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Marian Anderson in 1940 (Carl Van Vechten photo, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

In February 2022, we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great American contralto Marian Anderson. She was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, and died in Portland, Oregon, on April 8, 1993, at the age of 96. 

Orchestra Hall, November 18, 1929

On November 18, 1929, Marian Anderson (under the management of Arthur Judson) made her debut in Orchestra Hall under the auspices of the Theta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. That evening, Anderson “reached near perfection in every requirement of vocal art,” wrote Herman Devries in the Chicago Evening American. “The tone was of superb timbre, the phrasing of utmost refinement, the style pure, discreet, musicianly . . . a talent still unripe, but certainly a talent of potential growth.” In attendance were Ray Field and George Arthur, representatives from the Rosenwald Fund, who encouraged her to apply for a fellowship to further her studies in Europe. The following year, she received $1,500 to study in Berlin.

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson the opportunity to give a concert for an integrated audience in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. With the support of President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she instead performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, to a crowd of 75,000 people and over a million radio listeners. Anderson closed the recital with the spiritual “My soul is anchored in the Lord” in an arrangement by Florence Price

Anderson and Defauw onstage with the CSO at the Stevens Hotel on June 5, 1944 (James Gushiniere, Chicago Tribune)

A few weeks later, on May 20, 1939, Anderson was scheduled to make her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the North Shore Music Festival, in Evanston’s Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field). The afternoon program was to include arias from Donizetti’s La favorita and Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue, along with spirituals, all under the baton of Frederick Stock. A case of laryngitis, however, prevented her from performing, and soprano Kirsten Flagstad, scheduled for the evening concert, was asked to fill in for the matinee. According to the Chicago Daily News, there was no time for Flagstad to rehearse the extra program with the Orchestra due to “a purely feminine” hesitation: she needed a different dress for the matinee. Festival organizers quickly took her to Marshall Field’s to shop for a second dress, and the concert, featuring several excerpts from Wagner’s operas, was “amply redeemed by the artistry of Mme. Flagstad,” according to Janet Gunn in the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

Her debut performance with the CSO was at a concert opening the 48th Convention of the American Federation of Musicians on June 5, 1944, at the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton Chicago). Under third music director Désiré Defauw, she sang “O mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s La favorita, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, and spirituals.

Anderson broke barriers on January 7, 1955, when she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera—in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera as Ulrica—becoming the first African American to sing with the company. The following year, she opened the Ravinia Festival’s 21st season, along with the CSO under Eugene Ormandy in two programs, performing the following:

Ravinia Festival, June 1956

June 26, 1956
BRAHMS Dein blaues Auge, Op. 59, No. 8
BRAHMS Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Op. 105, No. 2
BRAHMS Der Schmied, Op. 19, No. 4
BRAHMS Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43, No. 1
BRAHMS Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (with the Swedish Glee Club; Harry T. Carlson, director)

June 28, 1956
BIZET Agnus Dei
BIZET Ouvre ton coeur
SAINT-SAËNS Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson and Delilah
TCHAIKOVSKY None but the Lonely Heart, Op. 6, No. 6
TRADITIONAL IRISH Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms
KREISLER The Old Refrain

According to Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune, a crowd of more than 4,000 attended the all-Brahms concert that “turned out to be perfect.” Anderson sang “introspectively and with tender regard [and] exceptional craftsmanship and feeling.”

On August 28, 1963, Anderson performed “He’s got the whole world in his hands” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1964

During the 1964-65 season, Anderson gave a farewell recital tour under the auspices of her longtime presenter, Sol Hurok. Her stop in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on Dec. 6, 1964, was sold out (an additional 225 seats were onstage) and “well-wishers had also provided a red carpet, bouquets of red roses and white carnations by the armload,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “This is probably no time for sentiment,” Anderson commented. “But do let me say I find all of this today very touching.” Her encores included “There’s no hiding place down there” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

On June 27, 1968, at Ravinia, Anderson made her final appearance with the CSO, as narrator in Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion. Festival music director Seiji Ozawa conducted. Reading the “stirring segment from the United Nations charter,” wrote Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune, Anderson was “radiant in a cherry red velvet cape [contributing] both the presence and conviction, which made her vocal performances such moving experiences.”

Anderson gave a total of 22 recitals in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

Anderson with her frequent recital collaborator, pianist Franz Rupp (Carl Mett, Marian Anderson Collection, University of Pennsylvania)

November 18, 1929
January 26, 1931
October 28, 1945
November 3, 1946
November 23, 1947
October 24, 1948
January 21, 1950
January 29, 1950
January 21, 1951
April 8, 1951
May 3, 1952
January 31, 1953
March 29, 1953
January 30, 1954
December 5, 1954
January 8, 1956
February 23, 1957
April 5, 1959
February 28, 1960
February 19, 1961
May 11, 1963
December 6, 1964

In September 2021, Sony Classical released Marian Anderson: Beyond the Music, a special fifteen-CD set of recordings representing her complete catalog on RCA Victor, from her debut in 1924 through her final LP in 1966. The set received a 2022 Grammy Award nomination for Best Historical Album.

Special thanks to Eva Wilhelm—a music business student at Indiana State University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives—for her exceptional research in preparing this article.

This article also appears here.

Marian Anderson, ca. 1968

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s I Have a Dream speech, given during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, we are reminded that King appeared at Orchestra Hall on seven occasions, all presented under the auspices of the Sunday Evening Club:

MLK2 at OH

Martin Luther King, Jr. onstage at Orchestra Hall on March 14, 1965 (Chicago Tribune photo)

January 12, 1958
April 19, 1959
February 21, 1960
January 29, 1961
April 15, 1962
January 27, 1963
March 14, 1965

During his final appearance, King addressed a capacity crowd at Orchestra Hall (several hundred people had to be turned away at the door) in the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, in which citizens marching for African American voting rights were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers, in full view of photographers and journalists. The next week, King returned to Selma, leading thousands in a march to the state capitol of Montgomery, contributing to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Chicago Tribune article courtesy of Proquest via the Chicago Public Library.


On January 29, 30, and 31, 1976, Sir Georg Solti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s first performances of Roger Sessions‘s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The work had been chosen as part of the CSO’s recognition of the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.

According to Arrand Parsons’s program note, in Walt Whitman‘s poem, three symbols appear: “the ‘great star,’ representing the assassinated Lincoln; the lilac, which usually is interpreted as human love; the thrush, representing the soul which has as its song the carol of death, a carol Whitman accepts as his own when he says ‘the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.’ Sessions has arranged the score into three continuous parts. The first part sets the mournful mood and presents the symbolic elements: the ‘powerful western fallen star,’ the lilacs, and the song of the thrush. In the second part, the poet describes Lincoln’s funeral train slowly moving from Washington to Springfield, and his burial. The poet describes the land and its people, and a central and high point is the alto solo in which the ‘carol of the bird’ reflects on death. At the end, the symbols are united.”

The composer also contributed to the program note: “My cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was composed principally between 1967 and 1969; the orchestral score was finished in the autumn of 1970. The work was commissioned by the Committee for Arts and lectures of the University of California at Berkeley, in celebration of the University’s centennial in 1968; but it also represents, for me, the fruition of an idea that had been in my mind for very many years. Even during my adolescent years—the period of the First World War—the poem, written under the spell of one of the most tragic moments of our history, with its moving evocation of the rich American landscape in spring, with its lilacs, its forests, and its thrushes, and of the Civil War, had touched me very deeply; and in 1921 I even made a number of musical sketches for a possible musical setting of it. I was not satisfied with these sketches, however, and concluded that I was not ready at that time to undertake such a work. I never forgot it, however, and when the proposal was made that I write a work involving chorus and possible solo voice, it became clear to me that the time had come for me to write this work. I have to confess that only after having made many preliminary sketches and having become thoroughly involved in the music did I fully realize what its dimensions must be.

“The dedication to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy was, of course, the result of the fact that their political assassinations occurred while I was working on the second part of the cantata.

“I have used as my text Whitman’s poem in its entirety with only occasional brief cuts, which the musical setting as I conceived it seemed to demand. These cuts are mainly in the third section, though to a lesser extent in the second also. They all occur at moments where verbal elaboration or repetition, though very powerful and very characteristic in the text as such, seemed to me redundant in the context of a musical setting.”

For these performances, soprano Sarah Beatty, mezzo-soprano Josephine Veasey, and baritone Dominic Cossa were the soloists; and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. The second half of the program included the first CSO and CSC performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Reviews of the performances are here and here.

the vault

Theodore Thomas


The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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