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May 2019
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2003-04-29 Summerhill boy was singer's singer

The Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling, occupies the Number 1 spot on my list of favourite tenors.


The music critic Alan Blyth described him as the greatest tenor of the century, and in a Classic FM poll, he was Number 1 on their list of all-time singers.

Born on February 5, 1911 in Stora Tuna in Sweden, as a child Jussi toured Europe and the USA with his father and two brothers in the Björling Male Quartet.

He made his professional debut in the same role as me  the tiny role of the Lamplighter in Puccinis Manon Lescaut.

Jussi made his US operatic debut in 1937 as the Duke in Verdis Rigoletto in Chicago, and soon after became a favourite at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performing all the major tenor roles there.

Jussi sang with most of the great singers of his day and under the baton of such esteemed conductors as Beecham and Toscanini.

He has bequeathed to the world a rich discography of 10 full opera recordings, a Verdi Requiem, and many fine recital discs.

Probably his most famous recording is his definitive performance of Bizets Pearl Fishers Duet with the baritone Robert Merrill.

Björlings stagecraft and mastery of languages were by no means exemplary, but his flawless technique, silvery tone, bright and ringing upper register and pianissimi to die for (soft singing) all come together to make him Pavarottis favourite tenor.

A very readable and truthful biography eponymously titled Jussi, by his wife Anna Lisa (and Andrew Farkas) tells his story, and sadly how drink was his killer.


There are several Björling websites and Björling societies. Jussi died, aged 49, in 1960 on September 9th (strangely enough my birthday). Enrico Carusos widow, Dorothy, reputedly said Jussi, you are the only one to wear Enricos mantle  bear Ricos crown!.

By the time the new-born Jussi was emitting the first screams from his million-dollar throat, a young Irish tenor was already taking the opera world by storm, having made his Met debut in New York the year before Jussis birth. John Francis McCormack was born in Athlone in 1884 of Scottish parents and he attended school at Summerhill College in Sligo.

In 1903 he became the youngest ever winner of the Tenor Solo in Dublins Feis Ceoil, the second prize having been awarded to James Joyce, yes, the James Joyce!

John received his early training as part of the Palestrina Choir in Dublin under the guidance of Vincent OBrien. He then went to study in Milan and made his Covent Garden debut in 1907 as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana.

John sang with many of the stars of his day including Nellie Melba, of Peach Melba fame. He became a US citizen in 1919, and by the time he made his farewell in Monte Carlo in 1923, McCormack had performed in all the major opera houses in Europe and the USA. His Irish accent sometimes comes through, even in foreign languages, and there is a little too much nyea in the voice for my liking.

Like Björling , McCormack was more of an acting singer than a singing actor, and his stagecraft often had little or no emotional depth, but his natural tenor voice was glorious.

He himself admitted he was dedicated to tone rather than drama. He boasted a seamless legato (smooth singing), flawless breath control and an easy top.

His recording of Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni is still the definitive recording of that aria. His vocal purity and technical brilliance made John McCormack a singers singer. After 1923, he found his home on the recital platform, often attracting crowds of up to 10,000  a pop singer of his day.

He was made a Papal Count in 1928 for his services to Catholic charities. He also left a large recorded legacy spanning almost 40 years with songs from every genre, and even made a film.

How nice it would be to hear his voice using todays recording equipment. John McCormack died in September 1945, and again his wife (Lily) wrote a charming biography - I hear you calling me. If you would like to know more about a son of Ireland we ought to be most proud of, there are several relevant websites, or you could enjoy a beautiful meal at QV2 in Dublin owned and run by his grandson John!