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Singing Out!

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The NLS Music Notes blog this week features Ms. Marian Anderson.  Noted for her groundbreaking historical concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I would like to provide more background and accomplishments of a dignified, gracious, and elegant singer.

Born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, Ms. Anderson was the oldest of three sisters. The family participated in activities in the Union Baptist Church, which included choir for Marian at the age of six. Her Aunt Mary took her to church concerts, local community concerts and encouraged her to sing for local events and receive a fee of twenty-five to fifty-cents.  She was able to practice singing solos in the choir and at community events. As her voice developed, she was able to earn more money, ranging from four to five dollars, which was a significant amount at the time.

Her father passed away at an early age, and the family moved in with her grandparents. She could not further her education with high school or music lessons, but remained active in her church and learned from anyone who offered advice. With the help of her church and the People’s Chorus of Philadelphia, financial sources provided Marian the necessary means to pay for singing lessons with Mary Saunders Patterson and attend South Philadelphia High School. After graduation, she encountered discrimination with a refusal of admittance to the Philadelphia Music Academy. She continued her studies with Agnes Reifsnyder and Giuseppe Boghetti. After some study, Boghetti scheduled a recital for her at The Town Hall in April 1924. This was (and is still) considered to be a prestigious venue in New York City. Unfortunately it was almost empty, but Ms. Anderson presented a recital of English, Russian, Italian and German music.

She won a competition in 1925 to sing with the New York Philharmonic on August 26, 1925. It was noted as a triumph, and Ms. Anderson made many connections with this performance. She continued her studies with vocal coach Frank La Forge and gained Arthur Judson as a manager. She debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1928.

She continued singing and presenting recitals, and after performing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, representatives from the Rosenwald Fellowship encouraged her to apply for a grant. She used the funds to study in Berlin.

Europe brought more success and a regular accompanist, Kosti Vehanen. Jean Sibelius was so moved by her that he wrote and rearranged multiple songs for her. She made her European debut in Wigmore Hall in London and won acclaim for her talent and voice. She sang in Russia and many eastern European capitals. Conductors loved her (not an easy accomplishment) as well as composers.

Impresario Sol Hurok offered her more money, and talked her into returning to the United States in 1934. The Town Hall in New York City once again was the site of a performance in 1935, and it was well received. She toured through the U.S. and Europe for the next four years. Opera roles were offered, but she wisely declined them due to her lack of acting experience. However, she presented arias on recitals recorded a number of them, which sold very well.

Marian Anderson poses in an off the shoulder evening gown with roses.
Portrait of Marian Anderson.

While success for Ms. Anderson in the U.S. was happening, she still experienced segregation and discrimination in restaurants and hotels. This happened at Princeton University, where Albert Einstein was teaching. He welcomed her into his home and their friendship flourished until his death in 1955.

Constitution Hall was (and still is) a notable performing venue in Washington, D.C. Ms. Anderson’s management requested a performance there for April 9, 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution denied permission, stating there was a “white performers only” policy in place. D.C. venues also were segregated and black audience members would be required to sit at the back of the hall. And other venues were not available; the DC Board of Education refused a request for the use of any auditorium of a white public high school.

Multiple organizations stepped up to protest this action along with church leaders and activists. Thousands of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution organization resigned as well, along with Eleanor Roosevelt. The press publicized the conflict; the Richmond Times-Dispatch said “In these days of racial intolerance so crudely expressed in the Third Reich, an action such as the D.A.R.’s ban…seems all the more deplorable.”

Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, arranged an open-air concert on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial for Easter Sunday, April, 9. Ms. Anderson had her usual accompanist from Europe, Kosti Vehanen, and the program included “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” along with an aria from La Favorite by Donizetti, Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and concluded the concert with three spirituals, “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.”

Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with back to camera facing crowd.
[Marian Anderson, (lower left), standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with back to camera, facing the Washington Monument and a crowd of thousands]
Ultimately, Ms. Anderson was asked to perform at Constitution Hall later in her career, in 1943. When asked for her reaction to the performance, she said, “When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.”

Other milestones include becoming the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera on January 7, 1955 in Un ballo in maschera by Verdi. She also sang at the Presidential Inaugurations of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, along with a performance at the White House in the East Room for President Kennedy. She sang at the March on Washington in 1963, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the same year. She published an autobiography titled “My Lord, What a Morning” and a book with songs and stories about her cat, “Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson’s Cat Snoopy.”

She retired from singing in 1965, and musical talent was recognized in her family with a nephew, James DePriest, who had a very successful conducting career. Ms. Anderson passed away in 1993 at the age of 96.  She had numerous qualities one can list as a role model; her graciousness, perseverance, and determination to have a career in music are only a few exhibited by this exceptional woman.

Relive the excitement and beauty of Ms. Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial below.

Listed below are some titles from the NLS Music and talking book collection that may be of interest.

From the NLS Music Collection


Ave Maria by Schubert, for voice and piano (BRM20615), (BRM00620)

Ain’t Got Time to Die (BRM29477)

Child of God: Spiritual for Mixed Voices (BRM24229)

King Jesus is a Listenin’ (BRM22475)

The Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh (BRM28522)


Talking Books

When Marian Sang: the True Recital of Marian Anderson, the Voice of a Century by Pam Muñoz Ryan. (DB 56453)

The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman. (DB 58728)

My Lord, What a Morning: an autobiography by Marian Anderson. (DB 64886)

Marian Anderson by Tobi Tobias. (DB 08736)

Marian Anderson: a Singer’s Journey by Allan Keiler. (DB 51536)

Marian Anderson  by Charles Patterson. (DB 30371)

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America by Raymond Arsenault. (DB 70880)

Please note that materials listed above are available to borrow by mail and BARD. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

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