Happy Birthday Marian Anderson!

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American contralto and one of the most important figures of the 20th century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution barred the singer from performing for an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in an open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. 

From there, Marian went on to break several important barriers faced by black artists. She was also the first black performer, American or otherwise, to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Her career would be spent performing all over the world and acting as a goodwill ambassador for the United States. 


As a very young child, Marian showed considerable musical talent, and she was encouraged by her family to perform. Marian sang in the People's Choir, and often performed at local community centers. 

When Marian was 12, her father died of heart failure, and her family moved in with her father's parents. Anderson graduated from Stanton Grammar school, but could not afford to go on to high school, or take singing lessons, but she continued to perform in venues across Philadelphia. Noting her considerable talent, community leaders took on Marian's cause, and eventually raised enough money so that she could continue music lessons, as well as attend South Philadelphia High School.

After high school, Marian applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts), but was turned away because she was black. Through her high school principal, Marian earned an audition with reknowned  voice teacher Giuseppe Boghetti, and he took her on as a student after her rendition of "Deep River" brought him to tears.



In 1925, Anderson won a singing competition run by the New York Philharmonic, which earned her a concert performance. Anderson stayed in New York to further her musical career, but racial tensions in the states deeply hindered her career. She eventually went to Europe, where she did not face the same racial discrimination, and had a very successful tour.

In Europe, Anderson quickly earned respect and admiration for her musical ability. The conductor Arturo Toscanini told Marian that she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years." Anderson also met and formed a lifelong friendship with the composer Jean Sibelius, who would become an important musical collaborator. Sibelius arranged music especially for her, and in 1939, dedicated his song "Solitude" to Marian. 

By the late 30s, Anderson was again performing in the United States, but continued to face prejudice which hindered much of her life. She was denied access to hotels and restaurants across the country.

In 1937, Marian was denied a hotel room before a performance at Princeton University. Upon hearing the news, Albert Einstein invited Marian to stay with him, and she accepted. Their friendship would last until his death, and she would continue to stay at his house during subsequent visits.

In 1939, Washington, DC was a segregated city, and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing before an integrated audience in the DAR Constitution Hall, where the Daughters held their annual convention. The Board of Education also refused to allow Marian to sing in the auditorium of a white high school. The events caused such public uproar that thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization.

On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, beginning with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee". More than 75,000 audience members of all colors attended the concert, and millions listened to her performance over national radio.


Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939 via the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

"I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don't like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. .... As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."


Anderson in her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial


Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial Hall (Photo via Bettman/Corbis)


During both WWII and the Korean War, Anderson entertained troops in hospitals and bases. In 1943, she finally sang at Constitution Hall, and demanded that the ban on integrated seating be lifted for her performance. Marian was largely unmoved by the event, saying "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."


Marian Anderson on the cover of  Time, December 30, 1946



In 1952, Marian made her television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1953, she toured all over the world, with performances in Japan, the Caribbean, Central America, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, France, and Spain. 

On July 17, 1943, Anderson married Orpheus H. Fisher, a man she had known since youth and who had first proposed when they were teenagers.

They settled on a large property with a farm in Danbury, Connecticut. Marianna Farm, as their home came to be called, included an acoustic rehearsal studio designed for Marian by her husband.


On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Marian sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, which was the only time she sang an opera role on stage. The performance would be her only one with the Met, but she was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company.


Marian as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera


In 1957, Anderson sang for President Eisenhower's inauguration, and began a career as an ambassador for the State Department, travelling the world and performing concerts to promote good will. In 1961, she performed at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and in 1963, Anderson was one of 31 recipients to be honored with the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also released her album, Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy, which included songs and stories about her beloved black cat.


In 1991, Marian was honored with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2004, more than a decade after her death, Marian's home was opened to the public. Visitors can see Marian's studio and see photographs and memorabilia from her life.

Marian's life story has been written into a musical produced by the Kennedy Center, called My Lord, What a Morning: The Marian Anderson Story. In 2001, the 1939 documentary film, Marian Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


Related posts: 

Birthdays in Music: Jean Sibelius (December 8, 1865)

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Thursday, 27 February 2014
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