik, Mezzo-Soprano 
            These recordings confirm the tenor's exceptional vocal reliability throughout thirty years of adult career. The 1959 recordings reveal much the same beauty of timbre and flexibility heard in those made in 1930: the slight loss of freshness being compensated by a more solid production of the voice. This vocal longevity may seem less exceptional if one recalls that Luciano Pavarotti (whose voice is similar to Björling's in color and volume) was capable of singing with almost equal accomplishment at the age of sixty. Pavarotti however made his debut at the age of 26, and enlarged his repertoire very gradually, while at the same age Björling had already sung the following roles: Don Ottavio, Almavava, Arnoldo, Nemorino, Lensky, Radamès, Tonio, Turiddu, Canio, Pinkerton, Florestan, Dick Johnson, Lionel, Il Duca di Mantova, Roméo, Narraboth, Cavaradossi, Alfredo, Manrico, Tamino, Erik, Riccardo and the Fausts of Gounod, Boïto and Berlioz (I have omitted the less important ones!). In the final years of his career, moreover, he suffered from a serious form of heart disease. He often experienced alarming palpitations during performances, and in March 1960 he had a heart attack shortly before the beginning of a performance of  La bohème  at Covent Garden - which he courageously sang in spite of everything. He also suffered from alcoholism, alternating throughout his adult life between colossal drinking bouts and periods of semi-abstinence. This problem caused considerable unhappiness within his family (as his wife has testified in her superb biography of her husband written together with Andrew Farkas and published in 1996 by Amadeus Press), but had relatively little influence on the singer's professional behaviour. When, in the winter of 1953-54, Björling was forced to cancel many engagements, including the Toscanini recording of Un ballo in maschera , the cause - in spite of rumors to the contrary - was a persistent laryngitis. And it was his weak heart and not his drinking - as record producer John Culshaw claimed - that accentuated the misunderstandings that led to the interruption of another recording of  Un ballo in maschera  (that conducted by Georg Solti) in 1960.   T he fact that Björling was able to cope with an extraordinarily heavy repertoire in his youth and sing impeccably even when his health was undermined is a tribute to his exceptional musicality and technique. Kurt Bendix, who conducted him many times at the Stockholm Royal Opera, stated that the tenor was practically incapable of making a mistake: “he was the kind of vocal and musical genius one is lucky to meet once in a lifetime.” The composer Sibelius (whose music Björling found singularly congenial) also described him as a “genius.” And Nils Grevillius, who conducted 275 of the performances sung by Björling in Stockholm and 81 of the 94 pieces included in the “Björling Edition,” likened his control of his voice to “a Kreisler on the violin, a Casals on the cello.” The English tenor Joseph Hislop - who helped Björling with the placement of his extreme upper register at the beginning of his career - said that he “got as much out of one single lesson as an average singer after six months instruction…His musical taste, his phrasing, and feeling for rhythm reminded me of the violinist Jascha Heifetz's playing.” One of the tenor's friends, Gösta Kjellertz, has spoken of his “incredible coloratura technique, fully comparable to the greatest instrumentalists” - and further evidence of his vocal flexibility has been revealed by his wife Anna-Lisa (herself a singer) who recalls his vocalizing up to G above top C, and a performance in Stockholm during which he calmly terminated an aria in falsetto for a soprano who had a fish bone stuck in her throat.      On record I have not found examples of Björling's falsetto, and his florid singing does not go beyond a fluent “Il mio tesoro” and a brilliant cadenza at the end of “La donna è mobile.” The highest note recorded is the brilliant top D flat that crowns one of his most joyful and exultant performances: “Ich hab’ kein Geld” from  Der Bettelstudent  (sung in Swedish). Overall however the opinions quoted are fully confirmed by what we hear on disc.      Of all 20th century tenors, Björling is the one who possessed the most perfectly balanced combination of a voice of unmistakable beauty (sufficiently ample and wide-ranging to cope with a vast repertoire), exceptional musicality and technical assurance. If one judges tenors by these three criteria only Caruso and Pavarotti can be considered of comparable stature. The former however - in possession of an incomparably rich and suggestive timbre (in whose thrall Björling was to remain throughout his life) - lost in the last ten years of his career that ease of dynamic modulation which Björling maintained until his final concert with orchestra, recorded live a month before he died (it includes an unforgettable excerpt from  Lohengrin ; a role he never performed complete). Compared to Pavarotti, Björling's musical instincts were less fallible, his command of the  mezza voce  and register break more assured (without those tight sounds that the Italian tenor sometimes produces). At this point one might object that even Björling's voice production seems to lack spontaneity alongside that of Beniamino Gigli, who possessed a still more luxuriant timbre. No one would dream however (I hope) of comparing the musicality of Gigli with that of the 20th century's greatest instrumentalists.      This unique combination of qualities does not however automatically make Björling the greatest tenor of the century. As often happens with naturally gifted singers, his interpretative talent was not always brought fully and imaginatively into play. He did not like rehearsing, and both his singing and acting could seem at times simply “competent and businesslike” (to quote a review of a London recital in 1937, which could equally be applied to the  Bohème  duet filmed with Renata Tebaldi in the mid-1950's), while on other occasions - in operas such as  Manon Lescaut  - he left “his heart and his blood on the stage” (Regina Resnik).      His first operatic recordings made in 1930 – “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” and “Questa o quella” - reveal scholastic phrasing and an occasionally unfinished technique (understandable in a 19 year-old). But the timbre is unique in its silvery overtones, and he already possesses such bel canto requisites as evenness of tone throughout the range and a natural feeling for legato. It is one of those rare voices that seem to adorn even the tritest of melodies (such as Idabelle Firestone's songs in the famous TV programs now available on video); the sound blending bewitchingly with the accompanying instruments.   I f then we move on to his first operatic recordings in the original language (1936), we encounter a supremely confident performer, perhaps already aware of having few rivals on the world's stages. I do not believe in fact that any other tenor in that period could have achieved in “Celeste Aida” such a perfect combination of purity of line (the legato is impeccable, the breath spans long and the breathing imperceptible), translucent beauty of timbre and dynamic control, even though Björling does not attempt the  morendo  on the final high B flat (many years later he regretted not attempting it on the complete recording made with Jonel Perlea). His diction moreover is excellent, and his pronunciation decidedly good. Björling's highly musical ear enabled him in fact to reproduce Italian vowel sounds most convincingly, though consonants caused him occasional problems. The passing errors of pronunciation that can be heard in many of his recordings rarely disturb the listener (Bruno Bartoletti, who conducted him in  Trovatore, Tosca  and  Bohème  in Chicago in 1956-57 was struck by both the power and ring of the voice and by the «perfect pronunciation»), even though his use of words lacks the inner resonance that we can hear in the finest Latin tenors. In his first recording of “Che gelida manina” (Rodolfo was the role Björling performed most frequently, followed by Faust and Manrico) the errors of pronunciation are somewhat glaring, but they do not prevent the enjoyment of his highly musical timbre and phrasing that convey not only the enthusiasm of youth, but also the shyness and melancholy that often accompany that enthusiasm. In this sense Björling's approach is very different from the traditional Italian interpretation, but it is a difference that enriches the expressive potential of the role.      There is no doubt that compared to the polyglot Nicolai Gedda or to Lauritz Melchior (who studied at length in Germany), Björling had little direct knowledge of the cultures that most of his operatic repertoire derived from. After conducting him in Vienna in 1936, Victor De Sabata would have liked to take him to Italy, but Björling's contract with the Stockholm Opera made that impossible. He did however have an excellent Italian  maestro  in Tullio Voghera (an ex-assistant of Toscanini and accompanist of Caruso who had settled in Sweden), and in a certain sense his limited exposure to the Verismo style of singing then in vogue in Italy enabled him approach the earlier 19th century repertoire in a purer style that proved particularly telling in operas like  Il trovatore.    O f this century's tenors, Björling is the one who has perhaps come closest to embodying the ideal qualities for a role such as Manrico, thanks to his exquisitely youthful timbre, his inspired phrasing and formidable ring in the upper register. These qualities are very much in evidence in the 1938 and 1939 studio recordings of “Ah sì, ben mio” and “Di quella pira,” but they emerge still more irresistably in a live recording of a performance conducted by Vittorio Gui at Covent Garden in 1939. A performance worth hearing in its entirety (the  cabaletta  and the final duet with Azucena are particularly memorable) that includes the most perfect interpretation of “Ah sì, ben mio” ever preserved. Comparing this performance in fact with others by Caruso, Fernando De Lucia, Aureliano Pertile, Antonio Cortis, Helge Roswaenge, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Placido Domingo and Pavarotti - and also with Björling himself in the complete recording conducted by Cellini - one discovers that no other tenor has succeeded in rendering so poetically every detail of Verdi's score, both in the recitative and aria. This achievement was made possible by Gui's respect for the prescribed tempo -  Adagio  (many conductors transform it into an Andante ) - and by Björling's ability to sustain that tempo with extraordinary virtuosity. Only Bergonzi approaches the effect he makes in this aria, but his line is less liquid, the details less finished, the timbre less caressing.   I n the same period (1937-39) Björling recorded a numer of discs that have become touchstones in the history of operatic performance: “En fermant les yeux” ( Manon ), “Salut, demeure” ( Faust ), “Adelaide” (which reminds us of his intense activity as a Lieder singer) and “Ingemisco” from the Verdi  Requiem  (that Björling sang three times with Toscanini in the years 1939-40). They are four miracles of vocal beauty and expressive balance, in which the singer's sensibility appears profoundly attuned to the music performed.      It is interesting to compare his performance of another aria – “Cuius animam” from Rossini's Stabat mater  - with that of Pavarotti. The Italian tenor's phrasing is more emphatic, the tone both indignant and expansive, while Björling is more intimate and melancholy, his top D flat less prolonged and sunny. There are also a number of oddly pronounced words here, as in “Cielo e mar” (where they are more conspicuous), but on the whole this performance of Enzo's aria makes almost all other recordings of the piece sound crude by comparison.      In the 1940's Björling continued to record popular arias from the Italian and French repertoires and added a number of duets with the soprano Hjördis Schymberg (prima donna at the Stockholm Opera) and with his wife Anna Lisa (a lyric soprano). Vocally they are splendid, but interpretatively they seem more superficial than the 1930's recordings, with a conspicuous lack of nuance in the more lyrical arias: “Una furtiva lacrima,” “Je crois entendre encore” and “È la solita storia del pastore.” “Nessun dorma,” on the other hand, is a triumph, and “L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra” represents a moving homage to Caruso, whose recording inspired Björling. He sought in fact to imitate the phrasing and timbre of the Italian tenor (as he did when he recorded the  Otello  duet with Robert Merrill after listening repeatedly to the recording made by Caruso and Titta Ruffo). In the end however Björling wins over the listener even here with qualities that are entirely his own: an airy lyricism that contrasts with the warmer - but less elegant - sensuality of his model.      One notices often a difference between the 1940's studio performances - rather stiff in expression - and the live radio broadcasts of the same period. In the aircheck of  Roméo et Juliette  at the Metropolitan in 1947, “Ah! lève-toi, soleil!” is more varied in dynamics and spontaneous in rubato than in the 1945 recording. In “Dì tu se fedele” ( Un ballo in maschera ) Björling is more high-spirited in New Orleans in 1950 than in the studio in 1944: he plays with the rhythm, adds the odd embellishment, and performs (the second time with brilliant success) the fearful leap from high A flat to low C. And in “Donna non vidi mai” ( Manon Lescaut ) the words are more alive and more passionately projected at the Met in 1949 than in the studio recording a year earlier. And it must be said that Björling betters his earlier performances also in the operatic recital conducted by Alberto Erede in 1957 (available on a Decca CD), where he sings splendidly, and in unusually idiomatic Italian, a number of arias recorded for His Master's Voice in the 1940's.      The Italian role which proved perhaps most congenial to Björling (among those recorded complete) was Des Grieux in  Manon Lescaut . It was one of the few parts in which he achieved a total identification with the character. Being reserved and in some respects emotionally repressed, Björling found emotional release in the extrovert passion of certain  verismo  characters (other examples are Turiddu and Canio). A sense of release that is all the more electrifying in that it is clearly the expression of someone who is used to controlling his emotions. He rarely fractures the musical line in the manner of Latin tenors, but that line itself is stretched almost to breaking point by pent-up emotion.  A similar expressive abandon - though at a lower emotional temperature - can be heard in many of the Swedish songs included in the EMI anthology, some of which he had sung since his childhood. It is significant in fact that even in the 1930 recordings - two sentimental yet attractive pieces by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger - he reveals an interpretative assurance absent in the operatic recordings made at that time. Here and in the romantic Ballads by Söderman (1957-59), Björling's timbre seems to reflect ideally the peculiar luminosity of the northern landscapes evoked, and he spins out the tales with truly binding legato. In a love song that Hugo Alfvén composed especially for him – “Så tag mit hjerte” (So take my heart) - the 48 year-old Björling apostrophizes his beloved with the timid delicacy of an adolescent. While in patriotic songs such as “Sverige” (Sweden) and “Land, du välsignade” (Thou blessed land) his fervent phrasing and open-hearted, ringing tone never compromise the perfect finish of the vocal line. Still more fascinating is “Tonerna” (Music) by Carl Sjöberg, that speaks of music as a refuge from everday sorrows. This was a message deeply felt by Björling himself and he sings the two verses with such spontaneity of expression that he seems to have access to the same source of inspiration as the composer himself (there is also an English language version with a piano accompaniment and a very different text).      Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote that “the invention of melody is the supreme mystery of mankind,” and personally I feel that no tenor better than Björling enables us to understand the depth of that mystery. Oscar Wilde on the other hand wrote that “real beauty ends where an intellectual expression begins.” He was referring to physical beauty, but the phrase is nonetheless applicable to the singing of this tenor, who had nothing particularly cerebral about him (if he had not been a singer he would have liked to be a fisherman), but who achieved in his moments of highest inspiration that limpid fusion of form and feeling that other more sophisticated performers have sought in vain.  Stephen Hastings is an English music critic who has been living in Italy since 1978. He has been Opera News' correspondent from Milan for the last decade and recently became Editor of the Italian magazine Musica. This article was first published in that magazine in the winter of 1998.  [ We thank Harald Henrysson and Carlo Ceruti for bringing this article to our attention and providing preliminary translations to us, and to Andrew Farkas and Greg Fitzmaurice for their comments. Ed. ]

Jussi Björling: The Supreme Singing of a Shy Man

By Stephen Hastings

On September 9 1960 the newstands of Stockholm were plastered with the news “Jussi död i morse” (Jussi dead this morning). It is rare for newspapers to call an opera singer by his Christian name, but then Björling's relationship with Sweden was a very special one. It had begun forty-five years earlier, when his father David Björling - also a tenor - decided to take little Jussi (born on February 5, 1911) on tour with his brothers Gösta and Olle. The “Björling Male Quartet” could not fail to win audiences over, with the boys dressed in traditional costumes singing music (including compositions by David Björling and the Swedish national anthem) calculated to move. Yet the quartet's survival for twelve years (they remained active until 1927, a year after the father's death), and the success of their United States tour (during which they made six acoustic recordings for Columbia) were attributable to less ephemeral qualities: the uniqueness of the “Björling sound” that the boys had inherited from their father and grandfather, and the superior quality of their musical and vocal training, described by David in a booklet entitled “How to Sing”.

      MAESTRO FURIOSO    By Lee Alperin       "Don’t ever think you’ve succeeded. Always try to do better – otherwise, drop dead." Arturo Toscanini, 1946 La Scala    He had been considered a god, also an indulged, rigid tyrant.  For most people, though, especially those who knew practically nothing about him, Arturo Toscanini [1867-1957] had been synonymous with conducting the way Caruso was for opera and, one suspects, Callas for temperament.  It has been more than fifty years since Toscanini conducted his final concert, ending an unparalleled performing career of close to seventy years, one that began in 1886.  The year 2007 marked the half century anniversary of his death.  Why revive interest in a man whose day has passed? Put simply, there has never been anyone like Toscanini.  Intense and short-tempered he carried everything to the limit sparing neither himself nor anyone else. In recognizing his own single-minded involvement with conducting he once remarked about the leisure his colleagues took in devoting time for family and friends, “The infernal that’s in me isn’t present in them.”1 That infernal he took as a birthright, setting him on a demonic, never-ending quest for how the music of the great composers  must  be heard.  Two things kept the  infernal  for Toscanini ablaze.  He was for years an anti-Fascist smarting under Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial rule and a married man attracted to beautiful younger women.  Both would inflame his moods and spark his temper on the podium, for he treated any difficulties in his personal life as incentives to drive an orchestra.  The following story, which exists in variations, depicts the temper of the man as well as the way he was viewed by the public.  Toscanini is rehearsing an orchestra.  He hears an error repeated by a member of the winds.  In a fury he flings his baton at the player and despite extreme nearsightedness is able to land the stick against the errant musician.  The player jumps up to protest, but Toscanini still beside himself with rage waves the man back and shouts, “Too late to apologize!”  So entwined were his art and the ire rising from his personal and political convictions that the stick Toscanini threw may have been meant as much for Benito Mussolini as for the poor wind player.              Toscanini never sought attention as a conductor, but privately he had a rejoinder for anything said of him, good or ill. James Levine once remarked he considered Toscanini “the most consistently great conductor of [his] century.”  Toscanini would have corrected Levine to speak of him not as a great conductor but “the only good one.”2So ingrained was this primacy sense that long after Toscanini’s death his son-in-law, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, remarked, “There is no conductor I want to play with.  They are all bad.”  If Horowitz were not supporting a tradition handed down by  the old man  it would be surprising.  Toscanini always insisted he was only making an orchestra do what the composer had intended.  This may be so in his mind, but the listener also senses that within the parameters of a Toscanini performance is a striving for truth as he, Toscanini, sees it and a force of will not to compromise for less. In 1949 during a recording session for Ottorino Respighi’s  Feste Roman , RCA engineers advised Toscanini that the volume of sound he called for could overload the equipment.  “Break everything, but get it on!” he demanded.   Contributing to the awe about him was that in a career spanning 68 years Toscanini had conducted without a score.  Only during his last concert was there a noticeable memory lapse.  The incident shocked the music world and was treated as a cause celebre  by the media. In some cases sensationalism instead of scrupulous reporting held sway. By chance I was to witness what took place that evening.  I was twenty when I attended the last concert for the 1954 season of the NBC Symphony in Carnegie Hall.  The orchestra had been formed for Toscanini in 1937, and the performances were originally broadcast from studio 8H in Radio City.  To be part of the live audience one could not go to a box office for tickets.  While there was no admission charge to attend a Toscanini NBC broadcast, tickets were dispensed in a way that did not make them generallyavailable to the public.  I was there because Monroe Larsen, the father of a classmate, had obtained a ticket for me.  He was connected with Socony-Vacuum Oil, sponsor of the broadcasts.   There was an intense air of expectancy about as I took seat X8 a little after 6:00 P.M. that Sunday evening of April 4th.  The 2783 other places were being quickly filled.  I did not notice anyone standing around to chat.  Hushed low-pitched whispering enveloped the hall instead of the usual sprightly pre-concert conversation. These things were not so by chance, as I was to learn.  From the very beginning the NBC concerts were set up to ensure serious attention.  Admission had started out and remained “by invitation only.”  In addition, “extraordinary precautions were taken . . . the programs were printed on rattleproof materials; ticket holders with coughs were asked to leave.”3If offered the privilege of attending a Toscanini concert, it was expected that people would settle in with the care of veteran concert-goers many of whom, as I looked about, could harken back to the 1930s when Toscanini had directed the New York Philharmonic, also in Carnegie Hall. Seated among such a venerable audience, chosen from among New York’s concert-going elite, a kid like me had to feel just a bit out of his depth.  Meanwhile as media officials and the usual array of critics began arriving they were given an NBC press kit containing Toscanini’s letter of resignation and related materials. Actually the possibility of this performance being the octogenarian maestro’s last had been in the wind if not already taken for granted, and in retrospect I think it was another reason for the somber atmosphere in the hall.  With a concert time of 6:30 approaching I stared with anticipation at the podium.  I could not recall any other with a safety railing on three sides, but I did not dwell over it. I was too excited about the program, which was all-Wagner: the  Prelude   to   Act 1  of  Lohengrin,   Forest Murmurs from  Siegfried, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,  the  Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanal , and the  Prelude to Act I  of  Die Meistersinger .  I could not have been happier had I chosen the selections myself.  I must have been lost in thought, for I became startled by the burst of applause as Toscanini made his way from the wings, moving past the players in a steady purposeful gait.  When he climbed onto the podium and turned to us I felt a tremor of recognition to see that famous visage -- the strong, stern patrician face, the fluffy white hair, and that ornately tended moustache.  The man had previously come to me in spirit as reflected through his recordings.  Now he took physical form. It was like being in the presence of the Almighty.   In his past concerts Toscanini usually gave a brief nod to acknowledge the applause and would turn to the players.  This time he paused, lowered his head just a bit and kept his eyes leveled toward us for a good ten or fifteen seconds.  I can still see him there as clearly as I had over fifty years ago.  As his gaze lingered it revealed a sadness, which took me by surprise, but it also gave me time to observe him in fuller detail. He had a very large head for his body.  His frame seemed angular and his arms long.  He was a mortal to be sure, but once he turned to give his downbeat to the players I was no longer aware of the man but a force at work.     After a hush there rose the opening strings of the  Lohengrin Prelude , high floating and luminous.  Its shimmer of sound was so radiant as to elevate one to a level of spiritual purity, at least musically.  Then with the rest of the orchestra joining the strings, the work kept picking up pace, and gathering strength as the music surged in its cyclical fashion to a full orchestral crescendo. I had heard the work dozens of times on recordings, including Toscanini’s own, but with the enormity of sound at the climax radiating around me I remember holding to the armrests of my seat.  Something else I had never witnessed occurred in the  Prelude . In a struggle to reach balance with the rest of the orchestra at the tutti, all the violinists bore down so hard for volume that their heads and shoulders were pulled towards their instruments.  Former NBC Symphony violinist Samuel Antek had remarked of this practice, “We tore with our bows against our strings.”4As Toscanini kept urging the orchestra for greater volume it was a thrilling moment, made more so by watching the maestro’s body move in sync with the music.  He never remained in one place but kept turning from section to section of the orchestra.  My attention was also drawn to principal cellist Frank Miller who would often face straight up at Toscanini with an encouraging smile.  I assumed it was done to bolster the old man, adding a human element to the performance.  But there was another reason.  Unknown to most of us in the audience the dress rehearsal for this concert was never completed.  The day before, Toscanini had gone through the first two works of the program, but duringthe next piece,  Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,  he lost his temper over an entry made by the timpanist, blaming the player for a mistake.  He repeated the section still dissatisfied.  Eventually he left the podium in a rage and did not return.  It was unusual for a Toscanini dress rehearsal not to cover every piece on his program in detail. The  Rhine Journey,  the  Tannhäuser  and Meistersinger  works to follow never received the finishing touches of a final rehearsal.  Conductor Erich Leinsdorf had been notified to be ready to step in.  The  Forest Murmurs,  an impressionistic piece depicting birdcalls, wind and water, also went well, with cellist Miller continuing to smile and nod as if to remind his maestro the orchestra was with him.  Following that, the opening strings in the  Dawn  section of the  Rhine Journey unfolded at an expansive pace.  Toscanini’s movements seemed low-keyed now.  Even as the tempo quickened and led into an animated fanfare for the horns he did not seem to be as involved as he had been in the first two works.  Maybe he was tiring; maybe I was imagining it.  In any case the work flowed to a satisfying conclusion.   With the subdued chamber-like opening of the  Tannhäuser   Overture  Toscanini set a deliberate tempo for the horns and winds followed in turn by the strings and then the full orchestra.  At this pace the music did not seem to proceed smoothly.  On listening to the playbacks now, I think the reading could have been less stately and a bit lighter in texture as in a 1952 NBC broadcast recording of this work. And yet as the piece continued certain parts began to take on an urgency typical of the maestro.  The sight of him there on podium was always a drama in itself.  By the time the  Bacchanal  began the Toscanini voltage took hold.  It was as if he were inspired once again.  There are not many sweepingly furious and frenzied passages like those which appear in this part of the work, and they almost convolute the orchestra as the different sections go at it one against the other.  For the listener it is like being caught in a maelstrom.  I sat lost, oblivious of anything else, wishing only for the music never to end.  Toward the final few minutes of the piece, the tempest began to subside and wind down to a calming tranquility.  But then something made my back arch.  The music sounded different. It happened during a quiet passage, and I leaned forward to listen more acutely.  I remember cellist Frank Miller turning to the men at his side, but I was unable to determine what was going on. It seemed as if some kind of mix-up had occurred in the orchestra or maybe the men had forgotten their parts.  Whatever the problem the music soon sounded on track again, and I settled back in my seat.  When the  Bacchanal  came to an end Toscanini was said to have tried to leave the stage but was reminded by Miller the  Meistersinger   Prelude  needed to be performed. I don’t recall that, but what I distinctly remember is at the final public performance of his career Toscanini beat time, stick in one hand and the safety rail grasped in the other.  Sometimes he raised his left hand to his hip as if impatient for everything to be over.  At the conclusion of the piece he dropped his stick and left the stage.  He never returned to acknowledge the applause.    The audience kept applauding until the house lights came on and the players rose to leave.  I remained in my seat until everyone had left the stage. I stayed as a sort of personal gesture for the maestro. I emerged from Carnegie Hall to the noise and confusion of the streets. It was like reentering a world I had long forgotten.  The estimate given is that for thirty seconds during the  Bacchanal  Toscanini had been unable to cue the orchestra.  Having been trained to follow their conductor’s every move the players must have felt adrift. According to one behind-the-scenes version of events there was even confusion among those in the NBC radio control booth who had observed Toscanini falter.  Bickering ensued between NBC’s Samuel Chotzinoff and conductor Guido Cantelli over what to do.  Cantelli, a Toscanini protégé, insisted on cutting the broadcast signal.  Thus, for the radio audience, in the words of writer Joseph Horowitz, “Wagner’s  Venusberg  languor was shattered by the pounding opening of Brahms’s  First Symphony .”5After Toscanini had resumed control Brahms was stopped and the live broadcast allowed back on the air.   Because one is now poised for it when listening to the playback of the concert, the discordant passage is more vivid than it had sounded live, at least from a purely aural perspective.  In the view of some who would write of the incident, many in the audience, including some critics, had no inkling of a problem.  Yet despite the lapse from Toscanini the  Bacchanal  was still over- whelming. For a 20 year old, being at this concert has not only remained the most exciting event of his life, but more than 55 years later it may be an episode in musical history for which there is nobody else left as witness.  No orchestra member would comment on the performance for the media. However, according to critic B.H. Haggin, who later spoke with a few of the players, Toscanini had already given some incorrect beats during the  Forest Murmurs , but the orchestra came through it without fault.6That could have been a prelude for when Toscanini was to cease conducting at a point during the  Bacchanal , causing the orchestra to flounder.  What then had happened to Toscanini during those 30 seconds?  There was a good deal written about this, some of it a reckless distortion of the truth. It became an opportunity for those of lesser stature than the maestro’s to cash in on his fall.  As an example, NBC executive Samuel Chotzinoff in his book, Toscanini: An Intimate Portrait , wrote that the maestro “ceased conducting and put his hand to his eyes.  Then the men stopped playing and the house was engulfed in a terrible silence.”7  A picture taken by a  Life Magazine  photographer from the wings showed that Toscanini did indeed cover his eyes, but at no time had the orchestra stopped playing.  What astounded here was the audacity with which Chotzinoff wrote of the “terrible silence,” considering that over twenty-seven hundred people attending the concert could dispute that.  In the subsequent, British edition of his book Chotzinoff added a footnote to explain that being in the radio control booth he “assumed” the music had stopped.  To borrow a quote from Toscanini:  Too late to apologize!   Vincent Sheean in his book,  First and Last Love , wrote “Many stories have been told of this day [April 3 rehearsal] and the next [April 4 performance], and they [the stories] do not agree.”8From here Sheean went on to offer his own contribution to the fantastic lore surrounding the last concert. He reported Toscanini’s memory loss had occurred in  Siegfried’s Rhine Journey .  He would persuade his readers of that even though he was not at the performance.  He also admits he did not even listen to the radio broadcast.  What then was the source of his information?  Sheean only attended the April 3rddress rehearsal.  He observed what had gone wrong at that time and assumed the same thing would have had to occur during the next day’s performance.  A grievous error.  Only the rehearsal problem dealt with  Siegfried’s Rhine Journey .  In his written commentary about the concert Sheean also included a phantom work on Toscanini’s program, a so called “Tristan Preludes.”  No such piece was performed that evening or even rehearsed.   It should be pointed out that Chotzinoff and Sheean, exuding an aura of experts, wrote their views of the concert not for a newspaper but in a book that will long occupy the library shelves to promulgate their fictitious statements.  Evidently in dealing with names like Chotzinoff or Sheean, their editors did not see fit to check anything. They just published.  While these errors take up only a small portion of the Chotzinoff and Sheean books, they make one cautious about accepting anything else these writers included in them.   A more acceptable explanation of what had occurred that night appeared in Irving Kolodin’s article,  My Version of the Day .  He wrote, “Toscanini’s memory was a visual one . . . he would see the score in his mind.” But, as Kolodin points out, in the stress of the moment, his daughter-in-law’s fatal illness and the charged atmosphere of the last concert, Toscanini’s “internal eye failed.”9 He was also aggrieved over the expected break-up of his orchestra, but all these matters took a critical turn for one reason only: age.  Kolodin, however, argued the NBC Symphony concerts might have gone on for another season but that Toscanini had to give in to “institutional pressure” since NBC wanted the orchestra disbanded. In Kolodin’s view “No king ever abdicated less willingly or under more duress than Arturo Toscanini.”10   In reporting on the concert as music editor for the  Saturday Review  Kolodin did not even mention that Toscanini had ceased conducting in the  Bacchanal but wrote that “the cues became fewer, and even an extra beat crept in,  it seemed , at one point [italics mine].”  As a music lover I also would have welcomed the continued presence of Toscanini on the podium, but it would not have been in the best interests of the man. What Kolodin had utterly failed to perceive was for the aging maestro a decline had already set in.  Toscanini had passed that evening from the raging perfectionist to an old man having to live down his shame.  Possibly the sadness I saw in his eyes had foretold this.  After the concert he avoided the stage door exit to leave Carnegie Hall unseen. Actually if anything should have occurred to Toscanini about the events of that night it is that life had come full circle for him when he later explained, “I conducted as if it had been a dream.”  Sixty-eight years earlier, during his initial conducting experience –  Aida , in Rio de Janeiro, 1886 – the nineteen year old Arturo had also said he conducted as if in a dream and had a memory lapse for that performance.11  Though Toscanini had retired, his records continued to be released and to sell well.  Some were studio recordings, and others were taken from NBC radio broadcasts over the years.  Each seemed the most satisfying performance of a particular work, whether it was his crack of doom version of the Beethoven  Ninth  or the stirring  Finlandia  of Sibelius.  What causes the public to prefer one conductor’s recordings over those of any other?  Most orchestra leaders, after all, are able to come up with effective performances.  They even share certain personal qualities.  Besides the requisite musical talent they also tend to develop a sense of omnipotence, a driving if not merciless will and, in moments of extremity, more than a touch of paranoia.  This last trait should not be regarded as irrelevant by anyone who has yet to stand before an orchestra.  Artur Rodzinski reportedly carried a loaded gun to rehearsals.  Fritz Reiner’s menacing hooded eyes implied that the murder of an incompetent player would deliver a salutary message to the rest of the orchestra.  Leopold Stokowski was known to fire musicians on the spot.  For Toscanini tantrums sufficed, but he was more than an angry man throwing fits from the podium. He sought perfection.  Within the framework of his interpretations, his sense of tempo was considered impeccable, “balanced on the razor-edge that lies between ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow.’ ”12A typical Toscanini reading would have a solid feel to it, especially in rhythm and intonation. From the first note nothing would sound fuzzy, adrift, or wan. This meant you would get what was promised at the beginning.  Other characteristics were an attention to detail and especially to balances.  During a tutti, Toscanini strove to get different sections of the orchestra to be heard so that an intensity was born of the struggle.  Felix Galimir, former NBC Symphony violinist, explained that Toscanini always worked to maintain  balances so one could “hear all the notes . . . there was never the possibility that you had to fight the trumpets to get through.”   Toward that aim, Galimir said Toscanini had often displayed anger at the orchestra but that “he was always justified when he blew up.”13 Of course keeping balances took a good ear.  The men of the orchestra would boast that Toscanini’s ear was so good he could hear grass grow.   Early on, the highly intense and demanding nature of Toscanini became a factor in the results he achieved from his performers. Friction was to be expected.  A famous diva smarting under Toscanini’s strict direction protested that she is the star.  Toscanini was said to have responded, “Yes, you are a star,” then pointing his thumb to himself, continued, “But when the sun is out there are no stars.”   In many instances singers of less than super-star caliber who worked under Toscanini claimed he had made them reach a level of performance beyond their usual limits. Toscanini would not settle for what they chose to give but drove them until he attained “better than their best.”  If his standards were high he never felt he needed to achieve them with self indulgent, celebrity performers.  In fact it can be argued that when conducting opera Toscanini, though exacting in his demands, was not averse to considering the human voice as another instrument of the orchestra.  Though Toscanini achieved both fame and fortune the man remained an enigma even though more words have been written about him than probably any other conductor of his time. Despite the appearance of two TV documentaries in the United States and numerous books one cannot but wonder who the man was. He had been dubbed a legend, but the spread of such lore tends to obscure rather than serve as a basis for truth.   In 1978 Harvey Sachs’s biography Toscanini came out.  This work has taken its place as the most exhaustive reference on the life of the maestro.  But while it contained much information readers did not know, it offered few actual surprises.  The man who had always contrived to maintain a secret life, even from his family, eluded scrutiny once again as in those times when he had explained to his wife, “I firmly believe that the best part of me, that which could best shed light on my soul, is and will forever remain unexpressed.”14   Perhaps, but even this most private and secretive man left a trail.  He wrote letters.  Harvey Sachs’s annotated  The Letters of Arturo Toscanini [2002]revealed not only Toscanini’s views on music, family life and politics but allowed passionate love declarations to his mistresses to become a matter of public record.  Readers were now able to have a deeper understanding of the man than previously possible.  But how important is that understanding, and does it amount to an invasion of privacy?  These questions are still asked even though it has long been accepted that an artist’s intimate life can have an enormous affect on the formation of his art.  While a piece of music may be appreciated in the absence of information about its creator, Beethoven’s monumental Ninth gains impact when it is known that its composer was deaf and a social misfit.  Or consider that Schubert’s lilting melodies were the work of a man suffering from depression and mired in poverty.  In Toscanini’s case it can be said with assurance that almost everything in his life had an effect on his work as a conductor.  Of course we are dealing here with matters Toscanini never remotely expected would gain public exposure. For instance the letters tell us how he actually felt toward his wife, Carla De Martini. “Toscanini was thoroughly dissatisfied with his marriage,”15 explains biographer Sachs.   Actually after some forty years of matrimony, Toscanini could be far more emphatic.  “. . . the life I’m leading with her [Carla] drives me mad, to despair.  I could cry out of sorrow and anger.”16  He never left his wife, nor did he ever intend to.  He considered marriage and the pursuit of beautiful women as mutually exclusive.  If he suffered anything it was his anguish that as a married man he could not freely express the passion he felt for other women or exert greater claim upon them.  His possessiveness was encompassing, and intrusions such as other husbands or his own family considerations were brushed aside. But if things did not go well he would not suffer alone.  Into his conducting he channeled the anger and despair whenever matters in his personal life did not proceed exactly in the way he wanted.  No soprano escaped his notice.  Dressing rooms were fertile hunting grounds, and many of Toscanini’s lovers had to deal with his attentions as well as pursue their careers as celebrated divas.  One of them, Rosina Storchio, bore Toscanini’s child.  Tragically, while staying with her, he did not realize he had left his wife Carla to cope alone with the sudden death of their four year old Giorgio. According to Sachs, Toscanini “could not forgive himself but neither could he control himself in the sexual-amorous aspect of his life.”17    Another lover, soprano Geraldine Farrar, gave him an ultimatum to leave his wife or leave her.  He chose his family, but it is believed that rather than confront his feelings over working in the same opera house with Farrar, he resigned his post at the Metropolitan. Other singers Toscanini worked with and who were suspected to have been lovers included Lucrezia Bori, Lotte Lehmann and, in later years, Herva Nelli.18 There were also hosts of female hangers-on attracted by his position of power. In his pursuit of female company he was of course an unfaithful husband and lived a life of lies and subterfuge from the day he was married.  Many of Toscanini’s letters have most likely been destroyed, but those which survived reveal he absolutely refused to be without other women. One of his on-going relationships was with Ada Mainardi (spouse of the renowned cellist Enrico Mainardi) and to whom he described himself as one “who adores you above everything and every living creature.”  Like many before her, Ada had to accept being pursued with a tireless energy and even ferocity.  Were she his alone, Toscanini vowed, he would never let her body go to waste and warned that in making love “I would reduce you to a pulp.”19  Writing to Ada did not at the time affect his feverish declarations to other women, especially a certain Elsa Kurzbauer.  “Give me your mouth. I kiss you until you faint.  I kiss you everywhere, in the most hidden recesses.  Give me, give me your caresses, your mouth. Give me everything -- everything!!”20 Toscanini was at the time seventy-two but presumably able to make good his amorous blusters. Always, his relationships with women had to be turned into a tour de force, as it was in his conducting.  He claimed that women energized his work. To Ada he wrote of a 1937 Salzburg performance of Falstaff  to show how necessary she was to him.   “You were there, Ada my dear, and I wanted to do the impossible to extract the best, better than the best, of their abilities.  Not a bar vanished having first been cajoled and caressed by you!” Another time, “Yes, you were in my blood with every note of the  Magic Flute !”21  As many of the letters show, Toscanini’s passion was at times so demanding as to all but vaporize a relationship.  To appease his desire for Ada during the times they could not be together he demanded a handkerchief sprinkled with her menstrual blood and her “tiny flowers [pubic hair].”22 That his inamoratas were often married, not infrequently to someone Toscanini knew well, never gave him pause.  He would not deny himself a woman on moral grounds any more than a volcano might hesitate to erupt for fear of endangering life and property.   Like lightning or thunder, flooding or conflagration, nothing about Arturo Toscanini was negotiable.  His struggles against the forces around him were brought about by a restless intensity, present before his career as a conductor took hold.  “I was a seven month baby: I couldn’t wait,”23 he explained to serve notice of the  infernal  seething in him prior to his birth.  As a teenager he was almost expelled from the Royal School of Music of Parma for disobedience.  His professors had to come up with a letter of apology for him [to the director] since it was expected he would refuse to consider it.24 It did not take long for Toscanini to exhibit a behavior pattern that led inexorably to a person who could fall into a rage at the slightest provocation or over nothing at all.  With his rise to positions of authority Toscanini gave free reign to his temper.  For him the podium was not a place to harbor frustration.  He would insult, even curse an orchestra while kicking or breaking anything in reach.  In fact it would not be too surprising were there locked in some deserted NBC backroom a graveyard of his broken batons.  Josef Gingold, former violinist with the NBC Symphony, related that Toscanini could have broken as many as twenty sticks during a single rehearsal of Berlioz’s Queen Mab Scherzo.25 Once in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic he tried to break his stick.  When it bent instead of snapping in two he became so furious “he began to bite it.”26Complacency was not in his nature, nor did he feel it belonged anywhere in the process of making music. In due course he reached a status in which he had to answer to no one.  Indeed, obedience to him took hold of people as if by force of habit.  Even composer Giacomo Puccini deferred, if a tad sarcastically, when he remarked at a 1921 Toscanini rehearsal of  Manon Lescaut , “We must all listen when he talks.  He is Toscanini.”27  The Italian maestro had his moods and expressed them in his letters.  At times he wanted to “spit poison in the face of all mankind” and wrote, “I hate people more than ever.  I can’t stand being looked at any longer.”28He also admitted to being racked by doubts and described himself as a “wretch always unsure of myself, worried and anxious over the choice of a tempo or a coloring.”29A man riddled with contradictions Toscanini risked his life by acting forthright against dictators yet chose to deceive his wife with petty lies.  He detested totalitarianism but insisted on imposing absolute power over anyone or anything involving his interests. He raised his hand in fury against his daughter, Wally, when to his consternation he learned of her relationship with a married man while his own extra-marital affairs he treated as within his prerogative. He was superstitious, arbitrary, and at times just a hair’s breadth from violence and paranoia.  Driven by a furious inner compulsion he was unable to control or understand, he wrote “. . . the disturbance, the agitation in my blood are there . . . and they wear me out.  I can’t sleep.  I turn over and over; I turn the light on and off, but it’s all the same.  I ought to turn off something that’s burning inside me, but it’s not within my power.”30    In being anti-Fascist under Mussolini’s thuggish regime Toscanini caused concern for his safety. He did not need to make speeches.  His appearance at or absence from a function constituted a statement for which he was deemed responsible.  In 1931 when he refused to conduct the Fascistanthem  Giovinezza  for a concert in Bologna he and his wife were attacked with canes.  Later 200 Fascists surrounded his hotel crying, “A morte Toscanini!”  His wife tried to speak with the mob, but its representative refused to deal with a woman.  The composer Ottorino Respighi arrived and in attempting to intercede found Toscanini “a caged beast.”  Respighi was told that the Toscanini family would have to leave Bologna by morning for its safety to be assured.31  Experiences such as these were certainly not lost on Toscanini, the musician.  Driving an orchestra into shape became a struggle for ascendancy over what could not be accomplished against the might of despots.  In due course he boycotted the halls and opera houses of Nazi Germany (including Bayreuth), Austria, and even of his native Italy.  His services remained in plentiful demand elsewhere.  In fighting dictatorships from the podium he could triumph over all, but in the process of achieving that it was his nature to allow no accommodation, no half measures, only the lash.  Though subject to less criticism than other conductors Toscanini was not entirely free of censure. In his book about RCA Victor recording artists,  The Other Side of the Record  (1947), Charles O’Connell, music director for Victor during the 1930s and early 40s, had to put up with what he considered Toscanini’s finicky, exasperating attitude. Characteristics recounted of Toscanini were “vindictiveness and unreasonableness.”  It was claimed that he had also “been quick to imagine slights and doubt friendship. On his sleeve,” insisted O’Connell, Toscanini “wears not his heart but his spleen.”   O’Connell also criticized the limited major repertoire (concentrated largely on Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, Verdi, and Wagner) of the NBC years.  Yet, it should not be ignored that Toscanini had been responsible for the premieres in Italy of operas by Debussy, Puccini, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Tchaikowsky, and Strauss as well as performances of orchestral works of composers considered modern in his day.  In due course, however, like his pianist contemporary, Artur Schnabel, Toscanini had settled into a routine of perfecting a deeper understanding of the works of the  old masters .  He would have surely concurred with Schnabel who in later years played only that music he “considered to be better than it can be performed.”33  Despite his dissatisfaction with the Toscanini warhorses O’Connell conceded supremacy to the maestro for his 1941 RCA recording of  Brunhilde’s Immolation Scene  (Wagner) performed with soprano Helen Traubel. He declared the records “the closest to perfection we shall ever know.”  Almost those same words had been used by critics for Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s  Seventh Symphony .  Others, like conductor George Szell, would attest to the “unmatchable perfection” of those1930s Salzburg performances of  Falstaff .  Evidently the listing of such Toscanini nonpareils could extend on and on.  Music critic Michael Steinberg wrote in  The Times  “. . . there are relatively few people around who could have heard him [Toscanini] in concert.”34 Steinberg’s comment appeared back in 1975.  Nevertheless, over a quarter of a century later all of Toscanini’s RCA recordings remain available on 82 CDs, as are a number of videos of his broadcasts.  Most buyers for these recordings would have to be people who could not have been born when Toscanini was active.  That his legacy continues to assert itself bears a significance beyond anything the latest technical advances in sound may offer. Except for the final concert none of his recordings are in stereo, and many are too unresonant to offer a purely aural pleasure.  But when I fall prey to disappointment or grow bitter over unfulfilled expectations, I put on a Toscanini record, maybe the Brahms  First , the Beethoven  Seventh , or the Tchaikowsky  Manfred.   I can feel sustained because, despite the forceful blunt sound of the recording, what comes through is that when he picked up his stick Toscanini provided an hour’s truth.  This does not mean he necessarily reached the definitive truth of any particular composition he conducted but that he achieved  his  truth after long battle for it.  Struggle would always be essential for Toscanini to justify his right as an interpreter.   His final three years were spent in Milan, Italy and in Riverdale, New York, approving record releases and receiving friends.  He wept, complaining that not being able to conduct was like death.  He may not have exaggerated.  In a 1983 paper,  Toscanini’s Relation to His Orchestra, psychoanalyst Martin H. Blum determined that Toscanini’s deprived childhood prevented an emotional relationship with anyone or anything except for his conducting.  In Dr. Blum’s words Toscanini’s “incapacity for ordinary relatedness made him turn to his working relations as a desperate mode of escape from his pain and rage.”32 Perhaps it was not an escape from these emotions that Toscanini sought from the podium but their release.  After the 1954 season the NBC Symphony never played another concert. A number of its members decided to keep the ensemble going renaming it the Symphony of the Air.  It had a run of performances and made a number of recordings but nine years later had to be disbanded because of a lack of financial support.  Whether known as the NBC Symphony or the Symphony of the Air it was the only major American orchestra never to perform under the banner of a city or state. The NBC Symphony had been a commercial enterprise solely dependant on RCA Victor for its 17 years of existence.  The wake for Arturo Toscanini in Manhattan was held at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in January of 1957.  Even in death he was no shell of a man but lay there as if ready to spring up and give some orchestra what for.  As was the case when I saw him in Carnegie Hall, his head was indeed large.  His hands were huge, too, oversized compared with his body.  I would have liked to look into those eyes once more, but then I was not given any opportunity for idle ruminations.  Behind me was a line of people stretching to the street.  I can remember the shove I receivedto move past the bier.     If in the years ahead Arturo Toscanini remains a historic figure in music he will have achieved that in spite of himself.  It could not have been easy for him. He had no use for equilibrium; things had to be at the edge with his conducting and his dealings with people.  Though he was a musician with the highest standards it was in his nature to achieve them through strife.  Nothing of value could be derived unless things were boiling over.  His letters revealed him as a man always tightly wound, with more rages, obsessions, and furies pent up in him than could be released, keeping him at a constant sforzato.  The question arises as to why Toscanini had been unable to live in peace with himself and others. He always remained at the pinnacle of his profession, idolized not only by the public but colleagues as well. No other musician exerted such absolute control over his life and work.  Still nothing could appease the seething from within.  Not artistic success, audience adulation, or even the love of beautiful women could make up for a youth bearing enough “pain and rage” to have earned Toscanini a place on the couch of Dr. Blum.  The details are these.  As a boy of ten he had been sent from his home and sequestered for the next seven years at the Royal School of Music in Parma, a consequence of the fact that his mother, a “grumpy unaffectionate woman,”35 lacked the means or the desire to be bothered with him.  To what extent the child harbored resentment can only be surmised.  To worsen matters life for the “internal” students there was dreary in the extreme. They were forbidden to leave the school premises without a guard.  The boys were often punished by being locked in a room for an entire morning.  In addition to the “prison atmosphere”36 of the school the food was meager, and on one occasion Toscanini and his classmates skinned and roasted a cat.   Still no matter what deprivations he suffered or how they were to mark him later in life, he never lost belief in himself. In reaction to his desolate youth and the shabby treatment from his mother, who never once visited him at the school, he had dedicated himself to the pursuit of his talent, no matter what.  He was even known to sell his food rations to buy music scores.  The drive that was later to be so much a part of his nature and of his note-honest conducting must have given young Arturo the will to excel at a very early age and swept the boy on his way.  But if he used music as a refuge he also gave back, being responsible for a more lasting influence over the performance of classical music than anyone else of his time, if not of all time.                                             Quotes taken from:  1. Antek, Samuel. This Was Toscanini , 1963, Vanguard Press.4                                       2. Chotzinoff, Samuel.  Toscanini: An Intimate Portrait , 1956, Knopf. 7  3. Haggin, B. H.  The Toscanini Musicians knew , 1980, Horizon.13,23,25,26  4. Haggin, B. H. Conversations with Toscanini , 1959, Doubleday.6    5. Horowitz, Joseph . Understanding Toscanini , 1987, Knopf. 3,5,32  6. Kolodin, Irving.  The Musical Life , 1958, Knopf. 9,10  7. O’Connell, Charles.  The Other Side of the Record , 1947, Knopf. 2,12  8. Sachs, Harvey.  Letters of Arturo Toscanini , 2002, Knopf. 1,14-22,24,28-30  9. Sachs, Harvey.  Toscanini , 1978, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 11,31,35,36  10. Schnabel, Artur.  My Life and Music , 1963, St. Martin’s Press. 33  11. Sheean, Vincent . First and Last Love , 1956, Random House. 8                                                                            12. Steinberg, Michael.  New York Times Book  Review, March 30,1975. 34  13. Toobin, Jerome.  Agitato , 1975, Viking Press.27


By Lee Alperin

He had been considered a god, also an indulged, rigid tyrant.  For most people, though, especially those who knew practically nothing about him, Arturo Toscanini [1867-1957] had been synonymous with conducting the way Caruso was for opera and, one suspects, Callas for temperament.  It has been more than fifty years since Toscanini conducted his final concert, ending an unparalleled performing career of close to seventy years, one that began in 1886.  The year 2007 marked the half century anniversary of his death.

      Backache, Barber and Bing   By Giorgio Tozzi, edited by Walter B. Rudolph at the author’s request   During my early years as a young singer in Chicago I was interested in three languages: English, Italian and French. I understood those languages. I could read them and get along speaking them fairly well. The one language that I was unprepared for was German. That was not because I had an inherent bias against it. I had simply never been exposed to it. I was taught very few pieces in German. And there were so many songs and arias I could sing in the languages with which I was familiar.  Pronunciation of languages was not much of a problem because I always had an affinity for mimicking spoken sounds that I was  taught to say. Having been born in the United States, I of course spoke English [note: his given name was George John Tozzi]. I heard my family speaking Italian and naturally had a knowledge of it. One of my fondest childhood memories was of my father sitting me on his lap and explaining to me in Italian the illustrations that I would point to in his old illustrated Italian dictionary.  Then, too, my entertainment center as a child was an RCA gramophone, an oak-wood square box containing a spring driven turntable with crank on the side, all surmounted by a metal lily-shaped horn. It was the same as the one “Nipper,” the RCA black-eyed dog, listened to so intently (or is it quizzically?) with cocked ear.  My parents had quite a few recordings of operatic arias and Italian songs sung by such luminaries as Caruso, Ruffo, Battistini, Bonci, Tetrazzini and others of that glorious era. And so my ear was inundated with the Italian language as well as those glorious voices.  As for French, I studied two years of French at De Paul Academy, as well as two years of Latin, all of which geared me toward the Romance languages.  In Italy everything I sang was in Italian. I even remember singing the role of Pogner in I Maestricantori di Norimberga (in Italian of course). That was in Genoa around 1951. Actually, that was my first exposure to a complete Wagner opera in which I performed. I still have the Italian score and at this moment can hardly believe I did it. We had very little rehearsal time, but in spite of it, the performance went remarkably well. Maestro Franco Capuana was the conductor. I was very impressed with him, particularly because he was extremely efficient in his use of rehearsal time. He got excellent results with minimum effort on everyone’s part.  When Rudolf Bing asked me to sing Pogner at the Met for the 1956-57 season, I told him I’d rather not. “Why not?” he asked.  “Because I don’t know the language. I don’t speak German,” I answered.  “But it’s a beautiful opera and your voice would sound wonderful in it,” he pursued. “Besides, we will see to it that you have as many coaching sessions as you need.”  To make a long dialogue short, he talked me into it. He had a quite a way of doing that – just ask one of my colleagues. And so I learned it and found that singing German was quite easy. I didn’t have to change anything in my vocal technique. The pronunciation came easily enough. In fact, many were surprised at how good it really was. I made it a point to have the text translated literally so that I could grasp the idiomatic sense of the language. This would make it easier for me to deliver the lines more convincingly. The fact that the coaches with whom I studied the role had grown up in Germany, spoke German as their native tongue, and coached extensively in German opera houses, made it all possible for me.  The coaches at the Met were wonderful. During World War II the United States acquired a wealth of musicians, as well as practitioners of other disciplines, who had to flee from Germany. The Met had the good fortune to have Jan Behr, Walter Taussig, Martin Rich and Julius Berger, to name a few. I had the very good fortune to work with and learn from these excellent opera coaches.  When it came time for me to debut as Pogner, I felt very much at home with the role, thanks to those wonderful coaches. Fortunately, I enjoyed good success, and as a result I sang it for several seasons. Fortunate also, was the happy circumstance that the baritone performing the role of Hans Sachs was often the great Paul Schoeffler. His interpretation made a lasting impression on me. It was so warmly human as to almost bring the real Hans Sachs back to life. I thought that his rendition was a living definition of a singing actor.  I sort of knew that I had been accepted by my colleagues as a bonafide singer of the part when I would hear them in the halls and dressing rooms trying to emulate the way I sang the phrase, Eva, mein einzig Kind, zur Eh’ with a high F on the word ‘Eva.’ (They would explain to me that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”) That phrase comes as the climax and final statement, in Pogner’s address to the Mastersingers’ Guild, announcing his daughter’s hand in marriage as the grand prize of their Midsummer Night’s festival song competition. It was heartwarming for me to note how the singers who performed the roles of the Meistersingers really found a comradeship rehearsing and performing the opera. The Met during that time seemed to me to be a family. And as in most families sibling rivalry will occur. But in spite of familial clashes, there was the spirit of teamwork and general appreciation of a job well done among its members.  The production of Meistersinger at that time was ancient. The backdrops were magnificently painted and, when properly lit, gave the impression of great depth. But, as with all time-worn things, its age began to show. What really had brought home to me the antiquity of the production were the costumes. The heavy velvet 16th century replicas seemed at times to bear the time-laden weight of their former wearers’ secretions, especially the fur trim. The heat of the stage lights on the heavy material would produce copious perspiration, which in turn would trigger profuse vapors of cleaning fluid to irritate the napes and nostrils of all the singers.  I remember a very torturous experience with those costumes when, on the annual spring tour in Dallas, Texas we did a matinee performance of Meistersinger.  The outside temperature was in the 90 plus degree range. However, the stimulation of the score of that magnificent opera overrode the discomfort of wearing that battle-scarred apparel.  After Pogner, I was asked to sing the role of Daland in Wagner’s opera, “Der fliegende Holländer.” Once more, I found myself on stage with one of the most outstanding performers of the central role of an opera. The role of the ill-fated Dutchman was performed by George London, an artist who always brought total conviction and drive to every role he undertook. As a sumptuous bonus, the soprano role of Senta was magnificently sung by Leonie Rysanek. To share the stage with two such protagonists was wildly exhilarating. The Daland-Dutchman duet in the first act with George was a vocally great artistic experience, as it always is when one shares the stage with very intense performers. George imparted a haunting quality to the Dutchman, physically and vocally. His world-weary seaman was still alive and human enough to feel profound anguish of his damned soul. Leonie Rysanek was equally intense. She canonized the obsessed Senta, emphasizing her sacrifice. Those two magnificent voices soared, as did the music.  The Dutchman performances had generally fine casts. I remember particularly the Steuerman of George Shirley. He sang it so effortlessly, yet with constant energy. He was a very versatile tenor who brought impeccable musicianship to everything he sang. He was an ideal colleague, always supportive and always a gentleman. I had the good fortune to perform on stage with him many times and it was always a pleasure.  By now I started to feel very much at home singing German, although I was not conversant with the language. I did have the patience to practice by rote, but I also always made sure that I knew the translation of the text, word for word. This way I was familiar enough with the idiomatic scheme of the language to sing every phrase meaningfully. Naturally, much of the credit goes to the fine, patient coaches with whom I worked. I had to cope with the problem of trying to keep up with an ever-increasing request to learn new roles, something that all artists growing in reputation face. Even established artists can face that challenge. It’s not as though there was a paucity of basses and bass-baritones at the time. Quite the contrary; the Met could proudly and rightfully boast of a low voice roster that included such stellar performers as Cesare Siepi, Jerome Hines, and George London, each a fine artist in his own right. It’s just that I was, in a way, the “new kid on the block” and since Bing liked my qualities, he was eager to use me as much as possible. Since my voice was never fatigued after any performance, I felt that I could handle the assignments I agreed to. And so it went.  I also did the role of Don Ferrando in Beethoven’s Fidelio and later, that of Rocco in the same opera. Other German roles such as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde and Gurnamanz in Parsifal eventually came along, too.  But my most ambitious venture into the realm of German opera came about as a surprise to me and, in fact, to many of my friends and acquaintances. The circumstances that led to it were peculiar indeed. Perhaps I am dramatizing the tale, but don’t things occur in everyone’s lives that, willy-nilly, make us come to a fork in the road? Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees, was reported to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” A simple, committed, noncommittal philosophy. That makes about as much sense as the way we make many choices in life. Some are thought out, some aren’t. Some work and others don’t.  In June of 1966 I performed in a production of South Pacific in a huge capacity tent at Hillside, a suburb of Chicago. It was theater in the round, a form which I always found stimulating because of the proximity to the audience and the challenge of working in a 360 degree area of communication. This type of theater is in the shape of a bowl, with the audience all around the sides and the circular stage in the center. In order for the performers to enter and exit, five ramps, which are also the aisles, slope down to the stage. It is somewhat similar to the architectural format of an athletic stadium.  Mary Martin & Giorgio Tozzi in “South Pacific”  This particular adventure offered me some less- than-pleasant surprises. One was the angle of those ramps, which seemed, at times, almost perpendicular. A few more degrees of slant and one would have had to be a very canny mountain goat to negotiate them. A funicular would have been most welcome.  The second surprise was the traffic noise from a nearby highway. This din was compounded by the flight path to O’Hare Airport.  Singing in a tent theater is similar to any outdoor performance insofar as the possibility of place and traffic noise is concerned. Location is crucial in affording a relatively noiseless environment. This particular locale must have been selected as ideal for rock concerts, since the noise from such an event would have prompted both air and ground traffic to detour out of self-defense. No such luck with Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Surprise number three should not have surprised me in the least. After all, I was born and raised in Chicago and had plenty of experience with the weather. But I didn’t expect fifty degree temperatures in June. The cold, plus the dampness brought on by torrential rains certainly did not create a balmy South Pacific atmosphere. It was more like the North Atlantic. Mother Nature was obviously in the throes of severe PMS. Perhaps The Unsinkable Molly Brown would have been a better choice of repertoire at that time. I had every reason to exclaim, “Oh, my aching back.”  Opening night there was a washout and a blowout. Not only heavy rains, but also funnel-shaped clouds and heavy winds made it impossible to perform that night. Unfortunately, we were able to do the show every night for two weeks after that. The storms had subsided, but the low temperature and the dampness persisted. Each time I had to walk up the aisle to exit became more and more of a chore. I would have sworn that at every performance it seemed as though the aisles were almost perpendicular to the stage. My lower back was hurting and I was in a very weary mood.  After closing in Chicago, I was due in Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s new version of The Great Waltz. This was based on   the lives of Johann Strauss, Junior and Senior. I played Strauss Senior. The music was adapted from the compositions of the younger Strauss. Needless to say, The Blue Danube, Tales of the Vienna Woods, and The Emperor Waltz contributed most of the songs and dances. It was a lavish production, beautifully staged and directed by Albert Marr. Without doubt Edwin Lester was a great producer, as witnessed by all of his work. He was the original producer of Wright and Forrest’s brilliant musical Kismet, which first played in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and which he later brought to Broadway.     



              LP cover to the LA Civic Light Opera recording  



     Our strong cast included Metropolitan Opera soprano Jean Fenn, a beautiful woman with a beautiful lyric soprano voice. Type-wise, she was perfect for the role of the glamorous opera diva, acting and singing wonderfully. Johann Strauss Jr. was assumed by a fine, handsome young tenor, Frank Poretta. Poretta sang successfully for several years at the New York City Center Opera. He was, vocally and acting-wise an ideal young romantic lead. Wilbur Evans, one of Broadway’s great singing actors graced the cast, as did a talented ingénue, Anita Gillette. Leo Fuchs, who was a popular Yiddish character actor, supplied a fine comedic touch. It was an excellent cast. All good colleagues.  Rehearsals proceeded smoothly enough, but I was still suffering with the excess baggage of the aching lower back generously contributed by the Hillside torture tent. To further add to my lugubrious mood was my break-up with a beautiful lady with whom I had been amorously involved. She shared top billing with my sacroiliac when it came to mood depression. Actually, the end of the soured affair turned out to be the best thing for us both. But as is usually the case, people carried away by galloping gonads often wind up with some kind of a pain in the posterior at the time of the denouement.  My backache became a major problem during a scene in the “Great Waltz” when I was supposed to pick up a kerchief dropped by Miss Fenn. As I bent slightly to retrieve it, a terrible wrench shot across my lower back and I was hard put to straighten up. Jean Fenn saw my dilemma and immediately and gracefully picked up the kerchief and we carried off the scene well enough, so I could get off stage. She was an example of professionalism and an exemplary colleague.  I managed to finish the performance, but the following day I could barely move. As a result I was hospitalized by orders of Dr. Ben Shenson. He and his brother, Dr. Jess, were a Godsend to many of the San Francisco Opera Company artists. Drs. Jess and Ben often went out of their way to treat singers who were suffering from a number of ailments. The Shensons were strong supporters of culture in the city and contributed greatly to its artistic life. After a few days I was out of the hospital. Although I was feeling much better, my back kept sending   occasional signals making me aware that the end of the problem was not yet in sight. Sharp twinges from time to time would occur during performances which, though not crippling, made things very uncomfortable. To say the least, my frame of mind was hardly picture perfect under the circumstances.  It was during this time that my manager called from New York regarding an inquiry he received from Rudolf Bing. Mr. Bing made an offer for me to sing the role of Enobarbus in Samuel Barber’s new opera, Antony and Cleopatra. It was to open the new Metropolitan Opera House. I was tired and hurting and not in the mood to undertake any new assignments. I had the greatest respect for Samuel Barber who was not only a great composer, but a great gentleman as well. He understood voices very well and sang pleasantly himself. But in spite of my admiration for Mr. Barber, I just felt I hadn’t the energy or the will to involve myself with a new work. I told my manager to report to the Met that I wasn’t interested.  Within minutes after I hung up the phone, it rang once more. It was Bing calling. He seemed totally shocked that I had turned down the offer, and said so. He had to know the reason. I told him that I was tired from having learned so many roles and needed a respite. He tried to persuade me to change my mind. The conversation ran on for what seemed an hour. Finally I said to him, “Besides the reasons I’ve given you, I haven’t seen the score, so how do I know if it’s right for me?” That slowed him down for a moment. He finally said, “Before you say no, you must talk to Sam Barber. He wants very much to have you in this production. I’ll have him call you.”  Sure enough, within the hour Sam Barber phoned. He sounded genuinely upset that I didn’t want to be in the opera. “Giorgio, non mi abbandonare!” he said in very good Italian. I really liked him personally and, of course, had the greatest respect for his brilliance as a composer. But I still didn’t feel up to taking on another huge task. It seemed that the more I made excuses the more valuable I became to both him and Bing. Finally I told him, as I had just told Bing, that I hadn’t seen the score, so how could I know if it was something I could do well. Then he said that he knew my voice very well and that he had written the role of the Old Doctor in his opera “Vanessa” for me.     



              Giorgio -- Old Doctor in Vanessa  



     True enough, but I told him I would still like to see the score. He answered that the score wasn’t finished, but he would be glad to send me the libretto. In fact, he insisted on sending me the libretto. He thought perhaps I didn’t consider the role big enough, but that never entered my mind.  Two days later I received the libretto. I read it through once but couldn’t quite make it all out. I thought perhaps I had missed something. So I read through it again. It followed Shakespeare’s play pretty well but again it didn’t seem to be cohesive. I didn’t find anything wrong with the role I was offered, but still I felt something was wrong. I put it aside for the night to see if I slept on it, might it make more sense in the morning? Next morning I tried again and still wasn’t satisfied. I must confess that something else troubled me. The conductor of the piece was to be Thomas Schippers and the stage director was to be Franco Zeffirelli. It was my understanding that Zeffirelli had a great deal to do with the editing of the Shakespeare play for the libretto. Well, even The Reader’s Digest didn’t attempt to do that, thank God. So perhaps that had something to do with my incapacity to fully understand the libretto, while still admitting to myself that the problem might just be me.  But with all due respect for the notable talents of composer, conductor and stage director, I somehow felt that Samuel Barber would be caught in a maelstrom. And I didn’t want to be around the Sturm und Drang. But most of all, my decision was based on my physical and emotional state at the time.  Bing called me again and asked me if I had read the libretto and I told him I had. He pointed out that the role was rather lengthy and very important. I told him I never doubted it would be. He asked what was wrong, and I told him I couldn’t quite follow the libretto. He told me it was Shakespeare. I told him, “Not by me it isn’t.” At that point I think he was convinced I’d lost my sanity.    The rest of the conversation went something like this:  Bing: “But this will be a great event; the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. It will be an historic occasion. You will be in the opening night cast!” Tozzi: “Can you name the singers who were in the opening night cast of the old Met?” Bing: “Well, no I can’t.” Tozzi: “So much for its history!” Bing: “Well then, if you won’t accept this role, I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything after next year.” Tozzi: “Mr. Bing, I don’t want you to be unhappy. But on the other hand, at this point I’m more concerned that I shouldn’t be unhappy. So I’ll tell you what. Let’s just call it quits, and no hard feelings.”  And with that I hung up and sat there, staring at the wall and going kind of numb. I didn’t feel as though I had won a victory, because consciously I wasn’t really fighting any person, or other entity. I had nothing against Rudolf Bing, the Met, Samuel Barber, or anyone. I just felt psychologically and physically numb.  An hour or so later my manager phoned to tell me he’d just heard from Bing. I thought all had been said that was needed to be said. “What would he have to say?” I asked.  “He wanted to know what role you would like to sing at the new Met!” My manager was very surprised because he thought I was being an idiot to turn down Antony and Cleopatra. Frankly, I was also beginning to wonder about my sanity. The query came as a bolt out of the blue.  “Tell him I’d like to sing the role of Hans Sachs in Meistersinger, I shot back, and not really giving it any mind, ended the call.  After a brief pause I thought, “What the hell am I doing? Here I am telling the man I’m tired of having learned so many roles and now I’m asking for one of the longest roles in the entire repertoire? And in German?” My heart started to speed up and I started to feel pretty nervous. But then my inner voice said, “He’ll never buy it, so what am I getting excited about?” and I slipped into a funk.  Again the phone rang and this time I picked it up nervously. It was my manager. This time his message was, “Bing thinks it’s a great idea and he wants you to do it!”  That was it! The die was cast! Pride would not let me ‘chicken out’ of the deal. As tired as I felt, I figured I may as well go for broke. The role was one I had admired for a long time, never really dreaming that I would, or even could, ever do it. So here I was at the ‘fork in the road,’ and as Yogi Berra admonished, I took it. Make sense? Nothing seemed to at that point. But the challenge suddenly made me feel alive again. I guess I was just too naïve to be frightened about the project. This was what I really needed to pull me out of the doldrums. I suddenly felt stimulated. Even my backache didn’t seem to matter as much. Deep inside I had a good feeling about it all.  I took on new strength and energy in the performances of The Great Waltz and finished the run of the show with great enthusiasm. I eagerly looked forward to studying the role of Hans Sachs. For some unknown reason, I always seemed to work better under stress. Perhaps the adrenalin generated by the pressure was the stimulus I needed.  I began in earnest to work on the score when I got back East in the fall of 1965. Of course, I had a year in which to learn the role, but I also had a full season of performing ahead of me as well. As they say, ‘it was a full plate and then some,’ but I pitched in enthusiastically. I had the old recording with Paul Schoeffler singing Sachs. I started with intense woodshedding to learn the words and notes. My friend and accompanist, Max Walmer, a fine pianist and wonderful soul and friend, patiently repeated phrases over and over again. I told him that we had to work as if I never knew a note of music and had to learn by rote. This way I would be singing the part into my voice as I went along. Expletives galore turned the air blue when I would run into musical or textual snags. I also had the services of a brilliant young pianist named Samuel Sanders who also spent hours patiently with me, following the same routine. Both of these pianists/coaches were thorough musicians, patient and, fortunately, blessed with a healthy sense of humor.  At that same time, my coach Max Walmer mentioned that he was coaching a new coloratura soprano who had a remarkably beautiful voice and an excellent vocal technique. He asked if I would come to hear her sing and give him my opinion of her talent. I told him to arrange for my next lesson time to be right after hers; then I would arrive early in order to hear her. Max agreed.  The next day I went for my appointment with Max, arriving about twenty minutes early. I took the elevator to the sixth floor and went to the studio door. I heard a truly magnificent voice singing the Puccini aria, Il bel sogno di Doretta. I stood before the door entranced by that voice. I said to myself, “If that girl even looks half as good as she sounds, she’ll be a knockout!”  I rang the doorbell. The music stopped. The door opened and Max said, “Come in Giorgio.”  I saw a beautiful petite girl standing at the piano. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just walked directly to her extending my hand and she, smiling placed her hand in mine. I must admit that I was completely smitten. To tell the truth I don’t remember if I said a word as I felt her hand. I remember only that in my mind I wanted her to be mine. Even now as I write I remember that feeling.           I also had the great advantage of being taught by the wonderful Met coaches, of whom I have already made mention. Their vast knowledge of the language and the score was invaluable. Naturally, my work on “Meistersinger” was frequently punctuated by rehearsals and performances of other operas during the season. I worked hard to nurture my vocal resources without sacrificing the quality of my current performances. It was not an easy thing to do, considering the volume of the study, rehearsals and performances I was already involved with. To add to the burden, my lower back problem from time to time would make its presence felt with varying degrees of severity.  During this entire period my voice held up very well. I kept mentally thanking my early teachers who vocalized me into the habit of keeping a constant flow of breath. Listening to the recording of Schoeffler as Sachs was an excellent learning source, and of course I had my memories of his performances from the times I sang Pogner to his Sachs. What a wonderful education it was to rehearse and perform with such great artists! One learns things that can never be gotten from books. I was also grateful for having been indoctrinated into observing and listening to others at work. Although the pitch problems that resulted from my accident at the Met, which cropped up here and there were additionally tedious, I had acquired the knack of overcoming them so that they did not constitute a stumbling block.  [Note: Mr. Tozzi was injured by falling scenery in Die Zauberflöte. See also Bernheimer, Martin. “Reunion: Giorgio Tozzi. Opera News, July 2002, Vol. 67. No. 1]   The term “woodshedding” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Slang. To practice on a musical instrument.” I wonder if perhaps it has anything to do with the phrase, “To take someone to the woodshed?” Of course, that implies punishment. But to any performer who is intent on getting a musical composition into his body, mind and soul, learning by rote is more an act of love than it is of punishment. The eruptions of expletives during the process are a form of letting off the steam of impatience with oneself, which is healthy with or without vulgarities. Besides, every artist is an individual, as is everyone on this planet; therefore each one has his or her own way of letting off the steam of frustration whether it erupts like Vesuvius, or merely pops like bubble gum. Along these lines, I recall an acquaintance telling me that she stopped at Max Walmer’s door and overheard me working on the role with him. She said that it sounded very good as I was singing, but that my salty punctuating at any mistakes were more than a bit embarrassing. She said that she listened through “several defecations” and “a few fornications” not to mention “some imprecations.” Finally, she left before too many obscenities assaulted her sense of propriety. Upon learning that my expletives went through the door, in order not to scandalize others passing by, I resorted to muttering them sotto voce.  I kept up the hectic pace through the year (1966) and, as November rolled around, I was scheduled for rehearsals. My debut in the role was the first scheduled performance of “Meistersinger” that season. I was also scheduled to sing the Texaco Broadcast of it in January.  The rehearsals were with Maestro Joseph Rosenstock conducting and Nathaniel Merrill directing. Both stage director and conductor were fine artists and of incalculable help. My colleagues were very supportive. Jean Fenn, with whom I had done The Great Waltz the year before for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera was doing Eva; Sándor Kónya was Walther, Ezio Flagello did Pogner, Carl Doench sang Beckmesser and Mildred Miller did the role of Magdelene, all of them notable performers, to say the least. Of course, the full complement of characters playing the rest of the Meisters rehearsed as well. These staging rehearsals were done, as usual, with piano accompaniment.  The one fly in the ointment was the cold, damp New York winter that made my lower back problem flare up. I was uncomfortable to say the least. At times a wrong move would send a whacking pain across my back, often immobilizing me for a while. I was given strong pain medications and had a few chiropractic “adjustments” which only served to adjust the practitioner’s bank account.  I had not yet had what is referred to as a Sitzprobe (sit down rehearsal) also referred to as “Prova al’ Italiana” (rehearsal Italian style). Such a rehearsal is held with all present: singers, orchestra and conductor. It does not include staging. It is strictly a full musical rehearsal and is crucial for the sake of integrating all elements involved. Singers are encouraged to sing full out at these rehearsals, but not really obliged to do so. Most usually find it a good opportunity to learn to pace their singing with the orchestra.  As luck would have it, just a couple of days before I was to have this rehearsal, my back was acting up more than usual. A friend highly recommended a reputable Osteopath who “would certainly help ease my problem.” Desperate to find relief, I made an appointment to see this miracle worker. His office looked rather business like, being furnished with what looked like an array of scientific gadgetry, but when push came to shove he more or less did the usual thing chiropractors did, namely, pushed and shoved, and twisted and whatever. This ritual took place early in the morning.  I left his office, went down to the street and hailed a taxi. I was due for another staging rehearsal. The cab arrived at the tunnel leading to the parking structures and the stage door of the Met at Lincoln Center. I paid the driver and started to leave the car. The moment both my feet touched the pavement, a sharp, grinding pain shot across my lower back and I cried out in distress. The cab driver stomped on the accelerator and took off like a rocket, leaving me standing at the curb. I started to fall forward. Luckily, there was a fire hydrant directly in front of me and I was able to break the fall by bracing my hands on it. But I could not straighten up in order to walk to the stage door. I was frozen in this awkward angular position, feeling the intense pain.  A couple of stage hands came by and saw my distress. They could not have been nicer. They helped me move through the stage door and had me lie down on a padded bench in a locker room. Every move was agony. Although I could not attribute that seizure to the ministrations of the osteopath, I have never set foot in another osteopath’s office since then. Caveat emptor became a permanent phase in my medical vade mecum.  Someone placed a call to my physician, who recommended I be taken to the offices of a team of specialists, noted for their skill in dealing with back problems. Before taking me there, I was asked if there was anyone, relative or close friend who should be notified in order to look after things for me. I immediately gave them the phone number of Monte Amundsen, the very special young lady I had met in Max Walmer’s studio. We had been dating; I felt a warm closeness to her and wanted her to be near me.  Monte accompanied me to the offices of the specialists and then to the hospital where the doctors had me admitted immediately. It was a great comfort to have her with me. I felt I could count on her. Obviously, this particular symptom of wanting her with me was termed “love.”        



              Monte and Giorgio Tozzi, 2001, St. Peter, MN  



     The doctors said I had all the classical symptoms of a ruptured spinal disk. However, the muscles of my back were so contracted that before any further steps could be taken, they would have to be completely relaxed. And so the pills, shots, and whatever other palliatives were handy, were all trotted out and duly administrated. So as not to prolong the reader’s agony along with mine, I will mercifully spare you some of the more sordid details.  I was kept in the hospital for two weeks, which meant I missed the orchestra rehearsals of Meistersinger as well as the premiere and second performances. I was in the hospital over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Rudolf Bing was very solicitous as to how I was doing by phoning me quite often. I found it very amusing that he sent me a large container of Russian Caviar. Perhaps he felt that caviar was just the thing to heal a bad back. I missed that perhaps it was meant to be used as a poultice? Instead, it was delicious; a salty adjunct to help the usual hospital fare go down more easily.  On Christmas Eve, I was pleasantly surprised by a visit from the wonderful mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias together with Andrea Velis, a very fine character tenor, and Patrick Tavernia, a young and talented assistant stage director. They brought cookies, candy, and other goodies to cheer up my evening. Although I was in traction, these good friends provided the much needed distraction and Holiday Cheer.  A frequent and always more than welcome visitor was Monte Amundsen. I always looked forward eagerly to her visits. No doubt about it, I was very much in love with her. She certainly showed her feelings toward me during one of the worst winters New York ever saw. It seems that Mother Nature was suffering from a big time bout with PMS, because she unleashed blizzards accompanied by thunder and lightning, the likes of which I prefer never to witness again. But Mother Nature couldn’t stop Monte, who came through those storms like a veteran, valiant postman.  I was released from the hospital at the end of the first week of January, just in time to celebrate my birthday at home. Fortunately, surgery was not required. It was good to be back in my own home, but I still had to be careful how I moved about. I found that a cane helped considerably.  During my first week back home I got a call from Rudolf Bing. He said that I had been scheduled for the broadcast of Meistersinger which was in a week. He realized that I had had no orchestra rehearsals. He asked Maestro Rosenstock if he thought I could perform the opera without having them. Dr. Rosenstock replied that there was not a doubt in his mind that I could do it, and do it well.  Bing: “How do you feel about it? Do you feel you can do it? Tozzi: “There’s one sure way to find out, isn’t there?” Bing: “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ I’m delighted and look forward to your debut in the role!”  And so I was back at work preparing to debut as Hans Sachs at a Met broadcast and just two weeks after being released from the hospital. I really don’t know whether it was bold confidence, simplemindedness, or inspirational prompting. But even now, as I think back on the beauty and magnitude of that role, I can see how the real catalyst that moved me to jump back into work was inspiration.  Naturally, the week before the broadcast I went in for more coaching to get my voice back in shape and to refresh the score. Everyone was extremely encouraging and cooperative. One thing that I have always found rather amusing was the fact that although no one seemed worried about my singing of the role, the greatest concern was whether or not my back would freeze on stage when I had to carry the prop shoemaker’s table, laden with tools, out onto the stage and then off again after that scene. It was a possibility I was very aware of at rehearsals, but I just had to learn to balance the weight of the table so that I didn’t have to bend too far over. With prompting of the sensations in my lower back I learned to do it reasonably well. By then I had abandoned the use of the cane.  At last the day arrived for the performance, January 14, 1967. I felt well that day and got to the theater warmed up and ready to go. I relaxed as my make-up was applied and got into costume. Among the well-wishers who came to say the traditional multi-lingual “break a leg” greetings was Rudolf Bing. He was especially enthusiastic in stating his confidence in me.  The performance went very well and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was very reassuring that practically every time I came offstage Bing was waiting in the wings to tell me I was doing a great job. And I felt he meant every word. I know that there were times when his critics would accuse him of being aloof, sometimes to a point of cold cruelty. But on that day he proved to me that he did appreciate singers and had great admiration and respect for all of us who could stand before the public and perform convincingly. I suppose one has always to prove oneself at every performance. In fact, there is a saying that ‘a performer is only as good as his last performance.’ Of course, the accolades of every audience are music to our ears. But it also strikes a welcome chord when the company’s head man enthusiastically shows his appreciation. And so it was at my debut in the most demanding role of my career.  The audience applause at the end of the opera overwhelmed me and that, above all, let me know that I had done well. I really didn’t know what to expect since I had an Italian voice, trained in the Italian school of singing. Would I be accepted in this very German opera? Fortunately, I didn’t have time to dwell on that thought during the performance. I was too busy loving the music, the text and the overall grandeur of the opera itself. I was too deeply involved in the role to think of anything else, including my ornery back.  After I was out of costume and makeup, freshened up and back in my street clothes, Monte and I left the theater. I autographed many programs and greeted the usual wonderful fans that were there after every performance. Monte and I got into the car and drove back home to Montclair, New Jersey.  As soon as I stepped inside I got that feeling that I had put in a long day’s work. My back as well as the rest of my body ached a bit. But my voice felt fresh. Not a trace of vocal fatigue. I still had some adrenalin charge that one gets during a performance, but I was able to start relaxing. I changed into comfortable clothes and sat in a comfortable easy chair in the den, with a drink before dinner.  The phone rang and Monte answered. She handed the phone to me and said, “It’s Mr. Bing. He wants to speak with you.” It was indeed Rudolf Bing, who said he just had to call to tell me again what a great job I had done and how grateful he and the Met were for the excellent performance I gave. I told him how helpful it was to have him encouraging me every step of the way and I, in turn, thanked him. There were more calls from friends and, with a nice fire going in the cozy den, a glass of wine and Monte there beside me; it was truly the heartwarming end of a very satisfying day.  I chuckled a bit as I thought back on where and when this day had started. A phone call while in Los Angeles a year and a half before, and an impulsive answer to an unexpected question. To give me another chuckle, I remembered Bing’s annoyance with me when I refused to do the Antony and Cleopatra, and now his solicitous attitude all day during this, my first performance of the role of Hans Sachs. He was sincere in his concern for me, and I am sure he was equally sincere in his congratulations and thanks. He proved himself to be, in my eyes, a caring and considerate human being or, as the saying goes, “A real Mensch!” The general manager of the opera company will always be viewed as Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde or both, depending on with whom you speak, and at what point in the career.  The reviews were generally good and I was satisfied. The review that gave me the greatest reassurance was that of Irving Kolodin, the chief music critic for the “New Yorker Magazine.” I always found in his reviews something valuable to learn, whether it was a rave or not. On this occasion his review of January 28, 1967, was more than favorable. One paragraph which I found to be particularly elating was the following:      
     “ If Tozzi does not command the full powerful kind of Heldenbariton which goes with the greatest exponents of the part (the Wotan-Wolfram-Sachs variety), he has something no less rare. That is a real rolling bass-baritone cantante method, schooled for the Italian roles in which he first attained distinction, and seldom blended with fluency in such German roles as Daland (in The Flying Dutchman) and Pogner (in this same Meistersinger), which have been among his prior attainments. Thus, in the best tradition of operatic distinction, he is a hybrid, bestriding two different but complementary kinds of resource on a firm bridge of artistic intelligence. ” 
      Mr. Kolodin included those things which he felt would be helpful in furthering my development of the role. I always benefitted from his suggestions. I know that there were those who took exception with certain aspects of my interpretation. With all due respect, I know that certain traditional concepts die hard. One such had it that Sachs was a staid philosopher who had a purely fatherly affection for Eva. And some were outraged that “I made it look as though Sachs were really in love with Eva.” By way of apology to them, all I can say is:      
     “ Study the text. Read it carefully, especially Sachs’ words in the famous third act quintet. If you can then quarrel with Sachs’ emotion at that point, take it up with Wagner, not with me. Also try listening to the music with your heart and not just with your tympanic membrane. There is a point at which ‘sophistication’ becomes counter-productive. And there is most definitely a point where Teutonic (or any other kind of) pedantry becomes a large ponderous bore. ” 



              Wahn Monologue, Hamburg film  



     Now that I had successfully faced this challenge head on, things started to change in my thinking and feeling. A new attitude emerged. I felt more secure than I had ever felt before. There was a new surge of strength charging my whole being. It seemed I could think more clearly. My confidence took on a new dimension. It was an epiphany where mind, body, soul and spirit basked in a new light. It was not arrogant pride or conceit, quite the contrary. I was in awe of how beautiful and blessed it was to be able to enjoy singing, and to participate completely in a great work once more. I had a new life.  The morning after my debut as Sachs, Monte and I were lounging in our wonderfully cozy den, having coffee, and reading the newspapers. Outside the bay window a beautiful blanket of snow coated the land and trees. A pleasant little fire in the fireplace completed the setting of a new world for me. At one point I put down the Times and just sat starring into the fireplace, watching the friendly little fire do its ballet. I looked over at Monte and a great wave of love came over me. I said to her simply, “I suppose we should get married.”  She looked at me rather surprised, smiled, and asked, “Do you really think so?” “Yes, I do.” “OK, When?” I got my diary and said, “Just riffle though the pages real fast and I’ll stick my finger in. Wherever it lands, that’ll be it!” We did just that and my finger stopped between the 15th and 16th of March. Monte asked, “Which day of the two? You pick.” I said, “Well, the 15th would make it much easier to remember our anniversary! You aren’t superstitious, are you?” She laughed. “No, not at all . . . just happy.”  A few days later I was giving a voice lesson at my home to a young man who was recommended to me by Max Walmer. The student, Grant Spradling, had an impressive tenor voice. While I was working with him, a friend of ours Jane Widmark* who lived across the way, dropped in to chat. When we finished the lesson, Grant and I joined Monte and Jane in the kitchen. We all decided that a glass of sherry would be a nice mid-afternoon pick-me-up. We clinked glasses, said, “Cheers,” and had a sip. At that point, Monte mentioned that she and I were going to marry. Grant asked where the wedding would take place. Before Monte or I could say a word, Jane said, “You’ve got to get married here, right in this house. I’ll do all the decorating.” When Jane got that enthusiastic twinkle in her eye about a party one didn’t argue with her.  That struck both of us with a great idea. “We’ll have to get a minister to . . . ” before I could finish the sentence Grant, looking nonchalantly at the glass of sherry in his hand said, “I’ll marry you.”  Monte, Jane and I looked wide-eyed at Grant who smiled back at all of us. “I really can marry you – Really!” “Are you a minister?” I asked “Yes, I am,” he answered shortly. “Ordained?” “Of course, ordained,” he chuckled. “This probably makes me the only opera singer with a personal chaplain,” I quipped. Without losing a beat, Grant retorted, “You’re the only opera singer who needs one.” I must admit that the thought of being married by a tenor sounded a bit bizarre. Ministers are usually portrayed by baritones or bassos. But as it turned out, he was indeed a minister and it was agreed that he would perform the ceremony.  On the afternoon of March 15, 1967, a light to moderate snow was falling, but that did not daunt a group of our closest friends who drove in from New York. They were all gathered in our living room to witness our marriage. Monte and I stood before Reverend Spradling, who stood in front of the glowing fireplace. He was reading Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13 . . . Though I speak with the tongues of angels and have no love, I am as a sounding gong. Right on time, we heard three mellow-toned chimes from the grandfather clock out in the hall. It made for a moment of levity which changed a sober occasion into a very merry one. I later had to convince several of my friends that the timing of the clock incident was not staged.  All proceeded smoothly in the able hands of Grant, who followed my strict orders to keep it short and to the point. I didn’t want us all to seem buried under a mountain of Hallmark Cards. I know that my aversion to saccharin, syrupy marriage admonitions stemmed from my adolescent years when I was coerced countless times into singing at weddings on Saturday and Sunday afternoons instead of going out to enjoy my school-free days playing with friends. Romance was for more intimate moments.  We celebrated for a few hours, but before too long, a blizzard started to develop and people had to leave before they were snowed in. As he was leaving Grant said, with his usual dry sense of humor, “This was the first time I literally got hot pants at a wedding.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that he had his back to the fireplace. I assured him that the blizzard would cure that on his way home.  I went on to do Sachs in other theaters and always successfully. One of the standout performances occurred when I did the uncut version of the role which took place the first time I sang in Hamburg. In fact, it was the first time I had ever sung a German role before a German audience. Perhaps I should have been very nervous about facing this new, and which was for me, awesome challenge, but I really don’t recall being terribly tense about it at all. Actually, I very much looked forward to it.     



              Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia  



     I left for Hamburg from Buenos Aires where I had just done several performances of Il barbiere di Siviglia. I took off on a Thursday and arrived in Hamburg that same evening. Monte was there waiting for me. The next day I had one piano rehearsal with Maestro Leopold Ludwig and the other singers who were the Meisters. We went through the ensemble scenes where just those of us present were involved.  On Saturday morning I met with an assistant stage director who spread out blueprints of the sets and in very short order told me the locations of my entrances and exits. And that was the extent of my rehearsals. Again, I must say that I don’t recall being terribly nervous. It was probably due to the fact that I felt very much at home in the role.  On Sunday afternoon, August 24, 1969, I met the other principals just before curtain. The soprano performing the role of Eva was Arlene Saunders, a very gifted American soprano with a beautiful voice which she used skillfully. She was an established star in Germany and a regular member of the Hamburg Opera and very popular with audiences there. The tenor was Ernst Kozub who had a beautiful voice. But I was told that he could be in magnificent voice one night and two nights later be quite the opposite. Thank goodness on this occasion he was in very fine form. Tony Blankenheim, a well-known German baritone who was especially famous for his characterizations, was the Beckmesser. His fine reputation was well merited. Among the men who were doing the various roles of the members of the Meistersinger Guild were several Americans, all of whom had been singing in Germany for several years. At that time many American singers enjoyed careers in that country and were well accepted by the audience.  Since I had, for all intent and purposes, no real rehearsal in this production I felt that I would have to resort especially to much intense eye contact with every character on stage in order to ‘bond’ with the cast, all of whom were new to me. I also resorted to the sense of ‘stage logic’ which helps to guide one to a rather natural interplay with others on stage. It all seemed to work very well. In fact, I felt as though we were all naturally conversing and interacting with one another. And that is as it should always be.  Although everyone in the cast was cordial prior to curtain, I did feel a bit of a “let’s wait and see” attitude on the part of some of the German singers. I couldn’t blame them. But at the end of the second act I was given an enthusiastic hug from Tony Blankenheim and I knew that I was really ‘in’ with my German colleagues.     



              Arlene Saunders and Giorgio Tozzi, end of Act III  



     At the end of the opera the audience gave us an overwhelming ovation. I was awed at the reception I received. The applause went on for well over a half hour and I could hardly believe my ears. I honestly felt in fine form during the performance, enjoying every moment of it. And now, to hear the enthusiasm of the audience was  the icing on the cake. It was an immense thrill. After all, I did feel very self- conscious since I did not speak German, except for rather rudimentary purposes. And even though I had enjoyed successes in German roles in the past, I had never sung anything in the German language in Germany. And, too, I knew that there were those who had pre-set notions as to what “German singing” should sound like, and also a stodgy concept as to what the role of Sachs called for.  Fortunately, I did not think of those things during the performance. I was too immersed in the role, and loving the opera too much to think of anything else. It’s so wonderful to leave one’s present world and persona behind, and step into the reality of the world of the opera at hand! The bridge of communication becomes so tangible that one can feel coming from the audience, a great surge of energy nourishing the strength to perform. It was essential for me not to become self- conscious of what I was doing vocally and theatrically. The important thing was to get into the text and music and thus, communicate it. It is that ability to communicate, when a performer knows his technique is reliable.  I remember walking along with Monte and her brother Alan after the performance. It was a beautiful evening, not a cloud in the sky. I said to Monte, “Not bad for an Italian boy from Chicago!”     






     Early the next morning I received a phone call from Rolf Liebermann, the general manager of the Hamburg Opera. He asked me when I was leaving Hamburg, because he had something important he wanted to talk about.  Liebermann greeted me cordially and asked me to sit. He had a big smile on his face so I assumed that he was pleased with yesterday’s performance. At least, I hoped that was the reason. “I understand that you don’t really speak German?”  “I’m sorry to say I don’t,” I replied.  “That’s remarkable!’ he said. “Your pronunciation is excellent as well as your diction. I would say that I  understood about 95% of everything you sang. And your interpretation of the role was very believable. I particularly enjoyed the touch of mischievousness you conveyed when dealing with Beckmesser.”  I thanked him for his praise and told him I thoroughly enjoyed singing in his theater with such a fine cast. I thought the entire company, orchestra, chorus, soloists, was excellent in every regard.  Liebermann told me that the Hamburg Opera was going to make a film for television of Meistersinger. He had invited every artist who was singing the role of Sachs to come and perform the opera on his stage. He said further that he liked me the best of all and, “I would like you to do Hans Sachs for the film.” Needless to say, I was elated. I answered very soberly that I would consider it an honor to do it. And so negotiations started immediately with my agency.  It was a done deal and some months later Monte, our toddler son Eric, and my cousin Mary were in Hamburg and I was ready to start on the filming of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  The first step was to record the soundtrack. Once the soundtrack was done to everyone’s satisfaction, it was used to play back on the set, and we singers synchronized our lip movements to the track, so it would seem that we were actually singing at the moment the filming was being done.  There were times when one or the other of us would be a bit off in lip movement, and the shot had to be done over. But fortunately that didn’t happen too often. The work progressed at a steady pace. It was wonderful to be able to portray the role on a more naturalistic level, since much of what was done in body language on stage would look too exaggerated on camera. I particularly enjoyed doing the scenes with Tony Blankenheim (Beckmesser). He created a marvelous character, and doing our scenes together was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.  Arlene Saunders did the role of Eva, and again was splendid. The wonderful American tenor, Richard Cassilly, portrayed Walther von Stolzing very impressively. Maestro Leopold Ludwig conducted the score with great sensitivity. The director was easy to work with and most helpful.  The film was shown frequently on European television with much success. It was also shown on screen at the Avery Fischer Hall in New York. I remember being warmly greeted by Maestro Leonard Bernstein, who afterward gave me a hug as he congratulated me on what he called “a brilliant performance.” I was deeply moved by the broad and enthusiastic reception I was shown on that occasion.  In retrospect, I realized that my original refusal to participate at the new Met’s opening night performance of Antony and Cleopatra was really motivated more by fatigue and physical pain, although that did affect my moody behavior. I also realized that my telling Bing that I wished to do Hans Sachs was not the “shoot from the hip” that it seemed at first. And now, as I write, I am convinced that it all was the result of a feeling in my soul that I came to that “fork in the road,” and I needed to follow a different path. I had for so long trudged a familiar path in my career that I began spinning my wheels, as it were, and had begun to dig a rut under me. I chose the role that I had long loved and coveted, but was never sure that I could do.  Perhaps it was frustration from this need that caused my feeling of fatigue and perhaps the physical pain resulted from the stress my frustration generated. It may also have been a guardian angel, who gave me a good swift kick to make me pick up the challenge. Or it may have been my own innate talent breaking free of past limitations. Whatever it was, the role of Hans Sachs opened up a whole new facet of my talent and my life.  I have heard the opinion expressed that Wagner may have been a harbinger of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. No one can deny that Wagner was anti-Semitic. I have also heard the opinion expressed that there are National Socialist overtures expressed in one of Hans Sachs’ speeches. No one can deny that the finale of the opera might possibly be construed by some as an appeal to a National Socialist philosophy. But, as Umberto Eco, the great Italian semanticist argues, there are limits to interpretation. The interpreter may not really know the mind of the author, as is all too often the case. An old saying tells us that, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But then, the same could be said of ugliness.  When I became infatuated with Die Meistersinger I did not see it in any way connected with an anti-Semitic or political spin. I saw Hans Sachs as a true artistic idealist, a champion of unbiased musical creation and interpretation. He argues that the traditional rules of the Guild are good and strong. But from time to time, he urges the rules to be challenged in order for them to not only retain their strength, but to be renewed with even greater strength by acquiring newer rules though fresh, young music and poetry. He brings sparkle to the eyes and ears of the staid old Meisters by introducing them to the youthful energy of his protégé’s music, thus moving them past their artistic atrophy.     



              Giorgio and Monte, St. Peter, MN 2001  



     When I did Pogner, I came to the opera without any bias, social or artistic, even though I was somewhat wary of assuming a role in a language with which I had little experience. I understand how human sensitivities can and do influence interpretation. But upon reflection, I felt that Wagner was such a self-centered, ego- maniacal person that, rather than promoting any political ideal, he was demanding the recognition of his artistic genius which in his own homeland he felt was denied him. He was too wrapped up in his anger with his arch-foe, the humane person that Wagner, very mistakenly, thought himself to be.  I really don’t know exactly what went on in the mind of Wagner, but I do know what went on and goes on in my mind. I know that I certainly never associated any of the role with National Socialism or any other “ism.” For me, Hans Sachs will always be an honest believer in the highest artistic ideals of poetry and music.  Giorgio Tozzi, 2010       



              Giorgio Tozzi and Walter Rudolph, 1988  



      *Editor’s note on Jane Widmark:    One year precisely before Giorgio’s death (Memorial Day, 2011), my wife and I were in Sunlight Basin, just north and slightly west of Cody, Wyoming. There we were visiting a Cody High School friend, Richard “Hap” Ridgway and his wife Susan. I had met Susan very briefly at a HS reunion some years previous. On this occasion we chatted and I asked where she was from. Her reply was “Montclair, New Jersey.” I commented to my wife, “That’s where Giorgio lived when he was singing at the Met.” Susan looked at me, rather strangely, and asked, “Giorgio? Do you mean Giorgio Tozzi?” Utterly surprised, I affirmed and pursued her question. Susan’s mother was Jane Widmark, the neighbor who had insisted Giorgio and Monte’s wedding take place as conveyed in the preceding document.

Backache, Barber and Bing

By Giorgio Tozzi, edited by Walter B. Rudolph at the author’s request

During my early years as a young singer in Chicago I was interested in three languages: English, Italian and French. I understood those languages. I could read them and get along speaking them fairly well. The one language that I was unprepared for was German. That was not because I had an inherent bias against it. I had simply never been exposed to it. I was taught very few pieces in German. And there were so many songs and arias I could sing in the languages with which I was familiar.

Pronunciation of languages was not much of a problem because I always had an affinity for mimicking spoken sounds that I was

taught to say. Having been born in the United States, I of course spoke English [note: his given name was George John Tozzi]. I heard my family speaking Italian and naturally had a knowledge of it. One of my fondest childhood memories was of my father sitting me on his lap and explaining to me in Italian the illustrations that I would point to in his old illustrated Italian dictionary.

Then, too, my entertainment center as a child was an RCA gramophone, an oak-wood square box containing a spring driven turntable with crank on the side, all surmounted by a metal lily-shaped horn. It was the same as the one “Nipper,” the RCA black-eyed dog, listened to so intently (or is it quizzically?) with cocked ear.

My parents had quite a few recordings of operatic arias and Italian songs sung by such luminaries as Caruso, Ruffo, Battistini, Bonci, Tetrazzini and others of that glorious era. And so my ear was inundated with the Italian language as well as those glorious voices.

As for French, I studied two years of French at De Paul Academy, as well as two years of Latin, all of which geared me toward the Romance languages.

In Italy everything I sang was in Italian. I even remember singing the role of Pogner in I Maestricantori di Norimberga (in Italian of course). That was in Genoa around 1951. Actually, that was my first exposure to a complete Wagner opera in which I performed. I still have the Italian score and at this moment can hardly believe I did it. We had very little rehearsal time, but in spite of it, the performance went remarkably well. Maestro Franco Capuana was the conductor. I was very impressed with him, particularly because he was extremely efficient in his use of rehearsal time. He got excellent results with minimum effort on everyone’s part.

      Jussi Björling's Vocal Training    By Michael Mayer    The process of training to be a singer, especially an opera singer, is not very well understood by the general public. It is really a combination of the standard musical training, like instrumentalists, and training the body as an athlete to  be  the instrument.  The musical part is pretty obvious. The singer is going to be expected to perform music of the highest level. The athletic part is less obvious. Less obvious because if done well it is not noticeable to the audience.  The reason it is necessary to develop the physical coordination of the body to such a degree is because of the very nature of the act of singing. The body  is  the musical instrument. Compared to every other instrument the singer is unique in that they are responsible for not only playing their instrument, but also building it.  Before we start to look specifically at the training that Jussi went through to develop into perhaps the greatest all-around singer in history, I would like to introduce myself and who I am to be presenting this.  I am a researcher and instructor of the voice, as well as a singer. My main professional focus is researching and understanding vocal function. I feel that Jussi Björling is the best example of natural, healthy vocal function. And because of that he has been a major focus of my research.  The request of this article was made after a discussion on the JB Yahoo Group. A popular opinion came up that I have heard in other places before – Jussi was a natural singer with a God-given talent. Sometimes this opinion goes on to say that “he didn't know what he was doing, he just sang.”  It sure does seem like that when we watch and listen. It is such a natural act that we have a hard time identifying any technique like we can with many other singers. I like to point out that this natural behavior is the technique. When I realized this distinction I immediately shifted my focus from “technique” to “function”.  The older generations understood this too, even if they didn't use the term “function”. When we read the little we have of Jussi talking about how to sing that word, natural, comes up repeatedly. This was ingrained in him, and his brothers, by his Father from the time he was a small boy.   Jussi's First Lessons   His Father, David, had very strong opinions about how one should use the voice. And he insisted that the boys learn the correct way to do things. Luckily his assertions were well-founded. He developed some on his own, as any good teacher does. But his concepts were based on what he learned during his studies at the Metropolitan Opera School and the Conservatory of Vienna.  David Björling was also a great admirer of Caruso. He used him as an example repeatedly. When in New York at the Met Opera School he had the opportunity to observe the great tenor, and according to family lore even studied with him. Undoubtedly he used what he learned in his own singing and in what he taught his boys.  David wrote a little pamphlet (available from the Museum) presenting his views on the teaching of the voice as well as the upbringing of children. In it he discusses the importance of a good vocal instructor and the health of the respiratory system.  Next he emphasizes the importance of good breath control. Comparing it to the violinist's bowing. He describes how to breath, inhaling the air by raising the chest and “imagine that you extend it on all sides in order to give the lungs plenty of room to receive the air that is used in producing the tone.” He describes the way to keep the lower part of the abdomen drawn in. He also emphasizes the importance of not dropping the chest when exhaling or singing. “Train yourself to keep the chest high and the back straight.” We certainly can observe this in JB's singing from the videos.  In the section titled “Placing the Tone”, David instructs to “Open the mouth as in laughing. It is not enough to open the mouth, but the cavity of the throat as well, in order to produce a rich and beautiful tone.” There is a warning against children singing “pianissimo because that contracts the throat and affects the voice. Nor must they sing too loud so that it sounds like screaming, but let them produce a rich and powerful tone with open throat cavity and chest high and deep breathing, and you will soon obtain results.”  David also explains a relatively rare aspect of opening the throat. “By opening the throat you also open the canals of the nasal cavities, and the tone places itself-or the resonance in head and nasal cavities-and thereby becomes soft and beautiful. A tone taken with a contracted throat also turns out  a contracted nasal tone , which is disagreeable to listen to. But an open and free tone, instead of sounding nasal, becomes true and beautiful-and it becomes easy to the singer and enjoyable to the listener.” Jussi in his own words credits this aspect of using the resonators as being most important.   Academy Years   After David's death Jussi was on his own for a couple years. Through some fortunate connections he auditioned for, and was accepted into, John Forsell's class at the Royal Academy. Forsell was a highly respected baritone and teacher, famous for his  Don Giovanni .  Although Forsell became a father figure to Jussi, his brothers convinced him some of the technical aspects of his teaching were not good. Jussi stood his ground with Forsell and insisted that he must sing in the natural manner learned from his father. It would be very interesting to hear exactly what Forsell had taught him that they disapproved of.  Even while sticking to his father's lessons as far as vocal technique, the experienced teacher had much to offer the young Björling. Forsell coached Jussi in all aspects of performance in preparation for his stage career.   Young professional Opera Singer   Ironically it was through Forsell that Jussi was introduced to the teacher who would help him put the finishing touches on the technique he formed with his father. During the summers the Forsells would have guests at their Villa on “Singers' Island”. Jussi joined other students and family friends.  It was here that Björn Forsell, John's son and friend of Jussi's, suggested he consult Joseph Hislop for help with his highest notes. Hislop was a friend and also a guest of the Forsells for the summers and gave lessons to the students. He was winding down his own career at the time and was considering going into teaching.  Hislop was a Scottish tenor that had trained in Stockholm with Dr. Gillis Bratt. Bratt was a medical doctor of the voice and most famous for being Kirsten Flagstad's teacher. Hislop had originally moved to Gothenburg to work as a photoprocess engraver. In his free time he sang with a local chorus. He was “discovered” by a professional soloing with the group, Magnus Lindström, in 1910. Lindström studied with Dr. Bratt and convinced Hislop to travel to Stockholm to audition for him. In this twist of fate Hislop managed to end up as a world famous tenor often described as the  Scottish Caruso .  The extent of Jussi's contact with Hislop that we learn from official accounts generally leads us to believe that it is limited to a few informal lessons on “Singers' Island.” But the biography of Joseph Hislop gives a little more information.  It was on Singers' Island that Hislop gave Jussi a demonstration on how to sing the high C. Jussi couldn't replicate it at first and Hislop demanded that he just imitate him. After a short time Jussi got the C and even added a high D.  Hislop invited Jussi to study with him the next summer of 1934 at his house at Brottkärr. The following May Jussi wrote to Hislop, “I want to thank you for your great kindness to me last summer and for what I learnt from you in the difficult art of singing. It has been very useful to me and I realize more and more that it is the only right way.”  Unfortunately there aren't any clues as to how much they worked together over the next few years. In 1936 Hislop received an appointment to teach at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. He supplemented that with a post in the opera school of the Royal Swedish Opera as well as taking on private students.  In October 1937 Hislop made his final four appearances at the Royal Opera, where he had made his start as an opera singer. The morning after his first performance he received a note from Jussi, “You sang like a god yesterday. You delighted the ear and the eye, you were just wonderful. The papers think that you were finer 20 years ago, but I believe you are today more impressive than ever! Joseph, it was a marvellous night.” The next day Hislop received a contract from Jussi's lawyer for lessons to prepare operatic roles for his planned American tour.   The Finishing Touches   The teacher relationships of a professional singer often are not well-known publicly. Sometimes they are even kept secret to avoid conflict. I don't think Hislop qualified as a  ghost teacher  to Jussi. But there isn't much left in Jussi's memoirs to go on.  A helpful source in my research was the recollections of a Swedish-American voice teacher, Allan Rogers Lindquest, who studied with Hislop in 1938-39. In an interview he told of meeting Jussi on more than one occasion and  talking shop .  These conversations were extremely helpful to understanding what Hislop was after. The basic concepts were along the same lines as what Jussi had learned from his father. Complete naturalness and ease, without any effort of interfering tension in the throat. The only missing piece was the perfect attack.  Hislop taught what he had learned from Dr. Bratt. That the vowel tone originated in the vocal cords. This principle is easily recognized theoretically. After all, the vibration of the vocal cords is what creates the sound of the voice. But because of the dangers of incorrect application, this concept is generally denounced as a “voice-wrecker”.  Although the focus was on starting the vowel in the vocal cords, it was constantly stressed that the act must not be self-conscious or over-done. There must not be any violence in the attack. Breath control is critical to avoid an explosive, violent start. Gentleness and sweetness were always emphasized to find “the silver thread” ring of resonance that we hear in the finest Scandinavian singers. This is why it was often referred to as the “sweet attack”.  Jussi told Allan Lindquest that it took him several years to really perfect the “sweet” attack. It is very tempting to over-do it. That is what caused Birgit Nilsson to disapprove of Hislop's teaching, as she stated later in her interviews.  She always thought Hislop wanted the tight closure which feels uncomfortable. It wasn't until she was on her own as a professional and faced with a performance while sick that she deeply investigated the proper way of doing it. It is reasonable to believe that the early foundation she received from Hislop, even though she felt it was wrong, was what gave her the unique quality that made her a top Wagnerian.  Hislop described things like this: “Think of your body, lungs and stomach as a triangle. When you inhale, without exaggerated support, loosen up your throat, lift up your head, relax the lower jaw, don't  squeeze  the vocal cords, just let the air flow. Don't press violently. Then you will form 'the silver thread', (the ping). You could sing a high C in a different way but, without doing what I have explained to you, it will be an ugly sound.”  In 1947 Hislop accepted a position as Director of the Opera School at Covent Garden and Artistic Director of Sadler's Wells Opera Company, which brought him back to the UK and London. In 1949 he was made an honorary Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Then in 1952 he was appointed Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  Jussi's relationship with Joseph Hislop continued to the end of his life. With Hislop in London their meetings were limited. But they visited whenever Jussi was there. In 1951 when Anna-Lisa was preparing to sing  Romeo et Juliette  with Jussi in San Francisco Jussi sent her to study with Hislop. Jussi was singing a concert at Royal Albert Hall, so they were in London. She found his “useful” and “insightful” suggestions a boost to her confidence.  There are stories of Jussi calling Hislop on the phone before a London recital, singing a note and asking how it sounds. Another, told by Donald Pilley, tells of his unexpected introduction to Jussi. “In 1960 I went for a lesson. I used to lay bricks in the daytime to pay for my singing lesson in the evenings and with fear and trembling I went along to the elegant vestibule in the music room at Westbourne Terrace. I was sitting there one evening at about half past five. I heard this voice. 'Fantastic'. He was better than me and I was jealous. Out came Joseph 'Come in, Donald, there's somebody you might like to meet.' I walked in and there the great man was seated, Jussi Björling, singing 'I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair'.”  Hislop tells of his last meeting with Jussi. He was visiting with Jussi in his dressing-room during a break of an orchestra rehearsal for his March 1960  La bohème  at Covent Garden. He had noticed that Jussi's voice was occasionally losing its freedom in the highest notes. Hislop gave a couple suggestions to resolve this and on the night of the performance everything was “a flower of perfection”.  Unfortunately this is also the run of performances where Jussi suffered a heart attack in the wings. And six moths later he was dead at home in Sweden.   Conclusions   It is not really possible to quantify the influence of a teacher. The ideal is when a teacher gives accurate instruction that the singer adopts correctly with a successful result. The reality is not always that straight-forward. Some singers may achieve a positive result  in spite of what they were taught. But more often unnatural instruction results in stand-stills and confusion for the singer.  We can't say how much Joseph Hislop's teaching influenced Jussi's singing. Nor can we know what it would have been like without Hislop's involvement. I'm sure he would have still been a great tenor. But as great to be considered one of the best ever? We can't know because it didn't happen that way.  Jussi stated that he could not be a teacher. It takes a special kind of person to be able to communicate how to use the voice. He did admire Joseph Hislop for his ability to communicate abstract concepts. He kept in touch with him throughout his life seeking his advice. His interpretations of arias often show great similarities to the interpretation of Hislop. (Especially the aria from Faust. Not only are they similar. No one else phrases it the way they do) Jussi even brought his wife to study with him.  So although Jussi didn't publicly state much about his association with Joseph Hislop, from his actions we can draw the conclusion that Joseph Hislop had a big influence on Jussi Björling's development and career.   Michael J. Mayer is a Voice Researcher, Consultant and Singer based in Minneapolis, MN. He has been a member of JBS-USA since 2001 and was an active participant at the conferences at Gustavus and New York. Mr. Mayer is publisher of the website   , where he writes about vocal function and performance.   He works with singers, actors and business professionals to understand how their voice functions naturally to efficiently accomplish their objectives, as well as rehabilitation for people suffering from vocal damage.   Mr. Mayer holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Minnesota in Vocal Performance with an emphasis in Pedagogy.

Jussi Björling's Vocal Training

By Michael Mayer

The process of training to be a singer, especially an opera singer, is not very well understood by the general public. It is really a combination of the standard musical training, like instrumentalists, and training the body as an athlete to be the instrument.

The musical part is pretty obvious. The singer is going to be expected to perform music of the highest level. The athletic part is less obvious. Less obvious because if done well it is not noticeable to the audience.