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Marian Anderson 1897-1993

Country : Philadelphia, PA
Profession : Singer
Date of birth : 1897-02-27
Date of death : 1993-04-08
Cause of Death : Heart Failure

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Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. She possessed a rich and vibrant voice with an intrinsic quality of beauty. Most of her singing career was spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and with major orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925-1965. Although she was offered contracts to perform roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined all of these, prefering to perform in concert and recital only. She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.

An African-American, Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. Their race-driven refusal placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level usually only found by high profile celebrities and politicians. With the aid of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. She continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, notably becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955. Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the Met was the only time she created an opera role on stage. Anderson later became an important symbol of grace and beauty during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, notably singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She also worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was notably awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1984, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.


Early life and career

Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and the former Annie Delilah Rucker. Her father sold ice and coal in downtown Philadelphia at the Reading Terminal and eventually opened a small liquor business as well, ironic for a man who did not drink alcohol himself. Prior to her marriage, Anderson's mother had briefly attended the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg and had worked as a schoolteacher in Virginia. However, having not completed a degree she was unable to teach in Philadelphia, a law that was only applied to black teachers and not white ones. She therefore made an income looking after small children. Marian was the eldest of the three Anderson children. Her two sisters, Alice (later spelled Alyse) (1899-1965) and Ethel (1902-1990), also became singers. Ethel Anderson was mother to noted conductor James DePreist.

Anderson's parents were both devout Christians and the whole family was highly active in the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. Marian's Aunt Mary — John Berkley's sister — was particularly active in the church's musical life and, noticing her niece's talent, convinced her to join the junior church choir at the age of six. As a part of the choir she got to perform solos and duets, often with Aunt Mary who also had a fine voice. Marian was also taken by her aunt to concerts at local churches, the YMCA, and other community music events throughout the city. Anderson credited her aunt's influence as the reason why she pursued a singing career. Beginning as young as six, her aunt arranged for Marian to sing for local functions where she was often paid 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs. As she got into her early teens, Marian began to make as much as four or five dollars for singing; a considerable amount of money for the early 20th century. At the age of 10, Marian joined the People's Chorus under the direction of Emma Azalia Hackley, where she was often given solos.

When Marian was 12, her father was accidentally struck on the head while at work at the Reading Terminal, just a few weeks before Christmas of 1909. He died of heart failure a month later at the young age of 34. Marian and her family moved into the home of her father's parents, Grandpa Benjamin and Grandma Isabella Anderson. Her grandfather had been born a slave and had experienced emancipation in the 1860s. He was the first of the Anderson family to settle in South Philadelphia, and when Marian moved into his home the two became very close. Sadly he died only about a year after the family moved in.

Throughout her teenage years, Marian remained active in her church's musical activities, now heavily involved in the adult choir. She attended Stanton Grammar School, graduating from there in the summer of 1912. Her family, however, could not afford to send her to high school, nor could they pay for any music lessons. Undaunted, Marian continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who was willing to teach her. She joined the Baptists' Young People's Union and the Camp Fire Girls which provided her with some limmited musical opportunities. Eventually the directors of the People's Chorus and the pastor of her church, Reverend Wesley Parks, along with other leaders of the black community, banded together to help out Marian. They raised the money she needed to get singing lessons with Mary S. Patterson and to attend South Philadelphia High School, from which she graduated in 1921.

After highschool, Marian applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts), but was turned away because she was black. The woman working the admissions counter replied, "We don't take colored" when she tried to apply. Undaunted, Anderson persued studies privately with Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder in her native city through the continued support of the Philadelphia black community.

In 1925 Anderson got her first big break when she won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. As the winner she got to perform in concert with the orchestra on August 27, 1925; a performance that scored immediate success with both audience and music critics. Anderson remained in New York to pursue further studies with Frank La Forge, and Arthur Judson, whom she had met through the NYP, became her manager. Over the next several years, she made a number of concert appearances in the United States, but racial prejudice prevented her career from gaining much momentum. In 1928, she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall. Eventually she decided to go to Europe where she spent a number of months studying with Mme Charles Cahier before launching a highly successful European singing tour.

European fame and the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert

In 1930 Anderson made her European debut in a concert in Wigmore Hall in London where she was received enthusiastically. She spent the early 1930s touring throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices she had experienced in America. In the summer of 1930 she went to Scandinavia where she met the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who became her regular accompianist and her vocal coach for many years. She also met Jean Sibelius through Vehanen after he had heard her in a concert in Helsinki. Moved by her performance, Sibelius invited them to his home and asked his wife to bring champagne in place of the traditional coffee. Sibelius commented to her of her performance that he felt that she had been able to penetrate the Nordic soul. The two struck up an immidiate friendship which further blossomed into a professional partnership, and for many years Sibelius altered and composed songs for Anderson to perform. He notably made a new arrangement of the song Solitude and dedicated it to Anderson in 1939. Originally The Jewish Girl's Song from his 1906 incidental music to Belshazzar's Feast, it later became the “Solitude” section of the orchestral suite derived from the incidental music.

In 1934 impresario Sol Hurok offered Anderson a better contract than she had previously had with Arthur Judson. He became her manager for the rest of her performing career and it is only through his persuasion that she came back to perform in America. In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in New York at Town Hall which received highly favorable reviews by music critics. She spent the next four years touring throughout the United States and Europe. She was offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack of acting experience, Anderson declined all of these offers. She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio which became bestsellers.

Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout Europe during the mid 1930s. She visit Eastern European capitals and Russia and returned again to Scandinavi, where "Marian fever" had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of fans. She quickly became a favorite of many conductors and composers of major European orchestras, and drew a large fan base among European audiences. During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years. "Once he heard her sing, he knew instantly that with a rich voice like hers, there was no way that she could fail.


In the late 1930's, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the United States. Although by now quite famous, her stature did not completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring the United States. She was still denied rooms in certain American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American restaurants. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. The District of Columbia Board of Education declined a request to use the auditorium of a white public high school. As a result of the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned.

The Roosevelts, with Walter White, then-executive secretary of the NAACP, and Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok, then persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air Marian Anderson concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was performed on Easter Sunday and Anderson was accompanied, per usual, by Vehanen. They began the performance with a dignified and stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee". The event attracted a crowd of more 75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio audience of millions.

Mid life and career

During World War II and the Korean War, Marian Anderson participated by entertaining the troops in hospitals and bases. In 1943, Anderson finally sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross. She said of the event, "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." By contrast, the federal government continued to bar her from using the high school auditorium in the District of Columbia.

On 17 July 1943, in Bethel, Connecticut, Anderson became the second wife of a man who had asked her to marry him when they were teenagers, architect Orpheus H. Fisher (1900—1986), known as King. By this marriage she had a stepson, James Fisher, from her husband's previous marriage to Ida Gould. The couple had purchased a 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in Danbury, Connecticut, three years earlier in 1940 after an exhaustive search throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many purchases were attempted but thwarted by property sellers due to racial discrimination. The Danbury property transaction was initially disputed by the seller as well, after he discovered the couple were African Americans. Through the years Fisher built many outbuildings on the property that became known as Marianna Farm, including an acoustic rehearsal studio he designed for his wife. The property remained Anderson's home for more then 50 years.

On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. On that occasion, she sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the invitation of director Rudolph Bing. Anderson said later about the evening, "The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch's brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot." Although she never appeared with the company again after this production, Anderson was named a permanent member of Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, which became a bestseller.

In 1957, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration and toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress through the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy. She traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in 12 weeks, giving 24 concerts. After that, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. She sang at his inauguration, as well as John F. Kennedy's in 1961. In 1958 she was officially designated delegate to the United Nations, a formalization of her role as "goodwill ambassadress" of the U.S. which she had played earlier.

In 1961 she sang for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and in 1962 she toured Australia and performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House. She was active in supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That same year she was one of the original 31 recipients of the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom (which is awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors"), and she also released her album, Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy, which included short stories and songs about her beloved black cat. In 1965, she christened the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, USS George Washington Carver. That same year Anderson made her farewell tour, after which she retired from public performance. The international tour began at Constitution Hall on October 1964 and ended at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965.

Later life

Although Anderson retired from singing in 1965, she continued to appear publicly. On several occasions she narrated Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, including a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga in 1976, conducted by the composer. Her achievements were recognized and honored with many prizes, including the UN Peace Prize in 1972, the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in 1973, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the George Peabody Medal in 1981, the National Medal of Arts in 1984, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1980, the United States Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness, and in 1984 she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York. She has been awarded honarary doctoral degrees from Howard University, Temple University and Smith College. She also received the Silver Buffalo Award in 1990, the highest award given to adults by the Boy Scouts of America.[8][14][15]

In 1986, Anderson's husband, Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of marriage. Anderson remained in residence at Marianna Farm until 1992, one year before her death. Although the bucolic property was sold to developers, various preservationists as well as the City of Danbury fought to protect Anderson's studio. Their efforts proved successful and the Danbury Museum and Historical Society relocated the structure, restored it and opened it to the public in 2004. In addition to seeing the studio, visitors can see photographs and memorabilia from milestones in Anderson's career.

In 1993, Anderson died of congestive heart failure a month after a stroke at age 96 in Portland, Oregon at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist. She is interred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.


The life and art of Marian Anderson has inspired several writers and artists. In 1999 a one act musical play entitled ''My Lord, What a Morning: The Marian Anderson Story was produced by the Kennedy Center. In 2001, the 1939 documentary film, Marian Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Anderson's 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial also forms a centre point of Richard Powers's novel The Time of Our Singing (2003).

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Marian Anderson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

On January 27, 2005, a commemorative U.S. postage stamp honored Marian Anderson as part of the Black Heritage series. Anderson is also pictured on the US$5,000 Series I United States Savings Bond.[19]

Marian Anderson Award

The Marian Anderson Award was originally establised in 1944 by Anderson after she awarded the the $10,000 Bok Prize in 1943 by the city of Philadelphia. Anderson used the award money to establish a singing competition to help support young singers. Eventually the prize fund ran out of money and it was disbanded. However, in 1990 the award was re-established and has dispensed $25,000 annually. In 1998 the prize was restructured with the "Marian Anderson Award" going to an established artist, not necessarily a singer, who exhibits leadership in a humanitarian area. A separate prize, the "Marian Anderson Prize for Emerging Classical Artists" is given to promising young classical singers.

Awardees by year:

  • 1998 - Harry Belafonte
  • 1999 - Gregory Peck
  • 2000 - Elizabeth Taylor
  • 2001 - Quincy Jones
  • 2002 - Danny Glover
  • 2003 - Oprah Winfrey
  • 2005 - Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis
  • 2006 - Sidney Poitier
  • 2007 - Richard Gere
  • 2008 - Maya Angelou and Norman Lear

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