Marian Anderson was deemed one of the greatest contraltos of her time because of her rich tone, wide range, and the pureness of her voice. She was born in Philadelphia in 1897 to an ice and coal salesman and a teacher. Most of her early voice training from the age of six was done at the Union Baptist Church where she learned to sing all the different parts of the music. Her singing was so much appreciated by the church that they raised enough money for her to go to music school for a year. She received free lessons for a year from Giuseppe Boghetti when she was nineteen because he was so impressed by her singing.
In 1925 she won a contest with over 300 contestants singing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Because she was African-American, many other opportunities were not available to her. She did, however, tour the African-American Southern college campuses and appeared with the Philadelphia Symphony. She studied in London from 1925 to 1930, when she began her European tour in Berlin. She had several successful tours in Europe through 1935. During this time she received several scholarships to study in Europe and sang before the monarchs of England and the Scandinavian countries. In 1935 she sang at the Mozart festival in Austria and before the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Archbishop asked for an encore of “Ava Maria.”
In 1935, Marian Anderson also made a successful debut at the Town Hall in New York. She toured South America and Europe in 1938 and 1939. She was given the NAACP's Spingarn Award for outstanding achievement in 1938. In 1939 she decided to do a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and they refused to let her rent the hall because of her race. Protests broke out across the country and many important women, including Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the DAR. Marian sang instead at the Lincoln memorial and drew a crowd of 75,000.
In 1955, Marian held her first performance as a member of the Metropolitan Opera. She sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Before she began her performance, the audience gave her a standing ovation. Marian’s autobiography entitled “My Lord, What a Morning” was released in 1957. In 1958 she became a delegate to the United Nations. That year she toured twelve nations for a total of 35,000 miles. The tour was sponsored by the Department of State, the American National Theatre and Academy, and the Edward R. Murrow television series called “See It Now.”
Marian performed at the inaugurations of Eisenhower and Kennedy. President Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. From 1964 to 1965 she went on her farewell tours of the world. She retired in 1965 and moved to a farm in Connecticut with her husband. In 1992 she moved to her son’s home in Portland, Oregon where she remained until her death from congestive heart failure in 1993.
She also received honorary doctorates from several universities. Other accomplishments of Marian Anderson were the National Medal of Arts in 1986 and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 2005, she also was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in its African-American heritage Stamp Series.
Famous African-American opera singers like Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price said that Marian Anderson was their inspiration for pursuing operatic careers. No other African-American singers before her time or during her time had ever gone as far as Marian to break racial barriers. With her talent and dignity she had successfully awakened the country’s consciousness and broken up hostilities. Her life was a reflection of the movement toward social and artistic equality.