Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution, in charge of bookings for Washington DC’s Constitution Hall, had repeatedly denied Marian Anderson’s agent permission for her to give a recital there. The seating in the hall was segregated, and Anderson refused to perform under that condition. A high school auditorium was also denied to her.
So, with the assistance of Eleanor and Franklin D Roosevelt, she sang outdoors on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead, in one of the most artistic displays of protest ever, to an audience of 75,000 live, plus radio broadcast to millions. She began with a very un-ironic rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Also unusual was her nearly single-minded devotion to the song recital instead of opera. She was offered roles many times, but usually declined. With one notable exception: In 1955, the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, made her the first black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, opening doors for the future Leontyne Prices, Shirley Verretts and Martina Arroyos of the world.
Her European career was bigger than her US career, largely because of less prejudice abroad. She toured with a Finnish accompanist, Kosta Vehanen, and in Scandinavia “Marian fever” assumed epic proportions. Her London debut at Wigmore Hall received rapturous reviews.
In the 1930s, she did give about 70 recitals per year here in the US, but was often denied hotels and dining because of her race. So outraged was Albert Einstein that he personally hosted her when she was denied a room in Princeton before a recital at the university.
Anderson (1897-1993) always included a group of spirituals in her recitals. Her dark contralto voice was unsurpassed in velvety richness, and there was an undeniable dignity just in the way she took the stage before any music had been sung. Toscanini said she had a voice that “one hears only once in a hundred years.”
It’s all too easy to forget the pioneers when everything “seems” to have progressed.
© 2013 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs