Dreams of a singing career
During her childhood, Birgit longed for something other than farm work. Music occupied her thoughts and she dreamed of becoming a singer. She had heard that wishes came true if made upon a falling star. So every time she saw a falling star, she curtseyed and made her wish.
Ragnar Blennow in Åstorp, Sweden. Private photo
Otto the farmhand was the first one to encourage her interest in song and music. On her fourth birthday he gave her a toy piano ”as big as a cigar box, and with one octave in C-major.” Her interest grew and Birgit began practicing on an organ at a neighboring farmhouse. Her father did not want her to disturb the neighbors, so he bought an organ for Svenstad. ”When father came back with the organ, I threw myself on the sofa with my face in the pillow and did not dare to look up for a long time, because I thought I was dreaming,” wrote Birgit in her memoirs in 1995.
First public performance
Birgit’s first public performance was when she, 6 years old, had the chance to sing in the neighboring parish at their school Christmas party. She was dressed in a white silk dress with a large bow in her hair. The organ was broken, so Birgit stood up on a chair and sang a saucy folk song she had learned from the farmhand. There was much applause.
Piano lessons, choir and Ragnar Blennow
Birgit performs at the school in Ljungskile. Private photo.
When Birgit was 14, she began to take piano lessons. She sooned joined the church choirs in Västra Karup and Båstad, and joined an amateur theater company in nearby Hovbacka. There she had the opportunity to both sing and act before an audience. Through the help of cantor Albert Runbäck in Båstad, Birgit Nilsson came into contact with singing teacher and music director Ragnar Blennow in Åstorp. Blennow had been taken on in order to further develop some of the best voices in the choir. After one lesson, he told her ”This was very good. The young lady will most definitely become a great singer.” That day Birgit bicycled away in a cloud of happiness. She ran into her farm home and shouted ”I’ve been discovered! I’m going to become a great singer!” Blennow has later said that Birgit made a strong first impression even before she began singing. He understood quickly that her vocal prowess was unusual. Birgit began studying song with Blennow in 1939, with a brief pause during her schooling in Ljungskile. The practiced romances and arias. In 1941, with Blennow’s encouragement, she applied to the Royal College of Music in Stockholm.
The mood was gloomy at home before Birgit left for Stockholm. Her father did not want her to go. He had hoped that she would stay on the farm and eventually take over running it. Birgit was unsure of her decision for a long time. She was very attached to her home town, nor did she want to make her father disappointed or unhappy. What finally convinced Birgit was a couple who came on an unexpected visit to the farm. While they took shelter from a sudden rainstorm, they were treated to coffee and Birgit entertained them with song. She sang Elisabeth’s prayer by Tannhäuser. Both guests dropped their jaws in surprise. When Birgit told them of her plans for the Academy, they invited her to stay with them in Stockholm. Birgit’s father was stubborn, and said that she would not receive any economic help if she were to leave. But her mother wanted her daughter to realize her dreams. Thus she gave her money from an inheritance that was under her own jurisdiction. When the day to leave had arrived, and Birgit was on her way to Stockholm, her father in his despair had left the farm. During her time in Stockholm, Birgit exchanged frequent letters with her mother. Justina was worried about Birgit in the big city. She worried whether her daughter was cold, did not eat properly, or that something terrible might happen to her. Justina also reminded her to keep both feet on the ground. ”Don’t become uppity”, she wrote. Birgit was to remember those words all her life