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“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”
An Interview with Marian Anderson
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Yes. When I was six years old I was taken to the church and I sang in the children’s choir. And also about then somebody took me to a concert, and this was a Negro orchestra and the violinist came forward and played a solo, and I thought, that’s for me. The big thing then for making money was scrubbing steps, so I scrubbed steps and I would get five cents or ten cents, or whatever. I did steps for four or five different people. Finaljy I saw a violin in a pawn shop and my aunt [Mary Prichard] went with me and I think it cost all of three dollars or a little more. But in any case, I happened to have saved that much money at the time, and I—how naive can you get?—I asked the man in the pawnshop if it was a good violin. Of course he said yes.
Well, I’ll tell you, I didn’t have a teacher for it, I never had even one lesson, but I learned to play so many things on it—sometimes all on one string. I’d go up as high as I could go and as low as it could go, and strings would break and I almost lost the bridge.
From the time I was a very small child, music always got my attention. I remember our room in school was next to the room where the children were learning songs. I didn’t always do my lesson as well as I might have done had that music class not been next door, but I learned all the songs being taught in there.
How did you become a singer?
First there was the children’s choir at church. My mother was a Methodist and my father was a Baptist, so we were between two churches. At eleven, I sang in the senior choir and got wonderful experience. It wasn’t long after I was in the choir that the director would let me take home all the music that was going to be used the next Sunday, and I learned everybody’s part. The bass, of course, I sang an octave higher. I had no inhibitions about doing high C’s or anything at all.
And then as I grew, my aunt and I tripped to two or three different churches in the same evening. I wasn’t engaged for it, but my aunt might see somebody in the street and they’d say, look, we’re having a this, that, or the other on Wednesday night. Could you bring Marian? And my auntie would go there and I would go with her and there’d be a song or two. And sometimes one of the ladies might come and give me one dollar or whatever. If we went to two or three churches, I might make three or four dollars, sometimes less than that, scarcely more.
What did you do with those vast sums?
It wasn’t a difficult thing. By this time my father was dead, and so the money was given to my mother for my sisters and me.
When did you turn from being a singer in church choirs in Philadelphia to being simply a singer?
It happened very gradually. Some churches were too small to have a concert there, so someone in the church would engage a small hall for a money-raising affair. Once in a while we would get a reporter to come to a concert, and he would write a notice. Gradually the churches were larger, the halls were larger. The minister at our church—the Union Baptist Church—invited Roland Hayes [a famous Negro tenor], the one big attraction that drew people from all over the city. At that point, Roland Hayes was opening his programs with Italian classics and German lieder, and maybe a French art song. My claim to fame was that I was singing English only, and the people would say, “If our Marian sings, at least we will know what she’s singing about.”
Were you studying singing by then?
Yes, I had a voice teacher, my first teacher, who was Mary Saunders Patterson. She was a person in the neighborhood and she had a gorgeous voice. She had a large class of young people whom she was teaching, and she took me in without getting paid. I was in high school then, and later somebody offered to pay for my lessons and Mrs. Patterson did accept this, but she charged only a dollar a lesson. Can you imagine?
What was the first triumph of your career?
It was probably a contest in Lewisohn Stadium in New York in which three hundred people took part. I was out of high school by then. Out of the three hundred contestants, they chose sixteen. From the sixteen, four were to be chosen, and from the four, one.
What was the number you sang?
“O Mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s La Favorita . Before my turn came, that song had been sung already six times. The teacher I was studying with then had said no matter what the judges do—they have those little steel things that they make a noise with if they have heard enough—don’t you stop until you get to the end. At the end I had a trill which he thought wasn’t bad. Fortunately, they didn’t try to stop me.
Did you have disappointments as well as triumphs?
Oh, yes. I had a very big disappointment. The teacher decided it was time I had a recital on my own.
Where was the recital to be?