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Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. Music critic Alan Blyth said "Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty." Most of her singing career was spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and with famous orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965. Although offered roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined, as she had no training in acting. She preferred to perform in concert and recital only. She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.
Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. The incident placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level unusual for a classical musician. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. She sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. Anderson continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955. Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage.
Anderson worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State, giving concerts all over the world. She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and the former Annie Delilah Rucker. Her father sold ice and coal at the Reading Terminal in downtown Philadelphia and eventually opened a small liquor business as well. Prior to her marriage, Anderson's mother had briefly attended the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg and had worked as a schoolteacher in Virginia. As she did not obtain a degree, Annie Anderson was unable to teach in Philadelphia under a law that was applied only to black teachers and not white ones. She therefore earned an income caring for small children. Marian was the eldest of the three Anderson children. Her two sisters, Alice (later spelled Alyse) (1899–1965) and Ethel (1902–1990), also became singers. Ethel married James DePreist and their late son, James Anderson DePreist was a noted conductor.
Anderson's parents were both devout Christians and the whole family was active in the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. Marian's Aunt Mary (John Berkley's sister) was particularly active in the church's musical life and, noticing her niece's talent, convinced her to join the junior church choir at the age of six. In that role she got to perform solos and duets, often with her Aunt Mary. Marian was also taken by her aunt to concerts at local churches, the YMCA, benefit concerts, and other community music events throughout the city. Anderson credited her aunt's influence as the reason she pursued a singing career. Beginning as young as six, her aunt arranged for Marian to sing for local functions where she was often paid 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs. As she got into her early teens, Marian began to make as much as four or five dollars for singing; a considerable amount of money for the early 20th century. At the age of 10, Marian joined the People's Chorus under the direction of singer Emma Azalia Hackley, where she was often given solos.
When Marian was 12, her father was accidentally struck on the head while at work at the Reading Terminal, just a few weeks before Christmas of 1909. He died of heart failure a month later at age 34. Marian and her family moved into the home of her father's parents, Grandpa Benjamin and Grandma Isabella Anderson. Her grandfather had been born a slave and had experienced emancipation in the 1860s. He was the first of the Anderson family to settle in South Philadelphia, and when Marian moved into his home the two became very close. He died only about a year after the family moved in.
Anderson attended Stanton Grammar School, graduating in the summer of 1912. Her family, however, could not afford to send her to high school, nor could they pay for any music lessons. Still, Marian continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who was willing to teach her. Throughout her teenage years, Marian remained active in her church's musical activities, now heavily involved in the adult choir. She joined the Baptists' Young People's Union and the Camp Fire Girls which provided her with some limited musical opportunities. Eventually the directors of the People's Chorus and the pastor of her church, Reverend Wesley Parks, along with other leaders of the black community, raised the money she needed to get singing lessons with Mary S. Patterson and to attend South Philadelphia High School, from which she graduated in 1921.
After high school, Marian applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts), but was turned away because she was black. The woman working the admissions counter replied, "We don't take colored" when she tried to apply. Undaunted, Anderson pursued studies privately with Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder in her native city through the continued support of the Philadelphia black community. She met Boghetti through the principal of her high school. Marian auditioned for him singing 'Deep River' and he was immediately brought to tears. In 1925 Anderson got her first big break when she won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. As the winner she got to perform in concert with the orchestra on August 26, 1925, a performance that scored immediate success with both audience and music critics. Anderson remained in New York to pursue further studies with Frank La Forge. During the time Arthur Judson, whom she had met through the NYP, became her manager. Over the next several years, she made a number of concert appearances in the United States, but racial prejudice prevented her career from gaining much momentum. In 1928, she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall. Eventually she decided to go to Europe where she spent a number of months studying with Sara Charles-Cahier before launching a highly successful European singing tour.
In 1930, Anderson made her European debut in a concert at Wigmore Hall in London, where she was received enthusiastically. She spent the early 1930s touring throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices she had experienced in America. In the summer of 1930, she went to Scandinavia, where she met the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who became her regular accompanist and her vocal coach for many years. She also met Jean Sibelius through Vehanen after he had heard her in a concert in Helsinki. Moved by her performance, Sibelius invited them to his home and asked his wife to bring champagne in place of the traditional coffee. Sibelius commented to Anderson of her performance that he felt that she had been able to penetrate the Nordic soul. The two struck up an immediate friendship, which further blossomed into a professional partnership, and for many years Sibelius altered and composed songs for Anderson to perform. He created a new arrangement of the song "Solitude" and dedicated it to Anderson in 1939. Originally The Jewish Girl's Song from his 1906 incidental music to Belshazzar's Feast, it later became the "Solitude" section of the orchestral suite derived from the incidental music.
In 1934, impresario Sol Hurok offered Anderson a better contract than she previously had with Arthur Judson. He became her manager for the rest of her performing career and through his persuasion she came back to perform in America. In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in New York at Town Hall, which received highly favorable reviews by music critics. She spent the next four years touring throughout the United States and Europe. She was offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack of acting experience, Anderson declined all of those offers. She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio, which became bestsellers.
Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout Europe during the mid-1930s. She visited Eastern European capitals and Russia and returned again to Scandinavia, where "Marian fever" had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of fans. She quickly became a favorite of many conductors and composers of major European orchestras. During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years".
In the late 1930s, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the United States. Although by then quite famous, her stature did not completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring the United States. She was still denied rooms in certain American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American restaurants. Because of this discrimination, Albert Einstein, a champion of racial tolerance, hosted Anderson on many occasions, the first being in 1937 when she was denied a hotel before performing at Princeton University. She last stayed with him months before he died in 1955.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. At the time, Washington, D.C., was a segregated city and black patrons were upset that they had to sit at the back of Constitution Hall. The District of Columbia Board of Education also declined a request to use the auditorium of a white public high school.
Charles Edward Russell, a co-founder of the NAACP and chair of the DC citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting on the following day that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as its chairman and on February 20, the group picketed the board of education, collected signatures on petitions, and planned a mass protest at the next board of education meeting.
As a result of the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization. In her letter to the DAR, she wrote, "I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist ... You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed."
Author Zora Neale Hurston criticized Eleanor Roosevelt's public silence about the similar decision by the District of Columbia Board of Education, while the District was under the control of committees of a Democratic Congress, to first deny, and then place race-based restrictions on, a proposed concert by Anderson.
President Roosevelt and Walter White, then-executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was performed on Easter Sunday, April 9, and Anderson was accompanied, as usual, by Vehanen. They began the performance with a dignified and stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee". The event attracted a crowd of more than 75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio audience of millions.
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During World War II and the Korean War, Marian Anderson entertained troops in hospitals and bases. In 1943, she sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross. She said of the event, "When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there." By contrast, the District of Columbia Board of Education continued to bar her from using the high school auditorium in the District of Columbia.
On July 17, 1943, in Bethel, Connecticut, Anderson became the second wife of a man who had asked her to marry him when they were teenagers, architect Orpheus H. Fisher (1900–86), known as King. The wedding was a private ceremony performed by United Methodist pastor Rev. Jack Grenfell and was the subject of a short story titled "The 'Inside' Story" written by Rev. Grenfell's wife, Dr. Clarine Coffin Grenfell, in her book Women My Husband Married, including Marian Anderson. According to Dr. Grenfell, the wedding was originally supposed to take place in the parsonage, but because of a bake sale on the lawn of the Bethel United Methodist Church, was moved at the last minute to the Elmwood Chapel, on the site of the Elmwood Cemetery in Bethel, in order to allow the event to remain private.
By this marriage she had a stepson, James Fisher, from her husband's previous marriage to Ida Gould. The couple had purchased a 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in Danbury, Connecticut, three years earlier in 1940 after an exhaustive search throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Many purchases were attempted but thwarted by property sellers who took their homes off the market when they discovered the purchasers would be African-Americans. Through the years Fisher built many outbuildings on the property that became known as Marianna Farm, including an acoustic rehearsal studio he designed for his wife. The property remained Anderson's home for almost 50 years.
On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. On that occasion, she sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (opposite Zinka Milanov, then Herva Nelli, as Amelia) at the invitation of director Rudolf Bing. Anderson said later about the evening, "The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch's brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot." Although she never appeared with the company again after this production, Anderson was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, which became a bestseller.
In 1957, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration and toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress through the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy. She traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in 12 weeks, giving 24 concerts. After that, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The same year, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1958 she was officially designated delegate to the United Nations, a formalization of her role as "goodwill ambassadress" of the U.S. which she had played earlier.
On January 20, 1961 she sang for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and in 1962 she performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House, and also toured Australia. She was active in supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That same year she was one of the original 31 recipients of the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors". She also released her album, Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy, which included short stories and songs about her beloved black cat. In 1965, she christened the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, USS George Washington Carver. That same year Anderson concluded her farewell tour, after which she retired from public performance. The international tour began at Constitution Hall on Saturday October 24, 1964, and ended at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965.
From 1940 she resided at a 50-acre farm, having sold half of the original 100 acres, that she named Marianna Farm. The farm was on Joe's Hill Road, in the Mill Plain section of Danbury in western Danbury, northwest of what in December 1961 became the interchange between Interstate 84, U.S. 6 and U.S. 202. She constructed a three-bedroom ranchhouse as a residence, and she used a separate one-room structure as her studio. In 1996 the farm was named one of 60 sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The studio was moved to downtown Danbury as the Marian Anderson studio.
As a town resident she was set on waiting in line at shops and restaurants, declining offers to go ahead as a celebrity. She was known to visit the Danbury State Fair. She sang at the city hall on the occasion of the lighting of Christmas ornaments. She gave a concert at the Danbury High School. She served on the boards of the Danbury Music Center and supported the Charles Ives Center for the Arts the Danbury Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P..
Although Anderson retired from singing in 1965, she continued to appear publicly. On several occasions she narrated Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, including a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga in 1976, conducted by the composer. Her achievements were recognized and honored with many prizes, including the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1939; University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in 1973; the United Nations Peace Prize, New York City's Handel Medallion, and the Congressional Gold Medal, all in 1977; Kennedy Center Honors in 1978; the George Peabody Medal in 1981; the National Medal of Arts in 1986; and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1980, the United States Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness, and in 1984 she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York. She has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Howard University, Temple University and Smith College.
In 1986, Anderson's husband, Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of marriage. Anderson remained in residence at Marianna Farm until 1992, one year before her death. Although the property was sold to developers, various preservationists as well as the City of Danbury fought to protect Anderson's studio. Their efforts proved successful and the Danbury Museum and Historical Society received a grant from the State of Connecticut, relocated the structure, restored it, and opened it to the public in 2004. In addition to seeing the studio, visitors can see photographs and memorabilia from milestones in Anderson's career.
Anderson died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993, at age 96. She had suffered a stroke a month earlier. She died in Portland, Oregon, at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist. She is interred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
The life and art of Marian Anderson has inspired several writers and artists. She was an example and an inspiration to both Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. In 1999 a one-act musical play entitled My Lord, What a Morning: The Marian Anderson Story was produced by the Kennedy Center. In 2001, the 1939 documentary film, Marian Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Marian Anderson in his book, 100 Greatest African Americans. On January 27, 2006, a commemorative U.S. postage stamp honored Marian Anderson as part of the Black Heritage series. Anderson is also pictured on the US$5,000 Series I United States Savings Bond.
The Marian Anderson Award was originally established in 1943 by Anderson after she was awarded the $10,000 Bok Prize that year by the city of Philadelphia. Anderson used the award money to establish a singing competition to help support young singers. Eventually the prize fund ran out of money and it was disbanded after 1976.
In 1990 the award was re-established and has dispensed $25,000 annually. In 1998 the prize was restructured with the "Marian Anderson Award" going to an established artist, not necessarily a singer, who exhibits leadership in a humanitarian area.
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