Anderson, Marian (1897-1977)

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Anderson, Marian (1897-1977)

Although her magnificent contralto voice and extraordinary musical abilities were recognized early on, Marian Anderson's American career did not soar until 1939, when she performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. At that juncture, her life mission was as much sociological as musical. Not only did she win acceptance for herself and all black performers to appear before unsegregated audiences but she helped initiate the civil rights movement that would flower in the 1960s.

Anderson had no singing instruction until she was seventeen. In 1925, she won a vocal competition in which 300 entrants sought an appearance with the New York Philharmonic in Lewisohn Stadium. Arturo Toscanini heard her in Salzburg, Austria, and declared, "a voice like hers is heard only once in a hundred years."

Popular belief is that her career nearly foundered again and again because she was black, but that is not true. By early 1939 she earned up to $2000 a concert and was in great demand. The problems she faced were the segregation of audiences in halls and the insult of sometimes not being able to find decent hotel accommodations because of her color. Her first manager, Arthur Judson, who could not deliver many high-paying dates he promised, suggested that she become a soprano. But she grasped that this was not a viable solution, not only because it evaded the real issue but because such a change could, possibly, seriously affect her vocal cords.

Not at loose ends, but discouraged, Anderson returned to Europe, where she had toured earlier. Between 1930 and 1937, she would appear throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union), Scandinavia, and Central Europe. After breaking with Judson, Anderson acquired a new manager. Her accompanist, Billy Taylor, bombarded impresario Sol Hurok with letters and copies of her reviews, in the hope that he would become interested in her work. Hurok had built his reputation on publicity feats for his clients. (Some stunts were outrageous, but nearly all of his clients were superb performers.) He had undoubtedly heard about Anderson before Taylor's missives, so his later story about stumbling across a concert she gave in Paris, in 1935, can be dismissed.

What is true is that the concert made a great impression on him, and both he and Anderson agreed to a business relationship that would last until she retired from the stage. When she returned to America in December 1935, Hurok billed her as the "American Colored Contralto," which evidently did not offend her. Under his management, she appeared frequently but still endured the sting of racism even in New York, where she had to use the servants' entrance when she visited her dentist in Central Park South's exclusive Essex House.

Characteristically, Hurok would claim credit for the event that came to highlight the discrimination toward Anderson and other black artists. He had thought to present her in Washington's Constitution Hall, owned by the ultra-conservative Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). As he expected, the hall's management duly notified him that Anderson could not appear there because of a "Whites Only" clause in artists' contracts.

Hurok thereupon notified the press about this terrible example of prejudice. After learning the news, a distinguished group of citizens of all races and religions, headed by Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, agreed to act as sponsors of a free concert Anderson would give on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Mrs. Roosevelt's husband was in his second term in the White House, and to further emphasize the importance she assigned the event, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership.

An estimated 75,000 people, including Cabinet members and Members of Congress, and about half of whom were black, heard Anderson open the program with "America," continue with an aria from Donizetti's "La Favorita," and, after a few other selections, received an ovation. The crowd, in attempting to congratulate Anderson, threatened to mob her. Police rushed her back inside the Memorial, where Walter White of the American Association for the Advancement of Colored People had to step to a microphone and make an appeal for calm.

The publicity generated by the event firmly established Anderson's career, not only at home but throughout the world. Racial discrimination in concert halls did not end, but its proponents had been dealt a mighty blow. Beginning after World War II and through the 1950s, Hurok managed tours for Anderson that were even more successful than those of pre-war years. She performed at the inaugurations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and at the White House during their presidencies, as well as before Lyndon B. Johnson. Eventually she performed in over 600 American cities to over six million listeners in more than 1500 auditoriums.

In 1955, at the advanced age of fifty-eight, Anderson was the first black engaged as a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera. Not only did this pave the way for other black artists to perform with the Met but it marked yet another major step forward in the struggle against racial discrimination.

In addition to opening up opportunities for black artists, Anderson made spirituals an almost mandatory part of the repertories of all vocalists, black and white. It was impossible to hear her rendition of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and not be deeply moved. Audiences wept openly. Requests to hear more such music followed, wherever she performed.

Although Anderson made many recordings, she far preferred to appear before live audiences. "I have never been able to analyze the qualities that the audience contributes to a performance," she said. "The most important, I think, are sympathy, open-mindedness, expectancy, faith, and a certain support to your effort. I know that my career could not have been what it is without all these things, which have come from many people. The knowledge of the feelings other people have expended on me has kept me going when times were hard."

—Milton Goldin

Further Reading:

Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning. New York, Viking, 1956.

Hurok, Sol (in collaboration with Ruth Goode). Impresario: A Memoir. New York, Random House, 1946.

Roosevelt, Eleanor. Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day:" Her Acclaimed Columns 1936-1945. Rochelle Chadakoff, editor. New York, Pharos Books, 1989.

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Anderson, Marian (1897-1977)

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