Anderson, Marian (1897–1993)

views updated

Anderson, Marian (1897–1993)

African-American concert singer who was widely acclaimed as the world's greatest contralto in the 1930s and 1940s. Born Marian Anderson on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Portland,Oregon, on April 8, 1993; daughter of John Anderson (a laborer) and Anna Anderson (erstwhile schoolteacher); graduated from South Philadelphia High School; married Orpheus H. Fisher (an architect), in 1943. Concert performer, 1925–65.

On Easter Sunday, 1939, some 75,000 Americans gathered at the mall in Washington, D.C., to hear a free open-air concert. Millions more listened on the radio. The performer was a prominent African-American contralto, who began with "My Country 'Tis of Thee," then moved to such works as "America," Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," and Gaetano Donizetti's "O mio Fernando," from the opera La Savorita. Three spirituals were included: "Gospel Train," "Trampin'," and "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord." Overnight, Marian Anderson had become an international figure of the highest importance.

Anderson's impresario, Sol Hurok, had originally hoped to rent Washington's Constitutional Hall for the event. Its auditorium, which seated 4,000 and opened in 1929, was the city's foremost concert platform. Washington was a segregated city, but blacks could sit in a restricted section and there was no color bar for performers. Indeed, the black tenor Roland Hayes had performed there. Yet, in 1935, a new clause for performance in the hall was introduced: "Concert by white artists only." The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which owned and operated the hall, sought to fudge the issue by telling Hurok that no dates were available. When, however, a rival manager subsequently asked about the very dates for which Anderson had been turned down, he was told they were open. The hall's director finally leveled with Hurok, telling him just before he slammed down the phone, "No Negro will ever appear in this hall while I am manager."

Immediately, there was public outrage. Protests were made by famous musicians, such as violinist Jascha Heifetz. America's first lady Eleanor Roosevelt announced in her newspaper column that she was resigning from the DAR. Anderson was genuinely embarrassed by the incident:

What were my own feelings? I was saddened and ashamed. I was sorry for the people who had precipitated the affair. I felt that their behavior stemmed from a lack of understanding. They were not persecuting me personally or as a representative of my people so much as they were doing something that was neither sensible nor good. Could I have erased the bitterness, I would have done so gladly.

Hurok and Walter White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), came up with the idea of a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged the performance, which was given on April 9. Anderson had some trepidation before the event:

I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. In principle the idea was sound, but it could not be comfortable to me as an individual. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people.

So she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while a sea of people watched from below. (A mural depicting the event was placed on a wall in the U.S. Department of the Interior.)

Four years later, in 1943, Anderson finally performed at Constitution Hall, doing so at a benefit for Chinese relief. She insisted that the DAR suspend its segregation policy for her concert. "I felt no different than I had in other halls," she later noted. "There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall, and I was happy to sing in it."

According to her birth certificate, Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in South Philadelphia. (Throughout her life she would give the date as February 17, 1902.) Soon two sisters were added to the family. Her father John Anderson was a loader at the Reading Terminal Market. Her mother Anna Anderson had been a licensed teacher in Virginia.

John Anderson died in 1912. He had suffered a head wound while working and was later found to have a tumor. Her mother, fearing it would take too long to obtain a teacher's license in Philadelphia, supported the family as a cleaning lady, laundress, and floor-scrubber in Wanamaker's department store. The family resided with Anderson's paternal grandparents, living, she later recalled, in modest dignity in a racially mixed neighborhood. "We had enough to eat and we dressed decently. We were not so poor that we had nothing, and our neighbors were in the same situation." Later in her life, she told a television audience that she had never consciously made up her mind to be a singer: "I don't know that I had to decide. It was something that just had to be done. I don't think I had much say in choosing it. I think music chose me."

Anderson's start was an early one. As a child, she later remembered, she would sit "at the table or on a little bench, beating out some sort of rhythm with my hand and feet and la-lala-ing a vocal accompaniment." At six, she joined the junior choir of the Union Baptist Church, where her father had been a lay leader. The parish was known in the black community for its excellent musical programs. At age eight, she was already appearing in neighborhood concerts. Obviously a prodigy, she was soon billed as "the ten-year-old contralto."

Though Marian's father had bought a piano when she was about eight, the family could not afford lessons. Originally, she had a yen for the violin. As a child, she scrubbed the steps of neighbors' houses, each set of steps yielding a nickel, so as to purchase a violin at what was for her the stiff price of $3.45.

Her real strength, however, was her voice. By age 13, Anderson was admitted to Union Baptist's adult choir. She impressed the congregation's music director by learning all the parts—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. By then Marian was experiencing the color line:

In some stores we might have to stand around longer than other people until we were waited on. There were times when we stood on a street corner, waiting for a trolley car, and the motorman would pass us by. There were places in town where all people could go, and there were others where some of us could not go. There were girls we played with and others we didn't. There were parties we went to, and some we didn't. We were interested in neither the places nor the people who didn't want us.

Segregation really hit home for the first time when, on a railroad journey, Marian and her mother had to move to a Jim-Crow car once the train reached Washington, D.C. [Jim Crow is a term derived from the title of a song sung in a minstrel show, which denotes the practice of discrimination against blacks, as well as places for blacks only.] Another insult came when she applied for voice lessons at a Philadelphia conservatory, only to be told by the receptionist that the institution did not accept blacks.

As a student at William Penn High School, Anderson found that her vocation was music, not the regular commercial course. She transferred to South Philadelphia High School for girls, from which she graduated at age 18. Her remarkable voice gained the attention of John Thomas Butler, a distinguished black actor, who invited her to appear on his programs. Anderson's real role model, however, was black tenor

Roland Hayes, whose repertoire included both classical songs and spirituals. One of her proudest moments was performing with Hayes at a Union Baptist concert. Hayes in turn was impressed by her talent. He aided her in finding engagements, for as a teenager she was already singing solo in the city's black schools and churches. Sometimes Anderson was so popular that she would appear at three different places in a single evening. She broke with tradition by not limiting herself to spirituals but by drawing upon such classical composers as Antonin Dvorak and Sergei Rachmaninoff. After many appearances, she had the temerity to ask for five dollars per performance.

Butler had sent the 15-year-old Marian to receive voice lessons from Mary Saunders Patterson , a prominent black soprano. Butler had also paid the fee: a dollar per lesson. Some months later, the Philadelphia Choral Society gave a benefit concert that netted her $500, thereby enabling her to study for two years with leading contralto Agnes Reifsnyder .

When Anderson was 19, her high school principal, Dr. Lucy Wilson , helped her meet Guiseppe Boghetti, who had taught many of the nation's finest concert performers. Her audition came at the end of a hard day's teaching for Boghetti. Weary of singing and singers, he found himself listening to a tall calm young woman whose rendition of "Deep River" was so moving that it made him cry. Boghetti was a stern taskmaster but permitted Anderson, who was often broke, to defer payments. She studied under his direction for many years.

When Anderson first began her tours, they centered on black colleges and churches in the South. She was accompanied by William ("Billy") King, a popular and skilled black musician who also served as her manager. Soon she was drawing $100 per concert. One initial professional effort, however, met with failure. On April 23, 1924, she gave a concert in New York's Town Hall. Not only was the event poorly attended, but critics found her voice lacking, one writing that she sang Johannes Brahms as if by rote. She was so discouraged that she considered abandoning music as a career.

Yet the seeds of her success had already been planted. Anderson had won a singing contest run by Philadelphia's Philharmonic Society. Then, in 1925, she entered the Lewisohn Stadium competition. After defeating some 300 rivals, she had the privilege of singing in the New York's amphitheater accompanied by the city's Philharmonic Orchestra. Her concert, held on August 26, was a triumph. Francis D. Perkins, critic for the New York Herald Tribune, called it "the voice in a thousand—or shall we say ten thousand or a hundred thousand," though Perkins did see a need for further progress concerning some lower notes, her upper register, and one incident of a harsh timbre.

In one sense, the Lewisohn concert achieved its goal. An important impresario, Arthur Judson, placed Anderson under contract. In 1926, she toured the eastern and southern United States, developing her repertoire. On March 2, 1930, she performed at Carnegie Hall, the first black female to do so. Judged The New York Times critic, "A true mezzo-soprano, she encompassed both ranges with full power, expressive feeling, dynamic contrast, and utmost delicacy." However, aside from invitations from various glee clubs, choirs, and black organizations, she received relatively few engagements. Finding her career stagnating and desiring further training, she went to Britain on a scholarship granted by the National Association of Negro Musicians. On September 16, 1930, she performed at London's Wigmore Hall. Famed composer Roger Quilter had arranged the concert.

Almost immediately after her return to the United States, Anderson journeyed to Europe again, this time on a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. She not only sought concert engagements, thinking—quite correctly—that an African-American might be more accepted overseas, but she also desired to perfect her language skills and study the art of lieder singing. A German manager agreed for her to debut in Berlin's Bachsaal. The concert cost her $500, the last time she ever paid to perform. (A fee was standard practice for novice singers there.) Most reviews were flattering. Moreover, the Berlin concert caught the eye of Norwegian manager Rule Rasmussen and his Swedish counterpart Helmer Enwall, who immediately arranged a tour of the Scandinavian countries. (Enwall soon became her general manager throughout Europe.) Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen—all were part of her itinerary.

In 1933, after more concerts in the United States, Anderson returned to Europe, thanks again to the Rosenwald Fund. For the next two years, her engagements took her through the Continent. From September 1933 through April 1934, she gave 142 concerts in the Scandinavian countries alone. She sang before King Gustav in Stockholm and King Christian in Copenhagen, and received a rare invitation from the 70-year-old Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer. He was so impressed that he dedicated his song "Solitude" to her. "The roof of my house," he said, "is too low for your voice." She appeared in Paris and London in May 1934, Belgium and Holland that summer. Her tour continued with visits to such nations as Poland, Latvia, Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, and Spain. At the finale of her first concert in Leningrad, the audience rushed to the platform, pounding on it with their fists—a Russian indication of exceptional enthusiasm. Anderson suspected that dictator Joseph Stalin might have watched her performance from a special box.

The tour concluded in the summer of 1935 with an engagement at the Mozarteum, a great international festival held in the Weiner Konzerthaus, Salzburg. It was there that Arturo Toscanini, the most prestigious conductor of his time, heard her sing. Embracing Anderson, he told her that one hears such a voice once in a hundred years. She was too awestruck upon meeting him to hear the remark, but it was overheard by a friend, Madame Charles Cahier , who was an instructor at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, and it was because of Cahier that the comment was frequently repeated.

In June 1935, the famed impresario Sol Hurok heard Anderson perform in Paris. He was so impressed that he made an exclusive contract for her American appearances. That December 30, Anderson gave her first homecoming recital at New York's Town Hall. As her foot had been fractured during the voyage home, she had to stand on one foot, which was hidden by her gown, during the entire recital; the other was in a cast. At the end of each group of songs, the curtain was lowered. The audience did not know of her injury until the intermission. Music critic Harold Taubman of The New York Times began his review with the words: "Let it be said at the outset, Marian Anderson has returned to her native land one of the great singers of our time…. She was mistress of all she surveyed."

Arturo Toscanini to Marian Anderson">

Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.

—Arturo Toscanini to Marian Anderson

Two additional concerts were given in New York that season, both at Carnegie Hall before a capacity audience, followed by a coast-to-coast American tour. June 1936 saw her again in Vienna, performing with conductor Bruno Walter. She sang Brahms' difficult "Alto Rhapsody" without a score. Until 1938, she frequently toured Europe and Latin America. At this point, she was giving about 70 concerts a year.

In 1939, several weeks after her famous Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson was asked to give a solo concert at the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was entertaining British king George VI and Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon . When the president said to her, "Oh, hello, Miss Anderson, you look just like your pictures, don't you?" she had one of the few attacks of stage fright in her life. By 1940, Anderson was the most popular concert singer in America, possibly the world. During World War II, she entertained troops in hospitals and bases. She would do the same during the Korean War—a hospital ship off Inchon, a hospital on shore, a facility for troops of the Republic of Korea. By 1956, she would have performed over a thousand times.

In July 1943, she married Orpheus H. ("King" or "Razzle") Fisher, an architect of Wilmington, Delaware, whom she had known as a schoolgirl. They lived on her 105-acre "Marianna Farm" near Danbury, Connecticut.

On January 7, 1955, Anderson made her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Its director, Rudolph Bing, invited her to sing Ulrica in Guiseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in Machera (The Masked Ball). She was the first black to sing as a regular member of the company. Past her vocal prime, she was not pleased with her first performance, feeling she "overdid" out of sheer nervousness. "I trembled," she recalled, "and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot." When, however, she sang the part in Philadelphia, she was satisfied.

In 1957, Anderson toured India and the Far East as goodwill ambassador, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy. Her instructions were: "You are not a propagandist. Just be yourself." In a CBS film of her tour, "The Lady from Philadelphia," narrator Edward R. Murrow spoke of a trip that ranged from "the thirty-eighth parallel to the Equator." It was no exaggeration. Anderson traveled 35,000 miles in 12 weeks, giving 24 concerts. During the trip, she became the first foreigner invited to speak at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial statue in India. Such honors were just beginning. A year later, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. She sang at Eisenhower's 1957 inauguration as well as that of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Even at the outset of the 1960s Anderson did not slow down. In 1962, she toured Australia. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for Job and Freedom. Her last concert was given on April 19, 1965, Easter Sunday, in Carnegie Hall as the culmination of a yearlong farewell tour.

Anderson always conveyed an aura of dignified calm. In 1945, Arthur Bronson, a writer for the show-business journal Variety, described her as "a cultured, thoughtful woman, graceful, and unaffected, with deep-set eyes and a generous mouth." A year later, Time staffer Whittaker Chambers wrote, "Manifest in the tranquil architecture of her face is her constant submission to the 'Spirit, that dost prefer before all temples the upright heart and pure.'" Music critics frequently praised her voice for its unique combination of power, gentleness, depth, and range, some saying that it had never been duplicated. If there was any real criticism, it centered on a reedy stridency in some high notes and a "blues" quality in some lower ones—more criticized by purists than by her audiences.

Anderson never liked singing into a microphone, always preferring a live audience. She made an exception for the "Telephone Hour," a program on which she appeared regularly. Furthermore, her records were extremely popular, her rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" selling 750,000 by 1955. Her recordings included lieder by Schubert, Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Richard Strauss; sacred arias by Johann Sebastian Bach; some George Frederick Handel and Felix Mendelssohn; old American songs; spirituals; and operatic arias.

Anderson's stage manner—closed eyes and few gestures—conveyed dignity, stateliness and, above all, inner serenity. Her repertoire was varied—200 songs in nine languages. No program of hers was complete without spirituals. Favorites included "Crucifixion," "Trampin'," and "My Lord, What a Morning." Even when performing in the Soviet Union, where she was not supposed to sing any religious songs, she insisted upon "Ave Maria" and several spirituals. She said:

They are my own music, but it's not for that reason that I love to sing them. I love the spirituals because they are truly spiritual in quality; they give forth an aura of faith, simplicity, humility and hope.

Anderson was deeply spiritual. She wrote in her autobiography, "I believe that I could not have had my career without the help of the Being above." Or, as Time's Chambers put it: "With a naturalness impossible to most people, she says: 'I do a good deal of praying.' For to her, her voice is directly a gift from God, her singing a religious experience."

In her lifetime, Anderson received many awards. In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with the Spingarn Medal, given annually to the black American who "shall have made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field of endeavor." A year later, she was awarded the prestigious Finnish decoration, the Probenignitate Humana. When in 1941 she was given the Bok award, bestowed each year upon an outstanding Philadelphia citizen, she used the $10,000 prize money to establish the Marian Anderson Scholarships. Each year, three trustees allocate funds to help young people, irrespective of race, creed, or color, to pursue an artistic career.

Various medals followed. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the American Medal of Freedom. In 1977, Congress awarded her a gold medal in honor of what was thought to be her 75th birthday. In 1980, the U.S. Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the National Medal of Arts.

For many years, Anderson's American tours were marked by racial discrimination. Unlike Europe, where she was welcomed to the Continent's finest hotels, cafes, and parlors, she found that the racial barrier made the most elementary of tasks difficult: taking a train, obtaining an auto, choosing a restaurant, booking a hotel room, arranging for laundry, finding a place to practice. She was often shunted to third- or fourth-class accommodations, although in the North she did break the color line at some first-class hotels. In the South, she would have to stay with friends. She preferred to take her meals in her hotel room rather than be the cause of any incident. She avoided Jim Crow restrictions by traveling in drawing rooms on night trains. She once said:

If I were inclined to be combative, I suppose I might insist on making an issue of these things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.

At first, in cities where there was segregation, she demanded "vertical" seating, which meant that black ticket purchasers, though seated apart from others, must be allotted seats in every part of the auditorium. Her concerts often marked the first time that blacks could be seated in the orchestra of an auditorium. By 1950, she was refusing to sing where the audience was segregated. Marvin Feinstein, a former vice president of Hurok Artists, recalled, "In her own quiet way—there was really no civil rights movement at that time—Miss Anderson was already breaking barriers for artists that followed her."

In 1949, a Newsweek writer noted that she used the first person plural when speaking of her singing, a phenomena attributed to "the humility with which she has always approached her great gift of song, and to the fact that she looks upon her accompanist as a full partner." Her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning (1955), devoted a chapter to her gifted accompanists. From 1933 to 1940, her accompanist was Kosti Vehanen, a respected Finnish pianist, and, from 1940 to 1965, Franz Rupp, a German refugee from Nazism. She also praised Isaac Alexander Jofe, her touring factotum since 1937. Of the ego involvement experienced by any artist, she once commented:

There was a time when I was very much interested in applause and the lovely things they said. But now we are interested in singing so that somebody in the audience will leave feeling a little better than when he came.

In 1992, six years after the death of her husband, Anderson moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her nephew and only survivor, conductor James DePreist. The son of her sister Ethel, James had been raised by Anderson as a son. In her last years, she was restricted to a wheelchair. On April 4, 1994, Marian Anderson died in Portland.


Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning. NY: Viking, 1956.

Dickey, Richard C. "Marian Anderson," in Research Guide to American Historical Biography. Edited by Suzanne Niemeyer. Vol. 4. Washington, DC: Beacham, 1990, pp. 1783–1788.

Vehanen, Kosti. Marian Anderson: A Portrait. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1941 (reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1970).

suggested reading:

Bronson, Arthur. "Marian Anderson," in American Mercury. Vol. 61. September 1945, pp. 282–288.

[Chambers, Whittaker]. "In Egypt Land," in Time. Vol. 48. December 30, 1946, pp. 59–65.

Newman, Shirlee P. Marian Anderson: Lady from Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1966.

Sims, Janet L., ed. Marian Anderson: An Annotated Bibliography and Discography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.

"Singer and Citizen," in Newsweek. Vol. 33. April 25, 1949, pp. 84–86.


The papers of Marian Anderson are located in the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania. Other Anderson papers are found in the Trevor Arnett Library of Atlanta University; the Julius Rosenwald Fund Records at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans; the Schomburg Collection, New York Public Library; and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

related media:

"Portrait of Marian Anderson" (1 hour), produced by Dante J. James, Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Association, 1991.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

About this article

Anderson, Marian (1897–1993)

Updated About content Print Article