Marian Anderson

b. 1897    d. 1993

Comin through the Rye

Elegie (Messenet)

With William Primrose (viola) and Franz Rupp (piano).

Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897 in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Beginning at the age of six, she sang in the Union Baptist Church Choir. Her voice was classified as contralto, she could sing the high soprano notes and the low baritone notes. Marian’s father died when she was a child and her mother worked as a cleaning woman and laundress to support the family. Her mother’s religious faith and strength were lasting influences throughout Marian’s life.

The members of the Union Baptist Church gave a benefit concert to raise money for Marian to take private singing lessons. The advertisements for the concert had a picture of Marian and the words, “Come and hear the baby contralto, ten years old.” When she was nineteen, she began studying with Giuseppe Boghetti. In 1925, he helped her enter a contest in which she competed with 300 singers for the Lewisohn Stadium Concert Award. The prize was an opportunity to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She won the contest and sang with the Orchestra on August 26, 1925. After performing with the Orchestra, she received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship and had the opportunity to go to England and Germany. In Germany she studied “Leider,” German songs, which became part of her repertoire. She gave concerts throughout Europe and received rave reviews and accolades for all 116 of her performances.

In 1939, she planned to give a concert in the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The Hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Federation (DAR). The DAR refused to let her perform because she was African American. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president at this time and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was outraged at the prejudice shown by the DAR and resigned her membership in the organization. Mrs. Roosevelt helped arrange for Anderson to give a concert outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Anderson performed in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln for an audience of 75,000 people. She began the concert by singing “America.” This was one of the most famous concerts given in the United States. This event helped open the doors of opportunity for other African Americans. From this time on, Anderson refused to sing at any place that was segregated. In 1943, a mural was unveiled on the wall of the Department of the Interior building depicting the concert. In her autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning,” she said:

“There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move—and he, in turn, waits for you. The minute a person whose word means a great deal dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. Not everyone can be turned aside from meanness and hatred, but the great majority of Americans is heading in that direction. I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country.”

In 1941, Anderson received the Bok Award from the city of Philadelphia, given to the citizen of which it is the most proud. She was the first African American to receive the award. The $10,000 award was used to establish the Marian Anderson Scholarship Fund for music students of all races. In 1943, Anderson married Orpheus Fisher, an architect, who designed their home in Danbury, Connecticut named “Marrianna Farm.”

On January 7, 1955, Anderson performed with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York as Ulrica, the Gypsy fortune-teller, in Verdi’s opera “The Masked Ball.” With this appearance, she became the first African American to sing an important role at the Metropolitan Opera as a regular company member.

In 1956, Anderson made a farewell tour throughout America and Europe. In 1957, she toured twelve Asian nations on behalf of the U.S. State Department. In 1958, she was named to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1986, Anderson received the National Medal of Arts. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In 1977 Marian Anderson was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor anyone can receive from the United States Congress. In 1991, she appeared at the dedication of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children’s pediatric sickle-cell anemia clinic and research center, which is named in her honor. Marian Anderson died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six. During her professional singing career she was considered the world’s greatest contralto.