DOCUMENTARY "American Masters: Marian Anderson: Whole World In Her Hands"
WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Born in Philadelphia in 1897 — her father John sold coal at Reading Terminal and her mother Annie had been a teacher — Marian Anderson was to become one of the world's leading singers. As this film by Rita Coburn (2017's "Maya Angelou: And I Still Rise") makes so clear, the path forward was complicated. Confronting racism in the U.S., Anderson went to Europe in the early '30s where she achieved worldwide fame, largely as an interpreter of German lieder. The impresario Sol Hurok got her to return to the U.S. and following a 1935 concert at New York's Town Hall, she became a superstar, albeit one who couldn't travel freely in either the south or north. When the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused her accommodation, Albert Einstein invited her to his home instead (she was to return year after year). Anderson was to become a Civil Rights icon but also spent nearly fifty years — quietly — on her farm outside Danbury, Connecticut, with husband architect Orpheus H. "King" Fisher. She died in 1993.
MY SAY "American Masters'' launched in 1986, to which you might reasonably wonder — what took so long to get around to Marian Anderson? She was the most famous American contralto of the 20th century, while her lists of firsts, from the Lincoln Memorial concert (1939) to the Metropolitan Opera (1955), were to become important landmarks in the Civil Rights movement. Celebrated by presidents and European nobility, she also opened doors for Black operatic stars and helped to keep them open. (She was the first Black artist to sing at the Met). Arturo Toscanini — who ought to know — said after an Anderson concert that "one has an experience like this once in a hundred years."
Why then so long to experience this portrait? Maybe Anderson herself had something to do with it. During her lifetime, this non-diva neither sought "portraits" nor for that matter renown. With greatness achieved, she also had some measure of greatness thrust upon her. She didn't actively seek a role in the Civil Rights struggle, but her stature as an artist ensured a role nonetheless. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Washington's Constitution Hall in 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt angrily quit her membership in protest. By quiet contrast, Anderson simply took up an offer to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead. One of the most celebrated concerts in American history followed and her only apparent concession to the snub heard around the world was to change a single word in "My Country 'Tis of Thee." ("Of thee I sing" became "Of thee WE sing.")
As this warm, intelligent portrait makes so clear, Anderson's Civil Rights achievements rarely came by way of word or deed, but by example. She never drew attention to herself, but attention came anyway. The triumphant European tours of the '30s were followed by ones in the U.S. which were diminished by the countless humiliations every other Black artist was also forced to absorb. "You'll never please everybody," her mother Annie told her plainly. "Just do the best possible."
For Anderson, the best possible would be good enough. The mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves explains here that Anderson's "voice carries everything. It has blood in it, memory in it … with that voice, she didn't have to say, 'no this is not right.' Her voice said that."
This dignified titan of 20th century music might be pleased by that observation.
BOTTOM LINE Luminous portrait of a gentle giant.