Sony Classical Releases Beyond the Music - Marian Anderson's Complete RCA Victor Recordings

The Ultimate Tribute to America’s “Voice of Freedom”

Available August 27, 2021 | Pre-Order Now

Set highlights and contents:

  • Special 15-CD edition celebrating contralto Marian Anderson, the first Black singer at the Met

  • First-ever release of her complete RCA Victor recordings in a single edition, meticulously restored from the original analog masters using 24 bit / 96 kHz technology

  • 72 works appearing on CD for the first time, 9 recordings previously unreleased

  • First release of her fully restored complete Farewell Recital at Constitution Hall

  • Richly illustrated 228-page book with a new essay by American historian Raymond Arsenault, author of The Sound of Freedom and Freedom Riders, numerous photos and facsimiles, and complete discographical notes

On April 9, 1939, a cold Easter Sunday, a woman in a fur coat walked down the steps of Lincoln Memorial, ready to perform open-air after being refused the largest hall in Washington because she was Black.

As contralto Marian Anderson raised her voice to sing the words of My Country, ’Tis of Thee to the 75,000 who gathered to listen to her, an unforgettable historic moment unfolded. The great voice of “The Lady from Philadelphia,” first discovered by her local neighborhood, took her to global fame on the stages of Europe, Asia, and America. She became the first Black woman to perform at the Met in New York, she sang for presidents and kings, was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and with her dignity, courage, and unwavering belief in equal rights she became an icon in her supportive role for the civil rights movement.

The present edition is the first release of Marian Anderson’s complete recorded legacy for RCA Victor, to be released by Sony Classical on August 6, 2021. Along with the first-ever complete release of her legendary Farewell Recital at Constitution Hall in 1964, many recordings appear here on CD for the first time. From her debut in 1924 for the Victor label to her last LP from 1966, all recordings have been meticulously restored and remastered from the original analog masters. The 228-page coffee-table book contains numerous photos and facsimiles, a new essay by Raymond Arsenault – author of The Sound of Freedom and Freedom Riders – and full discographical notes. It is a homage to the artistic life of a singer “one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years” (Toscanini) and who left us a legacy of humanity, generosity, talent, and faith.

The Marian Anderson Phenomenon

She looked out upon a sea of faces. Standing before her were 75,000 people poised to hear her sing. Directly facing her was a phalanx of microphones, ready for a live broadcast to millions of listeners, anonymous and invisible. Though famed throughout Europe and familiar with the great concert halls of the Old World, she had never faced a situation like this before. “I could not run away from this situation,” she wrote later. “If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.” The piano accompaniment began, she closed her eyes, and sang – with a voice which, to quote Arturo Toscanini, “one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.”

With this performance from the Lincoln Memorial, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson – shy, unassuming, preternaturally gifted – entered the social history of her native land. For she wasn’t originally meant to sing there at all: she had been scheduled to perform in nearby Constitution Hall at the invitation of Howard University. But the owners of the hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution, had a particular clause included in every contract: whites only. Their most distinguished member, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, threatened to leave the organization unless Marian Anderson were permitted to appear. The august body declined, and Eleanor Roosevelt held good on her promise. A makeshift venue had to be found. So great was the interest that the concert could only be held out of doors. The choice fell on the Lincoln Memorial, owned by the Department of the Interior. So Marian Anderson was duly led onto its steps and introduced by none other than Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. It was a victory in the battle against racial segregation in the United States, comparable in its way to the triumphs of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics three years earlier and John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in Carnegie Hall the previous year. Like the latter, it was recorded. Unlike the latter, it was also filmed, and can be relived today on the Internet in all the excitement of the occasion.

Marian Anderson never boasted of this achievement; indeed, she was not known to boast at all. Born in modest circumstances in South Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, she sang in church from the age of six and was already holding concerts of spirituals as a teenager. In 1925 she bested 300 contestants in a New York singing contest and was allowed to give a concert in Lewisohn Stadium. By then she had already made her first recordings, for RCA Victor. But her sights were set on further study – an opportunity denied her in America because of her race – and on gathering experience in the international arena. A concert in London’s Wigmore Hall, accompanied by the redoubtable Sir Henry Wood, launched her career in England and on the Continent. With her charming stage presence, excellent diction even in foreign languages, and superb musicality, she was rapturously received on the European scene, whether in Paris or Vienna, Brussels or Barcelona, Geneva or Berlin, or – like her no less gifted Black-American countryman Paul Robeson – in the newly-founded Soviet Union. Her repertoire was anything but limited: she sang Massenet and Hugo Wolf, Handel and Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti and Schumann, Brahms and Saint-Saëns, Verdi and Sibelius, even Debussy’s little-known early cantata L’Enfant prodigue. But a special attraction was always her rendition of spirituals: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child or Go Down, Moses. Her London recordings of 1928 only expanded her audience; one in particular – Delilah’s “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (sung in English as “Softly Awakes My Heart”) – became a best-seller. Later tours took her to Australia and to Argentina, where she sang seventeen recitals in Buenos Aires alone in 1937. By then she had already made appearances at the 1935 Salzburg Festival (prompting Toscanini’s above-mentioned pronouncement) and Carnegie Hall. She even received an honorary doctorate of music from Howard University (1938). But none of this was enough to sway the iron resolve of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Thereafter Marian Anderson’s triumphs continued apace: a White House performance in honor of King George VI (1939), the first performance by a Black singer at Japan’s imperial court (1953). But perhaps none was as portentous as her appearance at the New York Metropolitan Opera on January 7, 1955, when she sang Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera as a fully-fledged member of the ensemble. Another color line had been crossed: she was the first Black-American to be accorded this honor – or, rather, the first to honor the stage of the New York Met with her presence. It is not far-fetched to claim that this opened the doors of those hallowed precincts to generations of great Black-American singers: Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, Reri Grist and Grace Bumbry, Barbara Hendricks and Kathleen Battle, the great baritones Simon Estes and Eric Owens, all the way to the present day with Angel Blue and Pretty Yende, to name only a few.

By the time of her Met début, in 1955, Marian Anderson was already 57 years old, an age when most opera singers contemplate retirement. Although she never sang at the Met again, she was made a permanent member of the ensemble. Awards continued to come her way: an honorary doctorate from Princeton, where she was the guest of the Einsteins (altogether she received approximately 50 honorary degrees), and national orders of merit from Finland, Japan, and Sweden. She sang at the White House for Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1957, and again for Kennedy’s in 1961. Her autobiography of 1956, My Lord, What a Morning, became an immediate best-seller (it was reissued by the University of Illinois Press in 2002). In 1977 the United States Congress struck a special gold medal in her honor, putatively to mark her 80th birthday. By the time of her death in Portland, Oregon, on April 8, 1993, at the age of 96, she was among the most highly decorated and beloved singers in the world.

Although never a political activist, by her mere presence, achievement, and grace under pressure Marian Anderson served as an example to generations of Black men and women in the arts. Her name fits easily alongside such better-known figures as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, James Meredith and Rosa Parks, in the long and troubled history of Black-American emancipation. In 1963 she returned to the Lincoln Memorial as part of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, where, in a historical echo of her 1939 performance, she sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands to the assembled throng. Back then she had begun by singing the familiar patriotic hymn My Country, ’Tis of Thee. But when she came to the end of the first tercet, rather than the words “of thee I sing,” already appropriated as the title of a Gershwin musical, she made a significant change: she sang “of thee we sing.” It was an all-inclusive gesture, and a promise still awaiting fulfillment.

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