One of the most celebrated contraltos of
our age, Marian Anderson was born into a poor family in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897.
Her father sold coal and ice; her mother took in laundry. Ms. Anderson sang in
the Union Baptist Church choir as a child; her talent was recognized in the community, and
money was raised for her to take voice lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti.
In 1923, she won a singing contest in
Philadelphia, and two years later; she won first prize in a competition held by the New York Philharmonic; appearing as a soloist with that
ensemble in Lewisohn Stadium. Her Carnegie
Hall debut followed in 1929, and she sang her first professional engagement in London
in 1930. A tour of the European continent followed, and she became a sensation
wherever she appeared, in part due to her peerless interpretations of African-American
Marian Anderson was fated to pursue much
of her musical career in an environment of stifling racism. In 1939, after
triumphant appearances throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, she was prevented from
performing at the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution under grounds of
This snub motivated Eleanor Roosevelt,
then First Lady of the United States, to resign from the DAR, and Ms. Anderson was invited
by Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on
Easter Sunday. The concert was attended by a huge and enthusiastic audience, and
broadcast over national radio.
Later that year, she was given the
Spingarn Award for the "highest and noblest achievement by an American
Negro." In 1955, Marian Anderson broke an important musical color barrier when
she made her long-overdue debut at the Metropolitan
Opera, in the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera. In 1958, she was named by
President Dwight D. Eisenhower to delegate status at the General Assembly of
the United Nations.
This was one of innumerable honors
bestowed on Ms. Anderson over the course of her life. She was awarded 24 honorary
degrees by institutions of higher learning; she received medals from a long list of
countries. She sang at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, and
President Johnson gave her the American
Medal of Honor.
On her 75th birthday in 1974, the U.S.
Congress passed a resolution to have a special gold acceptance of African-American
musicians in the classical music world. Her grace and effortless virtuosity under
unknowable pressures remains a model for all citizens of the world, and her voice is one
of the treasures of our century.