Marian Anderson: From the old spirituals to arias and lieder

Wednesday 24th June 2009

Tony Cummings remembers the extraordinary history of pioneering classical singer and populariser of the spirituals, MARIAN ANDERSON

Continued from page 1

In 1934 impresario Sol Hurok offered Anderson a better contract than she had previously had with Arthur Judson. He became her manager for the rest of her performing career and it is only through his persuasion that she came back to perform in America. In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in New York at Town Hall which received highly favourable reviews by music critics. She spent the next four years touring throughout the United States and Europe. She was offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack of acting experience, Anderson declined all of these offers. She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio which became bestsellers.

Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout Europe during the mid 1930s. She visited Eastern European capitals and Russia and returned again to Scandinavia, where "Marian fever" had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of fans. She quickly became a favourite of many conductors and composers of major European orchestras and drew a large fan base among European audiences. During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years." Once he heard her sing, he knew instantly that with a rich voice like hers, there was no way she could fail.

In the late 1930s, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the United States. Although by now quite famous, her stature did not completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring the United States. She was still denied rooms in certain American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American restaurants. After her triumphant performance at the Lincoln Memorial such flagrant racism began to ease a little.

During World War II and the Korean War, Marian Anderson participated by entertaining the troops in hospitals and bases. In 1943, Anderson finally sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross. She said of the event, "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." By contrast, the federal government continued to bar her from using the high school auditorium in the District of Columbia.

Marian Anderson: From the old spirituals to arias and lieder

On 17th July 1943, in Bethel, Connecticut, Marian married architect Orpheus H Fisher, a man she had known since childhood, and moved to a 100-acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut. On 7th January 1955, Anderson became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. On that occasion, she sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's 'Un Ballo In Maschera' at the invitation of director Rudolph Bing. Anderson said later about the evening, "The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage. Mixing the witch's brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot." Although she never appeared with the company again after this production, Anderson was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her autobiography, My Lord, What A Morning, which became a bestseller.

In 1957 she sang for President Dwight D Eisenhower's inauguration and toured in India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress through the US State Department and the American National Theater and Academy. She travelled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in 12 weeks, giving 24 concerts. After that, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. She sang at his inauguration, as well as John F Kennedy's in 1961. In 1958 she was officially designated delegate to the United Nations, a formalisation of her role as "goodwill ambassadress" of the US which she had played earlier.

In 1961 she sang for President John F Kennedy's inauguration, and in 1962 she toured Australia and performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. She was active in supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In 1963, she sang at the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. That same year she was one of the original 31 recipients of the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom (which is awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavours") and she also released her album 'Snoopycat: The Adventures Of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy', which included short stories and songs about her beloved black cat. In 1965, she christened the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, USS George Washington Carver. That same year Anderson made her farewell tour, after which she retired from public performance. The international tour began at Constitution Hall in October 1964 and ended at Carnegie Hall on 18th April 1965.

In 1986, Anderson's husband, Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of marriage. Anderson remained in residence at Marianna Farm until 1992, one year before her death. Although the bucolic property was sold to developers, various preservationists as well as the City of Danbury fought to protect Anderson's studio. Their efforts proved successful and the Danbury Museum and Historical Society relocated the structure, restored it and opened it to the public in 2004. In addition to seeing the studio, visitors can see photographs and memorabilia from milestones in Anderson's career.

On 8th April 1993, Anderson died of congestive heart failure a month after a stroke at age 96 in Portland, Oregon at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist. She is interred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Marian was remembered at a memorial service held in June of 1993 at Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Speaking of "our Marian," the minister said, "We all have been blessed by her music of the soul, music that transcends time. The members of this church heard in that voice the grace and benediction that only God can give." Mindful of Marian's wish for "no fuss," Jimmy DePreist spoke simply, telling stories of the devotion his aunt had brought to his family and his life. At the conclusion of the service, a recording of Marian singing three of her favourite spirituals filled the church, leaving those attending the service inspired once more by the beauty of that glorious voice. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.

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Reader Comments

Posted by pat in London @ 01:18 on Jun 24 2013

And still Marian rremains in my heart. She had the most beautiful voice I have ever heard'''

Posted by patriciahursey in London, England @ 00:12 on Jul 13 2009

I am desperately trying to find recordings of Marion Anderson. Like Toscannini I think her voice is one in a hundred (or more) years. When I first heard her voice I was bedazzled- it was SO beautiful. I and heard Marion. Her choice of songs set my heart on fire, yet fill my eyes with tears-even now as I write. She will live forever in my heart.
I must add, I really appreciated the finding and reading of your arfticle. I shall keep that too!

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