Biography of Marian Anderson, American Singer

Marian Anderson at home in 1928
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Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897–April 8, 1993) was an American singer known for her solo performances of lieder, opera, and American spirituals. Her vocal range was almost three octaves, from low D to high C, which allowed her to express a broad range of feelings and moods appropriate to the various songs in her repertoire. The first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, Anderson broke numerous "color barriers" over the course of her career.

Fast Facts: Marian Anderson

  • Known For: Anderson was an African-American singer and one of the most popular concert performers of the 20th century.
  • Born: February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: John Berkley Anderson and Annie Delilah Rucker
  • Died: April 8, 1993 in Portland, Oregon
  • Spouse: Orpheus Fisher (m. 1943–1986)

Early Life

Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897. She demonstrated a talent for singing at a very young age. At 8 years old, she was paid 50 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 a violin and later a piano. She and her sisters taught themselves how to play.

Marian’s father died in 1910, either of work injuries or a brain tumor. The family moved in with Marian’s paternal grandparents. Marian’s mother did laundry to support the family and later worked as a cleaning woman in a department store. After Marian graduated from grammar school, Anderson’s mother became seriously ill with the flu and Marian took some time off from school to raise money through her singing to help support the family.

After high school, Marian was accepted into Yale University, but she did not have the funds to attend. In 1921, however, she received a music scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians. She had been in Chicago in 1919 at the first meeting of the organization.

The church members 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.

Early Music Career

Anderson toured with Billy King, an African-American pianist who also served as her manager, at schools and churches. 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. She placed first among 300 contestants, which led to a concert in 1925 at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City where she sang with the New York Philharmonic. The reviews this time were more enthusiastic.

Anderson went to London in 1928. 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. 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 ed her and offered her a scholarship to study in Germany. There, she studied with Michael Raucheisen and Kurt Johnen.

Success in Europe

In 1933 and 1934, Anderson toured Scandinavia, performing 30 concerts funded in part by the Rosenwald Fund. She performed for the kings of Sweden and Denmark. She was enthusiastically received; Jean Sibelius invited her to meet with him and dedicated “Solitude” to her.

Coming off her success in Scandinavia, Anderson made her Paris debut in May 1934. 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.

Return to America

Sol Hurok, an American impresario, took over management of her career in 1935, and he was a more aggressive manager than her previous American manager had been. Hurok organized a tour of the United States.

Her first concert was a return to Town Hall in New York City. She hid a broken foot and cast well, and critics raved about her performance. Howard Taubman, a critic for The New York Times (and later a ghostwriter 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.”

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

1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert

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

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 accepted the offer.

On April 9, 1939, Easter Sunday, 1939, Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An interracial crowd of 75,000 heard her sing in person. Millions of others heard her as well because the concert was broadcast on the 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. Though she did not choose political activism, Anderson became a symbol of the struggle for civil rights.

The War Years

In 1941, Franz Rupp became Anderson’s pianist. They toured together across the United States and South America and began recording with RCA. Anderson had made several 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 German lieder and spirituals.

In 1943, Anderson married Orpheus "King" Fisher, 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, which they called Marianna Farms. King designed them a home with a music studio.

Doctors discovered a cyst on Anderson's 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. For two months she was not allowed to speak and there were fears that she might have suffered permanent damage. But she recovered and her voice was not affected by the procedure.

Opera Debut

Earlier in her career, Anderson had refused several invitations to perform in operas, noting that she did not have opera training. In 1954, however, 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 "A Masked Ball," debuting on January 7, 1955.

This role was the first time in the Met’s history that a black singer—American or otherwise—had performed with the opera. In her first performance, Anderson received a 10-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.

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.

In 1963, she sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial again 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

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.

Anderson's 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 DePreist, the music director of the Oregon Symphony.

Death

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

Legacy

Anderson is widely considered one of the greatest American singers of the 20th century. In 1963, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom; she later received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A documentary film about her 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance was added to the National Film Registry in 2001.

Sources

  • Anderson, Marian. "My Lord, What a Morning: an Autobiography." University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Keiler, Allan. "Marian Anderson: a Singer's Journey." University of Illinois Press, 2002.
  • Vehanen, Kosti, and George J. Barnett. "Marian Anderson, a Portrait." Greenwood Press, 1970.