Christmas in July 2021
During the past week, I was immersed in reading La Nilsson, My Life in Opera. The English language translation presents a highly enjoyable autobiography of the peerless dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson. The dustcover of this personal and professional memoir is, thus far, the only objectionable part of this written chronicle of a Swedish girl who single-mindedly set about to become the operatic artist that she did indeed become. A wasp-waisted illustration of this sizable woman with the sizable voice is an insult, but I’ve come to learn from Birgit that she collected insults early, and often, in her vocal career. And she handed them back just as often, with a bit of witty sass, while she forged on anyway, toward fulfilling her dream, in spite of the horrid and untrue invectives, snide affronts, and cheap shots aimed at her. Actually, given the mischievous and honest but forceful nature of this woman, she excelled because of the indecent insults!
Yesterday, I came across, on page 79, the name of the tenor with whom Birgit had been paired, onstage, to perform Tosca in Stockholm in September 1953. I’d never heard of this man, and so I looked him up online. I was directed to a remastered version, online, of the original recording of “O Helga Natt” by the great Jussi Björling on 8 February 1959. Oh Holy Voice! This Swedish tenor possessed the most sublimely beautiful and warmly full voice that I have ever heard; and I’ve listened to a lot of tenors. I had to stop listening half-way through this recording session. I was too overcome by tears, and by emotion, or, rather, by emotions, ones that were as layered with meaning and memory as were the notes being sung by this tenor. Tomorrow, I shall set time aside to listen, privately, to the entire recording, when I am prepared to shed tears, and to yield fully to an outpouring of my innermost inclinations and memories. Perhaps then I shall cease feeling bereft at the loss of not having heard this breathtaking voice until so recently.
From what I have read, only the heartless are capable of listening to this recording without tears rolling down the face. During this past year of 2020, thousands of listeners of this online presentation — in America, in Sweden, in France, in many parts of the world — experienced the same reactions that I did. This magnificent performance by this timeless tenor prompted an overwhelming need to hit the pause button. As if one can truly pause an ineffable response to an angelic voice! Jussi Björling was born in February 1911 in Stora Tuna, Borlänge, Dalama, Sweden. His mother died when he was but six years old. He was, mercifully, blessed with enormous natural talent, and with a father who, as an accomplished singer, became the first, and perhaps best vocal teacher of this son and two others. Those three sons became professional singers who performed with their father, David, in concerts throughout Sweden and the United States, for almost twelve years during the early 20th century.
David Björling died in 1926, thereby ending the musical male quartet. Jussi then worked as a lamp salesman in Sweden, but he continued expressing his vocal artistry on radio. In 1928, at the age of seventeen, he was admitted to the Opera School and to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm (where Nilsson would later train). There was, certainly, something more, much more that Björling possessed than just that richly full, warm, golden, sweet, flowing, brilliant voice. The prime mover of that voice came from a place deep within this man, a treasured realm that even he might not have known too intimately, or wanted to know with too much familiarity. Ergo the immediate and thrilling impact of that voice, placed right down the middle of each note, with rigorous devotion to the value of each note. Björling refused to promote or “showcase” one note at the expense of any other note. There was no Money Note for him; each note was a money note, to be accorded its due, its full value. This tenor was fastidiously honest in honoring music, and in honoring voice as the utterance of his inner being, not merely his inner ear. That profoundly spiritual musical chalice within him, often called a soul, is what the listener is invited to partake of whenever Björling sings.
During his rendition of “O Helga Natt”, from those very first notes, the listener inevitably feels goosebumps on the skin, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, tears stinging the eyes. and a sense of an astounding ethereal splendour. Those sensations comprise the only true responses to the vocal artistry of this man. He instinctively sang from the heart, with the intonation and articulation that are the hallmarks of the splendid glory of singing bel canto. That purity of emotion, that commanding intensity of passion, evoke so much depth of feeling that one must take a break from the music, to summon the courage to confront all that this man offers to not merely the ear, but to the heart, and to the soul, of the listener.
Countless individuals in this world hunger for the voice of Jussi Björling singing this hymn. The world today yearns, as the world yesterday yearned, and as the world tomorrow will yearn, for the inspirational truths that reside within the voice of Björling, for the beauty that is the voice of Björling. I speak, or write, here in the present tense because the voice of this man continues to live, to be alive, and to thrive, decades after his tragically early death in 1960 at the age of forty-nine. Björling was an alcoholic whose heart gave out from self-abuse. And, yet, his instrument, that powerfully glorious yet sweet voice, remained radiant and pure, his trained technique flawless to the very end. That achievement is nearly unheard-of in the rarefied domain of professional singing. I surely believe that God sent this man into the world to realize a gift that few mortals attain. The training of a singer involves not merely getting the notes right, in the proper place in your head, and consistently supporting that melodic tone with adequate breath control. The training of a singer demands that he subject himself to only the finest and the most jewel-like of sounds emanating from the human instrument, the voice.
When The Three Tenors overtook the airwaves during the 1990s, my initial, and only, response to the mass-marketed, overblown performances was to get as far away from those blaring sounds as I could. I fervently fought to retain my cherished auditory memories of bel canto, beautiful singing, the way I’d learned it, twenty years earlier, before the prowess of operatic voice became a glitzy, pompous money-noted shriek-fest. To me, those overly trained vocalists were not real artists. They were too busy taking deep breaths and singing loud and trying to out-perform one another, cynically smiling with each ching-ching-ching of the bling and the bombastic cashier-ring of “Nessun Dorma.” “Let no one sleep.” Puccini got that one right! Opera for The Masses!!! For the Soccer Fans!! For The Win! Can we not return opera to the snobby elites and let them pay for it themselves??
Nope. Opera World had been democratized, and the elites expected the grubby masses to subsidize the highbrow high-jinx of those ubiquitous grandiose windbags and their Pet Causes. When Soccer Moms got the hots for Turandot, the magnum opus of any classical composer became monetized windfalls for the first wave of those hot-shot globalist foundations, the do-gooder slush funds whose ledger sheets were pioneered by Enron accounting. Crowd-funding at the World Cup went full-aria, full arena, full stadium, full voice, voce forte, fortissimo!!! The histrionic flow of decibels lacked any and all emotion. Over-exposure became an understatement for those hammy egos on-stage. I guess it was entertainment, of a sort, though even the Beatles at Shea Stadium knew that no one could hear them, or cared if they did.
The voice of an artist submits itself to the will of God, not to the wishes of the globalist marketers, the simpleton demographic experts, and the soulless corporate suits. That voice can then approach its Maker. Such a voice was posited in the Swedish tenor called Jussi Björling. The world of professional singing is often vicious, and the world of opera is downright cruel. The conductor and the singer share a most adversarial relationship; they’re almost natural enemies. That combative stage of the opera demands nerves of steel, along with a hardened heart that must somehow remain heartfelt in the performance of a vocal art that can, at times, be a voice-killer. Here is where Jussi Björling achieved the impossible: He sang always from the heart, not from the mind, with a head voice that was magnificently moving and masterful in a way that cannot be adequately described, with words. Tears are the only appropriate response to the sublime power and touching beauty of his musical expression.
It is true that he took on certain roles that demanded more than his voice could give, but how could anyone tell this tenor not to subject his rapturous instrument to the outpourings of his own heart? Starting with Johanna Maria "Jenny" Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale” of the 19th century, the kingdom of Sweden became an artistic haven, wondrously filled with singers who defined an entire era of operatic performance. The wife of Jussi, Anna-Lisa, was herself an operatic soprano, who also trained at the Royal Academy of Music, and performed at the Royal Swedish Opera. Royal sponsorship of the arts endured into the 20th century in the fertile ground of this nation that became well-versed at neutrality during World Wars I and II. Birgit Nilsson was the last of the great Swedish operatic singers who carried on in the lofty, learned, and glittering traditions of her forebears. The bones of those faces were marvelously structured to produce the astonishing resonance that became characteristic of the instrument called an operatic voice, and, in particular, of a Swedish timbre. That uniquely powerful, rich dark tone also shone, depending on the vocal register, with either a warm, honeyed brilliance, or with that white silvery streak of clarity that basically summed up the voice of so many German female opera singers. The winter landscapes of that isolated, elysian country called Sweden offer an unyielding loveliness and fortitude that, once upon a time, produced its fullest and finest expression in the voices of men and women whose love of homeland merged with their love of music.
Björling was an ardent patriot to his homeland, a world unto itself that inspired him to set his voice to a palette of emotions that are still being discovered today. This is art, the transmission of past wonderment to the present, and, then, to the future, far into the future. Björling sang not merely classic operatic arias, but passionate tributes to his dear Fatherland, a Sweden that, today, evinces more need than ever of the songs by this native tenor. One tale about this fiercely gifted Swede told of his pride in his native land. During his military service, he started each day by opening a window and singing out, “Land, thou blessed and beautiful.” This routine morning canticle interrupted any ongoing military routine and really irked the superior officers of Björling! It is said in Sweden that there is no Swedish Christmas without “O Helga Natt” sung by Jussi Björling. He was a national treasure in a nation that seems to have lost so much of the spiritual moorings that anchored the magnificence of that voice, those pure tones that reached toward the heavens, and were inspired by God.
The English translation of the Swedish version of the French Christmas hymn, “Cantique de Noel”, appears below. The lyrics in Swedish undoubtedly carry with them an exalted sensibility that the English words can not hope to capture. Any listener can nonetheless experience comparable sensations of transcendence because of this man’s angelic supplication through voice to another world. Those feelings are universal, and they humbly request tears. Those feelings, and those tears, are what unite all of us as human beings, the children of God, regardless of nationality, creed, color, religion. A person is one step closer to heaven whenever he hears the voice of Jussi Björling singing this hymn, not just as a tradition at Christmas, but all year long. Eternal beauty then reigns supreme amidst the woes and the wickedness of our earthly existence.
O Holy Night, O holy moment for the world when the son of God went down to earth to reconcile the world's crimes and sins, for us he suffered the pain of death, and the ray of hope passes through the world and the light is shimmering over land and sea. People, fall to your knees, and happily honour your freedom O holy night, our salvation you gave O holy night, our salvation you gave. Because our Saviour carried our heavy burdens Our world is free, heaven is open In your slave you see a beloved brother and see, your enemy will become dear to you from heaven our saviour brought us peace For us he went down in his silent grave. People, fall to your knees, and happily honour your freedom O holy night, our salvation you gave O holy night, our salvation you gave.