Marian Anderson Papers
Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897 (although throughout much of her life she gave her birth date as February 17, 1902) in south Philadelphia. Her father, John Berkley Anderson, sold ice and coal and her mother Annie Delilah Rucker Anderson was a former schoolmistress. She was the oldest of three sisters. She began singing when she was six, in the church choir, and by eight had become a regular substitute, filling in for absent sopranos, tenors and even bass. She was presented in one church program as the "Baby Contralto." To this early experience, Anderson later attributed her wide vocal range. Anderson taught herself to play piano and violin, although her voice was still her preferred instrument.
When Anderson was ten, her father was killed in a work accident and her mother became the family's sole supporter, working as a housekeeper and laundress. When she entered high school, Anderson intended to follow a commercial education course to help support her family, but she continued to sing and perform with church groups around Philadelphia. She was invited to sing with her school chorus; the school's principal noticed her during a performance and suggested that she transfer to a college preparatory course that would allow her to devote more time to music studies. When she finished high school, Anderson attempted to enroll in an all-white music school in Philadelphia; she was turned down due to her race. Anderson's church held a fundraiser so that she could study privately with the renowned music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti. His lessons helped prepare her for a singing contest held by the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society, which she won in 1926. The prize was a concert at Lewisohn Stadium with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After this performance, Anderson was signed by a concert manager and was able to study with Frank La Forge, another noted voice teacher. Despite her successful performance in New York, Anderson had difficulty finding venues in the States that would book her because of her race, and for several years her career stalled.
In the summer of 1929, Anderson resolved to travel to Europe to gain a wider reputation. Through people she had met while performing at churches, she made contact with several voice teachers in England, one of whom introduced her to the German song form lieder, which would become a hallmark of her repertoire. After a performance in England, Anderson was greeted backstage by a representative of the Rosenwald fund, who encouraged her to apply for a fellowship to study in Germany. She applied, and received a scholarship in 1931, and moved to Berlin. Anderson toured Scandinavia and was a great success; the noted Finnish composer Jean Sibelius told her, "My roof is too low for you." She continued to tour Europe from 1932-35. While performing in Paris, she met Sol Hurok, who would become her lifelong manager. After an Anderson performance in Salzburg in 1935, Arturo Toscanini said, "Yours is such a voice as one hears in a hundred years!" Near the end of that year, Anderson returned briefly to the States, at the urging of Hurok, where she gave a concert in New York. This performance reintroduced her to the American public, and following it she was more easily able to find performance venues.
Anderson's fame and extended time in Europe meant that she was often allowed in places where her race would have otherwise been a barrier, but she was still frequently denied entrance to hotels and restaurants when touring in the States. In 1937, when she was denied lodgings in Princeton, New Jersey, Albert Einstein hosted her and the two remained friends until his death in 1955. Her manager Hurok did his best to make sure that Anderson was shielded from details about venues that refused to let her perform because she was African-American.
In 1939, a controversy arose when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, to an integrated crowd. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR as a result of the incident, and arranged for Anderson to perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Anderson sang that day for a crowd of over 75,000 people. This concert kicked off a yearlong tour of American cities, including five performances at Carnegie Hall.
In 1943 Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher, an architect, with whom she had been friends for many years. The couple moved to Connecticut, where Anderson would live for much of her life. The couple never had any children.
Throughout her career, Anderson was given many accolades for her voice, including the Spingarn Medal; the Bok Award; Finland's Order of the White Rose and the Marshall Mennerheim Medal; Japan's Yukoso Medal; Sweden's Litteris et Artibus medal; Liberia's Order of African Redemption; and honorary degrees from over fifteen schools, including Smith College, which was awarded in 1944. Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963; was the first person given the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York in 1984; was among the group of people honored in the first ever Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 and in 1986 was awarded a National Arts Medal. Marian Anderson's portrait was among those chosen for an exhibit of 92 "Famous Americans" at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.
In 1955 Anderson became the first black person-- male or female, of any nationality-- to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, in the role of Ulrica in "Un Balla in Maschera" by Verdi. After the Met's season was completed, Anderson was back on tour, performing for the first time in Israel, Morocco and Tunisia, and returning to France and Spain. She played Ulrica for one more season at the Met, and then embarked on her first South American tour, which was shortly followed by another Western European tour. While in Europe, her autobiography My Lord, What a Morning! was published in the U.S. In 1957 Anderson sang the national anthem at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (she would also sing it at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy four years later). That same year, on behalf of the State Department, she began a ten-week tour of south Asia as a goodwill ambassador, during which she gave twenty-four concerts. In India, Thailand and Burma the heads of state greeted her themselves. The tour was filmed as a special for "See It Now" with Edward R. Murrow for CBS Television, which was titled "The Lady from Philadelphia."
President Eisenhower appointed Anderson to a special delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in late 1958. Although she gave many benefit concerts during this time, she no longer toured as extensively. She began her farewell tour in 1964, and thereafter retreated to a very private life. Her husband died in 1986. Anderson died of congestive heart failure following a stroke on April 8 1993, in Portland, Oregon, where she was living with her nephew. She was 96 years old.
Kozinn, Allan. "Marian Anderson Dead at 96: Singer Shattered Racial Barriers." The New York Times, 9 Apr 1993.
Hine, Darlene Clark., Elsa Barkley. Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. "Anderson, Marian." Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Pub., 1993. 29-33. Print.