Johann Jonatan Björling was born in Stora Tuna, Sweden, on February 5, 1911. His father, David Björling, was also a tenor. He, his father, and two brothers (Johann Olof [1909-1965]; and Karl Gustav [1912-1957] made tours beginning in 1916 as the Björling Male Quartet. The three boys went by the nicknames "Jussi, Olle, and Gösta." All three brothers, and even their younger brother Karl David ("Kalle," [1917-1875]) had singing careers. The Björling Male Quartet toured the United States from 1919 to 1921, and then returned to Sweden, remaining active until 1926. His voice remained strong and clear when it made the transition to tenor, suggesting intelligent coaching and training in technique from his father.
Björling began studies at the Stockholm Conservatory in 1928. His teachers were Joseph Hislop and John Forsell. His first operatic appearance at the Royal Swedish Opera was on July 21, 1930 in the brief part of the Lamplighter in Puccini's Manon Lescaut. This was intended as a warmup, for he had already been engaged to make his official debut there as Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni (August 20, 1930), and soon went on to sing Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell and Jonathan in Nielsen's Saul og David (Saul and David). He was a member of the repertory cast of the Stockholm Opera until 1938, and never broke his ties with that company.
Meanwhile, his international fame grew, and he gave a number of performances in the leading operatic venues of Europe. In 1937 he made his New York debut in a Carnegie Hall recital, an event that was broadcast live from the stage. That year he also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time, singing one of his signature roles, that of Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème. During the prewar years he appeared in the opera houses of San Francisco, Chicago, Covent Garden, and others. In 1935 he married Anna-Lisa Berg. New York and the rest of the world had to do without him during World War II, which he spent in neutral Sweden (1941-1945).
After the war he returned to the major world stages, appearing at the Metropolitan Opera every year but two from 1945 to 1959. His repertoire centered on Italian opera, in which he succeeded especially well in New York, but not so notably in Italy. His career in this respect resembles that of Martinelli, another tenor with a pure, strong voice and ringing top notes, who did without the vocal histrionics (such as sobbing catches in the voice) that are preferred in Italy. His major roles, in addition to Rodolfo, were other Puccini heroes, (Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut; Gounod's Faust, Verdi's Don Carlos, and the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto). He possessed great tonal consistency throughout his register, a very smooth voice, exceptionally beautiful tone, and outstanding musicianship. His voice retained its purity and lack of strain throughout his career.
On March 15, 1960, he suffered a heart attack while in rehearsals for a performance as Rodolfo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Despite the discomfort, he persevered and sang the part. His final appearance was on August 20, 1960. He died in Stockholm on September 9, 1960, at the age of forty-nine.
Björling's legacy of recordings was substantial. His portrayal of Rodolfo was immortalized in a classic recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. His Turandot, with Renata Tebaldi and his countrywoman Birgit Nilsson in the female roles and conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, is a classic credited with having sparked the delayed public acceptance of this last Puccini work. Some of his Swedish broadcast concerts, with a light-hearted and informal air, have been released as well. ~ Joseph Stevenson