This was, and remains, a key event in modern American social and cultural history: contralto Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was an extraordinary singer and, in 1939, was one of the most famous and accomplished classical musicians in the world. That year, her manager Sol Hurok tried to book a performance for her in Constitution Hall, the only large auditorium at that time in Washington D.C. But the hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization for, in their own words, “Any woman 18 years or older who can prove lineal, bloodline descent from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence… She must provide documentation for each statement of birth, marriage and death, as well as of the Revolutionary War service of her Patriot ancestor.”
Defining oneself by lineal descent from the secular gods, the Founding Fathers, and their associates, quite obviously means defining oneself on racist and reactionary terms. That was not just the de facto status of the DAR until only recently, but de jure was well—the DAR barred Black musicians from performing in Constitution Hall because it didn’t want white and Black people to sit together. This led to a couple cultural shifts, the least of which was Eleanor Roosevelt resigning from the organization. More important, and unforgettable, was the replacement concert Anderson gave, outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial. Inside at Constitution Hall she might have sung to a few thousand people. Seating was free and integrated, and something like 75,000 people came and heard Anderson sing “America” and selected classical and spiritual pieces. The concert was broadcast live on NBC radio and shown after the fact via newsreel footage in movie theaters, meaning many millions of people experienced this performance (Anderson stayed overnight afterward at a private home, because Washington hotels barred Black guests).
The immediate crux was demolishing the racist fear of having Black skin next to white skin and showing the cowardice of the DAR. Then there was the obvious cultural fear, that of a Black musician performing within a tradition dominated, for good and ill, by white and especially European artists. Not that the music could have mattered much to the DAR, as racism makes it impossible for anyone to genuinely care about art, but it did matter to Anderson’s fans and to classical music lovers.
This was an essential moment for both classical music having cultural meaning on a national level in America—something that has happened maybe a handful of times if one takes the most capacious view—and in desegregating classical music. Of course, the historical truth is that there have always been important Black composers and musicians since classical music became abstract art in the pre-romantic era. Joseph Bologne was a meaningful figure in the music in the eighteenth century, Beethoven dedicated his incredible “Kreutzer” Sonata to violinist George Bridgetower, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been a staple of the repertoire for a century, and, especially, on the American side of things, Florence Price and Julius Eastman have been undergoing rediscoveries that are absolutely deserved on the sheer quality of their music making.
Classical music prides itself as being a high-quality culture, and Anderson was of the highest quality. Last fall, Sony Classical released a fifteen-CD box set, with a gorgeous book of notes and photographs, titled Beyond the Music: Her Complete RCA Victor Recordings. The market considerations of being a Black classical musician reaching out to a mass audience means that she recorded spirituals, and as a well-known classical singer recorded a Christmas music album—not a new phenomenon—and they are worthwhile on their own merits. More importantly, she sang Verdi, Donizetti, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, music at the absolute core of the classical tradition, and these recordings are stunning.
She was blessed with a rare instrument, a true contralto range with a rich and cavernous low end, but her sound was also delicate, floating, agile—deep dimensions and real mass but without weight, like the notion of floating Jupiter in a bathtub. Hearing her sing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, Schubert songs like “Ständchen,” “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” and “Aufenthalt” is an experience that goes beyond the limited judgment of classical interpretation—how well is she delivering what the composer wrote—into the universal one of hearing a great singer sing great songs. Songs are just songs, and they are where the self-conscious art music tradition of classical music meets Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Carole King, The Beatles, and Tom Waits. Listeners who can’t attune themselves to a Mozart opera, a Mahler symphony, or even a Beethoven piano sonata can still hear Anderson sing great songs and feel the intense humanity of her expression covering them like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. Knowledge of German not required for understanding.
We are, as unimaginable as it used to be, entering an era where Black musicians in classical music are conspicuous only for their abilities. Anderson opened that door, of course, but except for aficionados her legacy has been invisible—perhaps this new set will change that. Classical music institutions have been putting their efforts into seeing that there are excellent Black musicians out there, and change is happening. This may not seem obvious—the League of Orchestras reports that under 2% of orchestral musicians in America are Black, and the only Black musician in the New York Philharmonic is principal clarinetist Anthony McGill.
But something has happened, and McGill is part of that. At Barack Obama’s first inauguration, McGill was part of a group (with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero) that played John Williams’s Air and Simple Gifts. Obama’s election victory was a cultural shift in America, but so again was an audience of millions seeing a Black classical musician and seeing it as both possible and normal—and McGill is a virtuoso and one of the finest clarinet players in the world. While it’s easy for Americans to see the centrality of Black musicians in popular music, including country, where Charley Pride predated Mickey Guyton by a half-century, and he himself was preceded by musicians like DeFord Bailey and, of course, Ray Charles, seeing McGill had that quality of having to stop for a moment and register that something different than usual was happening.
Something different was also happening in concert halls this past fall and early winter. In October, the Philharmonic played in Alice Tully Hall, and McGill was the soloist in Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent. This was an exceptional concert, one of the few classical experiences riveting from end to end, and this piece was a major part of it. The music came out of Davis’s wrestling with the experience of being stopped by the police and held at gunpoint for the mere reason of being a Black driver. It’s great music and a great performance, and Davis took his bows to a loud ovation. A remarkable thing about the audience reaction is that they, as a whole, had gone past the point of registering that a Black composer was on the program—he was there because the music was exciting and powerful and meaningful.
That was one of the highlights of the classical season so far. The others were the Philharmonic—again—playing Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call and the Philadelphia Orchestraplaying Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout and Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, all at Carnegie Hall. These were all excellent works that also had that essential American component of being clear statements of the composers’ voices and aesthetics, without being beholden to any school or ideology. That Black composers would be more committed to the American artistic birthright of being independent thinkers—and seemingly more knowledgeable of the history of American classical music—than most of their white peers was both unsurprising and refreshing. Why be beholden to an institutional structure that has excluded you for so long, when you can show those institutions just what they’re missing? But that the audiences, again, not only responded rapturously but without any sense that they were applauding the circumstances—and congratulating themselves for doing so—just the wonderful music, seemed like a real cultural shift and one of the few optimistic artistic notes of the past several years.