The voice of a century Marian Anderson, angel of song, agent of change

April 09, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Marian Anderson was a singer who just wanted to sing. In spite of herself, she transfixed a nation and galvanized its conscience.

Miss Anderson -- who died early yesterday morning at age 96 in the Portland, Ore., home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist -- was one of the greatest singers this country has ever produced.

But she was a symbol as well as a singer. The sight of her on Easter Sunday in 1939 singing at the Lincoln Memorial -- after the Daughters of the American Revolution had denied her permission to sing at Constitution Hall because of her race -- became one of the most famous images in American history. Now that African-Americans comprise nearly one-quarter of the Metropolitan Opera's vocal roster, it is sometimes hard to remember that the classical concert world was once as segregated as major league baseball before Jackie Robinson.

Miss Anderson changed all that. She was able to do so partly because of that famous 1939 concert, but mostly because she sang fabulously for more than 40 years and endured the frustrations of prejudice with dignity and intelligence.

The beauty of her voice -- with its earthy darkness at the bottom, clarinetlike purity in the middle and piercing vibrancy at the top -- was matched by a personal beauty as rare as it was purely human.

"Even if she had never opened her mouth, she would have been one of the century's great ladies," said Martin Feinstein, the Washington Opera's executive director, who helped manage Miss Anderson's career until her retirement in 1965.

She rarely spoke about prejudice but in a 1960 interview said that it "may be frustrating in the beginning, but it makes you stronger. In sitting and brooding about it, you only lose a lot of valuable time."

"Her power came from the fact that she never allowed resentment to have power over her, knowing that resentment redounded on the resenter," said Mr. DePreist. Last summer as her health declined, Miss Anderson moved from her longtime home in Danbury, Conn., to Portland to live with Mr. DePreist and his wife.

Miss Anderson was honored by presidents and kings, won countless awards and even had an important vocal competition named after her -- the Marian Anderson Competition at the University of Maryland at College Park -- but she did not particularly enjoy being an icon, said Mr. DePreist, the music director of the Oregon Symphony.

"She knew that she could not help but be remembered as an instrument of destiny, but didn't like to call attention to herself," he said. "I myself have always felt that her legacy of art gets lost in admiring her as a force of conscience and as a witness to history. But it's not every day that the wife of the president of the United States resigns from an organization because of you and that the president makes available the Lincoln Memorial so that you can give a concert."

In 1939, Marian Anderson was one of the most famous singers alive. She had sung at the White House in 1936 for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. She was considered a nonpareil interpreter of Bach, Handel and Schubert as well as of spirituals. And, like Luciano Pavarotti or Yo-Yo Ma, she was a crossover artists whose $2,500 concert fee made her one of the five highest-paid classical musicians in the United States at that time.

But Miss Anderson's critical acclaim and her celebrity in the 1930s were not enough to get her a room in a whites-only Manhattan hotel (she had to sleep at the Harlem YWCA); and they apparently were not enough to induce the DAR to let Howard University rent Constitution Hall so Miss Anderson could perform there.

A National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protest sparked a controversy that climaxed when Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, eloquently explaining her reasons in her widely read, syndicated newspaper column, "My Day."

The Gallup Poll reported that more than 67 percent of the nation agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt, and the Department of the Interior offered Howard University the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

The image of the great contralto singing before 75,000 people and triumphing over narrow-mindedness at the feet of the "Great Emancipator" sent an unforgettable message to the American conscience.

"I have never been so proud to be an American and never so proud to be an American Negro," said the baritone Todd Duncan, 90, who created the role of Porgy in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."

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