A Life Of Irresistible Creation: Marian Anderson In Songs And Pictures

Aug 27, 2021

Editor's note: Marian Anderson: Beyond the Music, a new deluxe set of albums and images, released Aug. 27, captures the life and work of America's groundbreaking artist. Hear a playlist of selected songs at the end of this story.

Marian Anderson recording at Webster Hall with her accompanist Franz Rupp in August 1961.
John G. Ross / Sony Music

Seeing her in the studio gives me strong Aretha vibes. She's not at the piano, as the Queen of Soul often was, but the instrument is at her service nonetheless. It and everything else were there for her: The wood-paneled room and condenser microphone hanging overhead are but two more surfaces for her to command so that she might be lifted from her environment into ours. We welcome her flight but we aren't used to seeing and hearing her in this way.

Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia in 1897. There, her parents and grandparents found freedom in faith and at six years old, Anderson joined the Union Baptist Church junior choir and eventually came to be known by the congregation as "the baby contralto."
D'Arlene Studios/S. Hurok / Sony Music

The great contralto Marian Anderson was a concert singer. She was live, on stage, singing in the foreground of giants cast in white Georgia marble. Rather than coming to us, those iconic performances took us to her. We witnessed the breeze play in her fur coat and lights bounce from her brooch, and listened to the texture of her voice through old songs that, in combination, produced new visions. German lieder, Italian arias, and Negro spirituals were all her domain, yet each was uniquely conceived and labored over. Together they formed and enveloped us as she traveled the world as an unofficial ambassador for a country with ideals that were not, and are not yet, realized.

Marian Anderson with U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma, and his wife in Rangoon in 1957. For years, Marian Anderson performed abroad in hopes of overcoming the limitations of race in America.
RCA / Sony Music

We don't lose her in these studio recordings—she remains luscious and full of verve–yet neither do we hear all that she was. Her interiority as an artist is differently heard in combination with these images that pulse with their own sounds and storytelling. While snapshots of award ceremonies with dignitaries and glamorous headshots show us a version of the global star, we better understand her in and of a vast, intimate world when we see her in the semi-privacy of the recording studio or with her head thrown back in laughter while rehearsing with Leonard Bernstein or captured in her mother's embrace. A domestic worker, she too lived the privations of her race and gender but, like so many others, created something else of that life. Mrs. Anna Anderson's joy in her daughter's tremendous accomplishments was a song of its own.

Marian Anderson's mother, Anna Anderson, kisses her after the performance of Verdi's A Masked Ball at the Metropolitan Opera on Jan. 7, 1955. Marian Anderson's father passed away when she was young. She dropped out of high school to help support her mother and family before returning several years later and graduating at 24.
RCA / Sony Music

Beyond the Music reveals that Anderson wasn't the only one singing. Her chorus was influential and wide as she compelled ancestors and contemporaries, family and strangers from here, there, and everywhere into song. Her praises remain in our throats in celebration and unending thanks for having lived a long life of glorious antagonism and irresistible creation.

Shana L. Redmond is a scholar, author and Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University

Marian Anderson with her accompanist and friend Franz Rupp. The two began performing together in October 1940 and remained together for the rest of her career. Rupp's wife Steffi, a singer, became a good friend and vocal coach of Anderson.
RCA / Sony Music

Deeper Into The Music: A Marian Anderson Playlist

"Deep River" (arr. Harry T. Burleigh)

On Dec. 10, 1923, Marian Anderson, then just 26 years old, stood before the giant metal horn in a recording studio in Camden, N.J., to make her first recording for the Victor Talking Machine Co. She sang "Deep River," no doubt a song well known to her grandparents, all four of whom had lived in slavery. The hallmarks of the great contralto voice are already in place, with its stunning range and freedom between registers. She enunciates each word carefully, lending a patina of regality.

Anderson at RCA Victor Studio in New York City in 1945. With the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later RCA Victor), Marian Anderson recorded Deep River, then known as the "Negro spiritual." She was afraid this performance in a studio was as much racial tolerance she would receive from white Americans. She made her last recording with RCA in 1966.
RCA / Sony Music

Jean Sibelius: "Säv, säv, susa"

By 1936, when this recording was made, Anderson had become a huge sensation — but not yet in her home country, where she was denied admission to the first vocal school she applied for. She had spent most of the 1930s in Europe, where conductor Arturo Toscanini made his often-quoted proclamation that a voice like Anderson's appears only "once in a hundred years." She was particularly acclaimed in Scandinavia, where she met the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and learned some of his songs.

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, "When I'm Laid in Earth"

Just six weeks before Anderson cut this recording, she had instantly become a cultural icon and a living symbol of civil rights. Denied the stage of Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. because of her race, Anderson delivered a historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939, before a crowd of some 75,000. Her mournful treatment of "Dido's Lament," from Purcell's opera, has the soulful quality of a classic Black spiritual.

Marian Anderson performed on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial after being refused the largest hall in Washington because she was Black. At least 75,000 people gathered to listen to the historic moment.
S. Hurok/Smithsonian Photo Services / Sony Music

"My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord" (arr. Florence Price)

Anderson closed out her historic Lincoln Memorial concert with this song, which she recorded in the summer of 1941. The arrangement is by composer Florence Price, another groundbreaking African-American woman (the first to have a piece played by a major U.S. orchestra, in 1933), who offered many songs to the celebrated singer. Here, Anderson displays her soprano-like top register, radiating joy and capping the song with a brilliant high A.

President John F. Kennedy welcomes Marian Anderson and her accompanist Franz Rupp in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., on March 22, 1962, 23 years after her Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial. In 1961, she sang The Star-Spangled Banner at President Kennedy's inauguration.
Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/S. Hurok / Sony Music

"Trampin' " (arr. Edward Boatner)

If "My Soul" (above) represents the lustrous top end of Anderson's voice, "Trampin'," from the same 1941 recording session — also sung at the Lincoln Memorial — shows the rich, velvety deep end of her singular contralto. The curious "bottled" timbre she displays in the final verse creates the otherworldly atmosphere of a traveler bound for heaven.

Johannes Brahms: "Gestillte Sehnsucht" (Stilled Longing) Op. 91, No. 1

In 1930, fellowship money financed Anderson's extended stay abroad. She landed in Berlin, where she resumed an intensive study of German art song (lieder) and sang many recitals. Her command of the language and interpretive expression inspired one Austrian critic to write: "Whoever has heard her sing Schubert, Schumann or Brahms once knows that she is on utterly convincing terms with German musical art." Her recording of the first of Brahms' two "viola" songs was made in 1941 in New York and features violist William Primrose.

Marian Anderson in April 1951. In the 1950s, Marian Anderson began "vertical" segregation with her audiences, where the hall was split into side-by-side racial sections rather than seating Black people in the back. She also worked with the NAACP who was discouraging Black artists from performing for segregated audiences.
Bender Photograph / Sony Music

Franz Schubert: "Der Tod und das Mädchen"

This harrowing performance of "Death and the Maiden," recorded in 1946, offers Anderson's cinematic contrast between the two characters who inhabit the song: the maiden, in a flickering upper register, and death, who tries to befriend her, in a crepuscular subterranean range. You'd be forgiven if you thought two singers were performing, especially when hearing the descent down to a rock solid low D on the final note.

Giuseppe Verdi: Un ballo en maschera, "Re dell'abisso, affrettati"

Anderson didn't perform a lot of opera. Black artists were not welcome on major American opera stages until Jan. 7, 1955, when Anderson, then 57 years old, broke the color barrier at New York's Metropolitan Opera singing the role of the enchantress Ulrica in Verdi's A Masked Ball. Two days later, she recorded her big scene and the aria "Re dell'abisso, affrettati," with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the Met Opera Orchestra.

Rudolf Bing of the Metropolitan Opera (right) stands with Marian Anderson on Oct. 7, 1954. Bing invited Anderson to perform the role of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's A Masked Ball in January 1955. Anderson was the first African-American to sing a role in a Met production.
World Wide Photos / Sony Music

"Hear de Lam's a-Cryin'" (arr. Lawrence Brown)

Twenty-five years after she was turned away at Constitution Hall, Anderson returned to the Washington venue. It was 1964, the Civil Rights Act had been passed in July and on Oct. 24, Anderson took the stage, with her longtime accompanist Franz Rupp, to begin a farewell recital tour. Her program ranged widely, from Handel arias and Schubert songs to more contemporary pieces, and a haunted performance of "Hear de Lam's a-Cryin'." One of Anderson's achievements was to help secure a place in the concert repertoire for spirituals.

Franz Schubert: "An die Musik"

Anderson retired in 1965, but made a final recording the following year for RCA, her longstanding record company. The album included Schubert's song in praise of the power of music. The words (by Franz von Schober) could hardly be more fitting for an artist who gave her life to music, and achieved far more: "Often, has a sigh from your harp, a chord, sweet and holy, from you, opened for me a heaven of better times."

Music annotations by Tom Huizenga

(Thanks to Sony Classical for use of the images.)

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After her farewell tour ended in 1965, Marian Anderson spent the following years making stage appearances and providing financial support and mentorship to rising Black singers like Leontyne Price and Denyce Graves. After her passing in 1993 at 96, Americans of all races mourned the loss.
Dave Hecht / Sony Music