Marian AndersonJul 11th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1897-1993 Marian Anderson joined a church choir when she was six years old, and never stopped singing. Among the most celebrated classical voices of the 20th century, she enjoyed a luminous international career in which she dazzled audiences throughout America and Europe, broke color barriers, and helped pave the way for the rise of African Americans into the highest ranks of the performing arts.
From Children’s Choir to International Fame
Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Anna, had been a schoolteacher in Virginia before moving north. Her father, John, worked a series of menial jobs before suffering a fatal accident at 34. Anderson was forced to drop out of school for a time while her mother supported the family as a laundress at a department store.
She was drawn to music from her earliest years, joined the children’s choir at her church at the age of six, taught herself piano, and bought a violin of her own from a pawnshop. Even at an early age, she stood out among her peers for the quality and range of her voice and her innate feel for music. She joined her church’s junior choir at age eight and the adult choir when she was 13. Later still, she graduated to performances outside of church.
In 1917, Anderson was given a solo part in a major Philadelphia performance of Handel’s Messiah. She also sang with local professional groups including a jazz orchestra. During this period, realizing she had a special gift, she began studying with a series of excellent voice teachers, culminating with the Italian maestro Giuseppe Boghetti.
Despite her family’s hardship, Anderson graduated high school in 1924, but was kept from attending music school because of her race. She nevertheless applied to Yale University and was accepted, but didn’t have nearly enough money to attend. Anderson had more bad luck that same year when a solo performance at New York’s Town Hall, arranged in haste by her agent, attracted an embarrassingly small crowd and received poor reviews. Fortunately, Anderson had already caught the attention of Joseph Pasternak, director of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society. He arranged for her to record black spirituals for a major recording company. The recordings, made in 1923 and 1924, have become legends.
Meanwhile, Anderson had joined with a pianist, Billy King, touring black communities and other churches and schools, along the southern Atlantic coast. On this tour, and for many years to come, Anderson would face constant discrimination. She had to fight constantly against the practice of confining African Americans to a small, separate section at the rear of the hall.
A European Sensation
It was in Europe that Anderson’s career skyrocketed. Beginning in 1927, with the support of an international music fellowship, she traveled first to England and then to Germany to study and perform. In Germany, she met Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who arranged a 1930 tour of Scandinavia that propelled her onto the international stage. Anderson returned in 1932 for a two-year tour of several European countries with Vehanen, which cemented her reputation as an international sensation. In the years that followed, she returned to Europe repeatedly.
In 1935, Anderson agreed to be represented by the legendary agent Sol Hurok. Hurok’s first gambit was to send her on a tour of the Soviet Union, capped by a performance in Leningrad during which the audience was reported to have pounded their fists on the floor with enthusiasm. The same year, after the Nazis abruptly cancelled a performance scheduled for Berlin, Hurok booked Anderson into Town Hall for her American homecoming. The night completely erased the memory of her 1924 disaster: the house sold out, and the New York Times proclaimed her “one of the great singers of our time.”
Hurok now wanted Anderson to travel south and perform in Washington, DC, at Constitution Hall. But the theater was controlled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, a “tradition-minded” organization that refused to allow the concert on racial grounds. Nationwide outrage followed, but the insult turned into a triumph when the Roosevelt administration asked Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. Seventy-five thousand people attended, the performance was broadcast nationwide on radio, and Anderson was suddenly loved and admired by millions.
Anderson’s career had reached the stratosphere. Over the next three decades, she travelled the world, singing in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the Caribbean. She was in constant demand in the United States and Canada, and her earnings climbed into the millions of dollars. Her personal life blossomed, too, when in 1943, she and long-time friend Orpheus “King” Fisher were married, making their home on a comfortable farm in Connecticut.
In 1952, Anderson performed at the first desegregated concert in Florida’s history, but her most famous triumph against discrimination came in 1955 when she was invited to sing with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. This august institution had barred African Americans from its stage for 71 years. Anderson was by then almost 60, but her performance brought down the house, which included Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Truman, and the Duchess of Windsor.
She continued performing over the next decade, but as she approached the age of 70, Anderson’s voice and energy began to fade. In 1965, with great reluctance and still filled with passion for singing, she retired. She lived on for many years, finally passing away at the home of her nephew in Portland, Oregon, in 1993.
During her long life and unprecedented career, Anderson received a litany of honors and awards including the UN Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award. She was honored with 75th and 80th birthday celebrations at Carnegie Hall. But the highest tribute came from the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini when Anderson was just beginning her career. Toscanini told her: “Yours is a voice such as one hears only once in a hundred years.”