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The right note

by Leslie Ureña, 20 January 2020

Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955 Richard Avedon
Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955 Richard Avedon

Marian Anderson (1897–1993), the trailblazing contralto, broke boundaries during her long life. To most who have heard her name, she is best remembered for her recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Washington, DC’s National Mall on April 9, 1939. Anderson’s impact on the histories of music and civil rights, however, extends well beyond this one concert. What catapulted her to that temporary stage and what followed are some of the questions that guided the planning of the exhibition One Life: Marian Anderson, on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until 17 May, 2020. As Anderson’s career and the artworks that depict her demonstrate, she continually tested the limits imposed on her by race-based discrimination. Yet she often hesitated in embracing her role as an icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, consistently encouraging a focus on her art instead.

Anderson’s journey to the Lincoln Memorial was a tumultuous one. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had rebuffed multiple requests for her to sing at their Constitution Hall. The reaction to the DAR’s spate of rejections – a function of their exclusionary policy prohibiting African Americans from performing at the Hall – was overwhelming. Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert would mark the histories of the DAR and the American Civil Rights Movement in stark fashion, determining how the singer, from that moment forward, would be perceived, discussed, and depicted.

Photographs and film footage convey the intensity of the day. Anderson, smiling nervously, greeted the crowd as she approached the bank of microphones and sang from a carefully selected repertoire of spirituals and classical compositions. Before her lay the expanse of the capital’s National Mall, and a shoulder-to-shoulder, non-segregated crowd of approximately 75,000 attendees that stretched for nearly a kilometre. They all listened in rapt attention on that cold Easter Sunday afternoon. Perhaps many were attracted by the controversy, but the majority were most likely drawn by Anderson’s celebrated voice. After all, Howard University had approached the DAR, and later the DC Board of Education, because they needed the largest venue possible for those clamouring to see the ever more popular Anderson.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Anderson grew up in a musically-inclined family, as her biographer Allan Keiler recounts in Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (2000). Raised in South Philadelphia, within an active African American community, she delighted church-goers from a very young age by singing at Sunday services. By the age of eight or ten she was touted as the ‘Baby Contralto’, as noted on a ‘handbill that proclaimed [her] fame’, an experience she recalled with delight in her 1956 autobiography My Lord, What a Morning.

Barred from applying to one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious music schools because of her race, Anderson secured lessons with several private instructors. All the while, the African American community provided emotional and financial support as she pursued her career. In 1916 she performed with the tenor and composer Roland Hayes, who had become an example for Anderson to emulate throughout her youth. Soon thereafter, she was invited to sing with the popular African American New York Clef Club Syncopated Orchestra in a concert that put Anderson before a larger group of critics, and that also demonstrated her community’s close engagement with her pursuits. As her mother Anna Anderson later recalled, a large bouquet of flowers was brought to the stage at the end of the performance. To document the occasion, Anderson was photographed with the towering floral tribute at Fowler Studios in Philadelphia. The image captures her looking at the camera somewhat uncomfortably, as she holds up one of the roses at the top of the bouquet.

Indeed, despite her increasing celebrity, she was surprisingly ill at ease before the camera, as demonstrated by other posed photographs of Anderson from early in her career, now in her papers at the University of Pennsylvania. Her likeness, however, would continue to grace the covers of her programs, whether in London, Paris, or Copenhagen. She was particularly popular in Scandinavia, where the press coined the term ‘Marian Fever’ in reference to her growing fan base. Anderson trained in England and Germany, familiarising herself more fully with European languages. In 1936, shortly after having returned to the United States, Anderson accepted an invitation from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sing at the White House. The first lady later wrote that she had ‘rarely heard a more beautiful and moving voice, or a more finished artist’.

Anderson’s and Roosevelt’s lives would be further entwined. Roosevelt famously resigned from the DAR and worked behind the scenes with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), and others, to secure another venue for Anderson’s performance. When the NAACP decided to award Anderson the 1938 Spingarn Medal for ‘special achievement’ in music, Roosevelt gladly accepted the role of presenter at the July 2, 1939 ceremony before a crowd of five thousand people in Richmond, Virginia. Painter William H Johnson later included this scene in his c. 1945 work Marian Anderson, in which he paid homage to Anderson’s triumphs worldwide. National flags and buildings of Brazil, Cuba, Denmark, Russia, and the United States appear alongside scenes of Anderson’s whirlwind life. The silhouette of Lincoln’s statue looms over her, alluding to the iconic 1939 performance. When Johnson, who had also moved to Europe, started working on a series representing significant figures of African American descent, Anderson proved to be a perfect subject. He encapsulated Anderson’s triumphs, as well as the symbolic weight that her image carried for visual artists and the public.

Another such artist was the painter Beauford Delaney, who briefly met Marian Anderson on February 1, 1951. Delaney wrote to Anderson afterwards expressing his admiration, asking her to pose for him for ‘some drawings in the hope of getting notes on colour’ so that he could ‘work on a great composition of some sort’. Whether she sat for him remains unclear. Nevertheless, Delaney portrayed Anderson in at least two compositions, in 1951 and then 1965, with the latter now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Likely painted from memory, the work presents Anderson with her lips closed and hands clasped, as if about to start singing. Delaney’s admiration for Anderson is palpable, expressed through the awe-inspiring portrait’s swirls of thick lavender, red, and yellow paint.

Anderson had also caught the attention of fashion photographer Irving Penn, who photographed her in 1948, presumably as part of a series he produced in a mostly bare studio provided by Vogue magazine in New York. While the photograph was never published, one can imagine Penn poring over Anderson’s biographical material, as he had done for other sitters. She sits somewhat uncomfortably in her voluminous gown, with a slight smile playing across her lips. The photograph was taken the same year Anderson was forced to take a break from the unrelenting pace of her concert tours for medical reasons. She was back on tour after just a few months of vocal rest.

While Anderson had performed as a soloist throughout much of her career, in 1954 she signed with New York’s Metropolitan Opera for two seasons. She was cast in the role of Ulrica, a sorceress, in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) and the public’s response was overwhelmingly positive. Even the performer and activist Josephine Baker sent her congratulations (from France), exclaiming that, because of Anderson, the ‘whole world was happy’. Anderson later cited playing Ulrica as one of her greatest accomplishments.

The contralto’s career was not limited to concert halls and opera houses. Anderson joined several cultural diplomacy initiatives sponsored by the US Department of State, and in 1957 went on a tour that included Cambodia, Japan, India, Taiwan and Thailand. She was there to sing, as well as to educate audiences about topics ranging from her background to spirituals. By spring 1958, Anderson was on a shortlist of delegates to the United Nations, and underwent a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Indicative of the period’s fears of communism, interviewees were questioned about her relationship with the actor and singer Paul Robeson, who embraced left-leaning causes.

Although Anderson retired from the stage officially in 1965, following a farewell tour that started at Constitution Hall and concluded at Carnegie Hall, she continued performing, supporting aspiring singers, and as the newspaper Chicago Defender explained at the time of her retirement, ‘[taking] a more active role in the Negro struggle for civil rights’. While she grappled with this role, she maintained a modest outlook on her many accomplishments. As she noted in an interview with the photographer Brian Lanker in the late 1980s, ‘I don’t feel that I opened the door. I’ve never been a great mover and shaker of the earth. I think that those who came after me deserve a great deal of credit for what they have achieved. I don’t feel responsible for any of it, because if they didn’t have it in them, they wouldn’t have been able to get it out.’

In the end, despite her occasional reluctance, she was, and continues to be, an icon of the struggle for equality and civil rights. It is this tension, the tension of being a modest symbol, that makes Anderson an even more captivating subject.

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