Jussi in Carnegie Hall

by Kjell Olsson

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Carnegie Hall, the legendary concert hall in New York City, celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016.  Jussi Björling appeared there sixteen times during the years 1937-1959. Ten of these performances are recorded at least in part, and released on CD. It was at Carnegie Hall that Jussi made his US debut as a tenor November 28, 1937, an appearance which opened the way for a contract at the Metropolitan and access to the US public.

The city's most famous concert venue, was opened in 1891 funded by financier and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. At the opening ceremony, Peter Tchaikovsky appeared as guest conductor. The house now has several concert halls: the main hall holds about 2800 seats. For over a century, it has been one of the world's most famous musical institutions for both classical, jazz and popular music and about 250 performances take place here each season. Here all the great legendary opera singers have performed, among them Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Björling, Maria Callas, Lily Pons, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

The Hall's beginnings
Leopold Damrosch emigrated to the US in 1871 and in 1873 founded the Oratorio Society of New York. In 1877 he helped form the New York Symphony Society (later to merge with New York Philarmonic, which performed jointly with the Oratorio Society). He took on the responsibilities of general and chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, salvaging the company’s finances with a season of German operas.

His younger son Walter was an eminent conductor, music educator and composer and was an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera under his father. When Leopold Damrosch died in 1885 Walter held the same post under Anton Seidl and also became conductor of the Oratorio and Symphony Societies in New York.

At that point there was no concert hall in New York, but in 1883 the Metropolitan Opera had opened and Walter Damrosch wanted a concert hall, too. In his choir he had a (presumably) delightful lady, Louise Whitfield, who had an interesting fiancé named Andrew Carnegie.
When Carnegie and his wife sailed to Scotland (where he was born) on their honymoon trip, Walter Damrosch also happened to be on board, and he then requested his chorister to ask her incredibly wealthy husband (who had made his money in railroads, steel and oil) if he would pay for a concert hall. That he wanted to do(he was newly in love and 21 years older than his young wife), and when they came back to New York, construction started. The hall had acoustics that soon became world famous and were a great help in making New York a music metropolis.

The Businessman and Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie, was born November 25, 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland, and died August 11, 1919 in Lenox, Massachusetts (well-known in music circles for "Tanglewood", the Boston Symphony's summer academy, located here). He was a businessman and philanthropist. Carnegie  grew up in a radical working-class Scottish family which emigrated to the US in 1848, when Andrew was 13 years old.

Carnegie invested all the money he could save during the Civil War years in the oil market as well as in  railroads. After the war, he left the railroad and invested money in a company that built railway bridges. Over time, this led to investments in the steel industry, and towards the end of the 1890s, Andrew Carnegie was one of America's great steel barons.

In 1901, Carnegie sold Carnegie Steel to the  giant U.S. Steel. Carnegie’s group of steel mills accounted for half of the new company's assets and was bought for a sum of 120 billion dollars in today's money. Half of that amount went to Andrew Carnegie and made him the world's second richest man. The only one who was richer was John D. Rockefeller.

Long before the sale of his steel empire Carnegie had already begun to donate large sums to various charities, and as a result of the sale of his steel interests in 1901 he left the business world behind and went on to full-time use of his immense fortune for various charities.
His biggest charitable contribution was probably the construction of public libraries: From 1883 to his death in 1919 he founded 1689   in the US, and another 820 in various parts of the British Empire. In 1919 there were 3500 public libraries in the United States, almost half of which had been built with the help of Carnegie's money.

In chronological order,  Jussi's 16 performances at Carnegie Hall
As early as 1919-21 Jussi toured the US with his father David, and his brothers. Sixteen years later, in 1937, Jussi returned to the United States, as a 26-year-old tenor, for a tour that lasted from November 28th 1937 until January 4th 1938.

Since the mid-1930s, Jussi had his own manager, director Helmer Enwall of Konsertbolaget (The Concert Company), with whom Jussi worked for more than twenty five years. Enwall got the exclusive right to manage all his activities also in Europe, where Jussi's great success in Vienna in 1936 became his real great international breakthrough.

American Charles Wagner, one of the most famous and successful impresarios in the United States, was an agent and promoter and had many famous artists in his stable. In 1936 he visited ten countries in Europe to find new talent for the US market. Wagner had read in the newspapers about Jussi's great success in Vienna and flew from London to Stockholm to hear Jussi in La bohème at the Stockholm Opera. He became convinced that this was the tenor he sought.

Wagner contacted Helmer Enwall and Jussi was contracted for a concert tour in the US with Wagner as promoter and launched as "a tenor from the Northland." Jussi was granted leave of absence from the Stockholm Opera, and after completing filming of the feature film “Fram för framgång” ("Ahead for Success") he went to the USA following concerts in Copenhagen and   London.

The US tour was scheduled for nine concerts in New York, Chicago, Springfield, St. Paul and Jamestown and two opera performances in Chicago. The tour began with a live radio concert from Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1937 and ended with a concert in New York City Hall on January 4, 1938.

The US debut
Thus just a few days after arriving in the United States Jussi appeared for the first time as an adult in the United States at Carnegie Hall in the NBC live radio show General Motors Concert: "Request Night." The program was based mainly on listeners' requests. Jussi sang along with the Austrian soprano Maria Jeritza and the General Motors Symphony Orchestra and choir under the baton of the Estonian-born Hungarian-American conductor Erno Rapee.

The radio broadcast reached hundreds of thousands of American listeners from coast to coast. Because of his many gramophone recordings Jussi was not entirely unknown to America's leading music critics, and in the newspapers, he got great advance publicity for his tour. Radio listeners could now hear Bjorling’s voice broadcast live for the first time. The orchestra began the concert with "Romanian Rhapsody" by George Enesco. Then it was time for Jussi's entrance. The legendary presenter Milton Cross introduced Jussi:

"The music-loving audience has been waiting impatiently for the brilliant and leading tenor from the Stockholm Opera, who has made such a sensation in the capitals of Europe, to appear in the United States. Mr. Björling, only 26 years old, arrived in New York as recently as Thursday and is making his first appearance as an exclusive participant in the General Motors Company Concert in the evening's program. We are really pleased to introduce Jussi Björling."

Before a crowded auditorium Jussi began with "Che Gelida Manina" and then "La donna è mobile," "Celeste Aida," "Land, du välsignade” (“Country, you blessed) and a duet from Cavalleria rusticana with Maria Jeritza, he singing in Swedish and Jeritza in Italian.

Jussi's debut was a great success and the American newspaper critics raved. The Daily News wrote that "Jussi is a sensation with a lyrical voice of rare beauty, intimacy and depth." The New York Journal American began its review with: "Out of the speakers on Sunday night poured a clean and shining voice, probably the best voice since Gigli, certainly the largest heard in many years. Today the name Jussi Björling is known from coast to coast. "

Shortly after the debut there were two broadcast concerts at Carnegie Hall: General Motors "Opera Night" on December 5 together with the very popular American soprano Grace Moore and baritone Donald Dickson, and on 19 December General Motors "Christmas Music" with the American soprano Helen Jepson.

The first thing Jussi did when he came home from the US tour was to terminate his contract with the Stockholm Opera on his 27th birthday, February 2, 1938, and the 1938-39 season which ended with Faust, May 8, 1939, came to be his last as a permanent employee. In the future, Jussi would perform at the Stockholm Opera only as a guest artist.

On 17 January 1939, Jussi gave his first solo concert in Carnegie Hall. His accompanist was Harry Ebert. On November 23, 1940 Jussi participated in Verdi's Requiem and on December 28 in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Both concerts had none other than Arturo Toscanini as conductor.

Because of World War II, there was then a long break from trips to the US, but on May 15, 1946 it was time for a comeback to Carnegie Hall in the  "Pops" Music Concert, a Scandinavian program with several artists. Jussi performed songs by Sibelius, Grieg, Alfvén and Rangström.

Other Important appearances

On 21 March 1948:   a private concert, then with the American accompanist Frederick Schauwecker, who would become Jussi's accompanist in the United States thereafter.
April 11, 1949: benefit for Swedish sailors, “Sweden in Music” with Karin Branzella nd Joel Berglund.
On March 31, 1950 a charity gala for Swedish sailors, "Night of Swedish Stars," with Jussi and Anna-Lisa Björling and other soloists.

On March 12, 1951: the NBC "Telephone Hour," broadcast  in which Jussi performed three songs together with the Bell Telephone Orchestra conducted by Donald Voorhees.

The legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955.
One of the most revered concerts Jussi gave at Carnegie Hall took place on 24 September 1955 and became legendary. The entire concert was recorded and later released on CD. When Jussi came out on stage to start the concert, he received a reception like that which happens today in  football stadiums.

Jussi had not appeared in the US in a year and a half. Before the concert, the critics and the audience therefore were very concerned about the condition of Jussi's voice, but it was a much longed-for Jussi who began his US tour with a concert in the sold-out hall. Giant posters outside Carnegie Hall said: "There is only one Björling." Neither the audience nor the critics would be disappointed. Jussi was met with ovations, magnificent tributes and cheers, and his voice was as magnificent as ever. The crowd cheered wildly and Jussi sang as many as ten encores. In total, the concert included 25 numbers!

In the New York Times the main headline after the concert  read "Björling is back."
"The audience was able to enjoy that his voice has not lost any of its former glory and that Björling’s voice control was if possible even more perfect than before. A special fascination with Björling's voice is the smoothness and firmness throughout the large voice range. His singing has the property that Italians call "raccolto" which means something compact and well-focused. In songs by Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss Björling sang with equal expressiveness and tonal beauty. Songs by Grieg and Sibelius belonged to the evening's highlights. "

On December 20, 1955: a concert was organized with Jussi and the soprano Renata Tebaldi and the “Symphony of the Air" orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Sibelius died in the autumn of 1957 at 91, and on 8 December a “Sebelius Memorial Concert” was held at Carnegie Hall before 2700 spectators. Jussi performed five Sibelius numbers along with a 90-piece orchestra from the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Finnish Sibelius specialist Martti Similä.

On 2 March 1958 Jussi gave a concert at Carnegie Hall  accompanied by Frederick Schauwecker. It was released in its entirety and has been reissued on CD.

Jussi's last concert at Carnegie Hall took place on 29 April 1959, "Swedish Seamen’s Welfare Fund," a concert for the benefit of Swedish sailors sponsored by the Swedish Embassy. Besides Jussi, the Upsala College Choir and the American pianist Grant Johannesen, of Norwegian descent, performed. During the break Sweden's Washington Ambassador Gunnar Jarring appeared and made a brief speech.

The concert before a sold-out Carnegie Hall was a new triumph for Jussi. He had made himself available for free and the concert expected to provide approximately 75 000 Swedish kronor to the Swedish Seamen's Fund among other organizations. Virtually the entire Swedish colony in New York City including the Swedish heavyweight boxer Ingemar Johansson with family was there. “Ingo” was some time in New York to train for the World Championship fight against Floyd Patterson.

After the concert the Swedish Consul General gave a reception and then Jussi got the chance to greet Ingo, and the two figures had the chance to test each other’s grip. When Jussi was interviewed on the radio and was asked if he would arm wrestle with Ingo, the quick answer was: "No, I do not want to hurt his right hand."

Sony Classical celebrated Carnegie Hall's 125th anniversary with a CD box.
Sony Classical  released a CD box, "GREAT MOMENTS AT CARNEGIE HALL," which contains 43 CDs with recordings from the period 1933-2007 including a 104-page illustrated booklet. Jussi is honored in this collection with two complete concerts: 24 September 1955 and 2 March 1958, which means that Jussi performs 46 numbers on the two CDs in this box.

Kjell Olsson was born in Stockholm 1944 and has been a member of The Swedish Jussi Björling Society since 1990. He served on the board of the Society from 2013 to 2015 and was responsible for buiding the Society’s new website. He has been fascinated by Jussi’s voice since his pre-teen year, first on radio and then more actively as the CD era made more music available.