The great operatic contralto Marian Anderson is most often recalled for her brave and stirring performance from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing from the stage of their Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin.
Less well remembered is the extraordinary life she led before and after that moment, in a career that took her from Philadelphia, the city of her birth, to New York City, the White House, and performances before royalty and in the great opera halls of Europe. Anderson possessed a voice of power, grace, and extraordinary range. As Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini said, a voice like hers only comes along “once in a hundred years.”
And yet, like many African American singers of her era, Anderson faced discrimination in her own country. After graduating from high school, Anderson applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy, which refused to admit her. Undaunted, she continued to pursue her dream and, when she was 23 years old, Anderson beat over 300 competitors for the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In Europe, South America, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere, she captivated audiences with performances in multiple languages, including operatic arias and songs drawn from the classical canon.
She also included traditional African American spirituals in her repertoire, sharing this important art form with the world. The air was cold on April 9, 1939 — no favor to an opera singer. Anderson also was intimidated by the prospect of singing before the largest crowd she had ever faced. Yet she strode to the microphone and, with all her dignity and mastery, began her first song: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
In many ways, Anderson was an unlikely hero. Off the stage, she was quiet and reserved. When asked to comment on the Daughters of the American Revolution and their refusal to let her perform, she characteristically demurred—preferring to let her performance speak for itself.
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