THE BJORLING SOUND, a recorded legacy by Stephen Hastings

The Björling Sound

University of Rochester Press 424 pp

ISBN 9781580464062

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“We’ll discuss the greatest tenor in history, Jussi Björling and his astounding voice.” That is the motto of  a Yahoo group that discusses in great detail every aspect of the Swede’s art and sometimes life as well. There are other tenors with fan groups but none can compete in depth, seriousness and longitude with these Björling fans who meet regularly and organize almost scholarly conferences. I’m sure that by now most of these Björling lovers never heard him in the flesh as he died 52 years ago. That says much for the devotion, love and respect the tenor’s records inspire.

Stephen Hastings now publishes  “The Björling Sound, a recorded legacy”. Once again, I know of no other tenor (not even Caruso) whose records are analysed into so much painstakingly detail for more than 400 pages. Of course this can only be done by one who loves the voice almost extremely well so that he is able to listen intently and then comment in detail to 15 versions of “Che gelida manina”, 10 times “E lucevan le stelle” by one and the same singer while the many complete recordings of Bohème and Tosca are not even included in these figures. Therefore Mr. Hastings is clearly a fan; though not stone deaf and utterly blind as is often the sad reality with many admirers. Some readers will recognize the author’s name as the Milan correspondent of Opera News and he has now been editor in chief too of the Italian monthly Musica for the past twelve years. Well, it’s more than time to state that Mr. Hastings has done a wonderful job. He not only knows his Björling but he has a profound knowledge of the mechanics of singing as well. His analysis is to the point, well written and understandable for those who love the sound without being able to read a score. The research is meticulous and up to now I have only found one typo (“encor” in the Benjamin Godard aria instead of the correct “encore”).


 The book is more than just an account of most of the recordings Jussi Björling made. “Most” is the important word as Hastings doesn’t discuss the ball room recordings young Björling made under the name of Eric Odde and right he is. The budding tenor often is only accompanying the far more important orchestra. Readers will know the several tomes of “Opera on Record” whereby different complete sets and interpretations of arias are compared. Mr. Hastings uses the same method when discussing the tenor’s art. He clearly is a collector who has listened to and taken note of almost every recording by other tenors from Fernando De Lucia till Juan Diego Florez so that he is able to point to differences in singing, style and phrasing between his idol and his predecessors and successors. The admiration for the Swede’s voice is almost unlimited but no so that every note and every take Björling sang is deemed superior. Hastings admits for instance that Del Monaco and Caruso in “Si pel ciel” were (a little bit) more impressive. He admits from time to time that Björling could be bland; that just making beautiful sounds was enough. As an Italian resident he knows that a lot of Italian vocal buffs thought Björling too cold, too uninvolved in the role he portrayed while the voice was not big enough for many of his parts though it projected well if one was seated right in front of him.. A famous critic like Rodolfo Celetti was not impressed by the Swede’s voice. In short, Mr. Hastings does what belcanto lovers have done for almost 100 years: discussing recordings of the same aria by their favourite singer and his rivals and (sometimes) grudgingly allowing that their hero is not the only worthy in the game. The difference here is the high level of competence and knowledge Mr. Hastings uses. One won’t always 100 % agree with his opinion but one will rarely disagree.

The author isn’t shy too in mentioning Björling’s alcoholism and the influence it sometimes had in his later years on voice and body. In his preface there is an intriguing sentence on the well known and impressive Björling biograpy by Andrew Farkas and Björling’s wife: Anna-Lisa. Hasting notes “although she is reticent about the exact circumstances of his death in September 1960 etc. “ One gathers from such a remark that there was more than just an heart attack and inquiring minds would love to know more.

Still I’ve got some small carping to do. A few comparisons are somewhat unfair. Thirty-seven year old Björling has an advantage of  eleven years on forty-eight year Gigli when some recordings of Bohème are compared. Gigli  in 1938 was more lachrymose and sentimental (maybe for breathing purposes) than he would have been at the same age as the Swede. I’m surprised too that among the plethora of tenors who are discussed in relation to Björling, there is no mention of the one recent voice that has many of the Swede’s best qualities (and a more pronounced vibrato and even warmer timbre): Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. But the main problem I have with the book is the selection of items to be discussed. In his Introduction Mr. Hastings correctly states that “ a traditionally book-based culture – with academics writing texts about other texts, sometimes bypassing sounds entirely – often failed in the past to consider recordings as serious musical instruments.” In other words a lot of writing on music is sometimes too high brow and refuses to indulge in the simple pleasures recordings often give. And it is here I feel the author sins too. He has divided his chapters per composer so he can discuss Björling’s whole output of the aria’s and the same composer’s complete recordings at the same time. As the tenor recorded prodigiously Hastings couldn’t open a new chapter for every composer with only one aria or song to be discussed and he corrals them in a chapter “Björling’s Remaining Records” where he devotes a few lines to worthwhile items. That’s where in my opinion he gives too short shrift to some popular ditties. Most tenor fans will have somewhat hazy ideas on Björling’s singing of Schubert’s “An die Leier” (a whole page is devoted to the two recordings) or the more numerous recordings of Richard Strauss lieder. But which vocal buff who first heard Björling’s “Ich hab kein Geld” (Der Bettelstudent) , “Au mont Ida” (La Belle Hélène) or “L’alba separa della luce l’ombra” will ever forget the impact of that stunning voice ? I for one would gladly have read a few pages less on the operatic performances and a few lines more on those many miraculous recordings of popular songs  which will do more to eternalize the tenor’s reputation than a Stockholm Trovatore from 1960.

All in all, this is a book that has to be in every lover’s of fine singing collection. Of course it is not meant for a straight read. Even Mr. Hastings who is one of the best writers on vocal technique I have ever read cannot and probably will not expect you to read his work in one evening as if it is a thriller. But the book easily succeeds in the one important test such a publication is measured with. How many times do you want to run to your record library and listen once more to an aria or a performance that the author discusses ? Many times I assure you. Therefore congratulations and thanks to “University of Rochester Press” that takes the risk in publishing such a specialized book. I’m sure all members of that Björling discussion group will buy it and a lot of others as well and I hope other writers (or Mr. Hastings himself with his profound tenor knowledge) will follow the good works. Where are you René Seghers with your promised book on Franco Corelli’s recordings ?

Jan Neckers

PS one of our readers Dennis O'Leary wrote to us the following::

Thank you for review of The Bjorling Sound which I am reading.On page xvii it states he was broadcast ten times in seven operas at the Met.I make it eleven times from eight operas:Ballo,La Boheme,Don Carlo,Faust,Manon Leascut,Rigoletto,Romeo et Juliette and Il Trovatore.