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Anderson, Marian

Black Women in America

Mildred Denby Green

Anderson, Marian 

(b. 17 February 1897; d. 8 April 1993), opera singer.

When Marian Anderson was just eight years old, her aunt presented her at a fund-raising church program as the “Baby Contralto.” Two years earlier, Anderson had joined the junior choir at the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia. More than anything else, she loved to sing. Music and musical instruments fascinated her at home and in school.

Humble Beginnings

Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents, John and Anna, were hardworking but not well-off financially. In her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, Anderson recalled her father’s devotion to his family and the warmth and joy they felt when they were together. For a time before she was two years old, the Andersons lived with John’s parents. After the birth of her sister Alyce, the family rented a small house not far from her grandparents. Another sister, Ethel, was born while they lived there.

Anderson remembered playing “music” on a table while her mother worked. She pretended the table was a piano and kept rhythm with her feet and hands as she sang a melody with nonsense syllables. She enjoyed singing with her family at home. Neither of her parents had been particularly talented singers, but Anna Anderson had sung in church choirs.

John Anderson was active in his church. He served as an usher and took his daughter with him every Sunday to attend Sunday school and morning worship services. She loved hearing the choirs and singing of the congregation. When she was six, Anderson joined the church’s children’s choir. The choir responded well to its volunteer director, Alexander Robinson, and sang with spirit and enthusiasm. In a short time, Robinson noticed Anderson’s beautiful voice and vitality and selected her to sing a duet with her friend, a soprano, in Sunday school and during the worship service. It was Anderson’s first public appearance.

Anderson was about eight years old when her father bought a piano from his brother. She tried to play immediately, even attempting a major scale by placing her thumb under her fingers as she had seen others do while playing. With no money for music lessons, she taught herself by using a card with the names of the keys and notes that could be slipped directly behind the keys. Later, she saw a black woman playing the piano and decided that she too could develop her skill.

Anderson, MarianClick to view larger

Marian Anderson

with Eleanor Roosevelt. In a famous episode in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC—whereupon Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. National Archives; Joe McCary, Photo Response Studio

She also made an attempt to become a violinist. She had seen a violin in a pawnshop and, to earn money to buy it, worked at scrubbing steps in the neighborhood. She saved $4 and bought the violin for $3.98. Again she tried to teach herself, but it was not long before she decided the violin was not her instrument.

When Anderson was ten years old, her father received a serious blow to his head in an accident at work and never recovered. Following his death, the family returned to the home of his parents.

After grammar school, Anderson went to William Penn High School. She planned to follow a commercial education course to prepare her for a job that would enable her to earn money to help care for her mother and sisters. These subjects were not of interest to her, but she did enjoy her once-a-week music class. The music teacher noticed her talent and invited her to sing with the school chorus. She was occasionally given solos. After singing a solo during a school assembly, she was called to the principal’s office and encouraged to change to a college preparatory course, which would permit her to pursue music studies. She transferred to South Philadelphia High School and continued to perform in assemblies with the support of her new principal, Dr. Lucy Wilson.

In the meantime, Anderson’s singing began to attract attention at church, where she had joined the senior choir. She visited other churches with the choir. Anderson had learned to play the piano well enough to accompany herself. As she became increasingly well known, she accepted invitations to sing at other churches and at larger church-related events. In 1919, she sang at the national meeting of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., in Atlantic City. The gospel composer Lucie Campbell, the convention’s music director, introduced Anderson to the thousands attending the meeting and accompanied her.

Along with the many opportunities to perform and her growing success, Anderson felt the need for formal training. While still in high school, she began vocal studies with the black music teacher Mary Saunders Patterson. Teaching without charge, although a family friend agreed to pay for the lessons, Patterson made Anderson aware of vocal technique and inspired her to find an accompanist to work with her on a permanent basis. Anderson also studied with Agnes Reifsnyder for a short time.

At this point, her mother and others encouraged her to consider attending a music school, and she decided to get information about enrolling in a school in downtown Philadelphia. She applied and was abruptly turned down because of her race. When she described the humiliating experience, her mother encouraged her to keep her faith and never give up the pursuit of her dreams.

During her senior year in high school, Anderson was introduced by her principal to Giuseppe Boghetti, a teacher of great reputation, but she could not afford his expensive fees. When it appeared that she would have to wait until she could save enough for lessons, church members and friends came to her rescue. They arranged a special concert at the church, with Roland Hayes, whom she admired and respected, as one of the soloists. She was greatly moved by this gesture and considered singing on the same program with Hayes to be one of the highlights of her life. The concert raised $600 for her singing lessons.

Boghetti further developed Anderson’s technique—especially her breathing—and taught her songs by Schubert, Brahms, and other composers. She learned songs in German, Italian, and French. Her accompanist, Billy King, was a talented musician who served as organist at an Episcopal church and had accompanied such artists as Roland Hayes. Eventually, King took over the duties of managing her concerts and publicity. Sponsored by a variety of black organizations, Anderson toured and gave concerts at colleges, churches, and other venues with black audiences. As her earnings increased, she was able to help her mother purchase a home, and there she set up a studio for her music practice.

Striving for Success

Anderson’s growing audiences and larger fees assured her that she was ready to advance in her career. At twenty-one, she felt she could gain national recognition by performing at Town Hall in New York City. On the night of the concert, she was shattered by the poor attendance, and her confidence was shaken by a performance she felt was not especially good. The few reviews verified that her New York debut was premature. The incident threatened to end her career, and she retreated from performing for some time. However, with the comfort and encouragement of her mother, she recovered and continued singing.

Entering a contest sponsored by Philadelphia’s Philharmonic Society, Anderson won, marking the first time a black American had won first prize. In 1925, she won a competition held in New York City under the sponsorship of Lewisohn Stadium Concerts. The prize was an appearance with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium, and many of her friends and family members were able to hear her perform. This tremendous career boost enabled her to change to professional management, and she signed with the organization of Arthur Judson, a top concert manager. Her career advanced for a while, but eventually she felt the need for further study and considered going abroad to try to gain a reputation in Europe, as Roland Hayes and others had done. A scholarship allowed her to study briefly in New York with Frank La Forge, vocal teacher to several famous singers. La Forge felt that Anderson did not need to go abroad, and he was not particularly encouraging when she decided to do so.

In the summer of 1929, armed with names of people she could contact for assistance, Anderson sailed to England on a second-class ticket. Billy King had given her a letter of introduction to Roger Quilter, who had assisted and encouraged Roland Hayes. Lawrence Brown, Hayes’s accompanist, had written to Raimund von zur Muhlen, a famous teacher of German lieder.

Upon arrival in England, Anderson called Quilter, only to discover that he was in a nursing home. Remembering the black actor John Payne, who had visited her home in Philadelphia, she reached him and was invited to stay in his home. Later, she telephoned Muhlen and made an appointment to sing for him at his house. When he accepted her as a student, she moved closer to his home. Unfortunately, after only two lessons, Muhlen became ill and discontinued all teaching. Quilter, somewhat recovered, recommended Mark Raphael, a student of Muhlen and a specialist in lieder. Although Raphael was a good teacher, Anderson was quite disappointed that she could not continue with Muhlen.

After a concert in 1931 for the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (she was an honorary member), Anderson was greeted backstage by a representative of the Rosenwald Fund. Upon learning of her desire to study in Germany, he encouraged her to apply for a fellowship, which she received. During her studies in Berlin, she gave concerts throughout Europe for the next several years. When she sang in Finland at the home of the composer Jean Sibelius, he remarked, “My roof is too low for you.” Her popularity, after two successful Scandinavian tours, was noted in Nazi Germany, and she was invited to sing there until it was discovered that she was not sufficiently “Aryan.”

In June 1934, at her third Paris recital, she met and signed with the internationally known American concert manager Sol Hurok, beginning a long professional relationship. In spring 1935, she sang two concerts at Vienna’s Wiener Konzerthaus and one at Salzburg’s Mozarteum. The American Gertrude Moulton arranged a second Salzburg recital, held in a hotel ballroom. Following this concert, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini uttered his famous statement, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.” Anderson’s first trip to the Soviet Union came in 1935. Returning briefly to the United States, she performed at Town Hall again on 30 December 1935. This time the outcome was much more successful. In 1936, she made a second, more extensive trip to the Soviet Union.

Although her fame throughout the world had helped break some racial barriers, Anderson was still denied many opportunities. Hurok’s organization attempted to protect her from the prejudice they met when they tried to book her in certain areas. However, the most infamous incident associated with her career was the refusal in 1939 of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow her to perform in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. During a great surge of public protest, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and was instrumental in getting Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to issue Anderson an invitation to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, 9 April 1939, Anderson sang before a crowd of seventy-five thousand in one of the most significant concerts in American music history. Eventually, the policy of prohibiting black performers in Constitution Hall was changed.

In 1943, Anderson married the architect Orpheus H. Fisher. They had met years before and became friends. The two made their home on a farm in Connecticut.

After World War II, Anderson resumed her travels abroad. She made her television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1952 and toured South America, Korea, and Japan in 1953. Her historic debut with the Metropolitan Opera Company in January 1955 marked the first time a black singer had ever sung at the Met. She sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). In 1957, she traveled forty thousand miles throughout Asia as a goodwill ambassador sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The tour, recorded by CBS television, included Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Burma (later Myanmar), Malaysia, and India. Both Anderson and her program, “The Lady from Philadelphia,” won praise.

During her career, Anderson received numerous awards and honors, including the Spingarn Medal, Bok Award, Page One Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Eisenhower asked her to sing the national anthem at his inauguration, and in June 1958 he appointed her to the American delegation to the United Nations. In 1964 and 1965, she gave more than fifty farewell concerts before retiring from a rich career that lasted more than thirty years. In 1993, Anderson, who had made her home in Portland, Oregon, passed away after more than twenty-five years of retirement.


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                    Mildred Denby Green