Commemorations and glass ceilings: Marian Anderson’s concert

Marian Anderson, April 9, 1939.

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.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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