Born February 17, 1902, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of a coal and ice vendor and a former schoolteacher; married Orpheus Fisher (an architectural engineer), July 24, 1943. Education: Studied with vocal teachers Giuseppe Boghetti, Frank LaForge, and Michael Raucheisen. Addresses: Home-- Portland, OR. Management-- ICM Artists, Ltd., 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Acclaimed as much for her gentle demeanor as for her rich voice, Marian Anderson effectively bridged entrenched racial gaps with her powerful renditions of classical, spiritual, and operatic songs. At age 89, as always, Anderson's characteristic grace, nobility, and modesty were evident; honored as the subject of a 60-minute 1991 PBS documentary, she was described as "a queen, a national treasure, an inspiration, a great lady and an icon," according to the New York Times. Yet the singer portrayed herself in typically humble fashion, saying, "I hadn't set out to change the world in any way. Whatever I am, it is a culmination of the goodwill of people who, regardless of anything else, saw me as I am, and not as somebody else."
Anderson's nearly 40-year career as a classical singer was, in fact, marked by racial prejudice and discrimination. Although she won an important singing contest in 1925, she was for years unable to advance her career in America; it was in Europe that Anderson first became a star. She captured the attention of millions of Americans, however, when in 1939 she was refused the use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). Her operatic debut was delayed until 1955, when she became the first African-American to sing with New York City's Metropolitan Opera.
Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 17, 1902. Her father sold coal and ice, and her mother, who had been a schoolteacher before marrying, took in laundry and did housework to make ends meet. Anderson's father died when she was 12; five years later, her mother contracted a serious case of influenza, leaving young Marian to take over support of the family.
Anderson's earliest vocal training came at Philadelphia's Union Baptist Church, where she began singing spirituals and hymns in the junior choir at age six. Her early experience there helped develop her astonishing range, which embraced three octaves at its peak. Singing "The Lord Is My Shepherd," Anderson made her debut performance at the age of eight and received 50 cents for her recital. She studied with local voice teachers in Philadelphia, but by the time she was 18 she had outgrown them. Almost single-handedly supporting her family, she could not afford expensive vocal coaches. Knowing this, the parishioners of Union Baptist Church collected a "Marian Anderson Fund" to pay for instruction by Giuseppe Boghetti, a famous voice teacher who worked in Philadelphia and New York City. In 1925, following a recital at New York's Town Hall, Boghetti was sufficiently encouraged by his pupil's performance to enter her in a vocal contest. Competing against three hundred singers, Anderson took first prize in the contest and won the opportunity to sing at Lewisohn Stadium with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a victory she long considered a keystone of her career. Singing "O Mio Fernando" from Donizetti's opera La Favorite, she gave a smashing performance that was widely acclaimed.
In spite of her triumph, though, Anderson's career did not advance as expected. Studying and under contract with Frank LaForge, her concerts were given primarily under the auspices of black organizations for black audiences. Despite the racial prejudice she encountered daily, she refused to abandon the high musical road upon which she had set out. In the summer of 1929 she sailed to England and studied there with various teachers. But she returned to the United States the next year, the trip to Europe having had little impact on her career.
Then, after a 1931 concert in Chicago, Anderson was approached by a representative from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation set up to advance higher education for blacks. At the time, Anderson desperately wanted to study in Germany. With the aid of a Rosenwald scholarship, she returned to Europe that year and stayed with a German family in Berlin. She studied with Michael Raucheisen, a German vocal coach, to learn the language and lieder.
Success came more quickly to Anderson in Europe than in America. She gave concerts in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, then returned briefly to America. In 1933 she went back to Europe for a 20-concert Scandinavian tour financed by the Rosenwald Fund. Anderson sang before King Gustav in Stockholm, Sweden, where she was decorated by him. She also sang before King Christian in Copenhagen, Denmark. In Finland she received a rare invitation from the great composer Jean Sibelius, who later dedicated his song "Solitude" to her. In 12 months, she gave 108 concerts.
Following her Scandinavian tour, Anderson gave concerts in Paris and London and toured Italy, Austria, Spain, Poland, Latvia, and Russia. She was particularly well received in Russia, where the famous theater director Constantin Stanislavsky requested that she study Bizet's opera Carmen under his direction. In Salzburg, Austria, she gave a spectacular performance at the Mozarteum with revered conductor Arturo Toscanini in attendance. On hearing her sing, Toscanini reportedly told Anderson that she had "a voice heard but once in a century."
By the end of her tour on the Continent, Anderson was a widely heralded sensation throughout the capitals of Europe. In Paris, American impresario Sol Hurok signed her to 15 concerts in the United States. She was also awarded the Prix de Chant in Paris, where she was known as "The Black Venus." Hurok managed Anderson's career from 1935 on, once telling a reporter that she was the only artist he'd ever handled who never became temperamental with him.
Anderson's first recital on returning to the United States was given at New York's Town Hall on December 30, 1935. She had fractured a bone in her left foot on the ocean liner before she landed; at the concert, the cast on her foot was hidden by her gown. Despite this encumbrance, the performance, which included songs by Handel, Schubert, Verdi, and Sibelius, as well as a group of spirituals, was glorious. After the recital, critics welcomed her as a "new high priestess of song." The New York Times called Anderson "one of the great singers of our time."
Within the next few years Anderson became so popular that she was invited to sing at the White House for U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, where she had her only attack of stage fright. She was invited back to perform for King George and Queen Elizabeth of England during their state visit. She embarked on several cross-country tours and was soon being requested for engagements two years in advance. Every appearance was an automatic sellout, and one year Anderson covered 26,000 miles in the longest tour in concert history, giving 70 concerts in five months. When touring the deep South, her theater contract specified equal, though separate, orchestra seating for blacks.
In 1939, an incident involving the Daughters of the American Revolution, members of which are directly descended from soldiers or patriots of the Revolutionary period, brought Anderson's name to the attention of millions of Americans, many of whom would never have been acquainted with her otherwise. The D.A.R. denied her use of their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., for an April 9 concert. A huge outcry ensued, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently resigned from the organization. With permission from the federal government, Anderson instead gave a free Easter Sunday outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial. A live crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience numbering into the millions heard the performance, which began with the patriotic song "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Later that year, Mrs. Roosevelt presented Anderson with the Spingarn Medal. The prestigious award, named for NAACP president Joel E. Spingarn, is awarded by the NAACP to the black American who "made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field of human endeavor," as defined in the New York Times; she used the $10,000 award accompanying the medal to set up the Marian Anderson awards--cash scholarships given each year to ten aspiring young singers regardless of race or creed.
In 1942 the D.A.R. again refused to let Anderson use Constitution Hall, this time reportedly over her demands that the audience for her war benefit concert not be segregated on the basis of color. The issue was finally resolved in 1943, when Anderson sang at Constitution Hall for a China Relief Fund benefit. The following year, the singer gave a performance at Carnegie Hall that included the spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning," which Anderson would later adopt as the title of her autobiography. An enthusiastic New York Times reviewer proclaimed of the appearance: "It became apparent that something very unusual was taking place, one of the rarest of things--a really great song recital." Of the spirituals, the reviewer observed, "[They] displayed a pathos and a profundity of feeling that made them possibly the most moving music of the evening."
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.
Although Anderson had once expressed a desire to sing opera, she later revealed in a press release, "When some of the things I did in concert gratified me, it did not become a necessity." And so, it was not until January 7, 1955, at the age of 52, that Anderson made her operatic debut in the role of Ulrica in Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera ("The Masquerade Ball"). It was the first time an African-American had sung with the company of New York's Metropolitan Opera (Met) since it opened in 1883; her presence in the company opened the doors for many black opera singers. When Anderson was offered the chance to sing Verdi's opera at the Met, she made a point of carefully examining the score with conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos to determine whether it was within her vocal range. Commenting in the New York Times on winning her first opera role, Anderson exclaimed, "Ever since [I] was in high school in Philadelphia, [I] wanted to sing opera--at the Metropolitan, if that could be. Now [I am] speechless."
Over the years, Anderson continued to add to her accomplishments. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, and toured the Far East in a 40,000-mile trek sponsored by the U.S. State Department and filmed by CBS-TV. On Easter Sunday of 1965, Anderson gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall. The audience of 2,900 included actor Montgomery Clift, who remarked in the New York Times of Anderson's gift, "This marvelous thing comes across and it's so rare, so beautiful." The program was typical for Anderson, consisting of songs by Handel, Haydn, Schubert, Samuel Barber, and a selection of spirituals. She gave four encores, including "Ave Maria" and "Let My People Go."
On the occasion of her farewell concert, New York Times music critic Harold C. Schoenberg wrote: "It was Miss Anderson who stood as a symbol for the emergence of the Negro; and while she herself never militantly participated in the civil-rights movement, she was revered as one who, by the force of her personality, talent and probity, was able to become a world figure despite her humble birth and minority status. In a way, she was part of the American dream. And her success story was an inspiration to younger Negro musicians." Describing the range and quality of her voice, Schoenberg noted, "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."
by David Bianco
Marian Anderson's Career
Classical, spiritual, and opera singer. Debuted professionally, with Union Baptist Church junior choir, Philadelphia, 1910; won vocal contest and performed with the New York Philharmonic, c. 1925; studied in Europe, 1929-30, 1931; performed throughout Europe; signed contract for U.S. performances, 1935; performed at the White House and at presidential inaugurations; performed at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., 1939; established Marian Anderson scholarship awards; made operatic debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1955; served as U.S. delegate to the United Nations; gave farewell concert performance at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1965. Author of My Lord, What a Morning (autobiography), Viking, 1956.
Marian Anderson's Awards
Rosenwald scholarship, 1931; decorated by King Gustaf of Sweden, c. 1933; Prix de Chant, Paris, 1935; Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1939; Bok Award (Philadelphia), 1941; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1963; Presidential Medal of Arts, 1988.
- Selective Works
- (Gustav Mahler) Kinder-Tontenlieder (title means "Songs on the Death of Infants"), Victor, 1951.
- Marian Anderson Sings Beloved Songs of Schubert Victor, 1951.
- (Giuseppe Verdi) Un ballo in maschera (title means "The Masquerade Ball"), Victor, 1955.
- Marian Anderson (songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Straus, and Haydn), Victor, 1964.
- Jus' Keep on Singin' (spirituals), Victor, 1965.
- Spirituals Victor, 1976.
- Marian Anderson: Bach, Brahms, Schubert (recorded 1924-55), Victor, 1989.
- Marian Anderson Pearl, 1990.
- Anderson, Marian, My Lord, What a Morning (autobiography), Viking, 1956.
- 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.
- Tedards, Anne, Marian Anderson, Chelsea House, 1988.
- Vehanen, Kosti, Marian Anderson: A Portrait, McGraw-Hill, 1941.
- Christian Century, February 21, 1940.
- Detroit Free Press, May 8, 1991.
- National Review, September 29, 1989.
- New York Times, July 3, 1939; March 18, 1941; November 13, 1944; October 8, 1954; April 19, 1965; May 8, 1991.
- New York Times Magazine, December 30, 1945.
- Stage, December 1938.
- Time, December 30, 1946.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from a press release, c. 1949, housed in the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of the Detroit Public Library.
Visitor Comments Add a comment…
about 15 years ago
You r an awesome person!
over 15 years ago
In the 1950's, my father, a commercial photographer in NYC, was asked to take portraits of several famous black personages including Marion Anderson and Martin Luther King. There were others but I do not recall who. These portraits were being used in a book dedicated to these people. As I was a child at the time I can only recall my father mentioning these two people. Does anyone have any idea which book those photos were used in? My father is dead these many years, but I would love to have a copy of the book for our family archives. No, regretfully, i do not know the author's name, but photographic credit should have been given to Adolph Studly. Any information is greatly appreciated. He had great respect for both of these amazing people. Thank you