“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”


Conductor Arturo Toscanini said of her that she had “a voice one hears once in a hundred years.” When she sang for composer Jean Sibelius at his home in Finland, he threw his arms around her, said, “My roof is too low for you,” and called for champagne. Later he dedicated a song to her. She sang at President Kennedy’s inauguration; President Johnson in 1963 presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor; and at the nation’s two-hundredth anniversary celebration in Philadelphia on July 4, 1976, she was chosen to read the Declaration of Independence in the presence of President Ford.

But for Marian Anderson, this recognition of her extraordinary talent did not come easily. Much of America in the 1920’s and 30’s did not readily open its arms to a Negro singer.

She was born in Philadelphia at the turn of the century and began singing as a child in church choirs. At twenty she made her debut at Town Hall in New York but was so discouraged by unfavorable reviews that she almost dropped the whole idea of a singing career. In 1925 she was chosen from among three hundred contestants to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lewhohn Stadium in New York City. In spite of reviews that characterized her voice as “remarkable,” the success that might have been expected did not follow, and like many other black performers she went to Europe to study and sing.

Scandinavians were the first to recognize this young contralto, whose voice has been compared to velvet, and she later .sang to glowing acclaim in all the countries of Europe except Germany. (Early in the Hitler regime, she was asked to sing there, until a singularly uninformed manager wrote asking for assurance that she was 100 per cent Aryan. That concert was quickly cancelled.)

It was only when she was taken on by the flamboyant impresario Sol Hurok, however, that she managed to win over her own countrymen. Even Hurok’s promotional skills could not easily overcome America’s race prejudice. In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in their Constitution Hall in Washington, and Eleanor Roosevelt was so angered that she resigned from the organization. Instead, the federal government offered the Lincoln Memorial as the site for an outdoor performance on Easter Sunday, and she sang an unforgettable concert—including Schubert’s Ave Maria and a selection of Negro spirituals—before seventy-five thousand people. This whole event, emotional for both audience and singer, established Miss Anderson firmly in the symbolic role in which she was always to be uncomfortable.

In 1955 Rudolf Bing, the director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, invited her to sing the part of Ulrica in Verdi’s A Masked Ball . She was the first member of her race to be a soloist at the Opera, an honor accorded her—and the opera company—when she was well past the age at which singers normally make operatic debuts. She toured Asia for the State Department in 1957 and served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1958.

In 1965 she officially retired, and except for (in occasional benefit or memorial for a friend, she has not sung publicly since.

In private life Marian Anderson is Mrs. Orpheus Fisher, and she and her husband live on a farm—the Mariana Farm—in Danbury, Connecticut, where they raise beef cattle. Her husband, nicknamed “King,” is a retired architect.

Marian Anderson would never have picked for herself the role of activist in the fight for Negro equality. A calm, reserved, and essentially private person, she is generous in her judgment of the motives of others and singularly lacking in bitterness. But in pursuing her career she was constantly forced to challenge racial barriers simply to succeed as a singer. And this she has done—quietly, with dignity, and without fanfare. Recently she talked at length with a reporter from AMERICAN HERITAGE about the events and struggles of her life.

W hat was your childhood like?

A loveable one. I had a most attentive mother. In the family there was always love and joy and that was something I took for granted, because I was young.

Your father died when you were small, didn’t he?

I was about nine, and.it was traumatic because we thought he was quite something. He was tall and very fine looking and oh, how happy he was on holidays to take us out. He’d plan a picnic and I remember him so clearly getting things together for our outings.

Was it a difficult childhood economically?

Not really. I do believe we had things that we actually needed. My father did two or three things. He once had a coal and ice business. I say business, but he didn’t have a store. He sold coal and he sold ice. Mother was a young woman when he died, and she could have done things quite differently. I mean she could have put us in a home, as was suggested to her, but she decided to keep us together.

Were you always interested in music?