Today is the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Washington Performing Arts Society is going all-out to commemorate the event on Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall – the hall where Anderson was originally denied the right to perform – with a star-studded gala involving everyone from Dionne Warwick to Jessye Norman to a few surprise guests to a chorus 300 voices strong.
Test question: how many of you can identify Marian Anderson? Why was she important? WPAS has created a video series asking members of Congress the same question; it’s not clear that everyone has a strong answer.
Classical music is particularly big on commemorations and anniversaries. They’re a way to further the field’s basic goal of keeping history and tradition alive – and of trying to convince new audiences of the relevance of great old music. The Bach or Mozart or Verdi year might spur a newcomer to dip a toe into the waters of the repertory, especially if it’s repackaged – thank you, record labels – for the purpose.
But the idea of commemoration in the case of the Anderson concert is particularly important. This wasn’t a classical music event as much as it was a landmark of American social history. Classical music’s color barrier took a long time to be broken. In the 1920s the tenor Roland Hayes, later a mentor to many African American singers, found a level of fame and recognition in Europe he never quite achieved at home; and Anderson herself didn’t sing at the Met until a single performance in 1955, which was also of more social than musical relevance since she was already past her vocal prime. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that African-American artists started to become a significant presence on American opera and recital stages: Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, and others.
A big reason to reexamine Anderson’s concert, and its legacy, is that many feel African-American participation in this art form has stalled. Male singers, certainly, have made big strides: Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens are two of today’s reigning stars, while Ryan Speedo Green and Soloman Howard and Noah Stewart are a few of the brighter lights on the up-and-coming side of the ledger. But there are fewer African American female star singers, and certainly no one with the impact of a Price, or a Jessye Norman, who will host the WPAS event.
75 years ago, Anderson may have put some cracks in a glass ceiling that finally broke under pressure. But the field still has a long, long way to go.