“She [Marian Anderson] sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America.”-- Martin Luther King Jr., “The Negro and the Constitution,” quoted in Alex Ross, “A Critic at Large: Voice of the Century—Celebrating Marian Anderson,” The New Yorker, April 13, 2009
Ross, of The Rest Is Noise blog, might be the most consistently excellent New Yorker contributor, now that John Updike has passed on. Seventy years to the day that Marian Anderson gave her spellbinding Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial after being rejected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, his article on the pathbreaking soprano makes for must reading.
The quote from Dr. King comes from an oration that the 15-year-old gave five years after the concert. You can’t read it, of course, without thinking of how, 25 years after the event, he would perform his own “baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity” in the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the same spot.
Ross reminds us of the racial divide that still exists not just in America at large but even in the classical music world (only two percent of orchestra players are black), but also of the calm self-possession that led Anderson to make one precedent after another, even when she felt the instinct not to make a scene. (In WWII Birmingham, Ala., she had to wait outside a segregated train station while her accompanist went to get her a sandwich—all the while as a group of German POWs sat in comfort inside.)
Above all, Ross explains the nature of her immense gift, the voice that led Arturo Toscanini to praise her as the type of singer who comes along once every hundred years. Here’s how Ross analyzes her performance of Schubert’s “Erlkonig”:
“You seem to be hearing three singers, yet there are no obvious vocal breaks between them. She is fastidious but seldom stiff; caressing little slides from note to note and a delicately trembling tone warm up what might have been an excessively studious approach. The incalculable element is the air of spiritual elevation that dwells behind the technique.”