Marian Anderson - America's Great Contralto

By Peter Rae


If you’re out for a drive on the hills in Danbury, Connecticut’s west side, you might come across a residential street called Marianna Farm Drive. Since there are no farms in the area, you might wonder how this street got its name. A little research reveals that before the well kept houses that currently populate the street were built, Marianna Farm was for 50 years the residence of Marian Anderson, one of America’s finest concert singers of the 20th century. How that she came to live in Danbury is an interesting story with two dominant themes: the positive support she received from family, neighbors, church groups, and others for her music, and the difficulties she encountered because of her race.

Marian Anderson (1940's) - Photo: Edwin Bruce Anderson

Marian Anderson (1940's) - Photo: Edwin Bruce Anderson

Growing Up in Philadelphia
Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in South Philadelphia, one of three daughters of John Anderson, who delivered coal and ice for a living, and his wife, Anna. An African American whose own grandfather had been a slave, Marian grew up in an integrated neighborhood comprised of working class Irish, Italians and blacks. 

Musical talent abounded in the Anderson family, but as early as elementary school, it was apparent that Marian was special. By fourth grade Marian had joined the junior choir at her family’s church, and soon afterward the senior choir, which gave her the opportunity to learn more varied and difficult music. Her father died when she was twelve, and her mother took a job teaching school to keep the family together. After completing eighth grade, Marian dropped out of school to help with the family financing – by cleaning houses and by singing. 

Encouraged by her family, her church and others who heard her sing, Marian began professional training. This was not only helpful technically, it also introduced Marian to European classical music. Marian learned the lyrics as well as the tunes, singing them in their original languages (even if she didn’t know all their meanings).

Marian Anderson at age 20

Marian Anderson at age 20

At age 18, Marian was able to resume her formal education by enrolling at William Penn High School. Three years later she transferred to the newly established South Philadelphia High School for Girls, pursuing an academic course that featured music. One of the school’s oldest students as well as one of its few blacks, Marian graduated in 1921.

During her high school years, Marian began to travel for out-of-town performances. These were often in the South, and she experienced for the first time the “Jim Crow” laws that enforced segregation there. Traveling with her mother, she learned about the waiting areas, the train and bus seating areas, and the separate entrances specially designated for “colored only”.

Her high school principal continued to be interested in her, and recommended a new voice coach: Giuseppe Boghetti, who had studios in both Philadelphia and New York. Following a one-song audition, Boghetti took her on immediately, telling her that within two years she could be singing anywhere in the world!

After graduation, Marian focused full-time on performing. She teamed up with an accompanist, William L. “Billy” King, and the two toured together, primarily in the South where they had to endure its Jim Crow laws on a daily basis. They persisted, and their fame grew. In 1923, Marian became the first black concert artist to record Negro spirituals for a major American recording company, and the first black soloist at the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society. Between performances, she continued to train with Giuseppi Boghetti. 

A year later, she was invited to perform at New York City’s Town Hall, which had a well-earned reputation as a steppingstone for young artists. Her playlist included numbers by European composers in their original languages, but the combination of inexperience with foreign languages and general nervousness led to uncomplimentary reviews. Marian was devastated. It took Boghetti and others several months to help restore Marian’s confidence, but he eventually enrolled her in a contest where she would be one of more than 300 contestants. Boghetti chose the Donizetti aria O mio Fernando for her. She won the contest, and with it an opportunity to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which she did – to “rave” reviews. 

Together with Billy King, she continued to perform at some of the top venues in America. Even now, however, others were not open to her; racism, while not so obvious in the North, continued to persist there. That, plus the belief that she could perform in foreign languages better if she heard them on a regular basis, persuaded Marian to test her fortunes in Europe.

European Triumphs
Marian Anderson sailed for Europe in the fall of 1927. She settled in London, where her primary goals were to study German and French, and in her spare time, to attend concert performances by the great artists of the time. Then it was back home and several more years of touring that were successful but not a breakthrough.

In June 1930, Marian sailed for Europe again, this time settling in Berlin. After several more months of concentrated study, she felt she was ready, and booked herself at a concert hall named the Bachsaal, after Johann Sebastian Bach. Black concert performers were a rarity in Berlin, so many in the sold-out hall were simply curious. She won them all over by performing ten songs in German, an aria in Italian, and several spirituals in English. 

Two music scouts from Scandinavia were at the Bachsaal that day, and quickly set up a tour of the four Scandinavian countries for her. One of the scouts, a Finnish concert pianist named Kosti Verhanen, became her full-time accompanist. She gave twelve concerts in three weeks and was an instant success in all four countries. 

After several more tours in Scandinavia, Marian performed in virtually all of the major capitals in Europe and also toured Italy, Russia and elsewhere. She was now performing a repertoire of over 200 songs in at least eight different languages. At Austria’s Salzburg Festival in 1935, she met Arturo Toscanini, perhaps the world’s most famous music personality at the time. He told her that a voice like hers was heard once in a hundred years.

Later in 1935 Marian returned home, and in December performed at New York’s Town Hall, eleven years after her first disastrous appearance there. This time was different – America heard what Europe had been listening to for the past five years, and she got rave reviews.

From 1936 to 1939 Marian again toured the United States and the world. She also became a popular radio performer in the U.S., appearing regularly on top-rated shows such as The General Motors Hour and The Ford Hour. And in 1936, at the invitation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed at the White House for the President, his family and their invited guests. 

Anderson in her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial

Anderson in her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial Concert
On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The weather was cool and cloudy, with both performer and audience wearing coats and hats. But the crowd was large – more than 75,000 heard Miss Anderson sing that day. 

Marian had hoped to hold the concert at nearby Constitution Hall, the largest and finest concert hall in the District, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the hall, refused permission for her to perform there. The reason? The D.A.R. policy that excluded blacks from performing at Constitution Hall. That meant Marian Anderson, an African-American, was out.

By 1939, Marian Anderson was well into her second decade of acclaimed performances at international concert venues, and she had gained some powerful supporters. One was Eleanor Roosevelt, who quickly resigned her D.A.R. membership and gal-vanized the federal government into finding a replacement location. Another was Harold Ickes, who, as Secretary of the Interior, found that location – an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of the statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln look-ing out over the Reflec-ting Pool. 

Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial

Following an introduction by Mr. Ickes, Miss Anderson per-formed six songs, whose variety indicates the range of her capabilities: America; Oh mio Fernando, from the Donizetti opera La Favorita; Schubert’s Ave Maria and three Negro spirituals: Trampin, My Soul is Anchored in the Lord and Nobody Knows the Trouble I See. The entire concert was broadcast live nationally on the NBC Blue Radio Network. Millions heard Marian Anderson’s vibrant contralto voice, many for the first time, and they loved it. 

After the Easter Sunday Concert
Marian Anderson continued to perform at the highest level for another quarter century, finally retiring in 1965. During World War II, she regularly headlined at benefits for the troops. One of those appearances was, ironically, at Constitution Hall. The D.A.R. arranged a series of benefits at Constitution Hall and invited Marian to perform at the first one. She agreed, but only if the audience would be completely integrated. After some hesitation, the D.A.R. agreed, and on January 7, 1943, Marian Anderson finally sang at Constitution Hall. The integrated capacity crowd made the night a complete success.

After the war, Marian remained popular on radio, performing regularly on the Bell Telephone Hour. She also continued touring, both in the United States and throughout the world. In the early 1950s she became one of the first Americans to perform in Japan. However, in the U.S., many concert venues in the South still maintained segregated seating, and in the early 1950s she decided she would no longer perform at segregated concert halls. And she did not. 

By 1955, New York’s venerable Metropolitan Opera had gone 72 years without a single African American soloist. That year Marian became the first when she sang the role of the sorceress Ulrica in Giuseppi Verdi’s A Masked Ball.    

Honors abounded. The United States government named Marian a delegate to the United Nations in 1958. The entire nation heard her perform He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands at the Civil Rights March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech there that same day. In 1984, she was named the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award. 

Marian at Marianna Farms, in April 1949

Marian at Marianna Farms, in April 1949

Marianna Farm
In 1940, Marian and her long-time friend and partner Orpheus “King” Fisher, an architect, purchased a 100-acre farm in Dan-bury, Connecticut. They adapted the existing ranch-style house to their liking, built a separate studio for Marian, and named it all Marianna Farm.

Finding the farm wasn’t easy. They were living in New York City but were looking for a quieter life in the country. Orpheus, who could easily pass for white, looked at many properties ad-vertised by realtors, but as soon as he divulged who his partner was, the properties were suddenly taken off the market. The story goes that following numerous rejections, when Orpheus reached Danbury, the realtor did not ask, Orpheus did not tell, and the sale went through.

Three years later, Marian and Orpheus were finally married. The wedding was performed at the United Methodist Church in nearby Bethel, Connecticut. They had no children, which Marian always regretted, saying that they should have been more daring earlier in their careers. 

Marian Anderson in 1963 at Huntington Hall

Marian Anderson in 1963 at Huntington Hall

Marian and Orpheus lived quietly in Danbury. She supported the local chapter of the NAACP, liked to visit the Danbury State Fair, often performed at Christmas tree lightings held at City Hall, and sang at Danbury High School. She was a member of the Board of Directors of Danbury Hospital and supported the Charles Ives Center for the Performing Arts. She also supported the Danbury Historical Society, speaking there at the opening of Huntington Hall, the museum’s main building, in 1962. 

Following Orpheus’ death in 1985, Marian stayed on at Marianna Farm until she moved to Portland, Oregon in 1991, to live with her nephew, who was music director for the Portland Symphony Orchestra. She passed away on April 8, 1993, one day before the 54th anniversary of her Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Following her passing, Marianna Farm was sold to a residential real estate developer. The ranch was demolished, but the studio was relocated to property owned by the Danbury Historical Society and Museum. The Society maintains the studio and you can see it there today – a building of simple, yet eloquent design that is entirely representative of the talent and graciousness of Marian Anderson.