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“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”

July 2024
20min read

An Interview with Marian Anderson

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, 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?

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?

At Town Hall in New York, my first Town Hall appearance, as they say, the real big one. My teacher put together a program in which there were four German lieder. I sang this German phonetically, and the notices were not very good. The critics said Marian Anderson sang her German as if by rote. And I was extremely disappointed. I took it very much to heart, I suppose because I knew they were absolutely right, you know. It was a great shock. Anyway, I didn’t sing in public for more than a year after that.

Did you consider giving up your singing career?

I was really that much discouraged. I was trying to get rid of everything that pertained to music as much as possible. I just said, all right, that part of my life is finished.

My mother said to me, you must remember that nobodyhas one hundred per cent acceptance of what they do. No one is perfect. If there were people who were perfect they would have been taken up above long ago.

Then came the time when I couldn’t stand it any longer and I just absolutely had to go back to singing.

In your singing career, have you encountered much discrimination?

Yes, I’ve encountered discrimination. You can’t do without it. I mean, you could very well do without it.

I understand there was an incident in a music school in Philadelphia.

It was a tremendously great shock, and I was very unprepared. I went into this music school to see about applying. There at the window was this beautiful girl, and I thought, she has everything, she has beauty, she’s here in a school where she hears music every day, it’s just wonderful. I was standing in line and when I got almost to the window she looked past me to the person in back of me. Then she did this again. Finally she said, “What do you want?” I said, “I would like to have a brochure, please.” And she said, “We don’t take colored.” And she said it as if … she liked saying it, you know. So you learn. I don’t say you ever accept, but you learn that there are people who are like that. …


Is the memory of that still hurtful to you?

I don’t really think it is because … for two reasons: the first reason being it wouldn’t be done today. And the other is that if it should happen, children are so knowledgeable now that they would not be as bowled over by it as I was then.

When you began to travel as a singer, did you encounter much discrimination? What about trains, for instance?

Well, there were certain places on trains where my people were supposed to stay that were not conducive to sleeping or anything else. If the porter was friendly enough or knew the Pullman porter, they might at night, when people wer-e already in bed, give you a lower berth if they had an extra on the train. So I could get to sleep. But I was always anxious to get out of it in the morning before other people were up.

Sometimes they would give you berth 13. Berth 13 was a drawing room. That was special treatment. The thing is you had your own bathroom in berth 13. In the regular berths, the bathroom at the end of the car took care of two or three people at the same time, and you would probably be in there when someone else came in, and I don’t know what unpleasant incidents could or would take place. …

Somebody doesn’t always come right up to you and say, “You can’t have this, you can’t have that.” It’s just as though there’s a hair that blows across your face. Nobody sees it, but it’s there and you can feel it.

What about traveling in the South?

What you did then was to change trains in Washington. Somebody would come through the train and make an announcement: “Coming into Washington, coming into Washington.” In Washington you got on another train to go south and there was a special coach on there for my people. It’s all so unbelievable that other human beings can be so small. One doesn’t change as a person from Philadelphia to Washington!

Could you get hotel accommodations in the South then?

No, one could not. I always had to have the manager seek somebody in the Negro section who had enough room so that I might be a guest while I was there for the concert. These families were as lovely to me as they could possibly be, but I didn’t, of course, have the peace and quiet that I would have had in a hotel.

What about the audiences at Southern concerts? Were they segregated?

Yes, I sang before segregated audiences for a while. And then I didn’t do it anymore. I said I wouldn’t come back until things were different. In one city, they put the box seats in a hall at the disposal of my people. Of course, these are much more expensive than the other seats.

Did you have to stop singing in the South?

We lost a few concerts. When seats were made available anywhere in the hall for anyone who had the money to pay for them, then we went back.

Do you feel the South has changed a lot?

Oh, I’m certain of that, my dear. I want to tell you about something that happened. There was one hotel that never would take me, and it caused great difficulty in that particular place. Well, the last time we went South I was booked into that hotel. I was given a room with a bay window, and a huge bedroom, and then a sort of dressing room, and it was very, very nice. When I went down to pay my bill in the morning, the lady behind the desk said, “Look here” … and my heart began to pound, and I thought, now what is this? She said, “When you come down here again, don’t you go no place but here.”


It was the nicest thing you can imagine. Now that person might have been there all the time, but never had the opportunity to say that.

You have a reputation for being very calm as a performer. Are you naturally a calm person?

Well, I believe that I am a calm person. You know, some performers say, Oh, I’m see I to death, but I don’t believe I’m like that. My feeling is this, that if one is prepared to do the best she can under all circumstances, all the worry that might go on inside your head, or inside your body, won’t help a bit. It will hinder you.

Would you say then that you don’t suffer from stage fright?

I wouldn’t say that. I think you have to have a certain excitement, a certain anxiety, before you get out on the stage, because if you don’t it can be just an everyday affair.

It could be that singing in the church, which was a very large church in Philadelphia, allowed me to get used to standing and performing before people when I was very young. Some people study for eight or ten years, and then at their debut concert it’s the first time they’ve appeared before the type of audience which wants to find out for itself what Mary Jones is all about. Performers are tremendously concerned about that first audience. But my first audience, in church, was a huge one.

Why did you always sing with your eyes closed?

At first it was to close out everything. To turn myself in, you know, and to close out distractions. Sometimes you get an audience and some people are talking in the second, third row and that troubles you because you want to get to that person and you haven’t made it yet. Just automatically the eyes close and you have pictures in your head.

How do you approach an audience?

Well, my mother always said to me, “Remember when you go out on the stage, you’ve already made an impression before you’ve even opened your mouth to sing a note.” And that advice has stood me in good stead.

Do you sing to some particular person or group?

Yes, absolutely, and you know it’s amazing how you can stand there and you can literally read on the faces of people in the front rows whether they came to the concert of their own free will or if somebody sort of pushed them into going, or if they got a free ticket. And it’s a very satisfying thing to look out at one of those people when you have finished a song and find that the person has become interested. I am there to satisfy them and give them something I’d like to share.

You were first successful in Europe. Weren’t you tempted to stay? What made you come back?

It’s home. My mother was a wonderful, unassuming person. She was not a fighter, she didn’t talk loud. I never heard her voice raised in anger, but all through the years, Mother was always there. One of the things that made me happiest in my life was that I could eventually tell Mother, who worked hard every day, that she didn’t have to work anymore. She was a cleaning lady at Wanamaker’s, and she had been ill, and the doctor suggested that she stay home one particular morning. So I called up the head of the department and I said, “This is Marian Anderson, and my mother will not be coming in any more to work.” My mother was a person on whom they put the hardest things to do. I used to come from high school down to Wanamaker’s, and Mother would be digging in some little corner, feeling that the existence of the store depended on how clean she got that corner.

I would have come back from anywhere to my family.

What did singing spirituals mean to you?

Well, I had never lived in the South, and when I was young spirituals seemed to me to have come from the Deep South and away back. I knew I loved them, they meant something to me, but how they were rendered, where they came from, was a different thing. I know my aunt asked me one time, why did I have to sing spirituals. She didn’t care for spirituals at all. She didn’t consider the spirituals beautiful music, and they brought back to her the hideous things that had happened to the Negro. You know, so many of the songs deal with Heaven and the Lord and the day when you get up yonder—I’ll be there, I’ll be waiting for you, and Oh Lord, how come me here, wish I’d never been born.

But I felt differently. I’d heard Roland Hayes sing them with the seriousness he did, and I knew that he had something within him that understood their meaning. I’d see people in the church, they’d clap their hands, tap the knee, and have their rhythm and sing their songs, and they didn’t need anything else. The music can be written down, but if you live where spirituals are sung and people give vent to their feelings then you’ll hear a note here and a note there which is not on paper. Have you ever heard the records of Mahalia Jackson? Well, listening to her records, there are all kinds of little things that cannot be put down on paper but come out of the soul, the heart and soul of the singer.

I must tell you about going to a meeting, a meeting in a huge tent.

A revival meeting?

Yes, unbelievable! Maybe two or three thousand people, or maybe even more. I was young when I first went to one, just a short way out of Philadelphia. There were some people just talking, talking and then they would start a hymn. You couldn’t hear all over the place, impossible, because it was too large, but like in a field of swaying corn, or wheat, a ripple would come your way, and you could hear voices, you could hear that it was music. Then it got nearer and nearer until you were engulfed in it. Somebody else takes it up and sings another verse and the song goes on and on and still like a wheat field the audience begins to move this way and that, to sway.

Four-voice, four-part harmony—it was absolutely, unbelievably gorgeous, gorgeous in your ear.

Y ou always included some spirituals in your programs, didn’t you? Which one did you sing most often?

“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and another I love particularly, about Negroes being despondent—“Oh Lord, How Come Me Here.”

Sol Hurok became your manager in 1935. Did he remain your manager from then on?

Yes, and I still have a contract which he sent me to sign years ago. I never signed it. We didn’t have a contract for years, but I had a manager for years. He used to enjoy telling people that I wouldn’t even sign his contract.

He sounds like a fascinating man. Was he a good manager?

He was for me . It depends on how you knew the man. The experience of meeting him was to me a great thing because I had tried so desperately to meet him in New York. Impossible! Several people tried to arrange it but it was impossible. But I was singing in Paris one night, the Salle Gaveau, I believe it was, and he came backstage in the intermission and said, “I want to see you tomorrow morning.” So we went, and he was sitting behind a very large desk and his arms were out, like that, and he looked like a colossus.

Was he a very large man?

Not as large as I saw him, large and much larger than life. It was a terrific thing for my accompanist and me and before we left him that morning he said that he would like to manage some concerts for us when we came back to America. We were already under management in New York, and he wanted to know exactly how many concerts we had scheduled. It turned out there were only two concerts planned, and one of those was at my sorority. Mr. Hurok said that he would offer seven concerts and that we could have a few others if they went well. So I had a series of fifteen concerts that season.

And that was the first year?

Yes, and from then on he added and added and added until one season we had ninety concerts. That was really too much. We couldn’t keep that up all the time, but I generally did from ten to twelve or thirteen concerts a month.

Mr. Hurok did some things, a particular thing, that I thought was a little much. Some organizations get their whole series of artists from a particular manager, and they are sometimes at a loss to know whom to put in a place that might be left vacant [because of illness]. Mr. Hurok simply said, in this case, I would like you to engage [Marian Anderson]. The message came back that their roster was suddenly full. I heard that he said, well, all right, then maybe next year you don’t want to have so-and-so—the person who had been their main attraction for years.

A little pressure, right?

Well, one of my race had never performed there and while I feel at that point Mr. Hurok wasn’t looking at me so much as a Negro as he was looking at me as an attraction, I think that was the basis on which he was working.

Hurok must have had to deal frequently with the problem of race, particularly at the beginning, didn’t he?

That’s right, and I’m quite sure it came up more often than I would ever know.

You don’t think he told you about such incidents?

No, because as in the Washington affair …

The D.A.R. concert at Constitution Hall?

Yes. I was not aware of what was going on until one morning, in San Francisco, as I stood waiting for the cable car, I happened to turn around to a newsstand and I saw “Mrs. Roosevelt resigns from the D.A.R. because …” and then I saw “Marian Anderson” there. I didn’t know about it then.

Some of the press was very disappointed when I couldn’t tell them step by step what had happened. They kept asking questions until we got to Washington.

Do you think Mr. Hurok had been purposely trying to shield you, or do you think it was just because you were all the way across the country?

I was a long way away but also he was a very astute man and he knew I couldn’t do anything to help.

Wasn’t it very upsetting, though?

Well, when I first knew about it, it was. Music to me means . so much, such beautiful things, and it seemed impossible that you could find people who would curb you, stop you, from doing a thing which is beautiful. I wasn’t trying to sway anybody into any movements or anything of that sort, you know.

How did you feel about the performance at the Lincoln Memorial?

It was a tremendous thing and my heart beat like mad—it’s never beat like that before—loud and strong and as though it wanted to say something, if you know what I mean. I don’t like to use the word protesting but my reaction was, what have I done that should bring this onto my heart? I was not trying to cut anybody down. I just wanted to sing and to share.

Your never sang in opera until 1935, did you? Were you anxious to sing opera?

Oh, yes, indeed. To come home from high school, we had to go under a railroad trestle and the trains would be rolling along. And I remember thinking, “Oh, if just one of these days I could be on a train with the Metropolitan Opera Company going somewhere.” And I prayed to the evening star, and I prayed and I prayed. So I had dreamed about it for a very long time—from high school days through the better part of my career. Finally when the opportunity came, how nonchalantly it was proposed! I saw Mr. Bing [at a party at Sol Hurok’s]. He came up to me and said, “How would you like to sing at the Met?” as nonchalantly as you can imagine. My heart was beating so fast and so loudly that I could scarcely hear what else was said. I did make out, however, “Did you ever sing——?” After that I didn’t know what name he was saying. I said, “Well, no, I really haven’t.” That answer would have been true for any opera because I hadn’t sung opera.

H ow did it go?

It was a tremendous experience for me. I’ve never found the right words to explain what I felt about all that. I wasn’t ready for all those trimmings, so many people moving about at the same time, you know, and being one little segment of something. It was so joyful. I only wished that it had come earlier in life when I might have been able to bring more to it.

Were you readily accepted by the other members of the company?

Yes, I made some wonderful friends there. To describe what the feeling was, the first day I appeared at the stage door, there were cameras all over the place. It was a moment of speechlessness for me. And the first thing I heard when I got inside was a man, a stagehand, who said to me, “Welcome home.”

Your singing career was a very long one. Uo singers’ voices normally stay at their peak that long, or were you particularly lucky?

I might have been lucky, and yet I do believe that as the body begins to slow, slant, deteriorate—whatever one wants to say—the mechanism that singers must use can be affected by this decline. When I was young, I could put my head back a little, and sing high C without any trouble at all. I wouldn’t attempt a high C today unless I worked a very great deal. I have no idea how long a person should be able to sing, but I know there are some who sang very very many years longer than I did.

Does the thought of age bother you?

Not really. Of course, I don’t run upstairs two at a time like I used to. But if you realize you’ve had an active life, you don’t have to prove it now to anybody.

I have noticed that nothing written about you ever gives your age.



And yet, there is going to be a special concert this month—sponsored by Young Audiences, in honor of your seventy-fifth birthday, isn’t that right?

Yes. I just decided, not really decided, but I was thinking whether or not I would let them have the concert at seventyfive or what, but that’s what they said they were planning. It reminds me of Mr. Hurok. Somebody said, Now, Mr. Hurok, we’d like to do this for you but we have to know how old you are. So he said, Yes. Just yes. And then after a while they said, You know, everyone says that you’re such and such a number of years old. And he said, All right, let them say it.

So you’re not guaranteeing anything?

[Laughing] No. No indeed.

In your autobiography you say, “I would be fooling myself to think I was meant to be a fearless fighter.” What did you mean by that?

Certainly I have my feelings about conditions that affect my people. But it is not right for me to try to mimic somebody who writes, or who speaks. That is their forte. I think first of music and of being there where music is, and of music being where I am. What I had was singing, and if my career has been of some consequence, then that’s my contribution.


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