Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

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On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.

Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:

Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.

Five Great Recordings

Politics and Music: Ferguson Protest at the Saint Louis Symphony

Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during recent protest.
Banners hung from the balcony at Powell Hall during the recent protest.

This past Saturday’s Saint Louis Symphony concert at Powell Hall became the stage for a peaceful protest of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. A performance of Brahms’ German Requiem was delayed briefly as a flash mob throughout the hall began singing,

Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for us All,
Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?

The well-sung protest lasted about a minute before the group left the hall on their own. Some members of the audience and orchestra applauded in support of the protesters, who had purchased tickets for the performance. A banner, unfurled from the balcony, urged concertgoers to “Join the Movement.” There seems to be a general consensus that both the protesters and the Saint Louis Symphony handled the situation with dignity and respect.

But the protest also revealed some unfortunate stereotypes (and realities) about symphonic concerts and perceived class and ethnic divisions. In an article in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuels wrote that protesters “put on sports coats and fancy dresses and sat in on the St. Louis Symphony.” Quotes from one of the organizers of the flash mob suggested that the protest was an attempt to force wealthy members of the community out of their comfort zones towards an acknowledgment of the reality of racism. Both views seem to be built on the assumption that orchestra concerts are little more than social gatherings for wealthy elites. Nothing should be further from the truth. The Brahms Requiem and other masterworks have the power to speak to everyone and should be available to the entire community. At its core, listening to live music is a powerful individual experience, not a superficial social outing.

So what connections exist between politics, emotion and music? Often we assume that composers and performers are expressing their innermost feelings through music. However, music transcends politics, morality and individual expression to reach a reality which can be felt but cannot be put into words. Gustav Mahler described the experience of looking down at the page with the sensation that the music had not come from his intellect, but from somewhere else. In the most transcendent concerts, many musicians have experienced the rare and mysterious sensation of the music playing “through” them. At its essence, music isn’t about individual expression or the emotions of composers. It doesn’t tell stories. It goes beyond all of that, and in attuned moments, we find ourselves connected to a profound reality.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

-W.H. Auden

 Deep River

Here is legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) singing the spiritual, Deep River: