The voice of the century

April 28, 1994|By Kenneth Meltzer

AMERICA lost one of its legendary musical icons last April with the passing of the great contralto Marian Anderson. In commemoration of her incomparable artistry, RCA has reissued on compact disc Miss Anderson's last recordings of Negro spirituals on an album entitled "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" in the company's "Living Stereo" series. The new CD offers a fine compendium of Miss Anderson's recordings of spirituals and is a fitting tribute to her unceasing efforts on behalf of this great American folk idiom.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, young Marian Anderson sang with the choir of the Union Baptist Church, where she performed in all voice ranges, both male and female. This early training may have contributed to the development of a voice of vast range that in its prime displayed both an ethereal sweetness in the upper register and a lower extension of almost unbelievable depth and richness.

In 1925 Miss Anderson, as she preferred to be called, appeared in a concert with the New York Philharmonic. But her career in this country seemed stymied. Ironically, at the time a young African-American singer's best opportunities were in Europe, not her native land, and thus she embarked upon a series of overseas concert tours that brought her the triumphs denied her home.

In Europe, Miss Anderson's unique artistry inspired composer Jean Sibelius to exclaim, "My roof is too low for you." On one legendary occasion, after she sang for conductor Arturo Toscanini, the maestro remarked, "A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years."

In 1935 Miss Anderson returned to America to present a brilliant recital at Town Hall in New York, organized by the impresario Sol Hurok. Still, her African-American heritage continued to present obstacles. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from singing a recital in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The incident provoked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership in the DAR and help arrange an alternative venue for Miss Anderson. In the end, Marian Anderson sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people -- an event that became a milestone of the early civil rights movement.

In 1955, Miss Anderson became the first African American to sing a major role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as Ulrica in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." In 1958, President Eisenhower appointed her a delegate to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. Finally, in October 1964, after more than four decades on the concert stage, she began a

series of farewell recitals. Appropriately for a woman who had achieved greatness through a quiet but firm and incredibly dignified sense of purpose, the inaugural concert of the series took place in the same Constitution Hall from which she had been barred 25 years earlier.

Marian Anderson was as much a pioneer for her selection of concert repertoire as she was for her race. Along with other black recitalists such as tenor Roland Hayes and bass Paul Robeson, she was among the first to include Negro spirituals in concerts alongside the works of such European masters as Bach, Schubert and Schumann.

The new RCA issue is not the first CD devoted to Marian Anderson, and it is fascinating to observe the changes in her approach to spirituals over the years.

For example, a 1924 acoustic recording of "Go Down Moses" that was released several years ago is beautifully sung, but it has an austerity that belies the emotionalism of the piece. She recorded the song again in 1937, with completely different results. Here her voice and delivery carry an overwhelming emotional weight.

One striking feature of both the 1924 and 1937 recordings -- and indeed, of many of Miss Anderson's early performances of spirituals -- is the absence of the stereotypical Southern "dialect" often associated with these pieces. Her linguistic approach to the spirituals in these early recordings is identical to her renditions of English translations of works by Bach, Saint-Saens and Rachmaninoff.

It may be that in the formative years of her career, Miss Anderson believed she had to sing the spirituals in exactly the same way she would sing any other song in English in order to establish them as legitimate concert fare. Clearly, as she continued to mature as an artist she shed whatever inhibitions she may have had about presenting the music of the spirituals on its own terms.

This suspicion appears to be borne out by the RCA reissue, which consists of programs recorded in 1961 and 1964. By that time Miss Anderson's preeminence in the fields of both classical music and human rights was firmly established. She delivers the spirituals with a gripping involvement and a liberal use of the dialect so notably absent in her early recordings.

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