African American Hero of the Day

Black Heroes
ISBN: 9781578591367

What singer was one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963?

  • Langston Hughes wrote that her 1954 Metropolitan Opera debut was “a precedent-shattering moment in American musical history.”
  • In July 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.
  • She began singing at the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
  • She married Orpheus Hodge Fisher, a New York architect.

MARIAN ANDERSON (1897–1993) Opera singer, humanitarian

Marian Anderson rose from inauspicious beginnings to become one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated singers. In 1991 Ebony magazine called Anderson “the standard bearer for grace and elegance among Black singers, and many White singers as well.” The contralto—who first sang in her church choir—astonished audiences around the world and in doing so became a symbol of the struggle to overcome discrimination in the arts. Furthermore, she never compromised her identity: she included beloved black spirituals among the traditional pieces of her repertoire.

Anderson, the first of three daughters of John Berkeley Anderson and Anna D. Anderson, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 27, circa 1897. Anderson began singing at the Union Baptist Church, joining the senior choir by age thirteen, and she became known as the “baby contralto.” Anderson further developed her voice during her high school years, when she took lessons from soprano Mary Saunders Patterson, joined the Philadelphia Choral Society, and embarked on a schedule of singing at nearby churches and schools that often meant missing classes. G. Grant Williams, editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, became her first manager. She continued voice study with Patterson while beginning to learn from Agnes Reifsnyder, a contralto, who helped develop Anderson’s medium and low tones. Meanwhile, another well-respected instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti, also accepted her as a student. Boghetti remained her voice teacher for many years and continued as her musical advisor until his death.

Anderson graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1921, and by 1924 she felt competent enough to make a New York concert debut. She sang to a very small audience at Town Hall in what she considered a major career fiasco. She sang lieder, and the critics’ comments about her German so depressed her that she stopped studying music and put aside any hope for a musical career. Although this was not the first time her lack of extensive language study was mentioned, it was the most devastating. Anderson had studied French in high school, was tutored in French in Boghetti’s studio, and was also coached in French songs by Leon Rothier in New York City. She learned Italian from Boghetti as well, and was urged by many to go to Europe to study and develop language proficiency.

Eventually Anderson returned to music, and by 1928 Anderson had saved enough money to go to England, intent on studying German lieder with Raimund von Zur Mühlen. She was also given the address of Roger Quilter, the English composer who had befriended Roland Hayes and other black musicians. She had only two lessons with the aged and ill von Zur Mühlen, but she did study with a student of his, Mark Raphael. She also sang for guests of Quilter and made her English debut at Wigmore Hall on September 16, 1930. A Rosenwald Fellowship allowed her to study in Berlin, where she lived with a German family in order to absorb and master the German language. She studied music for a short period with Sverre Joran and had more extensive coaching with Michael Raucheisen.

Berlin concert brings critical acclaim Anderson’s concert in the Bach Saal in Berlin in October of 1930 brought her critical acclaim. She embarked on an extensive European career, making occasional returns to the United States, and she received a second Rosenwald grant in 1933. She credits Kosti Vehanen, her new accompanist, for her extended repertoire and her career advancement. She sang more than 108 concerts in a twelve-month period in the Scandinavian countries, learning songs in Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish. She visited the home of Sibelius and sang for him, and he dedicated his composition “Solitude” to her.

Anderson continued to study in Europe—French repertoire with Germaine de Castro and Mahler songs with Madame Charles Cahier (Sara Jane Layton-Walker), who had studied with Mahler. Her programs now showed works by the composers Handel, Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Strauss, Brahms, Schubert, Schuman, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninoff. Audiences all over the world, including those in the Soviet Union, called for her to sing or repeat Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Always a part of her concerts were spirituals. She usually sang those as arranged by her friend Harry Burleigh, but she also sang and recorded the spirituals of Lawrence Brown, Hall Johnson, Roland Hayes, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Florence Price.

At Salzburg in 1935, Arturo Toscanini made his often repeated remark regarding Anderson: “Arturo Toscanini told Mme Cahier, ‘What I heard today one is privileged to hear only in a hundred years.’ He did not say the voice he heard, but what he heard—not the voice alone but the whole art.”

At a concert at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, the impresario Sol Hurok heard Anderson, introduced himself, and told her he wished to become her manager. On December 31, 1935, Anderson’s career under Hurok Management began with a critically acclaimed concert at Town Hall in New York City, followed by a January 1936 concert at Carnegie Hall. Under Hurok, Anderson began a most intensive and extensive concert career. Vehanen retired as her accompanist in 1941; Franz Rupp became her accompanist from 1941 through her final farewell concert in 1965.

DAR actions stir controversy Events of February 1939 catapulted this serene and dedicated artist from the music review pages of newspapers to front-page stories. The refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to schedule Anderson in concert in their Constitution Hall captured the most headlines. Howard University, the original sponsor of the Anderson concert, was caught in the furor of the DAR refusal, which led to the resignation of Eleanor Roosevelt from the DAR, and the subsequent Lincoln Memorial concert on April 9, 1939. This was a free concert given through the auspices of Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior. The audience, estimated at seventy-five thousand, included congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and ordinary citizens.

In July 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt was selected to present the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal to Anderson. Additional recognition came to Anderson when she received the ten-thousand-dollar Bok Award in March of 1941. This award, created by Philadelphian Edward Bok in 1921, was designated for an individual making a contribution to Philadelphia and the surrounding community. Anderson used the funds to establish a scholarship award for young singers.

On July 24, 1943, at Bethel Methodist Church in Bethel, Connecticut, Anderson married Orpheus Hodge Fisher, a New York architect. Rumors of their impending marriage had surfaced over the years. “King,” as she called him, was the boyfriend of her youth. She met him in Wilmington, Delaware, when they were both in high school; Anderson sang at a benefit concert and attended a reception at the Fisher home afterwards. The newlyweds purchased a farm in Danbury, Connecticut, and King designed and helped build their home. There Anderson had her music studio and engaged in her hobbies of photography, playing jazz piano, collecting jazz recordings, sewing, and upholstery.

Anderson’s extraordinarily busy concert schedule continued in the 1940s with additional concerts for servicemen and for bond drives. One such concert was given at Constitution Hall in December 1942. She requested that on this occasion the audience not be separated in the usual racial seating; the DAR would not agree to this stipulation. In the end, Anderson chose to sing in the interest of the benefit for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.

Anderson debuts at Metropolitan Opera In September 1954 an extraordinary event occurred which, as with other events in Anderson’s life, had implications in the broader musical world for other black singers. Langston Hughes wrote of this as “a precedent-shattering moment in American musical history.” She was asked by Rudolph Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to join the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Anderson’s 1955 debut at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 58 was of such significance in the history of American race relations that it was given a front-page story the next morning in the New York Times with a picture of Anderson and her mother taken after the performance. Critics have often written about Anderson’s age and voice at this debut; few have commented on Bing’s astute casting of her in the role of Ulrica, the sorceress/fortune-teller who need not have a youthful voice.

In her only operatic run, Anderson sang with the Metropolitan Opera for seven performances, including a performance in her home city at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. After Un Ballo in Maschera Anderson resumed touring, embarking in September of 1957 on a ten-week tour of south Asia and the Far East sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. This tour was filmed by the television crew of the CBS television program “See It Now” as the “Lady from Philadelphia.”

Anderson’s farewell tour began in 1964 at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., and ended with a concert at Carnegie Hall on Easter Sunday in 1965. After this extensive tour, in which she revisited cities of her many recitals over the years, Anderson generally lived in retirement on Marianna Farm in Danbury.

After her retirement Anderson sang in Paris at the Sainte Chappelle and on behalf of the First World Festival of Negro Arts, which was held at Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. She also appeared as narrator on several occasions with various orchestras in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. In 1977 a seventy-fifth birthday gala concert was sponsored by Young Artists Presents with performers including Clamma Dale, Mignon Dunn, Shirley Verrett, James Levine, and others. In 1982 an eightieth birthday concert in Anderson’s honor was given at Carnegie Hall with Verrett and Grace Bumbry.

Anderson was honored by the Danbury community and many others in a gala concert that served to establish a Marian Anderson Award, reestablishing the award she started in 1941 with the ten-thousand-dollar Bok Award. Musicians performing at this gala included Jessye Norman and Isaac Stern, with Julius Rudel conducting the Ives Symphony Orchestra.

Recordings by Anderson span four decades—from the acoustic recordings of the mid-1920s to the long-playing album of Brahms and Schubert lieder that was recorded at Webster Hall in New York City in 1966 and released by RCA in 1978. Several recent recordings are compact disc reissues of earlier works.

Anderson died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six. She won many awards and accolades, including the first Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 and the National Medal of Arts in 1986. She was also the first recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1997, Carnegie Hall paid tribute to Anderson with a 100th anniversary celebration to a woman who paved the way for many blacks to contribute their genius to the performing arts. Marian Anderson was truly an American symbol with a beautiful singing voice who prompted opera fans, black and white, to listen in awe.—PATRICIA TURNER

From Black Heroes by Jessie Carney Smith. © Visible Ink Press® Recognizes and celebrates important African American lives.

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