A new box set explores the singer whose Lincoln Memorial concert was a 20th-century civil rights milestone.
The night before Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she called Sol Hurok, her manager, to ask if she really had to go through with it.
Earlier that year, Howard University had tried to book Anderson for a recital at Washington’s only large concert stage, Constitution Hall, which was run by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization, which maintained a whites-only policy for performing artists, refused. A public pressure campaign to get the group to reverse its decision came to nothing, but Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in protest, and through the efforts of Harold L. Ickes, the secretary of the interior, the Lincoln Memorial was approved as a new location.
But the controversy surrounding the event swirled in newspapers around the country. No longer just a concert, it had become a civil rights battlefield. The pressure on Anderson was overwhelming.
The Daughters’s discriminatory actions had stung Anderson deeply, taking her back to formative events in her life — especially when, at 17, she went to the Philadelphia Musical Academy seeking admission and a snippy secretary would not even hand her an application.
But that was then. She had spent five rewarding years in Europe in the early 1930s, with more welcoming audiences and institutions. She found mentors, coaches and supporters; she began performing to acclaim. During one seven-month tour of Scandinavia, she gave more than 100 concerts.
Returning to the United States in 1935, she began performing extensively, doing circuits of colleges and concert halls where she was welcomed, starting with a crucial recital at Town Hall in New York. The New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote, “Let it be said at the outset: Marian Anderson has returned to her native land one of the great singers of our time.” She made recordings, and she became wealthy: In 1938 her income was $238,000 (roughly $4.5 million today), though she was still a second-class citizen in her own country who on tour often ate dinner alone in her hotel room to avoid segregated restaurants.
Anderson feared that her Lincoln Memorial concert would come to define her. And to a large extent, it did. But the full breadth of her artistry is newly evident with the release, from Sony Classical, of a new commemorative book, offering her complete RCA Victor recordings from 1924 to 1966 on 15 discs — timed to the 125th anniversary, coming in February, of Anderson’s birth in Philadelphia.
The recordings are magnificent. There is her 1950 account of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Pierre Monteux. Her splendid voice — a true (and rare) example of a contralto, the lowest-range female voice — is ideal for this music, Mahler’s settings of five piercing ruminations on the death of children.
Deep, mellow tones provide the foundation of her voice. Even when she shapes midrange lyrical phrases and soars up to high passages with soprano-like radiance, the sound still somehow emanates from those awesome low tones. Her slightly tremulous vibrato can sometimes seem like shakiness. Yet the wavering more often exudes richness and warmth, and a touch of vulnerability. The feelings and emotions she draws from the words are overwhelming.
Arturo Toscanini heard Anderson in 1935 in Salzburg, Austria — when, excluded from official Salzburg Festival performances because of her race, she performed in a hotel ballroom. Afterward the imposing maestro approached her and said, famously, that what he had just heard “one is privileged to hear once in a hundred years,” responding to the singular shadings and textures of her deep-set sound, and the extraordinarily nuances she could create through her wide range. (Naturally, Hurok seized Toscanini’s words and thereafter billed Anderson as the “voice of the century.”)
Those qualities run through a recording of Schubert lieder, paired here with a sternly beautiful account of Schumann’s cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben,” mostly recorded in 1950 and ’51 and accompanied sensitively by the German pianist Franz Rupp, Anderson’s recital partner from the ’40s on. In Schubert’s “Ständchen” the long melodic arcs flow with wistful grace while never sacrificing tautness. In “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” Anderson truly becomes the young woman in the Goethe text, both terrified and thrilled at the desire a handsome stranger has aroused in her. There is a haunting, internal quality to Anderson’s performance, suggesting an innocent girl brooding over her confusions.
There are many finely detailed lieder singers, though. What finally made Anderson so exceptional is a quality hard to define but impossible to miss: the authenticity that permeates her singing. In this regard, the most revealing recording in the new set may be a program featuring arias by Bach and Handel, mostly dating from the mid-1940s. (Robert Shaw and Charles O’Connell are the conductors).
In “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” a sublimely sad aria from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Anderson’s singing is direct and honest, steady and true, at once calm and intense. Her performance of “He was despised” from Handel’s “Messiah” comes across as a fully lived-in experience. Indeed, when she sang this solo in a “Messiah” performance in Philadelphia in 1916, when she was still in her teens, a critic wrote that Anderson “felt with her soft, strong voice the sorrows of God.”
Anderson grappled with hardships in her youth, especially the death of her father following a severe head injury while selling ice and coal at a train terminal, leaving a wife and three daughters. Just 12 at the time, Anderson, the eldest, was forced to delay high school for several years and take odd jobs. Her beloved grandfather — who was born enslaved in Virginia and, once freed, became a farm laborer and the first Anderson to settle in Philadelphia — died the following year.
These events stayed with her as she learned to confront every challenge with affecting dignity. Was this the source of what I’m calling authenticity? It’s hard to say. But it surely accounts for her identification with spirituals — repertory she sang on every recital she gave, and works she invested with the same care she brought to German art songs. Several of the recordings in the new set offer her in affecting performances of spirituals. There are also collections of Christmas carols; an album titled “Songs of Eventide”; and more.
Anderson’s way of confronting racism had been to offer herself as a model of Black excellence, rather than speaking out explicitly about politics. But by the 1950s, a new generation of activists began challenging segregation more directly. In 1951, the N.A.A.C.P. called for a boycott of a recital she was to give in Richmond, Va., because the audience was to be segregated.
The action worked: Three-quarters of the seats in the hall were empty. And soon after, Anderson became more outspoken and vowed not to appear before segregated audiences. (The roiling social, racial and political currents that affected her life and career are presented in an insightful documentary, “Voice of Freedom,” broadcast earlier this year and part of PBS’s American Experience series.)
There was one more milestone to come. In 1955 Anderson broke the color barrier for soloists at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the small but crucial role of the fortune teller Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” In earlier years, European houses had approached her about performing in opera, but she declined, having had no opportunity to learn the repertory or develop her acting skills.
But as the civil rights movement gained headway in America, Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager, realized that the company had to respond. He wanted an artist without controversy to be the first. And by then, who didn’t admire Marian Anderson?
She was very hesitant. But, after some encouraging work with opera coaches, she decided to proceed; received $1,000 per performance, the highest fee at the house at the time; and came to embrace her pioneering role.
When the production opened, the starry cast included Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren and the young Roberta Peters, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. Recalling the moment when the curtain went up, Anderson later wrote, “I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note I felt myself tightening into a knot.”
She was almost 58, past her vocal prime. But she did it, won solid reviews and a place in history. Sony’s set includes an album of excerpts from the opera recorded in a studio around the same time (though Jan Peerce replaced Tucker). Compelling moments in Anderson’s singing of the role suggest what her career in opera might have been.
The American Experience documentary opens with poignant footage of Anderson on the morning of her Lincoln Memorial concert, going though sound checks on the platform, looking nervous and wary. For all her fears, the concert was a triumph. A mixed crowd of 75,000, more people than had ever gathered on the Mall, heard Anderson sing a 30-minute program that opened with “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” included Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and a Donizetti aria, and ended with a group of spirituals. Millions more heard it broadcast on the radio.
In time, the Daughters of the American Revolution dropped its exclusionary policy at Constitution Hall. Anderson performed there in a war relief benefit in 1943. And it was sweet justice when, in 1964, she began an extended farewell tour with a recital there, too.