Voice of a century

April 09, 1993

Marian Anderson, who died yesterday at age 96, began

singing professionally at the age of 12 to help support her family. By the time she retired in 1965, she had become not only one of the world's most beloved artists but also the voice and symbol of the civil rights movement.

Yet Miss Anderson, whose rich contralto voice and soaring tones turned everything from Schubert lieder to spirituals, Verdi and Handel to the "Marseillaise" and "America" into a religious experience, had little interest in politics. "I am a musician, that is all," she once said.

What Marian Anderson did most naturally was to create awe in all who heard her. After hearing her sing in the 1930s, the conductor Arturo Toscanini remarked that hers was a voice such as "one hears once in 100 years." Critics, musicians and the public acclaimed Miss Anderson as one of the greatest contraltos who ever lived.

She was also the first black artist to entertain at the White House and the first to sing a major role with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She made history in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall because of her color. Aided by Eleanor ,, Roosevelt, a concert was hastily organized for the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Miss Anderson appeared in a performance that epitomized African-Americans' long struggle against racial discrimination. The event was later recognized as a breakthrough achievement that helped bring the nation together.

Miss Anderson's musical ability helped break down the walls of prejudice much as the athletic prowess of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson led to tremendous gains for black people.

Miss Anderson's nephew, Seattle Symphony Director William DePriest said, "She was grateful that she was able to make a difference, but her goal in life was really to make music, and when that opportunity was denied, there was the outrage of a nation, rather than her outrage. She was not bitter about it and never exploited it."

As her career wound down, she regretted that not all doors had been open during her prime.

"If I only could give what I had to offer then. But they wouldn't accept it, or me," she said. "Other Negroes will have the career I dreamed of."

Miss Anderson will be remembered as much for her great dignity in the face of the obstacles she had to overcome as for the magnificent voice with which she captured the hearts of people all over the world. She was an unique as an artist and as a human being, truly a voice of the century.

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