Celebrating Jussi Bjorling and Leontyne Price

By James David Jacobs

Feb. 5 & 6

This weekend we pay tribute to two singers, Jussi Bjorling and Leontyne Price.  These are two singers whose legacies are so assured that they might sometimes be taken for granted, but I invite you to tune in at 10 am Saturday and Sunday morning this weekend and hear for yourself what we can still learn by actually listening to their voices.

Our celebration of Jussi Bjorling commemorates what would have been his 100th birthday on Saturday. He was born in Sweden on February 5, 1911. He made his professional debut at the age of nineteen; his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1937; his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1938. The end of the war coincided with advances in recording and broadcasting technology, and during the late 40s and 50s he was a true superstar, dubbed the "Swedish Caruso," an upward trajectory stopped only by his death due to heart failure in 1960.

Despite his untimely demise, however, he can be said to have fulfilled his promise, and was ranked "Greatest Singer of the Century" in numerous polls. We'll hear him in a variety of repertoire. A tango from a Kalman operetta recorded in 1930 reveals a young singer who sounds like he would be just as happy becoming a pop star; there's not a trace of the kind of condescension or stylistic inappropriateness one hears in many opera singers' crossover projects.

Made eight years later, his recording of "Au mont Ida trois deesses" from La Belle Helene IS a bit stylistically inappropriate, but thrillingly so: he invests Offenbach with a Verdian intensity that ennobles the music. Speaking of Verdi, we'll hear Bjorling sing two versions of Ingemisco from the Requiem: on Saturday we'll hear his version from 1938, recorded as a single selection with a Swedish studio orchestra; on Sunday we'll hear it in the context of the entire Dies Irae sequence, from a recording made in 1960 with the Vienna Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner - one of Bjorling's last recordings, made three months before his death.

One of the other soloists on that recording, however, was in her thirties, at the peak of her career, and is still very much alive - Leontyne Price.

As it happens, Leontyne Price also has a birthday coming up: she'll turn 84 next Thursday. (She's currently living in Greenwich Village, not far from where the 102-year-old Elliot Carter is also currently residing.) Our consideration of her career comes in conjunction with Black History Month, which 99.5 All Classical will be commemorating in various ways throughout the month of February.

Ms. Price was a role model for an entire generation of African American youth. I can attest to this; in September 1971 I moved to Berkeley, California, entering the fifth grade, and was part of the first year of mandatory desegregation busing. Being white, I was in the minority in my school, and I had a black teacher. I learned all about slavery and the history of civil rights struggles, and I noticed even then, having already developed an interest in classical music, that Leontyne Price was touted as a cultural hero and icon for my classmates, her picture taking pride of place alongside those of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Dick Gregory.

I remember once one of my classmates starting to make fun of me for carrying my cello around, and a black girl came to my defense, saying "Classical music is cool. That's what Leontyne sings." And as the seventies progressed I noticed more and more young black singers going into opera and citing Leontyne as an inspiration. (Everyone referred to her as Leontyne, her first name being as much a unique moniker as Michelangelo's. And I'm using the term "black" rather than "African-American" for this note because that's the racial designation Leontyne reportedly prefers.)

On Sunday we'll hear, in addition to her contribution to the Verdi Requiem mentioned above, selections from throughout her storied career including two selections from an opera in danger of being marginalized by history, Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, written especially for her voice and the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966. (The texts are printed below.) Twenty-seven years earlier, when Marian Anderson was barred from singing for an integrated audience in Washington's Constitution Hall, it would have been unthinkable that a black woman would be the star performer on opening night of the Met season. And in 1966 it was unthinkable that a black man would be elected President of the United States. I have a feeling Obama owes something to Leontyne too.

(adapted from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, scene i):
Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love. The music, ho!
Give me mine angle; we'll to the river.
There, my music playing far off,
I will betray tawny-finn'd fishes.
And, as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say 'Ah, ha! you're caught!'
That time,--O times!--
I laugh'd him out of patience; and that night
I laugh'd him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
My man of men!
Charmian, O Charmian,
Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? or is he on his horse?
O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse! for wot'st thou whom thou movest?
The demi-Atlas of this earth.
He's speaking now,
Or murmuring 'Where's my serpent of old Nile?'
For so he calls me: now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black,
And wrinkled deep in time?
Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.

(adapted from Act V, scene ii)
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act.
husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.
Come, thou mortal wretch,
[To an asp, which she applies to her breast]
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie.
Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,--
O Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too.
[Applying another asp to her arm]
Why should I stay In this vile world?
Now I feed myself with most delicious poison.
That I might sleep out this great gap of time.
My man of men!

View Playlists


WCRB Programs and Features

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Sunday Night Special Concerts
The Bach Hour
CD of the Week
Classical Performance Podcast

Sunday Night Opera

Follow WCRB

Sign Up

Sign-up for updates from 99.5 WCRB, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.




Support for WGBH is provided by:
Become a WGBH sponsor