Marian Anderson, a ‘voice heard once in a century’

Herb Boyd | 3/6/2014, 8:07 a.m.
The great conductor Arturo Toscanini said her voice was one heard only “once in a hundred years.”
Marian Anderson

Whether dipping into the vast reservoir of spirituals or wrapping her glorious voice around an aria from any of the great operas, Marian Anderson was something to behold. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini said her voice was one heard only “once in a hundred years.”

And thankfully in our digital age, her splendid contralto is immediately accessible on the Internet. Among the many pieces that were captured, listen to the melodic sweep of her voice on “Softly Awakes My Heart” from Camille Saint Saens’ opera “Samson and Delilah.” Then go to YouTube and hear her rendition of “Deep River” accompanied by pianist Lawrence Brown.

Activities

Find out more: Black classical singers, like Black classical music, get very little notice in the media, and it’s a shame that someone of Anderson’s renown isn’t discussed more in musical circles. Her life is worth more than a glance as we enter Women’s History Month.

Discussion: What challenges did Anderson face as she embarked on a career in opera and classical music? She had to endure both racism and sexism in her quest, but it will be worthwhile to discuss some of the fortitude and determination that made her a success.

Place in context: Would Anderson, who was born in the 19th century, fare better now in the world of opera and classical music? Clearly, racism and discrimination were highly prevalent during her lifetime, but it may be fruitful to see how things have changed, or not changed, for Black aspirants in this field of endeavor.

The blend of classical music and spirituals was a natural fit for Anderson, though it might be best to reverse these two genres because it was out of the church that her voice was first nurtured and the musical source from which she drew her enduring inspiration.

She was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 27, 1897, and she began singing in the Union Baptist Church choir at a very early age. So impressive was her voice that church members and neighbors, recognizing her emerging talent and realizing she didn’t have the money for formal lessons, often raised the funds for her to acquire the best teachers.

Some of the best teachers were at the Philadelphia Music Academy, but because of the color restrictions, Anderson was not allowed to study there. But Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder were available, and from them, Anderson refined her gifts, and these teachers were often blessed to have such a devoted student whose was ready to ascend the musical steps to wider recognition and fame by the time she was 23. She entered a contest with more than 300 other singers and bested them all, thereby earning an opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

From this prestigious platform, she moved effortlessly to other plateaus of exposure and was soon presented with grants and foundations for further study in the U.S. and abroad. After several years of performing in Europe, particularly on stages in Germany, England and Scandinavia, where she had garnered great acclaim, she signed a contract for a series of concerts in the United States. Like many African-American artists of her time, including performers such as jazz musician Sidney Bechet and chanteuse Josephine Baker, she achieved success in Europe before she could appear at the best venues in America.

While she had debuted in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1928, it was not until seven years later at Town Hall that she would truly begin to make her mark among the noted vocalists of the day. At Town Hall, as she would do at her concert dates for the rest of her productive life, she mixed operatic arias with her beloved spirituals. The critics were unanimous in their appraisal, citing her as the new “priestess of song.”

Anderson’s reputation reached well beyond the stage and into the political precincts, even the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt extended an invitation for her to perform before visiting dignitaries, including King George of England. This was in 1939, which was an eventful year for Anderson—she was given the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP honoring her achievements for civil rights.

But at the same time she was being saluted for her work in race relations, her racial identity was a source of controversy when she was denied an opportunity to sing at Constitutional Hall in the nation’s capital. The obstacle was the Daughters of the American Revolution, and they provoked quite a scandal, so much so that the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization.

This Week in Black History

March 3, 1877: Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic light, is born. Several of his inventions are now housed at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit.

March 5, 1770: On this day, Crispus Attucks was killed while leading a demonstration that was to become the Boston Massacre and spark the American Revolutionary War.

March 6, 1857: The Supreme Court rules in the Dred Scott decision and denies Black Americans their rights as citizens.

But four years later, at the first lady’s insistence, Anderson was invited back to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people. It was a moment that inspired the late Ossie Davis, who was among those in attendance. “If Marian could do it, why couldn’t I?” he wrote in his memoir with his wife, Ruby Dee. “That was my determination. That was what I wanted to do.” And that was what he did later on stage and in films.

Within a period of five years, Anderson, now under the management of the renowned impresario Sol Hurok, was commanding the spotlight at major concert halls and earning an unprecedented salary for a Black opera singer. Concurrent with her successes in live performances, her recording career blossomed as well.

In 1955, she became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in a leading role. She was Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” This marked another significant breakthrough for Black artists. Two years later, she was off on a worldwide tour for the U.S. State Department, especially to the Far East, and this was just a stepping stone to her appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower to be a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations in 1958.

Anderson formally retired from the stage in 1965, giving her last public performance Easter Sunday at Carnegie Hall, but it didn’t prevent her from making occasional appearances, where her presence lent prestige and honor to the events. Often she was asked to say a few words or to receive an award, which, after a while, included far too many to note here.

But it should be noted that in 1984, she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York, bringing their remarkable relationship with the first lady over the years full circle.

Her husband of 43 years, Orpheus Fisher, died in 1986. A very rewarding documentary of her last years captured her in residence on her farm in Pennsylvania. She died in Portland, Oregon, April 8, 1993, in the home of her nephew, the conductor James DePriest. She is buried in Collingdale, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.