February 27, 1897 – Marian Anderson
On April 9, Easter Sunday, 1939, more than 100,000 people showed up at The Lincoln Memorial in D.C., to hear famous African-American contralto Marian Anderson give a free concert. Anderson had been scheduled to give a recital at Washington DC’s Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), a political organization that helped manage the concert hall, denied her the right to perform because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership from the organization in protest. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), plus Anderson’s manager, impresario Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes to invite her to do a free open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Anderson had struggled out of a childhood of poverty in South Philadelphia to become a world-renowned singer of Classical Music and Opera, starting in the 1920s and touring extensively in Europe during the 1930s. Famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini told her:
”Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years…”
Anderson wasn’t as well received in her own country as she was in the rest of world. Even after her dramatic appearance at the Lincoln Memorial, it was not until 1955 that she became the first African-American perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Three years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made her an honorary delegate to the United Nations. In 1963, Kennedy awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was our country’s highest civilian honor, until earlier this month when the president awarded it to stinky Rush Limburger.
Anderson’s velvety contralto and dignified stage manner melted the hearts of music lovers around the world. Her achievement inspired generations of young black performers. Soprano Leontyne Price was one of the first to benefit from Anderson’s efforts to break down barriers for African-Americans in the world of opera.
Anderson had to fight hard to win her place in music history. Although she won first prize in a voice contest in New York in 1925 and made an appearance that year with the New York Philharmonic, she was unable to find work, and within a few years her career came to a standstill. It was only after she toured Europe to great acclaim in the early 1930s that the American public paid attention to her.
Well into her career, she was turned away at restaurants and hotels because of her race. Even America’s opera houses remained closed to her until Rudolf Bing invited her to sing at the Met near the end of her career. Anderson’s considerable communicative power was used to advantage in recitals. Her manner, closed eyes, few gestures, showed stateliness and serenity. And her repertory included songs, arias and spirituals. She easily proved that spirituals deserve a place in serious classical repertory, and were the centerpieces of many of her programs. Anderson:
“They are my own music. But it is not for that reason that I love to sing them. I love them because they are truly spiritual in quality; they give forth the aura of faith, simplicity, humility and hope.”
Anderson was born in Philadelphia, the oldest of three children. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother took in laundry to support the family. She began singing when she was three years old; when she was six she joined the choir at a Baptist church and impressed the director by learning all the parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, in the hymns the choir sang.
She did not take her first formal lessons until she was 15. Her church choir raised money to pay for her lessons. In 1925, she entered a New York Philharmonic voice competition, in which she competed with 300 singers and won first prize. She made her debut with the orchestra and was immediately signed by a concert manager. But after a few concerts, her engagements fizzled. In 1930, she decided to go to Europe, not only for performance opportunities, but to perfect her command of languages. Her performances in Europe were great successes.
Sol Hurok heard Anderson sing in Paris that same year and offered to present her in a New York City recital at Town Hall. She had misgivings, having received such an enthusiastic reception in Europe. Hurok persuaded her, and he remained her manager for the rest of her career.
In the late 1930s, she gave about 70 recitals a year in the USA. But her fame did not entirely eradicate the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring America. It was that particularly unfortunate display of that prejudice, however, that helped make Anderson a household name. Photographs and films of Anderson singing in front of Lincoln’s statue, before the enormous crowd, became a poignant symbol for the new Civil Rights movement.
During the dispute, Anderson maintained the quiet dignity that was her trademark. Refusing to comment when reporters pressed her for a response, she later wrote:
“I particularly did not want to say anything about the D.A.R. As I have made clear, I did not feel that I was designed for hand-to-hand combat.”
Four years later, the D.A.R. invited Anderson to take part in a benefit concert at Constitution Hall. Anderson:
“When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.”
Anderson continued to tour doing her recitals but got nowhere in the opera world until Bing invited her to perform in Giuseppe Verdi‘s Ballo In Maschera in 1955. She was 57 and past her vocal prime, but it was still a triumph.
In 1957, the State Department sponsored a 10-week tour of India and the Far East in which Anderson sang 24 concerts in 14 countries. A CBS News crew accompanied her, and the film was used on Edward R. Murrow‘s See It Now television series.
She sang at Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1957, and at Kennedy’s in 1961, and later that year for American troops in Berlin. In 1964, Anderson began her farewell tour, at Constitution Hall. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall in 1965.
In 1978, Anderson was in the first group of artists to receive Kennedy Center Honors. In 1980, the United States Treasury Department coined a gold commemorative medal with her likeness, and in 1984 she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Arts Medal.
In the late 1950s, when Anderson began to wind down her singing career, Eisenhower appointed her a U.S. representative to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. She gave benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. And she sang again at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Soprano Jessye Norman:
“At age 10 I heard, for the first time, the singing of Marian Anderson on a recording. I listened, thinking, ‘This can’t be just a voice, so rich and beautiful.’ It was a revelation. And I wept.”
She had been living in my city of Portland with her gay nephew, Oregon Symphony conductor James DePreist, when she took her final bow. She left us in 1993 at 96 years old.