A Voice that Challenged America
After hearing Marian Anderson (1897–1993) sing in Salzburg in 1935, conductor Arturo Toscanini remarked that "a voice like hers is heard only once in a hundred years." Alas, it took a while for listeners in her homeland to appreciate the smooth contralto with a superb range. Like many African American artists, Anderson faced ongoing and entrenched racial discrimination. Ironically, she rose to prominence after one such incident: In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution canceled an Easter Sunday recital in Washington, D.C., because of Anderson's color. This caused an uproar: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt renounced her DAR membership, and a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial was scheduled. Seventy-five thousand people came to hear her sing. The performance made her a star and a symbol of equal rights.
On the program that day were several spirituals, songs of faith, many of which originated during slavery. Anderson learned these songs as a child—beginning at age six, she sang in church choirs in Philadelphia, often teaching herself the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts. She later went through rigorous operatic training, but managed to retain her feeling for the austere and often haunting melodies of spirituals.
Recorded between 1936 and 1952, this collection offers an excellent introduction to spirituals, and contains some of the greatest recordings Anderson ever made. There are definitive piano-and-voice versions of well-known pieces ("Go Down, Moses," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"), as well as lesser-known compositions ("Soon-ah Will Be Done," "Ride On, King Jesus") that Anderson helped to rehabilitate. Recognizing that typical opera-singer discipline won't help bring these songs to life, Anderson sings with great resolve and an evangelist's firmness, taking church singing just one step toward art song. Anderson had other career milestones after this—in 1955, she became the first African American to sing a principal role at the Metropolitan Opera—but her singing here towers above even those significant accomplishments. As she interprets these simple songs, Anderson brings listeners face-to-face with the stoic dignity and stirring melody that rose up in response to an ignoble chapter of American history.
Genre: Classical, Gospel
Released: 1953, RCA (Reissued 1999)
Key Tracks: "Go Down, Moses," "Let Us Break Bread Together," "My Lord, What a Morning," "De Gospel Train"
Catalog Choice: Brahms Alto Rhapsody and Lieder
Next Stop: Jessye Norman: The Essential Jessye Norman
After That: Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan: Goin' Home
Book Pages: 20–21