I have met Marian Anderson twice; one time after a concert and the other after a lecture. I attended a concert she gave at Wheaton College in the mid 60s. She was past her prime, but still gave an incredibly moving performance. The house was packed . . . chairs set up in the orchestra pit and on the stage. She was literally surrounded by the audience. In a gracious gesture, for one song she turned her back to the main audience in order to sing to those seated behind her on the stage. She wore a gown with a richly embroidered cape-like affair; like a big exotic butterfly, as I remember. It probably sounds as if it looked ridiculous, but in fact it was stunning.
I recall particularly her performance of Schubert’s “Erlkönig”. It sent shivers up my spine. She portrayed the characters in the little story in a truly remarkable way. Even now, after all these years, I am still moved whenever I hear recordings of her singing. Her rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” invariably brings tears to my eyes.
Marian Anderson grew up in Philadelphia, where she received her vocal training through the financial support of her church. After winning a contest in New York and performing with the New York Philharmonic, she was signed to a contract by a concert manager, but her career went nowhere. (My guess is that a black concert artist had little chance of getting concert dates in “serious” halls in the US.) She opted to go to Europe in 1930, touring Scandinavia and Western Europe. In Salzburg, in 1935, she gave a recital attended by by Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Lotte Lehmann. It was on this occasion that Toscanini remarked, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” The Archbishop of Salzburg reportedly was moved to tears by her singing of “Ave Maria”.
Miss Anderson soon returned to the USA and performed her historic homecoming recital at Town Hall, organized by Sol Hurok. In 1939, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial. The story goes that the DAR would not allow a person of color to perform in “their” Constitution Hall; to be fair, however, I should note that the good ladies of the DAR maintain that the hall had already been booked, so it was not possible for Miss Anderson to perform there on that day.
She made her (belated) debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, twenty years after taking Europe by storm. She was the first black singer to perform at the Met. In 1966 she received the Freedom Medal.
For her Met debut, she sang the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera. The (studio) recording that was made to mark the event, with Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce and Leonard Warren, is of special interest not only because it documented Anderson’s debut at the Met, but also because of Milanov’s musical blunder in the second act trio (the rhythm threw her, and she got off by a beat). I could not believe that Milanov would allow RCA to release a studio recording with such an obvious mistake. You can hear Anderson singing Ulrica’s aria — just click on this shortcut.
And now, here is a parting quote about Marian Anderson, by Sol Hurok:
In any century only a handful of extraordinary men and women are known to countless millions around the globe as great artists and great persons. Only a few inspire the adoration and respect of the mighty and the humble alike. In our time there is Marian Anderson.