There have been few great singers in history less inclined by nature to relish being the center of controversy than was Marian Anderson. More to the point, there have been none more endowed than she was with the spiritual capacity to withstand any amount of difficulty and to surmount any obstacle with serenity.
In the wake of the contralto’s death on Thursday, it has been tempting to boil her long and distinguished career down to two events and one famous observation: Her Easter, 1939, concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, her 1955 debut as the first black singer in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, and Arturo Toscanini’s statement that a voice such as hers is heard only once in a hundred years.
When the aforementioned two events, the peak moments of her immense contribution to the social and cultural history of her native country, are viewed in isolation, Anderson tends to be cast almost exclusively in the role of icon.
Yet without that once-in-a-century voice, she would never have been in a position to catalyze the American consciousness on the issue of equality as she did. She would want to be remembered first and foremost as a singer. Regardless of how many doors she opened for others by being the first of her race to gain universal acceptance as a serious artist, it is the hearts she opened (and lifted) that count most in our collective experience of her.
It is true that her voice was put to long and hard use and that for some seasons prior to the end of her career, some of her greatness had to be taken on faith. By the 1960s, the amount of sound at her command had diminished considerably, and that which remained was tremulous and unreliable in matters of pitch. But it was a noble ruin indeed; the unique, sorghum timbre of the instrument (however frayed), combined with the humble majesty of her demeanor and the selfless intensity of her projection of music and text, made listening to the aged Marian Anderson like looking at the Parthenon. One could fill in the aural lacunas in the same way one could imagine the old Greek edifice in its pristine condition just after completion.
There was genuine reverence in the air at her every appearance. And there was never a concert that wasn’t sold out or that didn’t have part of the audience seated onstage. (Anderson’s legendary manager, Sol Hurok, wouldn’t turn away paying customers if he could help it--he set up folding chairs instead.) Witnessing (from just such a seat onstage) a performance during the contralto’s farewell season (1964-65) in which by some mysterious alchemy she was still able to delineate clearly the four voices in Schubert’s “Erlkonig” remains one of this listener’s most treasured memories.
Anderson did not suffer from the vice of false humility. Her performance stance--hands clasped before her, eyes closed--was the visual manifestation of the truth she lived: God had given her a great gift, and it was to be shared for the good of all people everywhere, no strings attached.
She had a few vanities: Her hair (and, later, wigs) remained dark and she continued to fudge her age long after it was necessary to do so for “career purposes.” She happily participated in the high sentiments of an official “80th birthday celebration” (1902 is the year she gave as that of her birth) at Carnegie Hall in 1982, even though it was really her 85th birthday.
She also had certain ambitions. She always wanted to sing opera and she enjoyed performing in concert great arias (in downward transpositions) from roles she would never have sung even if the operatic stage had been open to her in her prime: Norma’s “Casta diva,” Gioconda’s “Suicidio!” and Eboli’s “O don fatale.”
If her early recordings of dramatic repertory show obvious inexperience at projecting such heady stuff, they also display a wide-ranging voice of superb color, a fine legato, and some remarkable runs and trills. Nonetheless, lack of confidence kept her from accepting Stanislavski’s invitation to prepare Carmen with him. “We are not alluring,” she said.
That seemingly royal “we,” standard with Anderson (sometimes she substituted “one”), came from an innate shyness, a reluctance to speak of herself in the first person. This registered as “uppity” in some quarters, particularly in circumstances such as those of 1939, when all hell broke loose after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall for a recital appearance. “We are not upset,” she said, now world famous but unable to find any indoor venue in her nation’s capital that would permit a black woman to perform.
The resulting concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (arranged by the Department of the Interior) proved to be a revelation because what was heard there, apparently to the astonishment of some who attended just to support a principle, was no symbolic cipher but exactly what Toscanini had described: one of the great voices of the century.
By the time she made her token appearances at the Met, 16 years later, she was not just famous but very much beloved. Nevertheless, hostility remained. For embracing and kissing Anderson during the curtain calls at her debut, soprano Zinka Milanov received letters of rebuke from several of the Met’s most influential, old-guard patrons.
Throughout her career, while so many around her lost their dignity and their tempers, Anderson remained serene and centered, dissolving barriers solely through the irresistible force of her integrity and devotion to her art.
Vincent Sheean said that she was “proof of the immortality of the soul, or, if that is too extreme, of the existence of the soul to which an immortality may be postulated.”
Anyone who has heard Anderson’s recordings of Bach arias or Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (which the Archbishop of Salzburg, tears streaming down his cheeks, once asked her to repeat) among many similar items, has had an unimpeded glimpse into that soul.
In the final analysis, one didn’t have to be black or American or a musician or even a music lover to be moved by Marian Anderson in a way and to a depth that is beyond the power of words to describe. One only had to be human.
Burroughs is editor of the Opera Quarterly.