Marian Anderson, a powerful voice in history

Marian Anderson was a classical singer. She became the first African American contralto to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

Picture taken in 1920
Picture taken in 1920

She was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897. Marian was exposed to music early in life. Her family encouraged her to pursue music, but they couldn’t afford to pay for her lessons. Marian learned how to play the piano and joined the church choir (her family was devout Christians) when she was six. Marian started earning 25 cents for her performances as a child at church, the YMCA, community events, and more. By the time she was a teenager, her fee had increased to $5.

Marian’s father died when she was young. Her mother struggled to make ends meet so the family moved into Marian’s grandparents’ house. She was really close to her grandfather. He had been a slave in the 19th century but was emancipated in the 1860s. After graduating from high school in 1921, she applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy. She was denied admission due to racial segregation.

That didn’t deter her from pursuing music professionally. Giuseppe Boghetti, (1896-1941) a prominent voice teacher and tenor, took interest in her and offered private lessons after she auditioned and sang for him. He also taught Edythe Johnson, the tenor Jan Peerce, the mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, and Helen Traubel, the dramatic soprano.

During that time, she received an outpour of support from the Philadelphia Black community. They even raised funds for her to be able to continue her education in music.

Marian Anderson, photo taken on January 14, 1940 by Carl Van Vechten.

When Marian was 28, she performed in a singing competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. She won first prize. In 1928, she performed at Carnegie Hall. She decided to embark on a tour across Europe where people would appreciate her talent without noticing her skin color.

Accolades in Europe

Europe didn’t disappoint. After hearing her sing in Paris, Sol Hurok, a Russian concert organizer, signed her to a contract. He became her tour manager for the rest of her career. In Finland, the violinist Jean Sibelius dedicated his composition, “Solitude” to her.
Arturo Toscanini, an Italian conductor, was known for his perfectionism. In more than one occasion, he said that “a voice like hers comes along once in a hundred years”, referring to Marion Anderson.
Hurok arranged for Marian to sing to a sold-out audience in Town Hall in New York. By the 1930s, Anderson was a world-renowned contralto.

This photo is from Moise Benkow’s atelier in Stockholm taken in 1933.

In the United States

In 1939, Marian had an Easter concert in Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let her appear at the Constitution Hall. This incident didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) protested, as did the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). marian performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of a crowd of more than 75,000 people. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) attended the concert.  By that time, she was a worldwide singer, performing more than 70 concerts a year. In 1943, the DAR invited her to give a concert at the Constitution Hall.

In 1955, she realized a personal dream and became the first African American soloist to perform Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She was 57 years old at the time. The audience gave her a prolonged standing ovation.

Metropolitan Opera’s Sherry’s Bar Finally Admits Black People – Jet Magazine, November 29, 1951.

Twenty days later, Robert McFerrin, a baritone and father of renowned jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, became the first male African American soloist at the Met. He sang the part of Amonasro in Verdi’s “Aida”. This marked the beginning of integration in classical music in the United States.

Marian Anderson, when she visited Japan in May, 1953.

Even though she was an acclaimed singer, a lot of venues in the United States still denied her entry due to prejudice and racial barriers. In Europe, she received standing ovations for her performances, but in the United States, she had to use the freight elevator and eat her meals in her hotel room as to not upset the white guests in the dining room table.

Life in politics

In 1957, she sang at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in 1961. Marian served as an alternative representative in the United States delegation to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. When she was 66 years old, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


In 1963, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) awarded Marian Anderson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her meritorious contributions to culture. When Marian was 66 years old, on April 18, 1965, she gave her last recital at Carnegie Hall. In 1986, when she was 89 years old, she received the National Arts Medal from President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). In 1991, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the 34th Annual Grammy Awards. She spent her final years in Oregon, where she died on April 8, 1993, at the age of 96 of congestive heart failure after suffering a stroke one month earlier.

If you’re interested in learning more about Marian Anderson, listen to “Softly Awakes my heart” from Camille Saint Saens’ opera “Samson and Delilah”. You can also click on YouTube’s link to listen to her rendition of “Deep River” accompanied by the pianist Lawrence Brown.

Ana Ximena

Bilingual writer specialized in storytelling, journalism, creative writing, and corporate communications. I'm a daydreamer, fluent in sarcasm and irony with a penchant for details and romantic gestures. I've been working in the industry for over five years, writing in English and Spanish.

One thought on “Marian Anderson, a powerful voice in history

  • March 7, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    I loved this piece, as a teacher, I feel it is important to introduce figures to the students not often spoken about. Of course they need to know Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Ruby Bridges…. but there are so many amazing figures that made an impact that can inspire students. Thank you for sharing!


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