Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was a world famous African American singer who made history on both sides of the Atlantic with her opera and spirituals. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to Salzburg and Munich, her voice inspired thousands of people with every show. But in order to perform, the American contralto had to face segregation and racial prejudice, both at home and abroad. Her determination to sing – despite opposition and countless hurdles – turned her into a civil rights icon. Some even called her the “voice of the 20th century“.
Although Anderson grew up in Philadelphia and had a successful music career in the United States, she also spent a significant amount of time in Europe. In the early 1930s, Anderson spent time studying and touring various European countries, including Finland, Sweden, Russia, England and Austria.
In 1935, after a successful performance in Vienna, Austria, Anderson was asked to perform a charity concert at the Salzburg Cathedral as part of the Salzburg Festival. This annual festival drew some of the most talented artists of the time. However, there was growing Nazi sentiment in Austria at this time and festival authorities banned Anderson’s performance. But rather than letting this keep her away, Anderson worked with organizers to hold her very own concert in Salzburg, separate from the official festival. Held at the Mozarteum, her unofficial concert stunned the audience, which grew continuously larger as word of her performance spread through town. A few days later, Anderson performed once more in the Alps. Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a “voice head once in a hundred years.”
Despite her talents, Anderson continued to face hurdles in a segregated America. In 1939, Anderson was back in the US and preparing for an Easter Sunday concert in Washington, D.C at the invitation of Howard University. Because of her international reputation, organizers expected the crowd to be enormous. They applied to use Constitution Hall as the concert venue, which was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. However, “[DAR] refused to allow her use of the hall because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR,” said Anderson biographer Allan Keiler. So instead, Anderson’s historic concert was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with the held of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin Roosevelt, drawing a crowd of 75,000 people and making history. Millions of people also tuned in on the radio. Anderson later admitted to being nervous with a crowd size that large, saying, “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”
Although the concert at the Lincoln Memorial was one of Anderson’s most well-known performances, her popularity only continued to grow and she found herself performing all over the world – including Germany.
A few years after the end of the Second World War, Anderson returned to Europe and continued to perform. The concerts she held in Berlin and Munich in 1950 were some of the “most gratifying”, according to her biography. And the German people were blown away by her talents. After her concerts, The Neue Zeitung wrote “…in critical places one is surprised by a wonderfully accomplished phrase or even a single tone in which her soul seems to open. From such moments the whole song achieves a new illumination.”
Throughout her career, Anderson became an important figure in the Civil Rights era. She became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She became a Goodwill Ambassador for the Department of State. She sang at the 1957 inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. She participated in the Civil Rights movement and found herself at the steps of the Lincoln once again when she performed at the 1963 March on Washington. She also won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Marian Anderson was an inspiration to millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic.
This blog is part of our larger series for Black History Month. During Black History Month, we are not only highlighting Germans of African descent (see our blog here), but also black Americans who have inspired Germans across the Atlantic, and across the years.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy