Sunday, February 06, 2000

Bio sings Marian Anderson's praises

Singer persevered against racism

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Marian Anderson “was not obsessed with the possibility of fame,” writes Allan Keiler in his important new biography on the singer's life, Marian Anderson: A Singer's Journey, released this month.

        “Fame was still out of reach for black concert singers. What she worked for was artistic accomplishment. What she expected, and felt she deserved, were the same opportunities that white concert artists enjoyed.”

        Marian Anderson is indelibly branded upon the American consciousness for her dignity in one of our country's ugliest moments. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the use of Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race, the famous contralto gave an unforgettable performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, for a vast crowd of 75,000.

        This incident, which coincided with Eleanor Roosevelt's highly-publicized resignation from the DAR, is well-known. But Mr. Keiler, a professor of music at Brandeis University, felt that the “legend” had long overshadowed Miss Anderson's achievements as an artist.

        “She was a real contralto, a voice we rarely hear nowadays,” says University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music faculty member Mary Henderson Stucky, who will perform a concert of Miss Anderson's favorite art songs today.

        “Through recordings, one has a sense of the magnitude of the instrument, not only its volume, but her expressive palette of color. It was a voice of great generosity and sentimental connection to text.”

        Through his meticulous research of concert programs, recordings, diaries and interviews — including interviews with Miss Anderson's nephew, the conductor James DePreist — Mr. Keiler has carefully reconstructed her life, her work and her personal relationships. He corrects errors in her own autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning. His writing is elegant, lucid and packed — but never over-burdened — with facts, appealing to the average reader and scholar alike.

        In the process, Mr. Keiler also documents the racism — both blatant and subtle — that the singer faced throughout her career, mainly in her own country. In this light, her astounding achievements resound with even more impact.

        It is impossible to speculate where the careers of African-American artists such as Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett would have been without the path-breaking example of Miss Anderson. For, even as she made her mark as one of America's most brilliant artists, she helped pave the way that led up to the civil rights movement, and eventually became one of its most moving symbols.

        Marian Anderson was born in South Philadelphia in 1897. Although her extraordinary voice was recognized as early as age 10, music education was separate and unequal. After Marian's father died in an accident in 1909, her mother could not afford for her to attend high school.

        In those years, the African-American community rallied around Miss Anderson, raising money to pay for her voice lessons and enabling her to finish high school. She began to tour through the South and Midwest, sing ing for segregated audiences, often for black colleges and universities.

        A typical 1926 concert was a benefit for blacks sponsored by the National Cash Register Co. in Dayton, where Miss Anderson sang to an audience of 2,300.

        But travel and accommodations were humiliating; Miss Anderson and her accompanist were often assigned to the “Jim Crow” car in trains, and were not allowed to stay in many hotels.

        Miss Anderson persevered, intent upon improving her education. Aided by fellowships, she went to London and Berlin to study. She sang throughout Europe, and her successes attracted Arthur Judson, America's most powerful artist manager. Eventually, she was offered a contract by the impresario Sol Hurok, with whom she remained for 40 years.

        Mr. Keiler provides detailed accounts of her diverse repertoire and her tour experiences. Although German lieder were her specialty, she often included works by American composers such as Harry T. Burleigh, Samuel Coleridge-Tayler and Florence Price, as well as operatic arias and spirituals. She became known throughout Scandinavia for her Sibelius, sung in Swedish.

        Miss Anderson did not make her Carnegie Hall debut until 1936, when she was already a star overseas. Because a color barrier existed in American opera companies, her Metropolitan Opera debut did not take place until 1955, when she was 58. She was the first black opera singer to appear on the Met's stage.

        The author illuminates aspects of Miss Anderson's persona, from her early insecurities, to the grace and dignity with which she faced sometimes infuriating obstacles. Private and devoted to her family, she postponed marriage to her longtime love, the architect Orpheus Fisher, until 1943, when she was well-established in her career.

        Despite her international reputation, she was modest and retained a quiet pride in the accomplishments of black people her whole life. She died in 1993.


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