'Voice of the century' revisited

June 23, 1994|By Jean Carter

THE ARTISTRY of the late opera singer Marian Anderson is revealed in a recently released RCA reissue of her last recordings of Negro spirituals. The compact disc includes such delights as the title song from the album entitled "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

This CD will allow many who have heard her magnificent voice only on vintage recordings of varying technical quality the chance to understand why she was described in such superlatives as "the voice of the century."

Listening to the CD, three qualities stand out: Though the recordings were made after the peak of her career, there's an incomparable richness to her contralto voice.

Secondly, the level of emotion created and sustained clearly communicates the feelings of joy or suffering described in the music.

Finally, her musicianship is impeccable. Every note, every phrase is flawless.

Among the 19 selections, there are some that stand out, including an arrangement of the familiar "Ride On, King Jesus!" sung with exceptional clarity and force.

This recording can serve as an excellent teaching tool for young people unfamiliar with Miss Anderson -- that was way she preferred to be addressed -- who not only was a great recitalist and opera singer, but also because for many years she was one of the most visible symbols of African Americans' struggle for equal rights.

She is probably best known for being barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, causing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the DAR and help arrange another venue for Miss Anderson's recital. Eventually, the great contralto sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people. The unprecedented event became one the milestones in the fledgling civil rights movement.

In 1955, Miss Anderson became the first African American to sing a major role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jean Carter teaches voice at Catholic University in Washington.

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