Marian Anderson, whose richly textured contralto voice was for years muted because of the color of her skin but who lived long enough to see her artistry acclaimed in the concert halls of the world, died Thursday.
Miss Anderson, who had suffered a stroke last month, died in Portland, Ore., at the home of her nephew, James DePriest, music director of the Oregon Symphony. In declining health, she had lived with DePriest and his wife since last July. She was believed to be 91, but biographical sources vary widely on the year of her birth.
The singer set a milestone in civil rights history in 1939 when she performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being denied concert rights in Constitution Hall. But she had to wait another two decades to realize the dream of her lifetime, singing with the Metropolitan Opera.
Like such other serious black singers as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes, Miss Anderson was relegated during her vocal prime to occasional appearances in concert halls or churches because many Americans chose to believe that a superior voice could not rise from what was viewed as an inferior race.
Although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called national attention to this inequality in 1939, it was not until 1955--when Miss Anderson was in her fifties and her voice had darkened with the passage of time--that she was permitted on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and then in a subordinate role.
It was a measure of her professional greatness and personal demeanor that she never publicly complained.
“I suppose,” she said in her 1956 autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning,” “I might insist on making issues of these things. But that is not my nature.”
If the remark reflects humility, it is no more humble than the beginnings of Marian Anderson herself.
She was born in the ghetto of Philadelphia, where her father delivered ice and coal. Her mother, a deeply religious woman, taught school. After her father died in 1914, her mother began to take in laundry and the daughter scrubbed porch stoops, at 5 cents apiece.
In her autobiography, Miss Anderson recalled how she joined her church choir and for the first time was paid to sing--50 cents.
Her mother encouraged her to take singing lessons, and with money saved from her scrubbing, supplemented with income from a few paid performances, she applied to a Philadelphia music school.
“We don’t take colored,” she was told.
“It was as if a cold, horrifying hand had been laid on me,” she said years later. “My skin was different but not my feelings.”
For the next few years she was largely self-taught, and critics later credited that period with contributing to the latitude of her talent.
As a professional, she was equally proficient with music by Handel, German lieder, Italian opera and black spirituals.
“If they put music in front of us,” she said of her early years, “we sang it.”
A neighborhood choral group held a benefit to augment her training and she was accepted as a pupil by Giuseppe Boghetti, a well-known coach, when she was still in her teens. Four years later she was chosen over 300 competing singers to appear with the New York Philharmonic.
That appearance led to fellowships and study in Europe.
There she met with a different prejudice.
Because she was unknown, a promoter in Berlin charged her $500 to arrange a concert in 1931. But soon she was commanding, rather than paying, high fees to sing, and one night an impresario named Sol Hurok was in the audience.
Hurok put her under contract after a 1935 Paris performance. The pact was to last 30 years, the rest of her professional life.
In Europe, she performed privately for composer Jean Sibelius (who said, “My roof is too low for you”), and publicly with Arturo Toscanini (who called hers a “once in a hundred years” voice), and was generally accorded the accolades denied her at home.
But, she said later, “I never doubted that I must return. I was--and am--an American.”
The American portion of her career began in New York’s Town Hall in 1935 and ended with a farewell performance in Carnegie Hall on Easter, 1965.
After she had sung and struggled for 20 years, American critics pronounced her an “overnight” success.
But not so all Americans.
In 1939, Hurok tried to book her for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington. The hall was owned by the all-white Daughters of the American Revolution, who refused Miss Anderson permission to sing there. Her race was not mentioned specifically but the inference was evident.
Within days, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR. Shortly after that resignation, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes asked Miss Anderson if she would instead perform at the Lincoln Memorial.
On Easter, 1939, 75,000 people gathered around the memorial for the free concert.
“My heart leaped wildly and I could not talk,” Miss Anderson recalled.
In June of that year, she became the first black entertainer to perform at the White House, at a state dinner Franklin D. Roosevelt held for Britain’s King George VI and his queen.
In July, she accepted a medal from Mrs. Roosevelt, who told her at a convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People that “your achievements far transcend any race or creed.”
It was the first in a list of honors that at her death would include honorary degrees from 25 leading universities, additional White House tributes, appointment as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1958 and to the National Council of Arts in 1966, and, in 1991, a lifetime achievement Grammy award.
There are schools named for her in the North and in the South (including one in South-Central Los Angeles). Numerous music scholarships bear her name. And she was invited to break the color barrier in some of the most exclusive women’s clubs in the country.
But her most glorious moment, she said, was on Jan. 7, 1955, when her voice of dark velvet shadows first was heard on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
She was the sorceress Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”).
Sitting in the sold-out audience, the most integrated in the Met’s history, were people from all over the country.
And when she had completed her brief, first-act performance, conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos had to stop the orchestra for several minutes until the cheering subsided.
Miss Anderson had her apology, although she refused to look at it that way.
It was, she would say quietly, only the achievement of a goal she had set for herself in high school.
She would sing for 10 more years, touring a nation that now openly adored her and offering a program of Haydn and Schubert and Negro spirituals and encores of “Ave Maria” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
She referred to herself publicly as “we,” eschewed individual tributes, always deferring to those who she said had helped her.
A living symbol of American progress in racial relations, she chose to lead by example rather than by words.
“It is easy to look back, self-indulgently, feeling pleasantly sorry for oneself. . . . But that is only the grown woman regretting the hardships of a little girl who never thought they were hardships at all,” she said.
That was the written elegance of Marian Anderson in her 1956 autobiography.
Then there was the 1977 eloquence of Leontyne Price, a far younger black soprano who said simply at a birthday party for Miss Anderson in Carnegie Hall:
“Dear Marian Anderson: Because of you, I am.”
Miss Anderson, who had no children, was married to architect Orpheus H. Fisher from 1943 until his death in 1985. She had lived on their 105-acre farm near Danbury, Conn., until she moved to Portland last year.