Marian Anderson: The Most Modest Trailblazer The Black contralto put European art music and African-American spirituals in parity — and in her art, paved the way for generations of singers after her, both inside and outside classical music.
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Marian Anderson: The Most Modest Trailblazer

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Marian Anderson: The Most Modest Trailblazer

Marian Anderson: The Most Modest Trailblazer

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Classical singer Marian Anderson performing this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY COUNTRY TIS OF THEE")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing) My country tis of thee...

CHANG: ...Is synonymous with breaking down racial barriers. That's Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. She performed there after being denied permission to perform at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall. For our series Turning The Tables, NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas looks at how Anderson helped pave the way for singers across color lines and genres.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Marian Anderson was so talented as a child that the church she attended took up collections to help pay for music lessons. As Anderson told NPR member station WQXR in 1974, that was when she first learned how to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: I became aware for the first time that there were two ways of doing it. One was absolutely natural, and one was one that I had to think about. But I know if you're going to do anything, you have to know how you're going to do it and why you're doing it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN ANDERSON PERFORMANCE OF MAHLER'S "KINDERTOTENLIEDER")

ANDERSON: (Singing in German).

TSIOULCAS: Anderson not only sang European classical music, but she presented spirituals as high art. Her parents were born just a few years after the end of the Civil War. And singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens says by performing spirituals in the concert hall, Anderson linked generations of listeners to Black American history.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: It's not just, oh, I'm singing Mozart. There's this knowledge of I am actually uplifting my entire race by singing this music, especially in the early years where it was still fairly rare to see a black person singing in a classical manner. So I think people feel that. You know, they feel that there's something else going on. They feel that there's another allegiance there. It's not just an allegiance to Western art music. There's also an allegiance to a lifting of the culture through the art form, and that's a very powerful thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEP RIVER")

ANDERSON: (Singing) Deep river, my home is over Jordan.

TSIOULCAS: Marian Anderson was a contralto. She could go much deeper than most female singers. Rhiannon Giddens says Anderson used that voice and her classical training to channel intense emotions.

GIDDENS: Some singers are able to tap into the core of their sound in a way so that it feels like there's nothing in the way, you know? There's no sort of translation going on. There's no doorway.

TSIOULCAS: But certain doors were closed for Marian Anderson in the United States. So, like many black artists, she made her career in Europe, where she was welcomed. She even performed for the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: I remember that Sibelius came over to me, embraced me and said my roof is too low for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN ANDERSON PERFORMANCE OF SIBELIUS' "SAV SAV SUSA")

ANDERSON: (Singing in Swedish).

TSIOULCAS: At home, Anderson encountered intense racism. She didn't make her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera until 1955, when she was already 57 years old. She was the first African American soloist to appear at the Met, and her performance came just months after the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERSON: (Singing in foreign language).

TSIOULCAS: But getting into the Met was a hard fight, as her biographer Allan Keiler told NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLAN KEILER: There was a tremendous resistance to bringing black singers to the Met. The Metropolitan Board was against it. It was very difficult to make any inroads.

TSIOULCAS: And, Keiler said, she was decades older than most singers are when they make a debut like that. In fact, hers came only about 10 years before she retired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEILER: It must have taken enormous courage for her to accept that invitation. And I think she did it because she knew how important it was for singers who were younger to have an opportunity to sing, not because she was artistically at the high point of a career any longer. It was for others that she sang there, not for herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN ANDERSON PERFORMANCE OF VERDI'S "ULRICA'S ARIA")

ANDERSON: (Singing in Italian).

MEASHA BRUEGGERGOSMAN: That's grace. When you accept the hand extended to you even though it had slapped you in the face countless times before, that's grace.

TSIOULCAS: That's Measha Brueggergosman, a noted Canadian soprano, speaking from her home in rural Nova Scotia. She says Anderson brought her very particular experiences as a black woman of her time to her art.

BRUEGGERGOSMAN: There is a certain assurance that comes from - I mean, let's say it - women of that age, but more specifically black women of that time who just knew that they would have to forge on against all odds and just got about doing their work. And that's very much how I see Marian Anderson.

TSIOULCAS: Both Brueggergosman and Rhiannon Giddens say they owe a lot to Marian Anderson for her convictions, for her artistry and for the path that she laid for them and so many others.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN ANDERSON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "GRETCHEN AM SPINNERADE")

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