Celebrating Marian Anderson
Sony Classical has just issued a 15 CD set of all of Marian Anderson’s RCA recordings, including several titles never before published. The set comes with a “coffee table book” detailing the singer’s formidable career. From African American churches in Philadelphia to Scandinavia, Russia, Israel, South America and every European capital. From the Metropolitan Theater in Detroit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Arturo Toscanini called hers “the voice heard once in a hundred years.” The New York Times wrote of her 1935 Town Hall concert, “…she returns to her native land one of the finest artists of her generation.”
She was the first African American artist to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. There were bomb threats phoned into the opera house…and an ovation following the performance. Her recording career with RCA, then the world’s preeminent label, began in 1924 and lasted forty years.
She was denied admission to a music school in her hometown of Philadelphia. “We don’t take colored,” she was told. By 1958, President Eisenhower had named her the U.S. Representative to the United Nations.
Her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial is considered the birth of the civil rights movement. Anderson remained a humble and dignified woman.
And oh, that voice!
Marian Anderson was a contralto, the deepest, most beautiful female voice register. The voice of earth. The voice of mother. The voice of the richest, finest wine. The most erotic voice.
Marian Anderson lived from 1897-1993. She was the first African American classical singer to have a major international career. She was preceded by tenor Roland Hayes--who was her mentor, but Anderson’s reach was wider. (Her career was not longer--I heard Roland Hayes give a recital in Boston in his mid-80s, with lots of vocal beauty left).
It was suggested that she was a soprano forced to “sing low”. An African American woman could not be allowed the eroticism inherent in the soprano voice.
Her reputation today rests on her singing of spirituals. Also on her Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, given at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, after Anderson was denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall.
It is right to acknowledge these achievements, but time to pay more attention to the voice itself. This new commemorative collection does so.. As a youngster, her singing could be tentative and unformed. Nevertheless, in recordings from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, there’s a lot of vocal splendor to admire.
It’s all here. Check out the Brahms Alto Rhapsody with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and songs by Sibelius accompanied by Kosti Vehanen, and this:
Certainly, as a voice that brought love and comfort to many, this performance is worth celebrating:
You can wait for Santa Claus or you can treat yourself. The splendor of this voice on these 15 CDs will repay you for years.
P.S. Marian Anderson ended her singing career in 1965 with a concert in Carnegie Hall. Her last tour began a few months previously, in Washington, DC…at, you guessed it, Constitution Hall.