Marian Anderson is regarded as one of the best contraltos of the twentieth-century. She earned the distinction of becoming the first African American singer who performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Marian was born in Philadelphia and started displaying her extraordinary vocal talent from the time she was a child. However, her family was not well off and did not have enough means to pay for her formal vocal training. It was a magnanimous gesture shown by the members of Marian’s church congregation who raised funds, which enabled her to attend a music school for about a year. A major portion of her singing career was devoted in giving performances in recital in important music venues and in concerts as well as with well known orchestras throughout Europe and the United States of America. Though she was offered various roles with many of the major European opera companies but Marian declined all of them as she was not a trained actor. Her first preference had always to perform in recitals and concerts only. However, Marian did perform opera arias within her recitals and concerts. She did several recordings that were a reflection of her broad performance talents ranging from concert literature to traditional American songs, to opera and spirituals. Marian Anderson became one of the important personalities in the then ongoing struggle for many of the black artists for overcoming racial prejudices during the mid twentieth-century in the United States of America.
Childhood & Early Life
Marian Anderson was born on 27 February 1897, in Philadelphia, to John Berkley Anderson and Annie Delilah Rucker.
Marian was the oldest of three daughters and was only 6 years old when she joined the choir as a member at a church called Union Baptist Church. She was given a nickname “Baby Contralto”.
Marian’s father was an ice and coal dealer and was supportive of his daughter’s interests in music. Her father bought her a piano when Marian was just 8-year-old. Since the family did not have enough means to send her for music lessons, the immensely talented Marian taught music herself.
Marian lost her father when she was barely 12 years old and her mother had to raise the children single-handedly. However, this personal tragedy did not stop Marian from pursuing her musical ambitions. She was still deeply attached to her church as well as its choir where she rehearsed different parts such as bass, tenor, alto, soprano in the presence of her family till the time she perfected them.
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Anderson’s family could not afford high school education for her nor could they pay for her music lessonS. However, her passion for singing helped her stay active in the musical activities in churches where she joined the adult choir. Her involvement with the Camp Fire Girls and Baptists’ Young People’s Union opened some musical opportunities.
With help from Reverend Wesley Parks, pastor of her church and directors of the People’s Chorus, she was able to attend singing lessons from Mary Saunders Patterson. Eventually, she succeeded in graduating from the South Philadelphia high School in 1921. Sadly, her application in the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts), all-white school, was turned down for reasons of ‘we don’t take colored’.
Braving all obstacles with grit, Anderson sought higher career opportunities by seeking studies with Agnes Reifsnyder and Giuseppe Boghetti in her native city. All through the time she got support from the Philadelphia Black Community.
She got her first break in 1925, after she earned the first prize for singing amazingly in a competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic (NYP). This opened new avenues in her career.
Her achievements in the competition gave her the chance to perform in a grand concert arranged with the orchestra on August 26, 1925. The performance was highly appreciated by the music critics and the audience.
Anderson stayed back in New York to make the smartest move in career. She attained higher studies from Frank La Forge and during this time Arthur Judson worked as her manager, whom she had met through NYP. In the next few years, she appeared for many concerts in the US, though racial prejudice posed many road blocks. For this reason, her career was not able to get much momentum.
Many things changed in her singing career when she sang at the Carnegie Hall in 1928. She took a smart move by deciding to shift to Europe and studying with the then famous Sara Charles-Cahier. Thereafter, she launched a highly successful European singing tour.
By the end of 1930s, Marian’s voice was famous on both sides of Atlantic. She was invited by the U.S. President Roosevelt and the First Lady Eleanor to give her performance at the White House. Marian was the first African American singer to receive this exceptional honor.
Marian Anderson eventually retired from singing in 1965 after a long illustrious music career but she continued to make public appearances even after that.
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Marian Anderson holds the record of being the first African-American to have sung at the metropolitan Opera House in New York, both in the years 1955 and in 1956.
She amazed the world by singing at the presidential inaugurations of John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1957, she made extensive concert tour of the far east of the US State Department and India. Her European singing tour in the 1920s was the most popular of her times.
Awards & Achievements
She worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State, and gave concerts throughout the world.
In 1955, Marian Anderson earned the distinction of becoming the first African American for performing at the New York Metropolitan Opera as a member.
Personal Life and Legacy
Marian Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher on 17 July 1943 at Bethel in Connecticut. Orpheus was an architect and Marian was her second wife. Her husband had initially proposed her when they were both teenagers.
Marian Anderson had a stepson named James Fisher by this marriage. James was her husband’s son from his earlier marriage to Ida Gould.
The couple had bought a sprawling 100-acre property at Danbury in Connecticut after they searched extensively in places like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. The property was Marian’s home for about five decades.
Orpheus Fisher, Marian’s husband died in 1986 after about 43 years of marriage. Anderson continued to live at Marianna Farm till the year 1992, just one year prior to her death.
Marian passed away on 8 April 1993 when she was 96 years old due to congestive heart failure. She had a stroke just a month before she expired.
Marian Anderson’s life was a source of inspiration for many artists and writers. She was an inspiration and role model for celebrities like Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price.
In 1960s, Marian Anderson was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement and even sang at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the year 1963”.