An Incredible Person, An Incredible Singer: Marian Anderson

Last week, we gathered up individual songs from a number of composers, with our main focus on Broadway or the composers who wrote for Broadway. No one show predominated our exploration; in short, last week we used a shotgun. And this week we were going to use a narrow bore rifle and start a discussion around the incredible fifteen months on Broadway, starting with Rudolf Friml’s first big hit show, Rose-Marie, which opened on Broadway on September 2, 1924.

But that will have to wait. Why?

Because in the course of using you tube last week to gather musical illustrations, we stumbled across some clips of Marian Anderson. In many ways, without hyperbole, her life could be summed up by the words, “I will overcome.” And overcome, she did.

Your next question will be, why are we featuring this wonderful contralto, inasmuch as she never performed on Broadway? After reading about her and listening to recordings of her classical work, we felt that it would be a moral mistake if we didn’t take the time to feature her biography and a sampling of her work. A youthful picture of her graces the top of this post.

Let us relate the biographical details that we found on Wikipedia:

She was born in Philadelphia in 1897, and her father, John, sold ice and coal at the Reading Terminal. Her mother, Annie, had attended Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg, VA, but had been unable to finish. Because of that, she was denied the right to teach in Philadelphia, a rule that applied only to black teachers and not white teachers.

The family was active in the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia, and her Aunt Mary convinced Marian to join the junior church choir at age 6. The same aunt found singing engagements for the young girl, where Marian could earn 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs. As she entered her early teens, she could earn as much as $4 or $5 dollars for a singing engagement.

Coming from the surrounding of the church, Marian learned about Negro spirituals. According to the website for Spirituality & Practice, Marian said: “I do not have to tell you that I dearly love the Negro spirituals. They are the unburdenings of the sorrows of an entire race, which, finding scant happiness on earth, turns to the future for its joys.”

At age 10, she joined the People’s Chorus under the direction of singer Emma Azalia Hackley, where she would often receive the opportunity to sing solos.

However, in late 1909, when Marian was 12, her father had a work-related accident and died a year later. The Anderson family moved in with John’s parents, Benjamin and Isabella. Marian became quite close with her grandfather, a former slave who had moved to South Philadelphia; but he died a year later.

Marian graduated from Stanton Grammar School in 1912, but the family was too poor to afford tuition needed to attend high school, “nor could they pay for any music lessons.” In the end, the directors of the People’s Chorus and the pastor of her church raised the money “needed to get singing lessons with Mary Saunders Patterson and to attend South Philadelphia High School, from which she graduated in 1921.”

Marian applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy but was refused by the woman working admissions: “We don’t take colored.” With continued support from the black community, Marian studied with Agnes Reifsnyder and the Guiseppe Boghetti. Boghetti scheduled a recital at the The Town Hall in New York City in April 1924, just before Broadway was about to embark on a spree of 9 major hit shows during the period September 1924 to December 1925.

The idea of the recital was flawed in conception. In our opinion, the hall was too large (1600 seats) for a recital of this nature; and without  substantial publicity, it was no surprise that attendance was too small. What was a surprise to us was the fact that the reviews were not good. Now, it is possible that, in 1924, her technique needed work; however, it would have been impossible not to have heard the unique quality of her voice. During a tour in Salzburg, Arturo Toscanini later told her that she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.” Therefore, the poor reviews in 1924 might not have been based entirely on merit.

Her first big opportunity came in 1925 when she won a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic; isn’t it amazing how much her voice had improved in one year! (sarcasm intended) The prize permitted her to perform in concert with the orchestra, which she did on August 26, 1925, a performance that won over both the audience and music critics. Marian stayed in NYC to study with Frank LaForge and agreed to be managed by Arthur Judson.

Judson managed to schedule a number of concert appearances in the United States, “but racial prejudice prevented her career from gaining much momentum.” She sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and then departed for Europe, where she studied with the well-known contralto, Sara Cahier, also known professionally as Sara Charles-Cahier. Sara had studied and performed in Europe and sang at the Met in New York from 1912-1914. She had had great success in Stockholm from 1915-1917, after which she became a teacher and vocal coach.

In 1933, Anderson made her European debut in a concert at Wigmore Hall in London, “where she was received enthusiastically.” She spent the early 1930’s touring throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices she had experienced in America. Starting in 1930, Marian met and developed a strong friendship with the great Finnish composer, violinist and conductor, Jean Sibelius, who composed or altered any number of songs for Anderson to perform.

In 1934, Sol Hurok took over management of Marian’s career from Arthur Judson and persuaded her to return to The Town Hall for a second recital in 1935, after which she received “highly favorable reviews by music critics.”

Much has been written about her refusal to perform onstage in operas; but either because of a lack of acting experience or a bad case of stage fright, she declined all roles offered to her by several European opera companies. “She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio, which became bestsellers.”

We need to realize that by the time she performed at The Town Hall in 1935, Marian was 42 years old, an age when many singers start to wind down their careers. In her case, her best years were still to come. That is not to say that her confrontation with racism in the United States had come to an end. Far from it. Marian spent the four years from 1935 to 1939 touring throughout the United States and Europe, giving about 70 concerts a year just in the US. By then, she was quite famous but was still refused service in American restaurants and hotels. Having been denied the right to stay at a hotel in Princeton NJ in 1937, Albert Einstein opened his house to her so that she could perform at Princeton University. He continued to offer her a place to stay until his death in 1955.

While the bias that she encountered may have deterred others from performing, Marian was calmly persistent in developing her voice and her career. In the website for Spirituality & Practice, one of her quotes explains her nature and her desire to grow as an individual: “I hadn’t set out to change the world in any way, because I knew that I couldn’t. And whatever I am, it is a culmination of the goodwill, the help and understanding of the many people that I have met around the world who have, regardless of anything else, seen me as I am, not trying to be somebody else.”

Each step that she took was centered on the beauty and majesty of the music she loved. According to the website for ThoughtCo., she could not understand people who were against the expression of beauty: “Music to me means so much, such beautiful things, and it seemed impossible that you could find people who would curb you, stop you, from doing a thing which is beautiful. I wasn’t trying to sway anybody into any movements or anything of that sort, you know. I just wanted to sing and share.”

We are going to start our exploration of the music of Marian Anderson with two songs that form the core of her early musical exposure. Watch for them shortly.