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Subject: Bjorling Biography
From: ed zubrow <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:ed zubrow <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 29 Jun 1999 11:34:17 -0400
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JUSSI: Anna-Lisa Bjorling and Andrew Farkis (Amadeaus Press 1996)

This book goes beyond the standard singer's biography recitative of
performance dates, people met and contract controversies to provide a
sometimes lyrical aria of a love story between a woman (who happens to be a
gifted singer and the co-author of the book) and a man (who happens to be
arguably the "tenor of the century"  while suffering from the disease of
alcoholism).

Certainly, those desiring an authoritative chronology of performances,
recitals and recording dates will find it here. I must confess that I find
this the most tedious aspect of books like this. But, in this biography,
there is much, much more. Written by Bjorling's widow, it feels like a
labor of love. Certainly it is an attempt to set the record straight about
various controversies from her husband's professional life--notably
conflicts with Rudloph Bing and Georg Solti, and the rumors that every
cancellation was caused by his drinking. But equally, or more so, it feels
like an effort to better understand a complex and disturbed man who she
loved, struggled and endured with for more than twenty-five years of
marriage. Ms Bjorling and Mr Farkis do not soft peddle the ways in which
Jussi's lack of education or naive nature impeded him on occasion. More
importantly, they speak candidly about the impact of his alcoholism on both
his musical and family life. Some of the most moving passages in the book
are reflections by his children on the terrible times associated with their
father's drinking binges. At the same time, the authors document for the
record the times when drinking was NOT the cause of cancelled engagements.

Beyond getting to know the subject of the biography, the book lets the
reader get to know Mrs. Bjorling also. She too is worthy of respect as an
artist and a person. However, as with her description of her husband's
frailties, she acknowledges her own doubts and fears. With shallow "pop"
haigiographies elbowing quickie "hatchet jobs" for space on bookstore
shelves, it is refreshing to see an author present both her subject's life
and her own in all of their human complexity. On the last page of the book,
Mrs Bjorling wonders: "Did I do enough? Did I really understand him? Was I
overprotective in my zeal to bring about a secure environment for him? I
will never know the answers." Most of us will recognize these questions as
similar to ones we have asked ourselves at one time or another.

Readers will form their own conclusions about the answer to these questions
as they relate to Jussi Bjorling. To her credit Anna-Lis Bjorling provides
more than sufficient evidence with which to draw conclusions. And in so
doing she humanizes her husband in a way that few artist biographies do.

Another strength of this book compared to others of the genre that I have
read, is its effort to articulate the secrets that lead to masterful
performance. The chronology nevers becomes dully repetitive (though it
flirts with tedium occasionally) because of the frequent interjections of
opinion about singing. Frequent quotations express the analysis of other
singers and her own professional judgement and  are fascinating. For
instance:

Regina Resnick; "The purity of the tone, the clarity was always there. I
heard differences in performances in quantity of sound but never in
quality! Never! He had something extremely personal in the passagio that no
other tenor had. There came a change in the sound of his voice when it
switched from the passagio. When he put on volume, there was a throb in his
voice. It changed into a quality where I thought that he seemed to
manufacture more space in his head. I never heard that from anybody, except
caruso. This, of course is the 'mystery.' It is more than a gift. It is
undefinable."

Robert Merill; "Jussi sometimes wanted to get dramatic. He'd get excited
and would want to sound like Caruso. I'd hear him pushing it--it would
change the quality of that beautiful voice. He'd come backstage and say,
'Did you hear that Bob? What do you think?' and I'd tell him,'It didn't
sound like Jussi Bjorling! You have a beautiful lyric voice, you should
nbever try to change the quality of your voice!' Then he would say, 'I
know, I know. I won't do it again."

Merrill again: "Many times I was so bewitched by his golden timbre that I
almost lost control. Jussi had the most natural tone formation I'd ever
heard. He never forced or made grimaces when he sang. His mouth was usually
held closed, like an O, even on the high notes. Most singers I've known
usually open their mouths a trifle for the high notes, but not Jussi; he
bent his head back slightly and click! There was a high C without the least
effort. I don't think he could sing an ugly note."

Cornell MacNeil: "So in the rehersal, because he was tired, Jussi did what
we call marking. Except--I stood there in amazement--he did not concede a
breath, he never opted, he never sang down an octave. He took a full
breath, he took the full attack, the whole physical-mechanical process of
taking the breath and delivering the sound intact, as if he were singing a
performance. It was an example of what good vocal technique was and is to
this day. I will never forget that. It was one of the most impressive
things I have ever seen. "

Anna-Lis Bjorling herself: "While the entire range and timbre of Jussi's
voice was that of a tenor, his lower notes were strong and secure, an
extension of his upper octave. A single note, regardless of pitch or
volume, could be identified as a note *from the same scale*, whereas the
top or low notes of some singers sound as if they've been grafted onto the
midrange and are often of a different texture."

Similar reflections by colleagues support the belief that while never as
gifted an actor as he was a singer, Bjorling steadily developed and was
capable of intense and moving dramatic performances. In the last years of
his career he also provided some courageous ones, most notably a La Boheme
in the presence of the Queen Mother when he was dreadfully ill. Beneath the
surface of the star tenor beat the heart (albeit damaged) of the child
trouper who barnstormed the states as part of the family singing group led
by his father

At the end of the book Mrs Bjorling writes, "I feel privileged and grateful
to have been able to stand by Jussi and share the whole of his life, not
just the happy and successful times, but those moments too when he needed
my love and support." Thanks to this serious undertaking, the reader can
feel that he or she has been privileged to share something of Jussi
Bjorling's life as well.

Ed

PS If anyone on the list knows where I might write to Mrs Bjorling I would
appreciate the information by private email. I would like to send her a
note of appreciation.

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