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  • Writer's pictureTJ Blakeman

Marian Anderson Wows Twin Cities

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

World Famous Contralto Visited CU with Performs at the University of Illinois Auditorium on January 14, 1941.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial 1939 - Library of Congress

On the evening of Tuesday, January 14, 1941, the Twin Cities was "spellbound" by the incredible voice of Marian Anderson. Ms. Anderson was invited to sing at the University of Illinois Auditorium (now Foellinger Auditorium) as the debut performance of the 1941 season presented by Star Course, the student-run concert promotion and production organization.

Early Stardom

Marian Anderson - Library of Congress

Ms. Anderson was born in 1897 and made her first public appearance at age six at the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia. She was given the nickname "Baby Contralto." She made her first professional appearance two years later, at age eight, and became a notable singer touring in various churches. She was rejected from the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her color after high school. With the help of her church, pastor, and Philadelphia's Black community, she continued to train with well-known singers Agnes Reifsnyder and Guiseppe Boghetti.

World Travels

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Ms. Anderson grew ever more popular as she toured within the United States and Europe. Stops included Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Wigmore Hall in London, Russia, Salzburg, and many major European capitals.

Easter Sunday, 1939

The most famous concert of her career occurred on Easter Sunday, 1939. Ms. Anderson had planned an Easter Concert in Consitution Hall at the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters across the street from the White House. However, Washington D.C. was still segregated, and the DAR had a policy of only permitting white performers to play in the Hall. Alternative venues, including local High School auditoriums, were sought out, but all were denied. The decision set off a firestorm of reaction from the NAACP, Labor Unions, and the National Negro Congress. The decision by the DAR also led thousands of members to resign their membership, including perhaps their most famous member, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt convinced her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes, to arrange for a memorable open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The concert was performed on Easter Sunday in front of more than 75,000 spectators with millions at home listening, thanks to the National Broadcasting Corporation. Then, just months later, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Ms. Anderson to sing for the President in a personal concert, only this time at the White House before their guests, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England.

Watch the full American Experience Documentary "Voice of Freedom"

Plans for a University Concert

The students at Star Course extended an invitation to Ms. Anderson to become the inaugural performance in the 1941 concert schedule. She accepted, and the date of the concert was set for Tuesday, January 14, 1941, at 8:00 PM. The News-Gazette covered the event and printed a copy of the planned program in the Sunday edition:

  • Begrussung, Handel

  • Der Flotte Weich Gefuhl, Handel

  • Agnus Dei, Bizet

  • Liebesbotschaft, Nacht and Traume

  • Die Forelle

  • Ave Maria, Schubert

  • Pleurez mes yeux

  • Aria from "Le Cid", Massenet

  • Aureole, Wyhle

  • The Daisies, Barber

  • Songs to the Dark Virgin, Price

  • Finish Humoresque (The Girls and Boys All Love), Vehauen

  • Negro Spirituals

  • Sinner Please, Doan' Let Dis' Harvest Pass

  • The Gospel Train, arranged by Burleigh

  • Tramping, arranged by Boatner

  • Dere's No Hiding Place Down Here, arranged by Brown

You can watch Marian Anderson sing Ave Maria in 1952 on the Ed Sullivan Show.

A Not So Warm Reception

Official Portrait of University President Arthur C. Willard

In the 1984 book "I Fly the Flag" written by Betsy Ross, niece of University President

Authur Cutts Willard, Ms. Ross recalls a

disappointing and troubling story related to Ms. Anderson's visit to CU. She remembers that the Star Course Managers faced a crisis. Ms. Anderson was denied lodging at local hotels because of the color of her skin and no suitable homes in the black community could be found to entertain her. Her accompanist and manager, both white, had no issues with obtaining accommodations. The crisis reached President Willard's desk, who put the group at ease by extending Ms. Anderson a personal offer to stay with him and Mrs. Willard and the President's House on Florida Avenue.

Mr. and Mrs. Willard greeted Ms. Anderson and hosted a light dinner at 6 PM. Mr. Willard called for his limousine at 7:30, and the two drove to the auditorium, where the President personally escorted Ms. Anderson to her dressing room. Mrs. Willard and Ms. Ross followed behind in the Willards' car. Because Ms. Andersons next engagement wasn't for several days, she and her team were welcomed to stay in the President's house to rest and practice. Ms. Ross stated in her book that "she had her meals, etc., as one of our family." She also had an opportunity to welcome black sorority members to the home one afternoon.

Spellbound Response

The News-Gazette staff writer Fran Myers wrote the review of the concert the following day.

"No wonder Marian Anderson contralto holds concert-goers spellbound. Her inevitable ease of presentation of song, true notes, and accuracy of tones, plus the quality of her singing, takes her to the top of her profession.

University Star Course patrons certainly long will remember Miss Anderson's concert as the highlight of the season and a brilliant opening for the 1941 year of concert and recital.

This was typified in Miss Anderson's enthusiastic recall to the stage for encores, which she graciously presented. Miss Anderson seems to be everything the musical critics have said. And now Champaign-Urbana's music-loving public may see why she has been chosen for brilliant appearances before such persons as the Kind and Queen of England.

Accompanying Miss Anderson was Franz Rupp, whose part in this concert was no small portion.

Miss Anderson's tones could be deep and rich, or high and delicate, all easily attained. It seemed to be no effort for her to sing. There too, is a dramatic quality to her voice, which might take her into fields other than concert stage work. Because of her tone qualities and ease of singing, her enunciation was another feature which takes Miss Anderson high in her profession.

Several substitutes were made in her printed program, as she sang "Death and the Maiden, Schubert, instead of Nacht and Traume in the second part of her program. For the fourth number, she substituted three songs, singing Eppie McNab: Mistress Mine; Anuri Anuri; and Songs to the Dark Virgin. Songs My Mother Taught Me, was an encore which clearly displayed the contralto's voice control as was Tramping, one of the negro spirituals.

She was the guest of President and Mrs. A.C. Willard while here. Sigma Alpha Iota honorary musical sorority presented Miss Anderson with flowers at the concert."

To learn more about Marian Anderson, you can visit the Marian Anderson Historical Society

Watch the PBS documentary "Voice of Freedom" aired 12/21/2021

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