The background of David Björling

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ICVT7 Thursday July 16 16.00

Dr. Juvas Marianne Liljas, Sweden
The purpose of this presentation is to give a concluding picture of the dissertation What is to become of these children?, a study of David Björling’s way of teaching and the background to it in older traditions of teaching singing (2007)
The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) has fascinated his audience for nearly a century. Through his recordings he inspire new generations of singers. He made an international career and has been known as one of the greatest singers in the 20th century. His career started early. He made his opera début when he was nineteenth. The real debut happened however in a church when he was four. Together with his brothers, Olle and Gösta, he made a tremendous success. At the time the Björling boys already got song education for several years from their father.
The background of David Björling

Karl David Björling (1873-1926) was born in north Sweden. He was trained to work as a blacksmith as his father and grandfather. His father, Lars Johan Björn, was a documented good singer. He loved to use his powerful voice in the church and to sing with his children. The Björlings was a family of voice talents and together they formed their own church choir.
When he was young, David Björling emigrated to America, where he was discovered and accepted at Metropolitan opera School. During his education he had an opportunity to perform alongside Enrico Caruso. David Björling also claims to have been given singing lesson by Caruso. DB continued his studies at the Music conservatory in Vienna in 1907. At the conservatory Björling was taught singing by the head teacher of singing, Franz Haböck (1868-1922). [Haböck is famous for his publications about castratos and their art of singing] From the yearly report one can see that DB in his main subject singing got the highest grade (Vorzüglich) excellent. His other subjects were Piano, Chorschule and Italian.
During the 1910s David tried to establish himself as an opera singer. He was successful at the New Theatre in Gothenburg but he was not accepted at the Royal opera in Stockholm. An opera debut might have been near. In the March edition of Thalia, a magazine about music, in 1910 we can read that the newly discovered tenor David Björling will probably debut as Radamez in Aida. This debut never happened. David Björling was recruited instead by Sigrid Eklöf-Trobäck’s opera company.
In the reviews from his singing career his voice says to be well suited for the Italian opera repertoire. At the same time established an uncommon natural voice ideal. “Mr Björling give proof of an uncommon euphonius tenor voice, tasteful treated without any common tenormanners.”1 His tasteful singing style was noticed by among others the composer Wilhelm Stenhammar. Björling also made his debut for the Royal Family in Stockholm. When the king heard him sing he shouted; good voice!
At the Stockholm Opera, Italian opera was seen as passé. Strong forces sought a Wagnerian ideal and maybe David’s ideals were seen as out of date. Instead of an opera career David Björling set out to teach his children. He set the bar high; David Björling would form his own opera.

David Björling the pedagogue

DB was married to Ester Elisabeth Sund (1882-1917). They had four children, Olle, Jussi, Gösta and Kalle.

The children early participated in their father's singing. They were already performing with their father at the age of 3-4. Their first known review from 1915 speaks about unscarred children, who performed the songs with authority. The repertoire was unconventional for so young singers. Olle, six years, sang La donna é mobile in Italian and the three-year-old Gösta sang J.L Runeberg's Soldatgossen (The boy soldier). Together with Jussi they then sang Studentsången (the student song) by Prince Gustav.

The three boys became much sought after and churches and concert halls were packed with an expectant audience who wanted to hear these prodigies. Their ambitious singing technique was outstanding. Scales had been practised before they could talk and this tuition gave results. I quote from a review in Borlänge Tidning from the 1st of December, 1917:
Mr. Björling’s boys astounded listeners through their strength, range, and the high level of teaching their voices bore witness to. We have never seen the like of this before.2
The boys were taught for one hour every morning. Björling prepared the lecture by massaging their throats. They received serious singing teachings. From the continent Björling brought an excellent system for tonal production. He educated with great intense. His dexterity was voice placing and with a few well chosen exercises every tone would find its correct place. His precision had no limits; an exercise could be repeated 10-20 times. When David Björling opened his private singing school 1914 the children also could hear their father instruct his extern pupils. From a room beside the boys were imitating their scales, and then they laugh.
With his sons Björling was innovative. Among other tricks he used visual metaphors to make them understand. One of them was the balancing glasball on the top of a fountain jet of water. A crucial basis for David’s pedagogy was the breathe training and he wanted to illustrate that the pressure in the vocal tract is decisive for the quality of tone. He also wanted the children to imitate professional singers and used a gramophone from which he played his favourite singers. Children had to repeat fras by fras and interpret just like the models did. External pupils tell he was very talented. As a pedagogue he had a unique ability to explain the hard and make it seem simple. The seven year old Olle surprised the press. “It was remarkable what strength and volume [Full timbre] his young voice had.” Björling proudly explained that Olle could sing the scale before he could speak clearly.
In 1917 there was a family tragedy for the Björlings, Ester was stricken by tuberculosis. Two weeks before she passed away, she had her fourth son born, Kalle. At the time the three oldest boys 4, 5 and 7 years old, already were so driven singers that they could perform with song at her funeral.

In a paper: The small boys sang a Norwegian hymn at the grave chancel, but when the coffin was lowered into the grave they started to cry.

Between the years 1919 and 1921 they had a successful tour in the USA. The stir was big concerning the singing boys from Sweden. Besides the technique of voice, the interest was directed at the boys’ well developed pitch and extraordinary memory and DB was invited to music schools to demonstrate his method. Here, they also asked for written theories and DB produced his booklet How to Sing, one of the few remaining traces of David Björling.3 During the tour in America six gramophone recordings of the boy trio were made at Columbia Records in New York. These recordings were discovered by a Swedish journalist on his duty in Chicago 1936.
The concerts were given for the benefit of the boys' studies. DBs intension was to let them study singing in Italy. He planned a European tour through Germany and Austria but he got seriously ill. When DB suddenly died during a tour in south Sweden in 1926, he had performed about nine hundred concerts with his sons.
David Björlings hypothesis was to be confirmed. Björlings sons developed to professional singers; Olle as a church- and concert singer and Gösta as an opera singer. Middle child Jussi made an international career and has been known as one of the greatest tenor singers in the 20th century.
DBs teaching methods were an unexplored area and his importance for his sons’ vocal development has been described in pale colours. Reminiscians of his work was a puzzle where several pieces were missing. To understand DBs way of teaching I had to dig my self down into older traditions of teaching singing. The work took 6 years and required a lot of research from old archives. I have also used earlier research in the vocal pedagogy discipline. My method is based on French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his theory for reconstructing history into a new and deeper meaning.

Aspects on the tonal production of the Björling brothers

In both Swedish and American press the reviewers were surprised. Their tonal production did not remind very much of boy sopranos. With great astonishment, the mature and manly tonal colour from their chests is commented.
David Björling’s principals for child singing created strong reactions. Even though they were children, the Björling brothers had a tonal production and an apparition which normally belongs to adult, educated singers. The results of research show that the Western paradigm preferred a quite light and tender tonal colour for children. In relationship to this frame of reference, David Björling’s pedagogy, of teaching children singing, was defined as unorthodox and was even considered harmful for the voice of the child.
David Björling stressed, despite the criticism, the profit of the method and claimed to represent an effective method which would over due time create great results. This method of singing is linked to the establishment of breath support and resonance gives a much fuller sound. The full and naturally voice was the ideal – voce piena et naturale – with the role model from the older Italian school. This ideal of singing might have been extra hard to judge when it comes to children.
David Björling was striven for a noble and lofty character of voice. He worked with a method that comes from the intermediate position and encouraged care with the high notes before the voice was fixed. For DB the quality of voice was more important than the range of the voice. He was very careful in the choice of the boys’ repertoire and to fit the boys’ individual and changing voice status, he continuously worked with transposing.

He also prepared the sons to sing through their voice breaking by transposing their repertoire.

Voce piena et naturale comes into practice during the Florentine era and meant a historical distancing from the falsetto voice. Rather than shifting the character of the voice, the voice should be kept inside a limited range. The roots of this technique of singing lies in the tradition of the old Italian school and in the concepts chiaroscuro and appoggio, which stands for a well balanced tone of voice and a classical breath support. (Stark 1999)
The tradition that Björling was following was lost when the range of the mail voice was increased. These demands are connected to the opera repertoire as it developed in the 1900th century. The pedagogue of Jenny Lind, Isak Berg, tells us in his hand scripts those older Italian tenors has more male voice smooth. They sounded more like baritones and all tones are emanated from the dark timbre, voce chiusa, to be nuanced by chiaroscuro (Berg 1868; compare Stark 1999). My research shows that David Björlings teacher in Vienna made a great research about the education which was given in the Old Italian school of singing. (Haböck 1908; 1927)
Within the Old Italian School, the mature and well developed male chest-voice was advocated. In the purpose to gather the voice within a certain register, transpositions were recommended. This ideal of solo singing was, for the largest part, aimed to the expressive tenor voice. And this kind of art of singing was conducted in restored form, by pedagogues trying to recreate a lost skill of art. One of these pedagogues was Francesco Lamperti (1813-1892), another one was Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848). (Celletti 1991; Stark 1999)
According to my analysis David Björling is found to have roots in an older Italian tradition. The results point to recurring similarities between David Björling’s methods and the Lamperti school’s didactic principles. The Lamperti School advocated an older Italian ideal of voice and also an individually oriented training. The school is called “the natural school” and also “the national school”, it had a renaissance around 1900.

Vocal pedagogy – a historical background

An important part of my investigation was to place David Björling’s methods in the historical context of vocal pedagogy. The purpose was to create knowledge concerning how the teaching traditions of this discipline had been formed and on what grounds the pedagogical ideals have changed. My historical chapter is an exposé over the history of vocal pedagogy. In this section, I sketchily describe the rise and fall of the Bel canto tradition. I then outline the dominating schools of singing in Europe in the 1850:s.
Two of the most influential schools in Europe from the middle of the 1800s were the Garcia school in Paris and the Lamperti School in Italy and Germany. They differed markedly in emphasis. While the Lamperti School was restored from the relics of the Old Italian ideal, Manuel Garcia founded his school with the goal of developing the range of the human voice. With science based on clinical studies of the voice organs anatomy he tried to form a scientifically designed teaching with a priori arranged theories. The result of Garcias work caused a historical dichotomy between the older tradition and the growing science on the vocal pedagogic area (Celletti 1991; Fuchs 1963; Stark 1999).
At the end of the 19th century the ambition for a priori science in pedagogy of singing was problemized. Prominent voice physiologists pointed out the damage of voice that the Garcia school had given rise to, where the glottal blast, coup de la glotte, was considered the most harmful. The debate was between the modern local effort school against the no effort school, where the later dismissed all external control over the voice organs (Stark 1999). This debate was accented when David Björling was studying at the Metropolitan Opera School in New York.
In the dissertation David Björlings vocal pedagogy is connected to the natural school of singing. This natural stile, belonging in its roots to the Italian Lamperti School, challenged the artificial stile, at the time known as the French school of singing. The artificial stile, scientifically based on Manuel Garcias inventions, seemed at the time to have an forced character and a collective direction that disturbed the individual voice development (Arlberg 1881; Lange 1898; 1900; Stark 1999; Åhlén 1977).

Early learning behind Björlings education

DBs education belongs to an older Master- Pupil-tradition where DB sees himself as an important pattern. Together with his children DB creates a children nursery academy – an Italian music conservatory in miniature. To protect his sons from faulty impressions he creates a strict delimited vocal environment. In this homemade academy he uses himself and others well chosen singers as vocal models. One of them was Caruso.
The secret behinds DBs pedagogy is exceptionally early training. His starting point was to teach the child from its baby age. David Björling’s method is a form of prepedagogical education which can begin when the child is six months. At this stage the baby is very receptive for the auditive training, he claims. According to DB, formal teaching could begin at three years of age. His ambition was first and foremost directed towards systematic singing training but also piano playing and some all-round musical education (Björling u.å.)
From a didactic point of view the results show that the Björling School was formed in accordance with the pedagogical model known today as the Suzuki method. David Björling’s teaching methods are based on the older German tradition of development, a tradition in musical education which predated the Suzuki method.

My references to the Suzuki school are related to David Björling way of teaching and to the boys learning process. These boys are like Suzuki pupils able to memorise and reproduced hole music pieces and not only fragments (Sundin 1995) But, we must remember that the Björling school was basically the Suzuki method before Suzuki. [It was formed when Suzuki was only a student himself.] My research shows that they might have been influenced by similar pedagogical roots.

The Björling School seems to have its roots in older German philosophy of musical upbringing. I have isolated the term Gesang als Unterricht. This concept was based on developing the child’s musical ear, stimulating the child’s ability to memorise and giving the child a natural way of expressing itself in song (Uddén 2001).
David Björling is also found to have been inspired by theories of teaching children singing that were proposed at the beginning of the last century. A certain amount of congruity with Algot Lange’s Concerning Tonal Production in Singing and Speaking (1900) can be established. In Lange’s school of singing there are theoretical principles for very early singing training of children. Lange advocates training that begins with the child’s naturally correct voice and breathing technique. He describes a unique situation where an infant listens to a perfect vocal pattern and aurally builds up their voice from the beginning. This should result in a perfect voice placement. It is said to depend on the teacher being able to carry over a feeling of the beauty and quality of tone as well as the correct pitch (Lange 1900).
Lange focuses on the special beauty and charm of boy’s voices. The problem is the inferior school song where the boy’s beautiful voices re continually destroyed. David Björling also had the same mistrust of singing in school. He forbade his sons from singing in school which resulted in Jussi Björling not being graded in singing.

1 Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts Tidning 22/19 1912.

2  Borlänge Tidning 1/12 1917.

3 David Björling: Hur man skall sjunga. U. å.

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