More Bang for the Buck: The Swedish Phonation Model

When we think of Björling, Gedda, Winberg, Nilsson, etc, the picture that comes to mind is great power with what sounds like little effort and amazing elasticity. What is it about the Swedes that promote such cool fluidity? The machine-like efficiency of the Swedes have often compared unfavorably with their Italian predecessors. Swedes are often said to have a Nordic coolness as compared with their passionate Italian counterparts. In my opinion, nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed I find the Swedes to be fantastically passionate people. I have had the pleasure of teaching a few Swedish singers over the last few years and I have found them extremely passionate in their expression, both musically and personally. Those that I have met are all quite affable and rather extroverted. Why then do the Swedes get the reputation of being “Nordic cool?”

It is important to remember that opera began in Italy and that every singer who is not Italian, indeed any opera that is not Italian is unfavorably compared unless the opera or singer adheres to Italian principles and idiosyncrasies. For the last 100 years, operatic marketing has been controlled by the music of Puccini primarily. Even in our times when stylistic rules are much more clearly articulated, it is not unusual to hear performances of Mozart’s operas that are influenced by Puccini’s style. Today Internationally successful operatic tenors by and large are of Italian descent or of pseudo-Italian fashioning, with Latin descendents being an acceptable and plentiful alternative.

It is interesting that Nilsson, arguably the greatest Turandot in the history of the work, an excellent Tosca and Aida is more remembered for her “Nordic roles,” particularly Brünnhilde and Isolde. Björling who was a passionate Rodolfo and an excellent Verdian is considered the quintessential Faust, a French role closer to his Nordic heritage. Gedda is associated with Russian and French roles despite his excellence in a wide selection of Italian roles. Winbergh, a peerless Donizetti interpreter is associated with Mozart and later Wagner (really inappropriate to his lyric voice). The reason for this (at least in the case of tenors) is the following: the Swedes beginning with Björling’s and then Gedda’s meteoroic careers are models of the Italian technique heard in the first half of the 20th century. From Gigli to Pertile, Schipa to Lauri-Volpi, fluidity of phonation, elasticity throughout a very extensive range was the order of the day. Franco Corelli, a student of Lauri-Volpi, but also a product of the controversial Melocchi approach and Mario del Monaco, the standard-bearer of the Melocchi school, can be seen as a change in direction from the traditional Italian line. It is true that Del Monaco and Corelli had more robust voices and concentrated on a different repertoire. It is however essential to comment on the lyricism exhibited by Gigli and Caruso in such repertoire as L’elisir d’amore and Lucia. The voices of both Gigli and Caruso were of ample size but balanced more lightly, which yielded a different acoustic structure as compared to the post-war Italian tenors, particularly in the upper part of the acoustic envelope (Credit to Gioacchino Livigni for making this important observation. Sorry I doubted your observations).

The more dramatic Swedes include Set Svanholm, Carl Martin Oehman and Torsten Ralf. Although they were equally celebrated in the Italian repertoire it is Wagner for which they are remembered. Back then, it is fair to say that tenors were chosen for repertoire based on their nationality. Oehman was Gedda’s teacher and that of the great Finnish bass, Martti Talvela.

What is particularly notable in the performances of these Wagnerians is the lyricism with which they approach these roles. In this way is the pre-war Italian model evident. This kind of lyricism is very reminescent of the Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers who could have been influenced by the Swedes.

With the exception of Pavarotti among the internationally celebrated tenors, the muscular balance that is the hallmark of Italian phonation was abandoned with the reign of Del Monaco and Corelli. The new order until today is to balance the voice toward darker colors. There are two reasons why this continued. 1) The rise in the popularity of opera after the Second World War caused a shrinking of the repertory to include mostly Puccini, certain Verdian operas, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart and Carmen, the few operas that could be easily produced by the rising number of small opera companies in the United States. 2) The superficial approach to vocal training as compared to pre-war times favored the more easily coordinated lyric voices. The spinto tenors required for much of this repertory are supplanted by lyric tenors thickening their voices after the Corelli/Del Monaco model. The result in those cases is a gradual lowering of the natural muscular passaggio and thereby a gradual inability to sustain the high tessitura of the tenor repertoire. In short, these tenors gradually undo their top range, Del Monaco, noticeably and Corelli less so.

The difference in the approach of tenors beginning in the 1950s gives a clear view of Swedish superiority from an objective standpoint. I was lucky enough to have heard Gedda and Winbergh live and can appreciate the extraordinary resonance of their voices. Yet resonance is dependent upon the source tone, and therefore upon the mode of phonation. In this area, the Swedes armed not only with the pre-1950 Italian sound as a virtuous muscular model, but also with the onset of modern vocal science for a confirmation of their superior acoustical model. The writings of Johann Sundberg proved the superior efficiency of the Swedes at that time. However, they were too good!

The prewar Italians (Gigli, Lauri-Volpi, etc) were models of perfect muscular balance. Each note was ideally balanced between vocalis and crico-thyroid yielding a glottal pattern that exchanged air efficiently across the vocal folds. The limited vocalic choices of the Italian Language however limited vocal tract adjustments. The Italian school would not deal with second formant resonance through vowel modification but rather through rounding and widening of the cardinal vowels (i.e. aperto and coperto/cupo). Theoretically this is vowel modification, but of a limited fashion because the acoustic distance between the cardinal vowels leave large gaps. The Swedes however have a vocalic vocabulary extensive enough to allow for more exact tuning of the vocal tract yielding a more consistently inertial acoustic environment. Supra-glottal Inertial Reactance makes possible a longer open phase of the glottal cycle, which means greater propagation of air during each cycle. This yields greater acoustic pressure (i.e. volume) because of lesser medial glottal pressure. This is why the Swedish voice (particularly of the tenors) can seem somewhat overly breath-driven when compared to its Italian counterpart. Yet it is not. Through vocal tract inertia, the Swedes are able to release more air, yet during the shorter close phase, the folds close completely. The partition of the air stream for each glottal cycle is complete. The sluggishness of the supra-glottal air lengthens the close phase even as the glottis is actually in an open posture. Thus more air moves through. It is perhaps serendipitous that Sundberg published his early theories on the acoustics of the vocal tract around the same time that Björling and Gedda became two of the most celebrated tenors of the time, with a number of other Swedish singers close on their heels.

The ease, with which Gedda and Björling sang, throughout their range and of course notably in the high register, was a mixed blessing. The higher glottal resistance with which the Italian predecessors sang was more effortful. But not so effortful that their voices would ever suffer. It was a matter of degree. Empirically, Björling’s voice under acoustic analysis is considered the absolute model of efficiency. Many papers have been published to that effect, most notably by the late Richard Miller. However, Italian opera was built upon Italian passion, better represented by a little tension (or a lot of tension in the case of the post-war Italians). Furthermore, there is no substitute for an Italian opera singer singing in his/her native language. Superior glottal efficiency and superior musicianship as exhibited by both Gedda and Björling were considered bland when compared to the physical histrionics of Del Monaco, and the bella figura of Corelli.

In the United States at least, an operatic package is multi-faceted. An operatic culture developed on a steady diet of Italian stars, American fans for the most part favor Italians in a largely Italian repertory, and of course favor native Italians singing it. And with Corelli being a particularly tall tenor with a head like the American movie idol of the time, Rock Hudson, the Swedes had not a chance. In fact, even comparing all of this as a historical exercise over youtube, I am equally seduced by Corelli and the many successors who attempted to fill his shoes. And I bet many Swedes are also. Indeed in our operatic times, if we have to chose, passion and tension and a beautiful face trump efficiency and musicianship every time.

Far from disparaging the Italian model, this article is meant to assert that perhaps the Italian tradition was better carried forward “techinically” by the Swedes after World War II. For my part, I say bring back the Swedes! For if you see them live and not just listen to them on recordings, they are also beautiful and passionate. Don’t let their easy voices fool you.

Edgardo: Uno Stjernqvist
Lucia: Margareta Hallin

© 07/29/2009


14 thoughts on “More Bang for the Buck: The Swedish Phonation Model

  1. Great post! There does seem to be something unique about the Swedes in their approach to the voice, with their very bright and light voices with tremendous ring and carrying power. Gosta Winbergh sang Dalla sua pace probably better than any other rendition I've heard, able to modulate between tender and delicate singing and masculine heroic singing in a matter a few bars.

    Here is my question in all of this. What can we apply from the great Swedish singers to our own singing? Why are their voices so efficient? In your post you assert that their native language encouraged them to make more exact resonance adjustments than the Italians, leading to easier phonation thanks to inertial reactance. So to sing more efficiently like the Swedes we need to find more exact resonance adjustments? What else can we do?

    I've long read David Jones' web articles with great interest and he claims to teach an entire technique based on what he claims are the concepts of the “Swedish-Italian” school of singing. He has a CD out with exercises that I have not had a chance to hear yet, but I think am going to be able to get my hands on soon. From what I've read on his website he seems to emphasise an exercise he calls “cuperto” in which the singer descends on a “tiny oo” two octaves from head voice downward. What thoughts do you have on cultivating a more fluid and efficient phonation like Bjorling, Gedda, and the other singers you mentioned?

  2. Dear George,

    I find the Swedish “formula” to be rather unique. Indeed the vocalic diversity of Swedish does make for more flexible and exact vocal tract adjustments. But obviously a wide vocalic spectrum is not unique to Swedish. Nordic vocalic palettes (e.g. German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, etc) are very similar. The Swedish School, a 20th century phenomenon had the additional benefit of emulating the virtues of Italian phonation, particularly the “voce magra” (lean voice) and the ability to perform such flexible feats as the “messa di voce”.

    As for the lean [u] suggested by David Jones, it makes sense but is hardly a singular exercise. There are many ways to achieve the leanness necessary to produce the Swedish results. The ability to perform the lean [u] reveals that the voce magra, the ideal balance between the two main laryngeal muscle groups, has already been achieved. The ideal balance requires balanced strength in the two muscle groups as to make a gradual exchange of dominance between them leading to unimpeded rise to the upper range. The vocalis must provide adequate activity in order that the correct fold depth results, but never so much as to impede the necessary lengthening of the folds by the crico-thyroid. In essence we must learn to recognize what the right level of leanness is for each note. Over-thickening yields not only excessive close quotient and subglottic pressure, but gradual loss of range. I concentrate indeed on the prewar Italians for that leanness. Bjoerling has admitted to having Gigli as a model. One can hear the flexibility, leanness in both voices.

    To summarize, the Swedish superiority is a synthesis of the Italian model of phonation and the Nordic vocalic palette for more exact vocal tract adjustment.

  3. I just read an article today that mentioned that it can be difficult to find true spinto tenors, and that many lyric tenors use a “spinto technique” to emulate the pushed sound of a true spinto. Is this supposed spinto technique the same thing you are referring to as the Corelli/Del Monaco model?

  4. Thanks for the comment and question Jaadamgo! This is a little more complicated. Del Monaco and Corelli were bigger-voiced tenors whose voices were appropriate for the spinto repertoire. But both pushed their voices. The baritone quality of their voices that they are celebrated for was overly nurtured in both. Del Monaco's Melocchi approach contributed to that and he lost range over time. His Bbs even were less consistent in later years (several videos on youtube attest to this). Corelli's decline was much more gradual because his voice was balanced between the Melocchi influence and Lauri-Volpi's technique (two polar opposites). Many believe that Corelli's fixation on the low larynx could have been caused some forcing that over a long period of time reduced his flexibility. We do not hear messa di voce and soft singing from Corelli in the later years, and his high C was not heard in the last few years.

    Indeed there is a pandemic (it is a disease) among lyric tenors relative to thickening their production to do the spinto rep. That is diametrically opposed to the approach of the pre-Corelli/Del Moncao Italian tenors. A singer is more than his vocal technique, so we accept this vocal fault from many tenors in particular because they have other virtues (e.g. acting, musicianship, charisma). I do not believe that spintos are that rare. The spinto or dramatic tenor voice requires time. The operatic business has become youth driven, to the point of top singers lying about their ages. Agents and GMDs decided some time back to take a gamble of lyric tenors gradually taking on heavier repertoire (hoping that their fame will carry them). This has been a lucrative gamble for managers, but I think they are the only ones who benefit. The singers end up with shorter shelf-lives and the quality of opera as a whole has gone significantly down.

  5. Wow, it really generated some national pride to read this extol of the virtues of the Swedish tenor voice!

    If I understand you correctly, you argue that e.g. Gedda and Björling used a lower closed quotient of phonation compared to the Italian powerhouses, right? Sounds reasonable to me, but do you have any evidence for this hypothesis other than how the voices sound?

    If that hypothesis is true, and if no other effects come into play, these voices would be lacking in harmonics compared to voices with a larger closed quotient. So you argue that these voices would rely (more than voices with a larger closed quotient) on pulse-skewing to generate these harmonics. That is, the sound pulse is skewed by non-linear interaction with an inertial vocal tract (along the lines we have discussed before). Am I interpreting you correctly? (The advantage with this approach would be a high efficiency and less stress on the vocal folds.)

    This is in line with Titze's recent papers on the subject. To identify this kind of technique particularly with the Swedes if fine with me -:), but is perhaps a little speculative…

    Anyway, thanks for an, as always, interesting post. I particularly enjoyed the cut with Set Svanholm!



  6. Dear Martin,

    I thought this might grab your attention! I am not new in hailing the Swedish tradition as understanding something unique and in keeping with the best of the original Italian Bel Canto precepts.

    You understand my stance correctly. We understand from Titze why a lower close quotient combined with a skewed pulse (made possible by vocal tract inertia)would be the most efficient solution. This is the only thing that could explain why the Swedes in particular could make such powerful sound in a way that is so flexible.

    I also believe that in a compliant vocal tract, 50% close quotient would be the most efficient. A higher than 50% close quotient reveals an inherent dysfunction. Pitch depends on fold depth primarily. The amount of time it takes for one complete cycle is the driving variable for pitch. I believe that complex acoustic envelope rich in overtones is best produced when there is exactly the right fold depth to provide glottal resistance. I am working on a post to explain this further. When fold depth is too shallow for a given pitch, a higher close quotient is what remedies the problem. In other words, pressed voice. Pressed voice is a product of too thin vocal folds, and breathiness is a necessary component of folds that are too deep if the correct rate of oscillation is to be maintained. This latter state would produce a tone lacking in high harmonics, certainly. This is often remedied by a supra-glottal squeeze. Why a singer would produce this sound makes no sense except that function is driven by the singer's personal expectation of voice quality (aesthetics). The aesthetics are not always correct relative to the individual voice.

    Most dysfunction occurs because the expectation of the sound is inconsistent with the true nature of the voice, whether a bass who artificially darkens his sound, or a tenor who presses thinking that stridency is squillo.

    As for documentation, I am compiling “again” acoustic analysis of different singers to compare. Since all my data was stolen in New York, I have had to start over again. But I am working to show acoustically how the Swedish tradition is in keeping with pre-Del Monaco Italian technique. Cont…

  7. …What is unique about the Swedes, as I mentioned in the post, is not only their superior acoustic manipulation (more exact vocal tract adjustments) but the phonation aesthetics. The Swedish model even today is geared toward a “leaner” phonation (voce magra). More dependent upon longitudinal tension than increased fold mass. Swedish tenors sound more like tenors, more lyrical than the post-war Italians. If we compare to the Germans for instance, there is the same potential for more exact vocal tract adjustment (because German has a similar vocalic spectrum). However, the German phonation model is more geared toward greater fold mass. When we look at the German language operatic model, the tessitura is lower for the most part. Mozart tenor roles have lower tessitura if we look at the arias, and do not require any notes above Bb. Weber, likewise has lower tessituras if we look at Max, Adolar and Oberon. Wagner is obvious.

    What is difficult in the German repertoire is that even though the tessitura is relatively lower by a half-step or even a whole step, these composers require the tenor to stay in the muscular passaggio for long period of time. I find Edgardo's “fra poco a me ricovero” a lot easier than the Preislied for that reason. The German roles, including Mozart foster a thicker passaggio, which makes muscular transitioning (vocalis to CT dominance) difficult. Folds that are too thick also have a different acoustic signal. I believe the prewar dramatic tenors had naturally thicker fold mass used appropriately for the given pitch, as opposed to the tendency of post-war lyric tenors thickening their voices to make a more dramatic sound. In truth, the prewar dramatic tenors sound more tenorial than their faux-dramatic post-war counterparts. The baritone-like color associated with the Melocchi types had a profound effect on the vocal landscape. Pavarotti is the shining light through all that darkness.

    More on this this week.

    Thanks for commenting. I've missed your scientific mind.

  8. How did I miss this post?!
    Very intriguing, not only because it strokes my Swedish ego. 😉

    A minor typo: It's Johan Sundberg with one 'n' – not the German spelling.

    I caught a very interesting anecdote in a Swedish PhD thesis on Jussi's father (Liljas). 17 year´-old Jussi auditioned for Martin Oehman in his hotel room, and Oehman wrote that he was completely floored by this youngling, who sang beautifully, 'absolutely correctly' and with a natural lightness.

    Oehman, btw, had difficulty finding a place at the Swedish Royal Opera because his voice was considered 'too dark' for a tenor. This is something that IMHO plagues Sweden today, as perhaps the Italian influence has weakened a bit: whereas Miller noted that Italians do not necessarily expect different timbres in tenors and baritones (singing in the same range, they tend to sound alike –, Swedes tend to expect tenors to sound very different from baritones.

    While, as you point out, baritones with their thicker vocal cords should sound a bit different, I think many Swedish tenors wrongfully shy away from making their voices bigger and end up singing in the nose, terrified of being classified as 'not a tenor'. Before I started learning singing 'for real', I was impressed with the brilliance of Jussi's voice; now I'm impressed with the fullness.

  9. JRL, you wrote: “I believe the prewar dramatic tenors had naturally thicker fold mass used appropriately for the given pitch, as opposed to the tendency of post-war lyric tenors thickening their voices to make a more dramatic sound.”

    Immediately, I thought of Max Lorenz, who made singing Wagner sound practically effortless.

    Granted, he wasn't so much pre-war as mid-war, perhaps, but what a voice! For those who understand German, there's a wonderful documentary at

  10. Dear Ulf,

    First, thank you for the clip of Max Lorenz. A jewel. Such a naturally balanced voice. And an artist too.

    As for Giacomini/Nucci, I find it interesting that you should chose that pair. They are two anomalies. Giacomini darkened his voice considerably to his detriment later in his career. Nucci in my opinion could have been a tenor. He had the best top of any baritone I've ever heard and had to darken also to make his voice turn acoustically like a baritone. They both sounded amazing at their best. Nucci in particular still sings unbelievably well. The darkening is more problematic if one has to sing as a tenor. I think baritones and tenors at their best do sound different. Try these two clips:

  11. JRL,

    Thanks for those two clips. Bergonzi is interesting in his own right, since he was initially trained as a baritone, and then re-trained himself as a tenor. 🙂

    I agree that a great baritone and a great tenor ought to sound a bit different in the intersection where their voices blend, simply because their respective instruments are different.

    I found another clip, with Martinucci & Merrill ( I thought it was a nice display of the different announciation styles of Italian and non-Italian singers. To me, Martinucci really uses textbook Italian diction, taking tremendous care of each consonant.

    Ulf W

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