For opera lovers of my generation, there was (and remains) a great admiration for the brilliant Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. He was, like Zinka Milanov, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, Maria Callas, Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Franco Corelli, and a host of other great singers, an integral part of the golden age of opera that I have referred to previously; a period from approximately the mid 30's to the mid 1970's.
Bjöling was born into a musical family, and received his first instruction from his father. As a child he toured with a family quartet, so that singing in public was an important part of his life from earliest youth. In fact, one of the remarkable things about Björling's career is how early everything happened for him. (This is very fortunate, because he only lived to be 49, a likely victim, tragically, of alcoholism.) He was already on stage in Sweden, doing small parts, by the tender age of 19. This is most unusual in opera. Even more astonishing is that he made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 26 and his Metropolitan Opera debut in the following year (1938), at the age of 27! The role was Rodolfo, in La Bohème, so his youth certainly fit the character, but there are few if any major tenors making a debut at the Met at that age. There may be some, but none come readily to mind.
I clearly remember, as a boy, the first recording of Björling's that I ever heard. It was "Che gelida manina," on an old 78. Here is a wonderful 1938 recording of that aria, made from a live performance. Bear in mind that he all of 27 years old here:
Does it get any better than this!? It is hardly necessary to call attention to the high notes. He was blessed from earliest youth with a brilliant top. An amusing historical anecdote is that when he auditioned for the Met, earlier that year, one of the reviewers wrote simply: "Good top." Yes, you might say that! :)
Many tenors can sing very high, but often at the expense of a thin or strident sound. It is most unusual to hear a warm, beautifully covered voice like Bjöling's carry its essential quality all the way up to the C with no quality change from the middle on. That is an essential element of the Björling voice that thrilled one and all. Much of the secret for that astonishing vocalism is to be found in the Swedish language itself. Like other Germanic languages, but perhaps even more so, the umlauted vowels of Swedish are quite pronounced. The placement of an umlauted "o," for example, is excellent for tenor singing. It can be approximated in English by taking the "ir" sound of the word "bird" and eliminating the "r." The sound that remains is close to an umlaut. If you are a singer, try vocalizing on that sound, taking care to cover strongly through and past the passagio, and to open the mouth as you go up. It is important to moderate the "r" of "bird" almost out of existence, or you will choke! It really facilitates the high notes, and trims away the rough edges. This, to use the words of a great voice teacher I was once privileged to know, "is the sound that pays the rent." Bingo. For Björling, it was a natural thing to do, thanks to his native language.
One of the glories of Björling's voice was that it blended beautifully with other singers, again owing to the softness of the sound. Here is a rare treat: Björling and Robert Merrill, singing what is generally conceded to be the most beautiful tenor/baritone duet ever written, in a recording that is likewise generally acclaimed to be the very best, still unsurpassed:
And on that note (those notes?) I am simply going to quit writing, because any attempts at elucidation are silly, unnecessary, and bound to fall short of the mark. That recording says almost everything there is to say about the golden age of opera singing, and especially about the golden voice of Jussi Björling.