Marian Anderson, Contralto

1897 - 1993

Marian Anderson at home in 1928
Marian Anderson in 1928. London Express/Getty Images

Marian Anderson Facts

Known for: critically acclaimed solo performances of lieder, opera and American spirituals; dignified determination to succeed despite the “color barrier”; first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera
Occupation: concert and recital singer
Dates: February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Marian Anderson was known first as an incredible concert singer.

  Her vocal range was almost three octaves, from low D to high C.  She was able to express a broad range of feeling and mood, appropriate to the language, composer and period of the songs she sang.  She specialized in 19th century German lieder and 18th century classical and sacred songs by Bach and Handel, plus others composed by French and Russian composers.  She sang songs by Sibelius, the Finnish composer, and on tour met him; he dedicated one of his songs to her.

Background, Family

  • Mother: Annie Delilah Rucker, from Lynchburg, Virginia, who worked taking in laundry at home and later as a cleaning woman at the Wanamaker Department Store
  • Father: John Berkley Anderson, sold coal and ice
  • Siblings: two younger sisters

Education

  • Stanton Grammar School: graduated 1912
  • William Penn High School
  • South Philadelphia High School for Girls: graduated 1921
  • Chicago Conservatory of Music, summer 1919, with Oscar Saenger
  • Music teachers included
    • Mary Saunders Patterson
    • Agnes Reifsnyder
    • Giuseppe Boghetti, her primary musical coach and teacher for many years
    • Amanda Aldridge, London
    • Mark Raphael, London
    •  Frank LaForge
    • Michael Raucheisen, Germany
    • Kurt Johnen, Germany

Marriage, Children

  • Husband: Orpheus Fischer (married 1943; architect); no children, one stepson

    Marian Anderson Biography

    Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, probably in 1897 or 1898 though she gave 1902 as her birth year and some biographies give a date as late as 1908.

    She began singing at a very young age, her talent apparent quite early. At eight years old, she was paid fifty cents for a recital.  Marian’s mother was a member of a Methodist church, but the family was involved in music at Union Baptist Church where her father was a member and an officer. At Union Baptist Church, young Marian sang first in the junior choir and later in the senior choir.  The congregation nicknamed her the “baby contralto,” though she sometimes sang soprano or tenor.

    She saved money from doing chores around the neighborhood to buy first a violin and later a piano. She and her sisters taught themselves how to play.

    Marian Anderson’s father died in 1910, either of work injuries or of a brain tumor (sources differ).  The family moved in with Marian’s paternal grandparents. Marian’s mother, who had been a schoolteacher in Lynchburg before moving to Philadelphia just before she married, did laundry to support the family and later worked as a cleaning woman in a department store.  After Marian graduated from grammar Anderson’s mother became seriously ill with the flu, and Marian took some time off from school to raise money with her singing to help support the family.

     

    Members at Union Baptist Church and the Philadelphia Choral Society raised money to help her return to school, first studying business courses at William Penn High School so that she could earn a living and support her family. She later transferred to the South Philadelphia High School for Girls, where the curriculum included college prep coursework.  She was turned down by a music school in 1917 because of her color. In 1919, again with the help of the church members, she attended a summer course to study opera.  She continued performing, especially at black churches, schools, clubs and organizations.

    Marian Anderson was accepted at Yale University, but she did not have the funds to attend. She received a musical scholarship in 1921 from the National Association of Negro Musicians, the first scholarship they gave.

      She had been in Chicago in 1919 at the first meeting of the organization.

    The church members also collected funds to hire Giuseppe Boghetti as a voice teacher for Anderson for a year; after that, he donated his services. Under his coaching, she performed at Witherspoon Hall in Philadelphia.  He remained her tutor and, later, her advisor, until his death.

    Beginning a Professional Career

    Anderson toured after 1921 with Billy King, an African American pianist who also served as her manager, touring with him to schools and churches, including the Hampton Institute. In 1924, Anderson made her first recordings, with the Victor Talking Machine Company.  She gave a recital in New York’s Town Hall in 1924, to a mostly white audience, and considered quitting her musical career when the reviews were poor.  But a desire to help support her mother brought her back to the stage.

    Boghetti urged Anderson to enter a national contest sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.  Competing among 300 contenders in vocal music, Marian Anderson placed first. This led to a concert in 1925 at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, singing “O Mio Fernando” by Donizetti, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.  The reviews this time were more enthusiastic.  She was also able to appear with the Hall Johnson Choir at Carnegie Hall. She signed with manager and teacher, Frank LaForge. LaForge did not, however, advance her career much. Mostly she performed for black American audiences.  She decided to study in Europe.

    Anderson went London in 1928 and 1929. There, she made her European debut at Wigmore Hall on September 16, 1930. She also studied with teachers who helped her expand her musical capacities.  Returning briefly to America In 1929, the American Arthur Judson became her manager; she was the first black performer he managed.  Between the beginnings of the Great Depression and the race barrier, Anderson’s career in America did not go well.

    In 1930, Anderson performed in Chicago at a concert sponsored by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which had made her an honorary member.  After the concert, representatives from the Julius Rosewald Fund contacted her, and offered her a scholarship to study in Germany. She stayed at the home of a family there and studied with Michael Raucheisen and with Kurt Johnen

    Success in Europe

    In 1933-34, Anderson toured Scandinavia, with thirty concerts funded in part by the Rosenwald Fund: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, accompanied by pianist Kosti Vehanen from Finland.  She performed for the King of Sweden and the King of Denmark. She was enthusiastically received, and in twelve months she gave more than 100 concerts.  Sibelius invited her to meet with him, dedicating “Solitude” to her.

    Coming off her success in Scandinavia, in 1934 Marian Anderson had her Paris debut in May. She followed France with a tour in Europe, including England, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Soviet Union and Latvia.  In 1935, she won the Prix de Chant in Paris.

    The Salzburg Performance

    Salzburg, Austria, in 1935: the Salzburg Festival organizers refused to permit her to sing at the festival, because of her race.

    Permitted her to give an unofficial concert instead.  Arturo Toscanini also on the bill, and he was impressed by her performance.  He was quoted as saying, “What I have heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.”

    Return to America

    Sol Hurok, American impresario, took over management of her career in 1935, and he was a more aggressive manager than her previous American manager had been.  That, and her fame from Europe, led to a tour of the United States.

    Her first American concert was a return to Town Hall in New York City, on December 30, 1935.  She hid a broken foot and cast well. Critics raved about her performance.  Howard Taubman, then New York Times critic (and later ghost writer of her autobiography), wrote, “Let it be said from the outset, Marian Anderson has returned to her native land one of the great singers of our time.”

    She sang in January, 1936, at Carnegie Hall, then toured for three months in the United States and then returned to Europe for another tour.

    Anderson was invited to sing at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 – the first black performer there – and he invited her back to the White House to sing for a visit by King George and Queen Elizabeth.

    Her concerts -- 60 concerts in 1938 and 80 in 1939 – were usually sold out, and she was booked two years in advance.

    While not publicly taking on the racial prejudice that was often an obstacle for Anderson, she did take small stands.  When she toured the American South, for instance, contracts specified equal, even if separate, seating for black audiences. She found herself excluded from restaurants, hotels and concert halls.

    1939 and the DAR

    1939 was also the year of the highly publicized incident with the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution).  Sol Hurok attempted to engage the DAR’s Constitution Hall for an Easter Sunday concert in Washington, DC, with Howard University sponsorship, which would have an integrated audience.  The DAR refused use of the building, citing their segregation policy.  Hurok went public with the snub, and thousands of DAR members resigned, including, quite publicly, Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife.

    Black leaders in Washington organized to protest the DAR’s action and to find a new place to hold the concert.  The Washington School Board also refused to host a concert with Anderson, and the protest expanded to include the School Board.  Leaders of Howard University and the NAACP, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, arranged with the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes for a free outdoor concert on the National mall.  Anderson considered declining the invitation, but recognized the opportunity and accepted.

    And so, on April 9, Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An interracial crowd of 75,000 heard her sing in person.  And so did millions of others: the concert was broadcast on radio.  She opened with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The program also included “Ave Maria” by Schubert, “America,” “Gospel Train” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.”

    Some see this incident and the concert as the opening of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.  Though she did not choose political activism, she became a symbol of civil rights.

    This performance also led to an appearance at the film premiere of John Ford’s Young Mr.Lincoln, in Springfield, Illinois.

    On July 2, in Richmond, Virginia, Eleanor Roosevelt presented Marian Anderson with the Spingam Medal, an NAACP award.  In 1941, she won the Bok Award in Philadelphia, and used the award money for a scholarship fund for singers of any race.

    The War Years

    In 1941, Franz Rupp became Anderson’s pianist; he had emigrated from Germany.  They toured together annually in the United States and South America.  They began recording with RCA.  After her 1924 Victor recordings, Anderson had made a few more recordings for HMV in the late 1920s and 1930s, but this arrangement with RCA led to many more records.  As with her concerts, the recordings included lieder (German songs, including by Schumann, Schubert and Brahms) and spirituals.  She also recorded some songs with orchestration.

    In 1942, Anderson again arranged to sing at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, this time for a war benefit.  The DAR refused to permit interracial seating.  Anderson and her management insisted that the audience not be segregated.  The following year, the DAR invited her to sing at a China Relief Festival benefit at Constitution Hall.

    Marian Anderson married in 1943, after years of rumors.  Her husband, Orpheus Fischer, known as King, was an architect. They had known each other in high school when she stayed at his family’s home after a benefit concert in Wilmington, Delaware; he had later married and had a son.  The couple moved to a farm in Connecticut, 105 acres in Danbury, which they called Marianna Farms. King designed a home and many outbuildings on the property, including a studio for Marian’s music.

    Doctors discovered a cyst on her esophagus in 1948, and she submitted to an operation to remove it. While the cyst threatened to damage her voice, the operation also endangered her voice.  She had two months where she was not allowed to use her voice, with fears that she might have permanent damage.  But she recovered and her voice was not affected.

    In 1949, Anderson, with Rupp, returned to Europe to tour, with performances around Scandinavia and in Paris, London, and other European cities.  In 1952, she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on television.

    Anderson toured Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Broadcasting Company in 1953.  In 1957, she toured Southeast Asia as a goodwill ambassador of the State Department.  In 1958, Anderson was appointed for a one-year term as a member of the United Nations delegation.

    Opera Debut

    Earlier in her career, Marian Anderson had refused several invitations to perform in operas, noting that she did not have acting training.  But in 1954, when she was invited to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York by Met manager Rudolf Bing, she accepted the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), debuting on January 7, 1955.

    This role was significant because it was the first time in the Met’s history that a black singer – American or otherwise – had performed with the opera.  While Anderson’s appearance was mostly symbolic – she was already past her prime as a singer, and she had made her success on the concert stage – that symbolism was important.  In her first performance, she received a ten minute ovation when she first appeared and ovations after each aria. The moment was considered momentous enough at the time to warrant a front page New York Times story.

    She sang the role for seven performances, including once on tour in Philadelphia. Later black opera singers credited Anderson with opening an important door with her role.  RCA Victor in 1958 issued an album with selections from the opera, including Anderson as Ulrica and Dimitri Mitropoulos as conductor.

    Later Accomplishments

    In 1956, Anderson published her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning. She worked with former New York Times critic Howard Taubman, who converted her tapes into the final book. Anderson continued to tour. She was part of presidential inaugurations for both Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

    A 1957 tour of Asia under the auspices of the State Department was filmed for a CBS television program, and a soundtrack of the program was released by RCA Victor.

    In 1963, with an echo of her 1939 appearance, she sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the occasion of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Retirement

    Marian Anderson retired from concert tours in 1965.  Her farewell tour included 50 American cities.  Her final concert was on Easter Sunday at Carnegie Hall. After her retirement, she lectured, and sometimes narrated recordings, including the “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copeland.

    Her husband died in 1986. She lived on her Connecticut farm until 1992, when her health began to fail. She moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her nephew, James De Preist, who was the music director of the Oregon Symphony.

    After a series of strokes, Marian Anderson died of heart failure in Portland in 1993, at age 96.  Her ashes were interred in Philadelphia, in her mother’s grave at Eden Cemetery.

    Sources for Marian Anderson

    Marian Anderson’s papers are at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

    Books About Marian Anderson

    Her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, was published in 1958; she taped sessions with writer Howard Taubman who ghost-wrote the book.

    Kosti Vehanen, the Finnish pianist who accompanied her on tour early in her career, wrote a memoir of their relationship of some 10 years in 1941 as Marian Anderson: A Portrait.

    Allan Kellers published a biography of Anderson in 2000 as Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey.  He had the cooperation of Anderson family members in writing this treatment of her life. Russell Freedman published The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights in 2004 for elementary school readers; as the title indicates, this treatment of her life and career especially emphasizes the impact on the civil rights movement. In 2008, Victoria Garrett Jones published Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted, also for elementary school readers. Pam Munoz Ryan’s When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson is for preschool and early elementary students.

    Awards

    Among Marian Anderson’s many awards:

    • 1930/1: Rosenwald Fellowship
    • 1933: decorated by King Gustaf of Sweden
    • 1935: Prix de Chant, Paris
    • 1939: Spingam Medal, NAACP
    • 1941: Bok Award, Philadelphia (used to establish as scholarship fund for vocalists)
    • 1963: U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom
    • 1977: Congressional Medal
    • 1978: Kennedy Center Honors (first group of Americans to receive these awards for lifetime achievement in the arts)
    • 1984: Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York
    • 1986: National Medal of Arts awarded by President Ronald Reagan
    • 1991: Lifetime Achievement Grammy award
    • 1991: PBS American Playhouse documentary Marian Anderson.

    The Marian Anderson Award was founded in 1943 and re-established in 1990, giving awards to “individuals who have used their talents for personal artistic expression and whose body of work has contributed to our society in a singular manner.”

    Accompanists

    • William King
    • Kosti Vehanen
    • Franz Rupp
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    Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Marian Anderson, Contralto." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/marian-anderson-contralto-3529549. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, September 2). Marian Anderson, Contralto. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/marian-anderson-contralto-3529549 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Marian Anderson, Contralto." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/marian-anderson-contralto-3529549 (accessed November 23, 2017).