Marian Anderson, Classical Music and Opera Singer

by Eric Ledell Smith

Marian Anderson portraitMarian Anderson (1897–1993) was a native of Philadelphia, but during the course of her long musical career she became more than just another Philadelphian. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson permission to perform in the organization’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in January 1939, and after Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest and helped arrange for Anderson to sing instead in front on the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson realized that she was becoming a role model. “I had become, like it or not, a symbol representing my people,” she wrote in her memoirs.

The Lady from Philadelphia

Called “The Lady from Philadelphia,” Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, to John B., an ice and coal salesman at the Reading Terminal Market, and Anna Anderson, a teacher. She began her career in music at six years old by performing a duet at her church, the Union Baptist Church, and, eventually, became an outstanding member of her church choir. By the time Anderson was in her teens, she was in demand locally as a performer; yet, she was unsure about her talent. At William Penn High School in Philadelphia, Anderson once sang during a school assembly before visitors. She recalled that one of the visitors told the high school’s principal, “I don’t understand why this girl is taking shorthand and typing. She should have a straight college preparatory course and do as much as possible in music.” Anderson transferred to South Philadelphia High School where she concentrated on music studies. She was motivated by the support of African American concert performers such as lyric tenor Roland Hayes (1887–1977) and members of the Union Baptist Church congregation to continue her education. After high school, Anderson felt the need for a professional musical education and set out to enroll in a local music school, only to be told, “We don’t take colored.” Undaunted, Anderson studied under renowned musician Guiseppe Boghetti (1896–1941), who was her vocal coach for many years.

Library of Congress/Photo by Ruth Orkin
Contralto Marian Anderson, one of the twentieth century’s most revered singers, is celebrated for her dignity and perserverence in breaking barriers of racial prejudice.

Success Does Not Always Invite Acceptance

By the 1920s, she was a popular and nationally known classical music singer in the African American community. Anderson made her New York debut at Town Hall in 1924, at the age of twenty-one. The concert was not a success; critics believed her debut was premature, and Anderson withdrew from the stage to consider whether to forge ahead. She decided to try again, making several tours of Europe during the 1930s and received rave reviews. At one concert, classical musical conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) complimented Anderson: “Yours is a voice one hears once in a hundred years.” When Anderson returned to America in 1935, she performed again at Town Hall on December 30, 1935, and this time she was well received by both the critics and public. Yet, countless concert halls remained closed to her because of her color. An invitation to perform in Nazi Germany was cancelled after the Nazis learned that, despite her Nordic-sounding surname, Anderson was African American.

At the Steps of Controversy

Anderson’s most famous performance was her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Anderson was disturbed about the unpleasantness of publicity surrounding the D.A.R. snub. According to her autobiography, prior to 1939, she had sung in Washington, D.C., schools and churches many times. But in 1939, she and her manager, Sol Hurok (1888–1974), agreed “it was time to appear on the city’s foremost concert platform—Constitution Hall.” Anderson added, “I left booking entirely to the management. It was only a few weeks before the scheduled date for Washington that I discovered the full truth—that the Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, had decreed that it could not be used by one of my race.” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing, instead, at the Lincoln Memorial.

Although she approved, in advance, of the outdoor concert, Anderson said, “I don’t like a lot of show and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take.” Anderson was nervous. “I sang, I don’t know how,” she remembered. “All I knew then as I stepped forward was the overwhelming impact of that vast multitude. There seemed to be people as far as the eye can see.” In fact, more than 75,000 people attended the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert is widely regarded by historians as a turning point in American race relations, opening doors for other African American concert artists.

Marian Anderson rehearsing with conductor Leonard Bernstein prior to a June 1947 concert at Lewisohn Stadium, the former Doric-colonaded amphitheater at the City College of New York.

A Trailblazer Makes Her Operatic Debut

Anderson’s most prestigious venue was with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. By the 1950s, she was conscious of her status as a trailblazer for her race. Although she admired opera, unlike other Black opera singers such as Lillian Evanti (1890–1967) and LaJulia Rhea (1908–1992), Anderson did not seek opportunities to sing opera—but the opportunity came to her. At a party in September 1954, Rudolf Bing (1902–1997), general manager for the Metropolitan from 1950 to 1972, asked Anderson: “Would you be interested in singing with the Metropolitan?” Anderson said yes. When asked by a reporter about his selection of Anderson, Bing responded, “I will not exclude anyone because he is colored. Nor will I engage anyone because he is colored. It is not my job to further the Negroes’ cause, however sympathetic I may be. It is my job to run The Met. I intend to do this on the basis of quality alone. I am not straining every muscle to find Negro singers. I am looking for the best, regardless of race or creed.” Sol Hurok and the Metropolitan Opera Company arranged for an audition, and, to her surprise, she passed. On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan with her operatic debut in the role of Ulrica, the old sorceress in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). At the end of the performance, Anderson bowed to thunderous ovations. Although she was grateful to perform at the Metropolitan, she claimed, “I take greater pride from knowing that it has encouraged other singers of my group to realize that doors everywhere may open . . . to those who have prepared themselves well.”

Numerous honors and awards were bestowed upon Marian Anderson during her lifetime, including an appointment as an American delegate to the United Nations in 1958, the Kennedy Center for the Arts Honors in 1991, and a lifetime achievement Grammy award, also in 1991. In 1993, she died in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 96. Following her death, PHMC erected a state historic marker in Philadelphia honoring her accomplishments. Anderson’s legacy stands equally on the quality of her voice and performances and on the dignity she projected while faced with the adversity and confrontation of prejudice.