“Stunning Beauty”

“Stunning Beauty”

By Fred Mittag

Marian Anderson


Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was born in Philadelphia, where she began singing in her church choir at age six. When she was eight, her father bought her a piano but could not afford piano lessons. So, Marian taught herself by ear. Her father died when she was 12, leaving their mother to rear Marian and her two sisters. Their mother worked in a tobacco factory, took in laundry, and scrubbed floors in a department store. 

After her father’s death, Marian became more dedicated to her church choir and would often learn the hymnal lines of four-part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass and sing each of the parts for her family—in the case of bass and tenor, an octave higher, of course.

Her dedication to her church choir impressed the church members. They raised $500 for her to study voice under the highly respected voice coach Giuseppe Boghetti. After two years with him, she won a chance to sing at the Lewisohn Stadium after entering a New York Philharmonic Society contest. One thing led to another, and by the late 1930s, she had become famous on both sides of the Atlantic. More so on the European side because of American racial attitudes. Still, President and Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House, the first time an African American had ever received such an honor.

However, Marian’s talent was not enough to pierce the racism of many Americans. When her manager set up a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to permit her to sing. That was the largest concert hall in Washington, and the D.A.R. owned it. They had a written policy that only whites could perform there.

The D.A.R.’s rejection of Marian’s talent led to a public uproar, a more subtle parallel to earlier abolitionists and pro-slavery factions in America. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. in protest. Indeed, she was the leader of the clamor against the Daughters of the American Revolution. She and President Roosevelt were quite a contrast to a president who calls white nationalists “nice people.” 

Roosevelt invited Marian to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter morning. The symbolism of Anderson singing before the Great Emancipator was powerful. Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, introduced Anderson with the words, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.” He also said, “Genius, like justice, is blind… Genius draws no color line.”

When Marian Anderson began her recital, Senators, Cabinet members, and Supreme Court Justices sat just below her. Martin Luther King was ten at the time, and when he was 15, he entered a speaking contest. Even as a teenager, his soaring oratory was becoming evident. In his competition speech, he referenced Marian Anderson and said, “She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Marian drew a crowd of 75,000 to the Lincoln Memorial. Radio stations broadcast her performance to millions of people, and critics called her performance “riveting.” 

Back then, movies always began with a newsreel. One newsreel heralded the event across the movie screen with the words “Nation’s Capital Gets Lesson in Tolerance.” That was 1939, 25 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a measure of how slow social progress can be.

Marian suffered all the indignities of any other black person. When a hotel refused her a room, none other than Albert Einstein invited her to stay overnight in his home. Besides the world’s foremost genius in theoretical physics, he was an amateur violinist. He admired Marian’s talent and was a democratic socialist, a seeker of justice.

Marian Anderson performed with some of the most famed music directors and conductors of her time, including Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. Toscanini regarded her as the best contralto in the world. He said, “Hers was the kind of voice that comes along only once in a century. Finland’s foremost composer was Jean Sibelius. He welcomed her to his home, saying, “My roof is too low for you.” Leopold Stokowski took the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra on an American tour, featuring Marian Anderson as the orchestra’s soloist.

The sophisticated New Yorker wrote of Anderson’s racially restricted performance opportunities, “There was no rational reason for a serious venue to refuse entry to such a phenomenon. No clearer demonstration of prejudice could be found.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited her to sing the National Anthem at his inaugural, and John F. Kennedy did the same for his inaugural.

Musicians use timbre, phrasing, vocal range, bright, dark, and many more terms to describe music. Timbre can get highly technical and is a term that belongs to physics as much as to music. In music, it refers to tone color caused by harmonics or overtones. It’s what enables us to distinguish a flute from a violin even though they’re playing the same note. It also determines the quality of a singer’s voice. In this, Marian Anderson had no equal in beauty of timbre. She had an astonishing vocal range, able to dip well into the tenor range without taking on a husky timbre. She reached well into the soprano range without sounding shrill or strained.

Unfortunately, the quality of recording when she was at her peak did not equal her vocal quality. We have to rely on descriptions by masters such as Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski to imagine the beauty of performance in her operatic roles. Although lacking the desired quality, several videos on the Internet and YouTube can give us an idea of the stunning beauty of her voice.


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