Marian Anderson (February
27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American contralto.
Music critic Alan Blyth
said "Her voice was a rich, vibrant
contralto of intrinsic beauty." Most of her singing career was
spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and
with major orchestras throughout the United States and Europe
between 1925-1965. Although she was offered contracts to perform
roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson
declined all of these, preferring to perform in concert and recital
only. She did, however, perform opera
within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that
reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from
concert literature to lieder
to opera to
traditional American song
An African-American, Anderson became an important figure in the
struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the
United States during the mid twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American
Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an
integrated audience in Constitution Hall.
Their race-driven refusal placed Anderson
into the spotlight of the international community on a level
usually only found by high profile celebrities and politicians.
With the aid of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor
Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air
concert on Easter Sunday, 1939 on the steps
of the Lincoln
Memorial in Washington,
D.C. to a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio
audience in the millions. She continued to break barriers for black
artists in the United States, notably becoming the first black
person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955.
Her performance as
Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi
Un ballo in maschera
at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage.
Anderson later became an important symbol of grace and beauty
during the civil rights
in the 1960s, notably singing at the March on Washington for
Jobs and Freedom
in 1963. She also worked for several years as a
delegate to the United Nations Human
Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States
Department of State.
The recipient of numerous awards and
honors, Anderson was notably awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
in 1963, the Kennedy Center
in 1978, the National
Medal of Arts
in 1984, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement
Early life and career
was born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and the
former Annie Delilah Rucker.
Her father sold ice and coal in
downtown Philadelphia at the Reading Terminal and eventually opened
a small liquor business as well, ironic for a man who did not drink
alcohol himself. Prior to her marriage, Anderson's mother had
briefly attended the Virginia Seminary and
College in Lynchburg and had worked as a schoolteacher in Virginia.
However, having not completed a degree, she
was unable to teach in Philadelphia, a law that was only applied to
black teachers and not white ones. She therefore earned an income
looking after small children. Marian was the eldest of the three
Anderson children. Her two sisters, Alice (later spelled Alyse)
(1899-1965) and Ethel (1902-1990), also became singers. Ethel
DePreist (née' Anderson) became mother to noted conductor James DePreist
Anderson's parents were both devout Christians
and the whole family was highly active
in the Union Baptist Church
South Philadelphia. Marian's Aunt Mary (John Berkley's sister) was
particularly active in the church's musical life and, noticing her
niece's talent, convinced her to join the junior church choir
at the age of six. As a part of the choir she
got to perform solos and duets, often with Aunt Mary who also had a
fine voice. Marian was also taken by her aunt to concerts at local
churches, the YMCA, and other community music events throughout the
city. Anderson credited her aunt's influence as the reason she
pursued a singing career. Beginning as young as six, her aunt
arranged for Marian to sing for local functions where she was often
paid 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs. As she got into her
early teens, Marian began to make as much as four or five dollars
for singing; a considerable amount of money for the early 20th
century. At the age of 10, Marian joined the People's Chorus
under the direction of
singer Emma Azalia Hackley, where she was often given solos.
When Marian was 12, her father was accidentally struck on the head
while at work at the Reading Terminal, just a few weeks before
Christmas of 1909. He died of heart failure a month later at age
34. Marian and her family moved into the home of her father's
parents, Grandpa Benjamin and Grandma Isabella Anderson. Her
grandfather had been born a slave and had experienced emancipation
in the 1860s. He was the first of the Anderson family to settle in
South Philadelphia, and when Marian moved into his home the two
became very close. Sadly he died only about a year after the family
Throughout her teenage years, Marian remained active in her
church's musical activities, now heavily involved in the adult
choir. She attended Stanton
, graduating from there in the summer of 1912.
Her family, however, could not afford to send her to high school,
nor could they pay for any music lessons. Undaunted, Marian
continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who
was willing to teach her. She joined the Baptists' Young People's
and the Camp Fire Girls
which provided her with some limited musical opportunities.
Eventually the directors of the People's Chorus and the pastor of
her church, Reverend Wesley Parks, along with other leaders of the
black community, banded together to help out Marian. They raised
the money she needed to get singing lessons with Mary S. Patterson
and to attend South Philadelphia High
, from which she graduated in 1921.
school, Marian applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia
Music Academy (now University of the Arts), but was turned away
because she was black.
The woman working the admissions
counter replied, "We don't take colored" when she tried to apply.
Undaunted, Anderson pursued studies privately with Giuseppe Boghetti
and Agnes Reifsnyder
in her native city through
the continued support of the Philadelphia black community. She met
Boghett through the principal of her high school. Marian auditioned
for him singing 'Deep River' and he was immediately brought to
In 1925 Anderson got her first big break when she won first prize
in a singing
competition sponsored by the
New York Philharmonic
. As the
winner she got to perform in concert with the orchestra on August
27, 1925; a performance that scored immediate success with both
audience and music critics. Anderson remained in New York to pursue
further studies with Frank La Forge
During the time Arthur Judson
she had met through the NYP, became her manager. Over the next
several years, she made a number of concert appearances in the
United States, but racial prejudice prevented her career from
gaining much momentum. In 1928, she sang for the first time at
Eventually she decided to go to Europe
where she spent a number of months studying with Mme Charles Cahier
before launching a
highly successful European singing tour.
European fame and the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert
Anderson made her European debut in a concert at Wigmore Hall in London where she was received
Anderson at the Department of the Interior, commemorating her 1939
She spent the early 1930s touring
throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices
she had experienced in America. In the summer of 1930 she went to
where she met the Finnish
pianist Kosti Vehanen
who became her
regular accompanist and her vocal coach for many years.
met Jean Sibelius through Vehanen
after he had heard her in a concert in Helsinki.
Moved by her performance, Sibelius invited
them to his home and asked his wife to bring champagne in place of
the traditional coffee. Sibelius commented to Anderson of her
performance that he felt that she had been able to penetrate the
Nordic soul. The two struck up an immediate friendship which
further blossomed into a professional partnership, and for many
years Sibelius altered and composed songs for Anderson to perform.
He notably made a new arrangement of the song Solitude
dedicated it to Anderson in 1939. Originally The Jewish Girl's
from his 1906 incidental music to Belshazzar's Feast
, it later became
the “Solitude” section of the orchestral suite derived from the
In 1934 impresario Sol Hurok
Anderson a better contract than she had previously had with Arthur
Judson. He became her manager for the rest of her performing career
and it is only through his persuasion that she came back to perform
in America. In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in
New York at Town Hall
highly favorable reviews by music critics. She spent the next four
years touring throughout the United States and Europe. She was
offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack
of acting experience, Anderson declined all of these offers. She
did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio which
Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout
Europe during the mid 1930s. She visited Eastern European capitals
and Russia and returned again to Scandinavia, where "Marian fever"
had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of
fans. She quickly became a favorite of many conductors and
composers of major European orchestras, and drew a large fan base
among European audiences. During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the famed
conductor Arturo Toscanini
she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years." Once he heard her
sing, he knew instantly that with a rich voice like hers, there was
no way that she could fail.
Anderson performing at the Lincoln
Memorial in 1939.
In the late 1930s, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the
United States. Although by now quite famous, her stature did not
completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer
touring the United States. She was still denied rooms in certain
American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American
the Daughters of
the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson
to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall.
At the time, Washington D.C. was a
segregated city and when black artists performed on stage at
Constitution Hall, black patrons were upset that they had to sit at
the back. The DAR has never been a political organization, and to
avoid this conflict, declined to schedule black artists.
Columbia Board of Education also declined a request to use
the auditorium of a white public high school.
As a result of
the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor
The Roosevelts, with Walter White
then-executive secretary of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok
, then persuaded Secretary of the
Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air Marian Anderson
concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The concert was performed on Easter
Sunday, April 9, and Anderson was accompanied,
per usual, by Vehanen. They began the performance with a dignified
and stirring rendition of "My
Country, 'Tis of Thee
". The event attracted a crowd of more
75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio
audience of millions.
Mid life and career
During World War II
and the Korean War
, Marian Anderson participated by
entertaining the troops in hospitals and bases. In 1943, Anderson
finally sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated
audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross.
She said of
the event, "When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution
Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no
sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I
was very happy to sing there." By contrast, the federal government
continued to bar her from using the high school auditorium in the
District of Columbia.
On July 17, 1943, in Bethel, Connecticut, Anderson became the
second wife of a man who had asked her to marry him when they were
teenagers, architect Orpheus H.
(1900—1986), known as
By this marriage she had a stepson,
James Fisher, from her husband's previous marriage to Ida Gould.
The couple had purchased a farm in Danbury, Connecticut, three
years earlier in 1940 after an exhaustive search throughout New
York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many purchases were attempted but
thwarted by property sellers due to racial discrimination. The
Danbury property transaction was initially disputed by the seller
as well, after he discovered the couple were African Americans.
Through the years Fisher built many outbuildings on the property
that became known as Marianna Farm, including an acoustic rehearsal
studio he designed for his wife. The property remained Anderson's
home for more than 50 years.
January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to
perform with the Metropolitan
Opera in New
On that occasion, she sang the part of
Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi
Un ballo in maschera
at the invitation of director Rudolf
. Anderson said later about the evening, "The curtain rose
on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch's
brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded
before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot."
Although she never appeared with the company again after this
production, Anderson was named a permanent member of the
Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her
autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning
, which became a
In 1957, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration and toured
India and the Far East as a
goodwill ambassadress through the U.S.
State Department and
the American National Theater and Academy. She traveled in 12
weeks, giving 24 concerts. After that, President Eisenhower
appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights
Committee. In 1958 she was officially designated delegate to the
, a formalization of
her role as "goodwill ambassadress" of the U.S. which she had
January 20, 1961 she sang for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and in 1962
she performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the
East Room of the White House, and also toured Australia.
She was active in supporting the
civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for
the Congress of Racial
, the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People
. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for
Jobs and Freedom
. That same year she was one of the original 31
recipients of the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom
(which is awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the
security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or
cultural or other significant public or private endeavors"), and
she also released her album, Snoopycat: The Adventures of
Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy,
which included short stories and
songs about her beloved black cat. In 1965, she christened the
nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, USS
. That same year Anderson made her
farewell tour, after which she retired from public performance.
international tour began at Constitution Hall on October 1964 and
ended at Carnegie
Hall on April 18, 1965.
Although Anderson retired from singing in 1965, she continued to
appear publicly. On several occasions she narrated Aaron Copland
's Lincoln Portrait
, including a
performance with the Philadelphia
conducted by the composer. Her achievements were recognized and
honored with many prizes, including the UN Peace Prize
in 1972, the University of Pennsylvania
Award of Merit in 1973, the Congressional Gold Medal
the Kennedy Center Honors
1978, the George Peabody Medal
in 1981, the National Medal of
in 1984, and a Grammy Award
in 1991. In 1980, the United
States Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with
her likeness, and in 1984 she was the first recipient of the
Human Rights Award of the City of New York. She has been awarded
honarary doctoral degrees from Howard University, Temple University and Smith
She also received the Silver Buffalo Award
in 1990, the
highest award given to adults by the Boy Scouts of America
In 1986, Anderson's husband, Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of
marriage. Anderson remained in residence at Marianna Farm until
1992, one year before her death. Although the bucolic property was
sold to developers, various preservationists as well as the City of
Danbury fought to protect Anderson's studio. Their efforts proved
successful and the Danbury Museum and Historical Society received a
grant from the State of Connecticut and relocated the structure,
restored it and opened it to the public in 2004. In addition to
seeing the studio, visitors can see photographs and memorabilia
from milestones in Anderson's career.
8, 1993, Anderson died of congestive heart failure a month after a
stroke at age 96 in Portland, Oregon at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist. She is interred at
Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
The life and art of Marian Anderson has inspired several writers
and artists. In 1999 a one act musical play entitled
My Lord, What a Morning: The Marian Anderson Story was
produced by the Kennedy
Center. In 2001, the 1939 documentary film,
Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert was selected for
preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the
Congress as being "culturally, historically, or
Anderson's 1939 concert at the
Lincoln Memorial also forms a centre point of Richard Powers
's novel The Time of Our Singing
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete
listed Marian Anderson on his list of 100 Greatest African
On January 27, 2005, a commemorative U.S. postage
honored Marian Anderson as part of the Black Heritage
series. Anderson is also pictured on the US$5,000 Series I United
States Savings Bond
Marian Anderson Award
The Marian Anderson Award was originally established in 1943 by
Anderson after she was awarded the $10,000 Bok Prize that year by
the city of Philadelphia. Anderson used the award money to
establish a singing competition to help support young singers;
recipients of which include Camilla
(1943, 1944), Nathaniel
(1944), Louise Parker
(1944), Rawn Spearman
(1949), Georgia Laster
(1951), Betty Allen
(1952), Shirlee Emmons
(1953), Judith Raskin
(1952, 1953), Miriam Holman
(1954), Shirley Verrett
(1957), and Joyce Mathis
(1967). Eventually the prize fund
ran out of money and it was disbanded. Florence Quivar
was the last recipient of
this earlier award in 1976.
In 1990 the award was re-established and has dispensed $25,000
annually. In 1998 the prize was restructured with the "Marian
Anderson Award" going to an established artist, not necessarily a
singer, who exhibits leadership in a humanitarian area. A separate
prize, the "Marian Anderson Prize for Emerging Classical Artists"
is given to promising young classical singers.
Awardees by year:
- Detailed research
- Raymond Arsenault, The
Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the
concert that awakened America (2009). ISBN 1596915781
- Freedman, Russell, The
Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle
For Equal Rights (Clarion Books, New York, 2004) ISBN
- Keiler, Allan, Marian Anderson: A Singer's Journey.
Scribner, 2002. ISBN
- Sims-Wood, Janet L, Marian Anderson, An Annotated
Bibliography and Discography (Greenwood Press, Connecticut,
1981) ISBN 978-0313225598
- Voice of America segment on Marian
- Online exhibition at the University
of Pennsylvania Library, largest online collection of images, includes
Anderson's papers, audio and film archives.
Anderson Historical Society
- Biographical entries
- Hamilton, David. (1987). The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Guide
to the World of Opera. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney,
Tokyo: Simon and Schuster. p. 22. ISBN 0-671-61732-X.
- Hamilton, Mary. (1990). A-Z of Opera. New York, Oxford, Sydney: Facts On
File. p. 17. ISBN 0-8160-2340-9.
- Rosenthal, Harold and John Warrack. (1979, 2nd ed.).
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera.
London, New York and Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
p. 11. ISBN 0-19-311318-X.
- Sadie, Stanley and Christina Bashford. (1992). The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London:
Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Vol. 1, p. 123. ISBN
- Sadie, Stanley and John Tyrrell. (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Vol. 1, p. 615. ISBN
- Warrack, John and Ewan West. (1996 3rd ed.). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera. New York:
Oxford University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-19-280028-0.