The death of a great performing artist, especially at the age of ninety-six, cannot be, in personal terms, of very great musical effect. In the case of the beloved contralto Marian Anderson, who died last month in Portland, Oregon, her musical effect will continue because of the many wonderful recordings from her prime she left behind. It is, after all, one of the ironies of recordings, pointed out by Thomas Mann in a trenchant passage in The Magic Mountain, that in them reposes an artist’s best self; next to the greatness of what is enshrined in recordings, the personal is no more than merely contingent.
Miss Anderson (as she preferred to be called) was born a Negro and in the last years of her life became—whether she liked the change we shall perhaps never know—a black or perhaps even an African-American. Her early career, begun in 1925 by winning a New York Philharmonic audition, hardly took off in the United States; like so many American artists, then and now, Caucasian as well as colored, she had to go to Europe to find fame. Find it there she did, and when she returned to her own country in 1935 under the aegis of the brilliant Russian-Jewish impresario Sol Hurok, it was to a triumphant Town Hall recital. From that moment on she was an American star. That fact was not realized by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who in 1939 refused her the opportunity to sing at their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.; instead, at the invitation of the Roosevelt administration, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial for a live audience of seventy-five thousand and a radio audience of millions.
But racial prejudice continued to keep her out of opera in the United States, and it was not until 1955, in the twilight of her career, that she sang in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met. She continued to give recitals, and in them her beloved combination of German Lieder and Negro spirituals brought tears to the eyes of a vast public. At its best —and that was for more than a quarter- century—her rich, solid, and always perfectly produced voice communicated both a glorious sound, the soul of the music, and a noble personality.
Indeed, the word “noble” is perhaps the one that now seems chiefly to apply to Miss Anderson and our memory of her. She was hardly unaware of the indignities she and her people had suffered and were suffering— how could she be? But those indignities, and worse, she converted, by some alchemy of the spirit, into the seriousness of her art, and into the transcendent dignity of her bearing. The most touching and oft-quoted story about her (as told by Sol Hurok) is that when she asked her mother what gift she might want from her successful daughter, her mother answered that “all she wanted was that God would hold Marian Anderson ‘in the hollow of his hand, and raise up the people to be kind.’”
Doubtless there will be those racial activists who, cowed for the moment by the love in which Miss Anderson was held not just by music lovers but by all Americans, will confine themselves to saying properly eulogistic things about her. But then some will begin to whisper that this great artist “sold out,” that her proper role was not singing white music for a largely white audience. There will be those who will say, in an ever more strident and hateful way, that her real place was on the barricades. But Miss Anderson was vastly stronger than all her detractors, past and present, white or black; she was a great artist, and a great woman. Our country will miss her healing presence.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 9, on page 3
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