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Unsung Heroes: Marian Anderson

2011 July 6

Today’s Hero is both impressive in their own right as one of the finest classical singing voices of the 20th century and also provides an example of people stepping up to do the right thing in the face of prejudice. Who is she? Marian Anderson, an American contralto who performed across Europe and the Americas throughout the middle part of the 20th century.

Black and white portrait photo of Marian Anderson, aged 43. A stately looking black woman in an off-the shoulder satin evening gown with flowers attached to the bodice. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1940, shared via Wikipedia under a fair use Creative Commons license.

Marian was born in Philadelphia in 1897, the eldest of three Anderson children. Her mother had previously worked as a school teacher but was unable to do so in Philadelphia due to stricter controls on the qualifications needed by black teachers as opposed to those for white teachers. The family was active in their local Union Baptist church, and Marian’s aunt Mary encouraged her to sing with the church choir.

From age six onwards Marian began to sing at local concerts and functions, encouraged by her aunt. She had a clear talent from the start, and by her teens was earning several dollars for a performance.1 After attending high school – which was paid for by charitable donations raised by her pastor and other local community leaders – Anderson applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was turned away. The reason? ‘We don’t take coloureds.’

As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.

– Marian Anderson, My Lord What A Morning

Undaunted, Anderson sought private tuition from the talented Giuseppe Boghetti.2 Boghetti was a good teacher, and Anderson would credit him with expanding her repertoire to include classical works and arias in addition to choral music. She took these skills to the New York Philharmonic, winning a voice contest there in 1925. The prize was the chance to perform in concert with them, marking the first major critical success of her career.

Despite being critically acclaimed and applauded by all who heard her, Anderson’s career struggled to take off in the United States. Much like Josephine Baker she found difficulty getting bookings due to racism, and like Baker she responded by touring heavily in a more welcoming Europe. She toured extensively through the 1930s, befriending many influential people in the music field who were impressed with her voice. Toscanini, Jean Sibelius, and Kosti Vehanen were all amongst those who worked with her or applauded her voice.

Black and white photo of huge crowds gathered for Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939, looking out from the stage.

Those Lincoln Memorial crowds. All 70,000 of them.

For all her European success, there were still issues in America. In 1939 Howard University sought to have her perform at Constitution Hall. The hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who denied her the chance to play there on grounds of race. This kicked off a storm with many DAR members resigning in protest, including board member Eleanor Roosevelt. This is where we get that aforementioned lovely example of people stepping up to do the right thing. Eleanor Roosevelt, along with Anderson’s manager, members of the NAACP, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged an open air concert for Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The performance was a huge success, attended by over 70,000 people, and with a million or so more listening in by radio.

Four years later the DAR asked Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall. She accepted.

I forgave the DAR many years ago. You lose a lot of time hating people.

– Marian Anderson

Although she was trained for it and regularly performed operatic arias in her concerts, Anderson shied away from appearing in actual operas. She was offered positions consistently throughout her time in Europe, but felt she lacked the acting talent to accompany her voice. The exception to this was 1955’s appearance with the New York Metropolitan Opera in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Machera. This was the first time a black singer had been counted amongst the regular cast.

The next decade was studded with achievements for Anderson, almost too many to give each one the detail they deserve here. which frankly is sign of brilliance in itself, when you have too much cool stuff to actually describe at any great length. Between 1955 and 1965, then, she:

  • sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy
  • was appointed a UN delegate
  • was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • sang at the 1963 March on Washington
  • … and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Oh, and she released an album of poetry, songs and spoken word pieces dedicated to her beloved pet cat Snoopy. A busy and exceedingly well spent decade.

    Anderson retired from public performance in 1965 with a farewell tour that began at Constitution Hall and ended in New York’s Carnegie Hall. By the time of her death in 1993 she would accrue a list of honours and accolades quite staggering in length, including but not limited to honorary degrees from three different universities, a Grammy, a Silver Buffalo from the Boy Scouts of America, and her likeness on postage stamps and $5000 Series I Savings Bonds.

    There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the make the first move – and he, in turn, waits for you.

    – Marian Anderson, My Lord What A Morning

    For further reading, check the following:

    • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
    1. Which may not sound like much, but for early 20th century America it was pretty damn impressive. []
    2. Born Joe Bogash, he had changed his name to something Italian sounding in the hopes that it would boost his opera career. It didn’t, and he returned to America in 1918 to open studios in New York City instead. []
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Gordon Bennet permalink
    July 7, 2011

    Surely Snoopy is a dog.Have I been mistaken all these years?

    • Miranda permalink*
      July 7, 2011

      Marian was big on thinking outside the box, clearly.

      Google “Snoopy Cat Marian Anderson”!

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