Marian Anderson (1902-1993) is remembered as one of the best American contraltos of all time. She was the first African American singer to perform at the White House and also the first African American to sing with New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 1902, and was educated in the public schools. She displayed a remarkable flair for singing when very young. Local supporters provided funds for study with Agnes Reifsneider and, later, Giuseppe Boghetti. When Anderson was 23, she entered a competition and won first place over 300 other singers, gaining her an engagement with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. Further sponsorships enabled her to continue her studies in the United States and, after winning the Rosenwald Fellowship, in Europe.
Following debuts in Berlin in 1930 and London in 1932, Anderson concertized in Scandinavia, Germany, South America, and the Soviet Union. In Salzburg, Austria, she gave a sensational performance at the Mozarteum with famous conductor Arturo Toscanini in the audience. Upon hearing her sing, Toscanini reportedly told her she had "a voice heard but once in a century."
At the end of her European tour, Anderson was an acclaimed sensation in the capitals of Europe, and American impresario Sol Hurok signed her to 15 concerts in the United States. On December 30, 1935, she opened her American tour at New York's Town Hall. The program was typical for Marian Anderson, consisting of songs by Handel, Schubert, Giuseppe Verdi, and Sibelius as well as several black spirituals. The performance was a resounding success, with critics welcoming her as a "new high priestess of song." In the words of a New York Times contributor, the concert established her as "one of the great singers of our time."
Over the next several years Anderson sang for U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House, and she returned to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England during their 1939 visit to the United States. She made several cross country tours and soon was booking engagements two years in advance. In one year she covered 26,000 miles in the longest tour in concert history, giving 70 concerts in five months. After World War II ended, she again performed in major European cities. By 1950, it was estimated that she had performed before nearly 4 million listeners.
Marian Anderson's contralto voice was notable for its power and exceptionally dark texture, particularly in the lowest register. The high voice changed quality—not unusual in a contralto of prodigious range—but idiosyncracies never obliterated the fine musicality and sincere emotion that marked her performances.
With Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson pioneered in winning recognition at home and abroad for black artists. In 1939, an incident involving the Daughters of the American Revolution did much to focus public attention on racism. The DAR denied Anderson use of their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. for an April concert. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest, and the U.S. government placed Lincoln Memorial at Anderson's disposal. Her concert there, on Easter morning, drew a live audience of 75,000, and millions more heard it over the radio.
In 1942 she established the Marian Anderson Award for talented young singers; among the recipients were Camilla Williams, Mattiwilda Dobbs, and Grace Bumbry. Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher, a New York architect, in 1943.
In 1948 Anderson underwent a dangerous operation for the removal from her esophagus of a cyst that threatened to damage her voice. For two months she was not permitted to use her voice and was unsure if she would ever be able to sing again. When she was finally allowed to rehearse, her voice returned free of impairment. Following her recovery, Anderson made her first post-World War II tour of Europe, including stops in Scandinavia, Paris, London, Antwerp, Zurich, and Geneva.
On Jan. 7, 1955, Anderson sang Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (The Masked Ball) at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, and she returned the following season in the same role. This was the first time an African American person had sung with the Metropolitan since it opened in 1883.
Over the years, Anderson continued to add to her accomplishments. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. In 1957, as an emissary of the State Department, Anderson made a concert tour of India and the Far East that was filmed by CBS-TV. In 1958 President Eisenhower appointed her a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations. Anderson gave her farewell concert at Carnegie Hall on Easter Sunday in 1965.
Describing the range and quality of her voice, New York Times music critic Harold C. Schoenberg wrote: "Those who remember her at her height … can never forget that big resonant voice, with those low notes almost visceral in nature, and with that easy, unforced ascent to the top register. A natural voice, a hauntingly colorful one, it was one of the vocal phenomena of its time."
Marian Anderson's honors included a doctorate of music from Howard University (1938) and honorary degrees from more than 20 other American educational institutions. She received the Springarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1939 and the Bok Award of $10,000 from her hometown of Philadelphia in 1941. In addition to decorations from many foreign governments, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. At age 89, in 1991, Anderson was honored as the subject of a 60-minute documentary broadcast over public television. She died on April 8, 1993.
Renewed accolades abounded in 1997, the centenary year of Anderson's birth. The Marian Anderson Study Center at the University of Pennsylvania was erected to hold her archives. On February 27, the day that would have been her 100th birthday, Robert Shaw conducted a tribute concert at New York's Carnegie Hall, joined by signers including Jessye Norman, William Warfield, and Roberta Peters. At noon the following Saturday, a gala of spirituals and art songs took place at Union Baptist Church, at 19th and Fitzwater Streets in Philadelphia—the church where Anderson prayed and sang as a little girl.
Information on Anderson can be found in the Philadelphia Inquirer (February 26, 1997); Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (Macmillan, 1986); Sims, Janet L., Marian Anderson: An Annotated Bibliography and Discography (Greenwood, 1981); and Tedards, Anne, Marian Anderson (1988). □
Learn more about Marian Anderson