“When you stop having dreams and ideals – Well, you might as well stop together.” – Marian Anderson
In early 20th century America, being an African-American woman meant fighting unjust and unnecessary battles against the social and racial prejudices, battles that crushed one’s soul and were almost impossible to win. But still, the likes of Marian Anderson held on to their “dreams” and “ideals”, which not only provided them with a temporary escape from the dystopian society but also made them feel alive. However, fulfilling such aspirations required the support of generous souls both from inside and outside the community. Anderson’s musical journey witnesses the contribution of a few exceptional personalities who extended their helping hand and pulled her up onto the centre stage.
Anderson was born at the close of the 19th century in Philadelphia to a low-income family who survived on an unstable income by selling coal, ice and even liquor when the situation was dire. Despite their difficult living conditions, Marian and her two sisters were lucky to be blessed with the gift of music. Although a line of Christian converts who were later ostracised by the church controlled by the white colonisers, the African-Americans were devout Christians. Their relationship with their local community churches was a symbiotic one where the religious establishment gave them solace through heavenly music, and the community, in return, enriched the tradition of gospel music through a number of ultra-talented musicians.
Anderson’s journey also started with church music, but unlike most of her successors, she never changed tracks to sing pop numbers in order to make more money: “A singer starts by having his instrument as a gift from God,” she once said. “When you have been given something in a moment of grace, it is sacrilegious to be greedy.” Instead, she stuck to the traditional genre and mastered it through the years. Anderson’s aunt Mary was the first among the line of well-wishers who incited the passion for music in Marian when she was just six-years-old. Anderson accompanied her aunt in many community music events and benefit concerts, singing solos and duets. Soon her aunt started organising paid concerts for her niece that made Anderson aware of her talent. However, when she decided to pursue music seriously after high school, her application to the Philadelphia Music Academy, an all-white school, was rejected with the horrendous statement: “We don’t take coloured.”
At this point, the community came in support of Anderson realising her talent. Agnes Reifsnyder and voice trainer Giuseppe Boghetti played a pivotal role in establishing Anderson as an accomplished voice artist by constantly motivating her and filling the gaps in her training. Auditioning for Boghetti, Anderson sang ‘Deep River’, which moved him to tears and made him invest in her development.
Anderson got her first big break in 1925 when she got to perform with an orchestra by virtue of being the winner of the New York Philharmonic’s music competition. However, the racial fever stopped her time and again from gaining momentum. Her 1929 concert in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, though brought in measured compliments, bagging her the Rosenwald Fellowship from which she got $1500 to study in Berlin.
Anderson’s Europe tour proved to be much more liberal and beneficial. She met the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who went on to become her long-time collaborator while she was in Scandinavia during the summer of 1930. She also met the well-known Finnish composer and violinist Jean Sibelius who was moved beyond words by Anderson’s performance and, like Vehanen, went on to become one of her mentors and strongest allies, composing and altering songs for her throughout her career. She was also well received by the audience in Europe, and her debut at Wigmore Hall, London, was the starting point of “Marian fever” that swept the continent during her visit.
However, her popularity abroad didn’t wash away the racism that the Americans had internalised. In fact, the increase in the number of concerts in her home country didn’t immune her from the cruel clutches of the Jim Crow laws. She was denied access to most hotels and public places, which, although extremely humiliating for her, won her a friend- Albert Einstein. A staunch supporter of racial tolerance, Einstein hosted Anderson on various occasions, especially when she was thrown out of hotels.
The 1939 incident with the DAR brought forth the injustice that Anderson had been facing for years. The DAR denied her a concert at the Constitution Hall under a policy of “white performers-only.” This sparked outrage among the organisations of people of colour who came together to condemn the act through a mass protest. As a result, the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, stating: “I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organisation has failed.” In order to make it up to Anderson, Eleanor insisted her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, to organise an open-air concert for Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert was a massive success that re-introduced Anderson to America. Later in 1943, when she finally got the chance to perform at the Constitution Hall, that too in front of an integrated audience, she nonchalantly commented: “When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.”
Anderson was frequently offered roles in operas but declined them all due to her inexperience in acting. The one and only opera of her lifetime was the performance with the Metropolitan Opera in New York circa 1955. Anderson recalled that night later by saying: “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Apart from being a performer, Anderson was also the official “goodwill ambassadress” of the US, appointed by President Eisenhower in 1958. She also set up a fund called the Marian Anderson Award in 1943 with her Bok Prize money in order to support young, new talents. Later, when the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, Anderson stood in solidarity with her fellow brothers and sisters.
Throughout her career, which spanned four decades, Anderson approached the obstacles in a very different way. She didn’t engage herself in active protest or argue with people who unfairly denied her the privileges she deserved. Instead, she sharpened her skills so that people could take notice of her and change their minds. Simply put, she increased her visibility by remaining calm, patient and dignified. To many, it might not be the bravest way of changing history. Nevertheless, one should not overlook her achievements because ultimately what matters is success, and even though Anderson did it her own way, she achieved her goal.