Artistry of Jussi Bjoerling

For years I have studied the recordings of Jussi Bjoerling and I continue to learn more and more about his approach to singing the more I listen. Without doubt he was truly a product of the Swedish/Italian School of training. It was in 1938 and 1939 that Alan Lindquest befriended Jussi Bjoerling and his wife Anna Lisa Bjoerling. Mr. Lindquest was older than Bjoerling with a longer history of performing publicly. The two tenors shared an intense time together engaging in long conversations regarding vocal study and specific technical approaches to vocal problems. Lindquest was at that time studying with Joseph Hislop, the teacher whom Bjoerling gives credit for helping him find his tenor upper extension or high register.

Recently I decided to do a study of a video of Bjoerling's singing combining what I heard in his singing with what he did with his body to produce his extraordinary sound. This is the exact reason that my upcoming book will be accompanied by an instructional video: so that the singer or teacher can actually see what the body needs to do in order for correct vocal production to result. It is no surprise that after studying the video of Bjoerling taken from a 1950 and 1951 live television performance, I found that most all the vocal concepts that Lindquest taught me were represented completely.

So as I sat in my living room on the Upper West Side in New York City viewing a Firestone video of Jussi Bjoerling. I took long detailed notes of his performances. This particular television series was broadcast from approximately 1950 to 1963. The name of this video tape is Jussi Bjoerling in Opera and Song, produced by Video Artists International. As I began my study of Mr. Bjoerling's presentation, I noticed one thing immediately: the slight look of discomfort in the singer's eyes while appearing on live television. I know this intense feeling from appearing on live television myself at a very early age. The pressure is immense to perform to your maximum capability with few mistakes. No matter how much rehearsal a singer has, there is still that realization that a camera is taking your performance to thousands of people. I actually was relieved that I was not the only singer in the world that felt nervous in such a situation.

As I watched and listened carefully, I decided to study the tape from the beginning taking detailed notes. The first selection from this broadcast of March 6, 1950 is Victor Herbert's Neopolitan Song from Princess Pat. The absolute first thing I noticed about Bjoerling was his posture. His weight was slightly forward on the front of the feet (Italian appoggio). Immediately this set up his breath to be low from the start of the performance. There was a slight bend at his hip sockets which allows the breath to go lower in the body. As he began the first note, he leaned slightly more forward to engage the lower back muscles even more. This brought the cords together immediately for the perfect attack or onset of sound. As he approached the upper register, his head tilted slightly up (skull away from the jaw) and this created a slight curve in the back of the neck. The result of this slight physical action allows the root of the tongue to relax. It also allows the singer to realize a wide and spread dome of space in the soft palate. One more thing I noticed was that Mr. Bjoerling's ears were always lined up directly over his shoulders. His head never pushed forward as he sang. This keeps the back of the throat more open allowing for the vowels to be more pharyngeal in nature. As he starts the Faust aria, he repeats the similar posture in order to get the body support under the voice. There is definitely a "gentle chewing motion of the jaw" that Lindquest spoke about extensively. On sustained tones, there was a space between the back teeth (molars) which helped to sustain a more open acoustical space as well. His 'ee' vowel is extremely rounded with an oval mouth shape and the vowels are NEVER spread. Mr. Bjoerling was fortunate to have a rather rosebud mouth. This shape encouraged him to round the vowels consistently. In his pronouncing in this aria one never sees the jaw thrust downward. Many tenors develop the thrusting downward of the jaw and it causes a 'gag reflex' at the base of the tongue. Bjoerling never does this. He stays with the gentle down and back motion of the jaw which allows more of a legato line.

As he moves through the Faust aria his body becomes more engaged as the more dramatic passages occur. Instead of pushing too much breath pressure, he works with his body more and more to hold back the breath pressure. Repeatedly as he gets more dramatic he leans more and more forward with the body which engages the lower back. As he goes for the high C at the end of the aria it is obvious that he opens his mouth with the skull away from the jaw, not the jaw away from the skull. This allows for the proper acoustical space for the high C. The palate is domed and open. His jaw is down and back and his body is leaning forward.

Next on the program is the La Boheme duet. Mr. Bjoerling opens the duet with his back to the audience. His profile is in sight of the camera at about a 45 degree angle. This film proves beyond any doubt that Jussi Bjoerling used a down and back motion of the jaw. Later, after the first several lines of the duet, he moves to the side of his wife Anna-Lisa and they begin toward the high C that many singers dread. This is the only place on the tape that Bjoerling locks the back of his neck. He locks the neck straight and it is more difficult for him to sustain the tone because of the pressure the tongue root places on the vocal folds. As I say to any singer, "There is no perfect performance and there is no perfect singer. We just strive for consistency." Jussi Bjoerling never locked the back of his neck on any other part of the tape. It is evident that the slight curve in the back of the neck allows the tongue to release simultaneously.

Now I begin the second broadcast on the tape of November 19, 1951. Jussi Bjoerling opens the program with "Ah Love, But a Day" by Beach. One of the first things I noticed in the opening statement was how beautifully the voice traveled on the ng ring. I often tell my tenors to use the idea of the ng or the french un as in the English word uncle to help find the nasal resonance. Bjoerling's jaw position is absolutely down and back and the tone is riding on the beautiful ring every minute of this piece of music. I noted that he always showed his upper teeth for the higher notes and many notes on the staff as well. This keeps the brilliance in the voice. He NEVER shows the lower teeth which pulls the soft palate down. Alan Lindquest used to use the idea of the 'Mona Lisa smile' which I see Bjoerling uses throughout his singing: the lift of the cheeks under the eyes that brings the soft palate higher internally. Also during this song I noticed that the Italian u vowel was always resonating in the cheeks. This Italian u as well as the o are often 'dull vowels' which do not ring in the cheeks enough. Bjoerling handles these vowels quite well and the ring in the voice never leaves. This is accomplished through the high and spread palate. I use this concept in my voice studio in New York and my studios in Europe as well. Another observation I had was of Mr. Bjoerling's Italian a which is never spread or unprotected. Basically, he never sings a wide open unprotected sound. This explains why he never sounds throaty.

Next on the program is Strauss' "Staendchen". He begins the song with the head at about a 45 degree angle. This allows for a high and wide palate to keep the voice open. As usual he is also using the appoggio or leaning of the body. Bjoerling uses the idea of pronouncing through the cheek bones almost all the time in his singing. Never is a tone barked or screamed. In this piece of music he demonstrates his vocal excellence completely. The gently curved neck is always present in the upper register. He never locks his neck and the mouth position is oval with the upper teeth slightly showing.

From Strauss he goes to the "Vesti la giubba" from I Pagliacci. This is quite a demanding piece of music in terms of tessitura. Mr. Bjoerling handles it beautifully because of his understanding of the passaggio: it is never spread. The mouth is always oval in shape and the breath control is balanced from the connection to the lower back. His jaw chews down and back consistently and there is no tremendous breath pressure as the music becomes more and more dramatic. Many tenors could learn how to handle this piece by watching this video. In the upper register he uses what Lindquest calls the "Italian tiger" or "snarl". This stretches the appropriate space for the extreme high notes. The pharynx widens when the "Italian tigering" is employed. The secret for the tenor is not to do this too early in the scale. I usually does not begin until high A natural and more is added all the way up to the high C. Bjoerling knows exactly how to handle his facial posture and negotiates the registers beautifully. Because his jaw is back, his upper register flips into the tenor extension. Many tenors dream of such a smooth transition and the secret is right on the video tape.

The end of the program is a "Thanksgiving Prayer" by Krenzer. It is a great example of how to handle the Italian 'ee' vowel with the rounded mouth position. There is not much to say about this piece. It is an audience pleaser.

The following list is of concepts to remember that I noticed in the singing of Jussi Bjoerling.

Concepts to Remember

(1) Neck is never locked straight. There is always a slight curve in the neck without the weight of the head 'crunching' the spine.

(2) The appoggio or leaning of the body weight is employed to engage the back muscles. The sternum resists straight forward.

(3) The jaw motion is down and back. When possible, the consonants are dentalized or flipped as in Italian. If the jaw must move, it is in a gentle chewing motion down and back.

(4) The tongue is always arched and out of the throat as in the ng position.

(5) In the extreme high register, the Italian tigering or snarl is employed to open the back of the pharynx more.

(6) There is always a bend at the hip sockets for the breath to go low in the body.

(7) Most of the time, the upper teeth are allowed to show while the mouth position remains oval in shape. This lifts the soft palate.

(8) Bjoerling never pushes too much breath pressure for the note.

(9) The lower teeth are never allowed to show. The lower lip is always relaxed over the lower teeth. If lower teeth are allowed to show, the singer is pulling down the soft palate.

I hope that you enjoyed this observation of the video tape. The tape is produced by Video Artists International, tape # 69101. For more information, write Video Artists International, P.O. Box 153, Ansonia Station, New York, NY 10023.

(c) David L. Jones/2000

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