Marian Anderson: The Sound of Freedom

May 14, 2009

I had been disappointed that the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson's 1939 Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial had passed unnoticed. I got over it. Here's a fascinating new book by Raymond Aresenault commemorating the event: The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial and the Concert That Changed America. Anderson overcame poverty, discrimination and a lack of opportunity to become one of the world's great concert artists. Opera was closed to her for racial reasons. In 1955, she became the first African American soloist to sing with the Metropolitan.  She was nearly sixty and past her best, but it didn't matter. She had been a hugely successful concert artist for thirty years. Of course she was known for her spirituals. People forget Anderson was admired by Sibelius and Toscanini. Her recordings of Sibelius's music, plus lieder by Brahms, Schubert and Mendelssohn are things of real beauty. Anderson was denied the use of Constitution Hall in Washington DC for a concert in 1939. The hall was owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR argued that the organization's refusal to grant Anderson their stage simply reflected the cultural norms of the time. In short, the DAR seemed unwilling to confront and challenge this racism. Word of this got to Eleanor Roosevelt who resigned from the DAR, making the incident a national scandal.  Mrs.  Roosevelt arranged with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. The crowds were estimated at 75,000. Years ago Shirley Verrett told  me, "In 1939,  no one had ever seen a black woman beautifully gowned singing lieder and arias in great venues. Marian Anderson was our mother." I recommend this book as a cultural history and a story with, if not a happy ending,  then at least a temporarily satisfying one. Marian Anderson died in 1993,  at the age of 96. Anderson gave the first of many recitals in Constitution Hall in 1943. Twenty years after that she began her farewell tour, in Constitution Hall.