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Marian Anderson was born into a devoutly Christian family. Her aunt Mary quickly noticed her musical talent, suggesting that she join the choir of the Baptist church attended by the Andersons and taking her to many musical events: she was later credited by Marian with being the primary influence in her choosing to pursue a career as a singer. Despite the early death of her father and lack of money Marian sang and studied wherever she could, until members of the black community banded together to raise sufficient funds for her to have singing lessons and to attend high school, from which she graduated in 1921. Despite rejection from the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her race, the support of her community enabled her to continue her music studies with Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder. In 1925 she won a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the prize of which was a concert with the orchestra. As a result Arthur Judson, the orchestra’s manager, became her personal manager while she continued to study music with Frank La Forge.

Anderson appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1928, but racial prejudice prevented her career from taking off in America. She travelled to Europe where she studied with Madame Charles Cahier, before embarking on a successful concert tour. She made her European début in 1930 in London where she was enthusiastically received. In the same year she sang in Scandinavia where she met both Kosti Vehanen, who was to become her accompanist and coach, and the composer Jean Sibelius, who after hearing her sing told her that he felt she had penetrated the Nordic soul. The two became close friends and Sibelius both wrote and adjusted songs for Marian to perform.

In 1934 the impresario Sol Hurok offered Anderson better terms than the contract she had with Judson and persuaded her to sing in America. During the following year she gave her first New York recital, which was very well received by the critics. She toured the USA and Europe for the next four years, travelling as far afield as the Soviet Union (1935) as well as Argentina (1937). Although Anderson successfully recorded arias, she refused the offers made to her to appear in opera, because of her lack of acting experience; but when Toscanini heard her sing in Salzburg in 1935 he declared that she possessed a voice heard ‘once in a hundred years’. By the late 1930s she was giving around seventy concerts a year in America even though prejudice often meant that she was barred from certain hotels and restaurants: indeed in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. As a result, and with the active support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, a special open-air concert was arranged to be given by Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memoral in Washington DC: this attracted an audience of 75,000 and was heard by millions of radio listeners. In 1943 Anderson finally sang before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall, actually at the invitation of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In the same year she became the second wife of the architect Orpheus Fisher, who had originally sought her hand as a teenager. During World War II and the subsequent Korean War, Anderson entertained troops in hospitals and miltary bases. Post-war tours of Europe included concerts in Paris, Vienna and throughout Scandinavia.

In 1955, Anderson became the first black singer to be invited to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, where she took the part of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera in a production conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Although this was to be her only appearance at the Met, she was named as a permanent member of the company. During the following year, her bestselling memoirs My Lord, What a Morning, were published. She sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Eisenhower in 1957 and Kennedy in 1961, and in 1958 was officially designated a delegate to the United Nations, formalising the ‘goodwill ambassador’ rôle which she had undertaken earlier, notably through a tour of India and the Far East in 1957 (when she had given twenty-four concerts in twelve weeks and travelled 35,000 miles). During the early 1960s Anderson actively supported the civil rights movement, giving numerous benefit concerts, and in 1963 became one of the initial recipients of the President’s Medal of Freedom.

A year later Anderson began her farewell tour, commencing at Constitution Hall and finishing at Carnegie Hall in April 1965; but although now retired, she continued to make public appearances, for instance narrating Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1976 under the baton of the composer. She was awarded prizes and honorary degrees, including a GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. In 1986 her husband died; and although their home was later sold, the studio built for her by her husband was relocated, restored and opened as a musem in 2004. Anderson died of heart failure aged ninety six at the home of her nephew, the conductor James DePreist, in Portland, Oregon.

Marian Anderson had a very strong singing personality. The beautiful tone of her natural contralto voice allied to the personal intensity of its delivery meant that her singing was deeply expressive, explaining her popularity. An active recording artist, she made recordings of spirituals and of lieder, bringing depth of feeling to both; while her recordings of arias, although not so numerous, show what a loss she was to the operatic stage. Clearly an artist of the highest calibre and of great personal presence, she remains one of the iconic figures of American cultural life in the twentieth century.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

View by Role: Classical Artist | Non-Classical Artist
Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
AIDA'S BROTHERS AND SISTERS (Documentary, 1999) (NTSC) Arthaus Musik
Classical Documentary
ANDERSON, Marian: Softly Awakes My Heart (1924-1944) Naxos Nostalgia
PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 2 (1939-1952) Naxos Historical

Role: Non-Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
ANDERSON, Marian: Ev'ry Time I Feel The Spirit (1930-1947) Naxos Nostalgia
Nostalgia, Vocal
ANDERSON, Marian: Softly Awakes My Heart (1924-1944) Naxos Nostalgia
GREATS of the GRAMOPHONE, Vol. 1 Naxos Nostalgia
PRIMROSE, William: Recital, Vol. 1 (1939-47) Naxos Historical
STARS of the GOLDEN ERA Naxos Nostalgia
VERDI: Aida (Milanov, Bjorling, Perlea) (1955) Naxos Historical
VERDI: Don Carlo (Christoff, Filippeschi, Gobbi) (1954) Naxos Historical

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