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A Salute to Marian Anderson

70 years ago today, on Easter Sunday, Marian Anderson gave her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This event will be commemorated and celebrated by Denyce Graves and other artists in a free concert this afternoon.

To mark the occasion, I'm linking to Alex Ross's very fine Marian Anderson piece in the New Yorker.

Edited to add: A Refrain of Song and Citizenship. Richard Leiby covered Sunday's event for The Washington Post.

Edited again to add: Emily Langer, a Washington Post staffer, also attended Sunday's concert and wrote thoughtfully about her own experience of it. Read her piece after the jump.

By Emily Langer
The song that defined Marian Anderson’s place in American history is one that most Americans sing by rote. But on Sunday, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Denyce Graves reminded anyone listening of the day when the entire nation heard “My Country ’Tis of Thee” as if for the first time.

Graves's performance marked the 70th anniversary of Anderson’s concert on the same spot, organized after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from singing in Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. Wearing a floor-length gown given to her by the great African American contralto, Graves sang the first three numbers of Anderson’s 1939 performance, then joined the U.S. Marine Band, the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Chicago Children’s Choir for a few more. “America,” first up, was the song the crowd was waiting to hear.

The reason: When Anderson approached what the poet Kevin Young called a “bouquet of microphones” that chilly April day in 1939, she changed the first line of the anthem. “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,” she sang, trilling her r’s, “of thee we sing.” Most of the 75,000 people gathered to hear her didn’t notice that she had substituted “we” for “I,” writes Raymond Arsenault in his new book about the concert, The Sound of Freedom, and Anderson never revealed whether she made the change intentionally or just slipped up. But that “we” turned into an elegant, understated call for solidarity.

Graves sang “America” just as Anderson did. But with the words “of thee we sing,” even her majestic voice seemed small compared to Anderson’s. For that moment, Graves sounded like Colin Powell when he read selections of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address earlier in the afternoon: The voice was hers, but the words belonged to someone who is no longer here; her job was simply to bring those words to life again.

The second number, “O, mio Fernando" from Donizetti's "La Favorita," with its dusky, visceral low notes, played to Graves’s strengths. She is at her greatest in sultry roles such as Carmen and Delilah, and she sang with as much drama on the sparking white steps of the Lincoln Memorial as she does on the opera stage.

Recordings of Anderson’s “O, mio Fernando” offer a different experience. She sang the aria more reverently than Graves did, perhaps because it meant so much to her. It’s what she sang in a competition in 1925 when judges—who had already heard 50 other contestants—selected the 28-year-old Anderson to sing with the New York Philharmonic.

Anderson's third song, and Graves’s final solo before she joined the other performers, was Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” She sang it in German, a language that Anderson worked hard to perfect after some European listeners criticized her diction. Sung by Anderson—who at the height of World War II was forced to eat her sandwich outside an Alabama restaurant while German POWs were served inside—Sir Walter Scott's words take on special meaning: “Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, / Though banished, outcast, and reviled.” Graves’s rendition was so moving that, from behind opera glasses and through tears, her figure blurred to make her look like a lady in an Impressionist painting.

“O, mio Fernando” and “Ave Maria” didn’t get Graves the applause that Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Chicago Children’s Choir received for their exuberant performances, which had people clapping and singing and at least one woman in the crowd shaking a tambourine. And they deserved it, especially the kids: They were fabulous. But the more subdued response to Anderson made me think of that old saying: We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. People listened to Denyce Graves twice as much as they cheered, which I imagine was quite all right with her, because she was probably trying to listen for Marian, too.

--Emily Langer

By Anne Midgette  |  April 12, 2009; 9:38 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews , music history  
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