Marian Anderson, born to a poor family in Philadelphia in 1897, made history by shattering racial barriers. After being turned down at the Philadelphia Music Academy, where she was told, “We don’t take colored,” she went on to sing with the New York Philharmonic and tour Europe and, later, the United States to sold-out success.
In 1939 she was booked for April 9, Easter Sunday, into Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, then owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization refused her permission to perform there, citing their reluctance to go “contrary to customs and conditions existing in the District of Columbia.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of good standing in the DAR, resigned in protest, and everyone paid attention.
That event, which led to the singer’s famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, made Marian Anderson a household name. Indeed, so much has been made of Anderson as a symbol that her great, multihued voice is all too infrequently discussed. Hers was a true contralto, dark and rich but capable of lightening for rapid passagework and easy sailing into a brighter, soprano tonal palette. Her 1946 recording of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden first presents a sweet, naïve sound, as the youngish girl asks Death to pass her by. Then she intones Death: dark and inevitable, at once comforting and terrifying. It’s a one-act play in music, unforgettable and over in less than three minutes.
When she sings “art” songs by Schubert or Brahms, or arias by Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Handel, Bach or Donizetti, the impeccable training can be heard: the emission is focused, the vibrato prominent. The tone can be even and buttery (Bach’s “Erbarme dich”) or girlish (Schubert’s “Wohin,” the start of Death and the Maiden).
Her deeply felt “He shall feed his flock” from Messiah is art without artifice; one would be hard pressed to find an exaggerated phrase or note, and yet the overall effect is profoundly still and profoundly sad. At times, in quick songs (“Die Forelle”) her rhythmic sense fails her, but it’s a minor blemish. Anderson was a true contralto and was always happiest in the lower part of her voice; listen to the low D in Death and the Maiden). Her rendition of Ulrica’s aria from Un ballo in maschera was recorded two days after her Met debut in 1954; at 58, the voice is no longer what it was, but it still has majesty.
The spirituals are a different story. Here we find utter lack of inhibition and no need for artfulness. The tone is light or heavy depending entirely on the text. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” becomes a narrative and commentary on the “whole world”; “the little bitty baby” is very different from some sinners, like “the lying man.” It’s both fun and filled with belief. And “Deep River” has to be heard to be believed—if a cello could sing, it would sing with Anderson’s voice.