Marian Anderson’s vocal artistry honored in bold new CD Met State Department Lincoln Memorial Anderson New York
82 years ago, on a cold Easter Sunday, a tall, elegant black woman descended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of an embedded crowd of 75,000 and sang her way into the history books.
Marian Anderson played only about half an hour that day in 1939, but her very presence made it a watershed event in the civil rights struggle. She was appearing at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to circumvent their policy of reserving whites for performers at Constitution Hall.
Anderson admitted to being nervous about the occasion, but as she later wrote in her autobiography, “I could see that my importance as an individual was low in this matter. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.
She then struck another famous blow against segregation when she broke the color bar at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of her career in 1955, opening the door to singers like Leontyne Price who would triumph there six years later.
Today, many people probably only know her from these two headline-grabbing events. But Anderson had a long international career as a concert recitalist with a voice of astonishing warmth and grandeur that conductor Arturo Toscanini said “one has the privilege of hearing all the 100 years”.
Listeners can experience his storied career later this month when Sony Classical releases a digitally remastered collection spanning his career from 1924 to 1966.
The selections show his vast repertoire – ranging from baroque arias and art songs to religious and spiritual music and more. A CD is devoted to Christmas carols, another to his farewell recital at Constitution Hall in 1964 (the policy of segregation had then been abandoned). The final disc contains excerpts from a 1957 tour of Asia, sponsored in part by the State Department and narrated by television journalist Edward R. Murrow.
Anderson was considered a contralto, the deepest vocal range for a singer, and her ability to bring her voice down to subterranean terrain can be heard in the witty “Crucifixion.”
But she could also go up nearly three octaves, and in songs like Schubert’s “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”), she lightens her voice to sound like a lyric soprano.
“She strikes me as like a lot of black female opera singers in that she doesn’t have easily categorizable voices,” said Naomi Andre, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of the book “Black Opera,” in an interview. “I think of Jessye Norman Grace Bumbry or Shirley Verrett, who sang things that they decided to sing rather than what someone said they should.”
Some selections from later years show the deterioration of her voice over time. Her Met debut as fortune teller Ulrica in Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’ – the only time she has performed in a staged opera – came at the age of 57 and had lost some luster and security.
“We all grow, we struggle, we change,” Robert Russ, the Sony Classical producer responsible for the project, said in an interview. “No need to somehow conceal things that are still acceptable.”
She eventually became prosperous from her concert fees, but one of Anderson’s proudest moments came when she was just getting started and earning $5 or $10 per performance. All she had to do was call the Wanamaker department store in her hometown of Philadelphia to tell them that her mother would no longer work there scrubbing floors to supplement the family income.
The memory of her accomplishments may have faded over the years, but Philadelphia continues to honor her — most recently with plans to erect a statue of her outside the Academy of Music, where she happened frequently.
Although Anderson’s success was unprecedented in his day among black classical artists, there were others who had notable careers. André cites Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson as examples.
“We think she’s the only one, and in many ways she’s the only one to have reached the top,” Andre said. “But she’s not just this crazy anomaly.
“There were other people who had beautiful voices that we seek out and discover,” she said. “I wish someone would listen to Marian Anderson’s recordings and think, ‘Who else is out there?'”
Presented as a 228-page coffee table book with essays, artwork and details about his discography, “Beyond the Music, Marian Anderson, Her Complete RCA Victor Recordings” is out August 27 and selling on Amazon for $97.74.