Marian Anderson Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Anderson was a world-renowned contralto. Her career came to have symbolic meaning in the battle against racial prejudice.

Early Life

Marian Anderson was born February 27, 1897, in a black residential section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, John, sold ice and coal, and her mother, Anna, supplemented the modest family income by doing laundry. The family was active in the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and Marian, at age six, was enrolled in its junior choir. She later joined the senior choir, demonstrating the range of her voice by singing all vocal parts. The church afforded many singing opportunities for Anderson, including travel with its choir.

While a student at South Philadelphia High School, she began to accompany herself on piano and appeared at various black college and church functions. Anderson’s first voice lessons were with Mary S. Patterson. Through Patterson she was introduced to the music of Franz Schubert and began work with her first accompanist. Monies raised by the Philadelphia Choral Society enabled Anderson to continue study with contralto Agnes Reifsnyder. Prior to her high school graduation, she was accepted as a pupil with Giuseppe Boghetti. She began a wide range of music studies, including French and Italian arias.

Anderson and her accompanist expanded their touring after she was graduated. Practice was difficult on these early tours, as she was obliged to stay in private homes. She was very sensitive about disturbing her hosts; much of her time was spent with the host’s neighbors and friends. At this early age, she was developing the regal, commanding physical presence that later reviewers would note.

At age twenty, Anderson considered giving up her career after a debut at New York Town Hall. The reviews were unfavorable and she did not yet have sufficient command of German to sing lieder. With her mother’s encouragement, she overcame her despair, resuming the touring and lessons.

Two triumphs came in 1923 and 1925. The first was winning a contest sponsored by the Philharmonic Society; the second was winning first prize in a contest held at Lewisohn Stadium. She was chosen, out of three hundred competitors, to appear with the New York Philharmonic.

Anderson had a new tutor, Frank LaForge, and was under the management of Arthur Judson. She now had many engagements and received higher fees; she also, however, had to compete with well-established singers. Acknowledging that she was accepting the same engagements each year and that her command of German needed improvement, she decided to go abroad. She won a scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians and in 1926 sailed to England aboard the Île de France.

Life’s Work

Anderson made many trips abroad, interspersed with American concert commitments, during her career. In 1929, she returned to New York for an engagement at Carnegie Hall. In 1930, she appeared at London’s Wigmore Hall. She won a Julius Rosenwald scholarship, which enabled her to study abroad through 1933. She toured the Continent, spending considerable time in the Scandinavian countries, giving more than one hundred concerts in those countries. These tours were a great success; the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius dedicated his song “Solitude” to her. She gathered further esteem at the 1935 Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, when Arturo Toscanini described her voice as one that came along only once in a hundred years.

The year 1935 also marked the beginning of Anderson’s association with impresario Solomon Hurok and her second debut at New York Town Hall. Hurok, on the spur of the moment, had attended her Paris recital at the Salle Gaveayu. He signed her to an exclusive contract and was her manager for the remainder of her career. The second Town Hall appearance, December 31, 1935, revealed the progress Anderson had made. In this concert, the full range of her voice was presented, and the reviews were superb. The drama of the recital was heightened because Anderson sang with a cast around her ankle, which she had broken on the journey back to the United States. Later concerts at Carnegie Hall were equally successful. Anderson’s perseverance as a student and public performer in Europe had proved its worth.

Her reputation assured, Anderson began, in 1936, touring Europe, Africa, South America, Russia, and the United States. In that year, she also made an appearance...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)