Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
by Randye Jones
Many African American operatic and concert singers, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett, and Kathleen Battle, have credited Marian Anderson as their inspiration to seek professional vocal careers. Norman recalled the first recording she heard of the contralto: “I listened, thinking, ‘This can’t be just a voice, so rich and beautiful.’ It was a revelation. And I wept.”1
Other “Black Divas” have come before Anderson: Elizabeth Taylor-Greenfield, Marie Selika, and Sissieretta Jones; none, however, was able to break through the glass ceiling of race and obtain more than modest notoriety. What was it about Marian Anderson that allowed her to go beyond the level of professional success obtained by her predecessors and even her contemporaries?
Anderson’s Early Years
Contralto Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A variety of sources suggested February 17, 1902, as her birthdate; however, Anderson’s birth certificate, released by her family after her death, listed the date as February 27, 1897. Her father was an ice and coal salesman, and her mother was a former teacher.
Although Anderson had early showed an interest in the violin, she eventually focused on singing. The Black community, recognizing her talent, gave her financial and moral support. She also gained the notice of tenor Roland Hayes, who provided guidance in her developing career.
Anderson faced overt racism for the first time when she tried to apply for admission to a local music school. She recalled her reaction to the admissions clerk’s racial comments:
“I don’t think I said a word. I just looked at this girl and was shocked that such words could come from one so young. If she had been old and sour-faced I might not have been startled. I cannot say why her youth shocked me as much as her words. On second thought, I could not conceive of a person surrounded as she was with the joy that is music without having some sense of its beauty and understanding rub off on her. I did not argue with her or ask to see her superior. It was as if a cold, horrifying hand had been laid on me. I turned and walked out.” 2
She did, however, find a teacher who gave her lessons for free. Later, with donations from a local church, Anderson studied with tenor/coach Giuseppe Boghetti. She toured regionally, gaining knowledge and confidence with each performance. In 1924, she gave her first recital at New York’s Town Hall. The concert revealed Anderson’s discomfort with foreign languages and almost caused her to end her vocal career.
Boghetti convinced her to continue her studies, but when Anderson was unable to establish an active career in the United States, she went to London in 1925 to study. She visited Germany and Finland, where composer Jean Sibelius dedicated the song “Solitude” to her. During the next ten years, she performed extensively in Europe, including an appearance during the 1935 Mozart festival in Austria. She sang before the Archbishop of Salzburg and many of Europe’s leading musicians. Her performance led the archbishop to request an encore of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Arturo Toscanini to state “Yours is a voice one hears once in a hundred years.”
Anderson returned to the United States in 1935 for a recital at Town Hall, which this time was a critical success.
Under the management of Sol Hurok, she became the country’s third highest concert box office draw. Her successes, however, did not exempt her from racial discrimination. She was often refused accommodations at restaurants, hotels, and concert halls.
The most highly publicized racial instance involving Anderson occurred in 1939 when Hurok and officials from Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her in Constitution Hall, the largest and most appropriate indoor location in Washington, D.C. The hall’s owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, sparked national protests when they refused to allow her to sing there.
In answer to the protests, the United States Department of the Interior, with active encouragement from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, scheduled a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. The Easter Sunday program drew a crowd of 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners, and the entire episode caused the news media to focus greater attention on subsequent cases of discrimination involving Anderson and other African Americans.
(In the May 18, 1993, edition of the New York Times, writer William H. Honan reported that sources familiar with the incident attributed Constitution Hall’s “white artists only” policy to then-manager Fred E. Hand. Hand instituted the policy after a racially motivated incident occurred during a Roland Hayes recital at the hall in 1931. The policy remained in place, with the tacit approval of DAR’s executive committee, until Hand’s retirement. Anderson finally presented her Constitution Hall recital to a capacity crowd on March 13, 1953.)
In 1954, Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing signed Anderson for the role of Ulrica in the Met’s production of Un Ballo in Maschera, by Giuseppe Verdi. Author Jared Rutter’s account of the singer’s preparation for the historic event seems to bring Anderson’s rejection by that admissions clerk so many years ago full circle:
She worked on the part with an opera coach and one of the assistant conductors, and everything began to fall into place. Never having performed in opera she felt the need for special instruction in her acting and stage gestures, and she got it from the patient, insightful director, Herbert Graf. She recalled the preparation period in the fall of 1954 as one of the most intensely creative times of her life. “The concentrated work caused the blood to race through me with new meaning. I felt incredibly alive.” On the first day of rehearsal her spirits soared even higher when she entered backstage and a stagehand greeted her with, “Welcome home.”3
Her debut on January 7, 1955, marked the first time that an African American had sung on the Met stage. Although critics described her performance as beginning tentatively and her voice as showing the effects of her age–she was 57, author Rosalyn Story explained:
Obviously, Bing could have given the honor of “first black” to someone younger and musically stronger, like soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, who had succeeded at La Scala and the Glyndebourne Festival in England, or baritone Robert McFerrin, who was engaged at the Met immediately after Anderson. But the point was clear; Anderson, whose career had quietly and continuously broken barriers, dissolved hostilities, and awakened the consciousness of an entire country, was the only singer whose presence could signify the real meaning of the event. The length and contour of her own journey, from poor prodigy to artist-ambassador in the span of half a century, mirrored the progress of an entire movement of people advancing toward artistic and social equality. Anderson’s life, in simple terms, defined that movement.4
The singer received numerous awards and honors during her life. She was given the NAACP’s Spingarn Award by Roosevelt in 1938 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. Anderson used the $10,000 she received with Philadelphia’s 1941 Bok Award to establish the Marian Anderson Scholarships that supported several up-and-coming musicians, including Grace Bumbry, Dobbs, Reri Grist, Natalie Hinderas, Willis Patterson, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Julia Perry, Price, Florence Quivar, and Verrett, over the scholarship’s 30-plus years of existence. Anderson received honorary doctorates from over two dozen universities. She also performed before heads of state, including the king and queen of England and at the presidential inagurations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
Anderson retired in 1965 with a final concert, conducted by her nephew, James De Priest, in Philadelphia. She settled with her husband, Orpheus Fisher, on a farm in Connecticut until she moved to De Priest’s Portland, Oregon, home in July 1992. She suffered a stroke the following spring and died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993. In June, over 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service held in her honor at Carnegie Hall in New York. After short statements by violinist Isaac Stern and De Priest, the remainder of the service consisted of playing several representative recordings from Anderson’s repertoire. Allan Kozinn wrote that:
The memorial was a quiet, uncomplicatedly dignified affair, very much in keeping with Miss Anderson’s public persona. The printed program carried the title “Remembering the Art of Marian Anderson,” and indeed the focus was on her singing, not on her struggles and triumphs. . . . It was in the group of spirituals that Miss Anderson’s expressive range was best illuminated. Included were her haunting accounts of “Crucifixion,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Were You There?,” as well as representations of the brighter, more ebullient side of her artistry, captured in her recordings of “Let Us Break Bread Together” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”5
A true contralto, Anderson’s vocal range went from a soul-stirring d to a soul-lifting c”’. Her voice was large but had the flexibility to be equally at home with Negro spirituals and German lieder. Many used words such as rich, velvety, vibrant, and expressive to try to describe her voice adequately. However, only those who listened to her live performances or her sound recordings could explain within the wordless vernacular of their own souls what they heard.
De Priest said this about his aunt’s personality:
She is obviously a tremendously strong person, and she had to go through a great deal, being a woman, and being a black woman at that time trying to build a career. But her dignity was such a powerful force, and her faith was so strong, that while she obviously was outraged, it would never be her style to be a seething cauldron, and in private, to rant and rave. She was positive. She knew what she wanted to do, she knew that no one should be in her way preventing her from doing it because of her race. And I think she probably felt that she was going to be clearing a path, not just for herself, but for others to follow.6
Anderson had the combination of talent, perseverance, dignity, and serenity at a time when there was finally just enough tolerance in this country to allow those traits to manifest themselves. She accepted the responsibility of role model for the future with grace and passed on a vast legacy of accomplishments to be not only met, but surpassed by the African American singers who followed her.
In 2005, Marian Anderson was honored by the United States Postal Service on its 28th stamp in the Black Heritage Stamp Series.
In April 2016, the United States Treasury Department announced that Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial would be depicted on the back of the newest American five dollar bill. The redesigned bill is set to be in circulation in the 2020’s.
1Allan Kozinn, “Marian Anderson Is Dead at 96; Singer Shattered Racial Barriers,” New York Times, 9 April 1993, A20.
2 Marian Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning (New York: Viking Press, 1956), 38.
3 Jared Rutter, Marian Anderson: Concert Artist (Los Angeles, CA: Holloway House Publishing, 2008), 153.
4 Rosalyn M. Story, And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 55.
5 Kozinn, “A Tribute to Marian Anderson, For the Most Part in Her Voice,” New York Times, 8 June 1993, B8.
6 Story, 57.
Other Sites of Interest
- University of Pennsylvania’s Register of the Marian Anderson Papers, ca. 1900-1993 and Marian Anderson: A Life in Song
- Marian Anderson, Prima Donna Assoluta – Photos, covers, and posters from the life and career of contralto Marian Anderson
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: April 21, 2016. Accessed: http://afrovoices.com/wp/marian-anderson-biography.