Saturday, July 18, 2020

PopTimesUK.com: When Marian Anderson Defied The Nazis [Anderson became an international superstar overnight.]

Marian Anderson
(Thurman)


July 17, 2020

At a time when many Black artists were fleeing Europe, the singer Marian Anderson chose to stay.Photograph from Everett Collection / Shutterstock

If Americans know one fact about the legendary African-American contralto Marian Anderson, it’s that she sang in defiance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939. When the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her request to perform in the D.A.R. Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C., for racist reasons, Anderson picked up her musical scores and, instead, sang Schubert and African-American spirituals on the steps of the Memorial, to more than seventy-five thousand people. But that performance was not Anderson’s first time confronting anti-Black racism in such a spectacular manner that she made international news. Throughout the nineteen-thirties, Anderson stared down opposition in Nazi Germany and Fascist Austria.

It’s not clear, exactly, when people began to treat Anderson as more of a saint than a singer. Over time, Anderson, like other Black women, has been reduced to a civil-rights sound bite, a single moment of respectable resistance instead of a lifetime of determined nonconformity. Part of her beatification rests on the conversion of her image to an immediately recognizable trope: the dignified, stoic, middle-aged Black woman—silent, too, unless her mouth was open in song.

But Anderson was young once. Fashionable. Pretty. Reading through European newspapers and her letters home, one quickly discovers that Anderson rivalled the popular entertainer Josephine Baker when it came to drawing public attention in Central Europe. Walking down Salzburg’s hilly cobblestone streets during her first day in the Alpine city, in the summer of 1935, Anderson was trailed by a cadre of journalists everywhere she went, and men tossed out marriage proposals to her like chefs throwing spaghetti against a wall, hoping one would stick. “There is a Baron following Miss Anderson around,” the African-American pianist Josephine Harreld Love gossiped to her parents, in a letter from Salzburg, where she was studying. “The men are crazy about her. She does look grand.”

Anderson was also ambitious. Having grown frustrated with the insurmountable barriers of institutional racism in the U.S., she found herself, by the mid-twenties—like so many other African-American classical musicians at the time—facing three impossible options. First, unable to sing at most prominent concert venues, she could continue to tread water professionally and accept a middling career. Second, she could leave the world of classical music altogether, eschewing her studies for a potentially more lucrative career in Black popular music. Or, third, she could get on a boat and set sail for Europe, a continent she’d never seen.

She chose Europe. “I was going stale,” she later confessed in her memoir. “[My] career needed a fresh impetus, and perhaps a European stamp would help.” After all, her contemporary, the African-American tenor Roland Hayes, had earned plentiful accolades and money abroad in the twenties. (The Times reported, in 1927, that Hayes was earning a hundred thousand dollars a year.) Garlanded with glowing European reviews, Hayes made it difficult for white American listeners and institutions to deny his musical excellence. It was understandable that Anderson would wish for the same outcome.

African-Americans, from the opera singer Sissieretta Jones to the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, had long asserted that Europe was the true land of racial acceptance. That notion was, and remains, a fiction. Germany and Austria were hostile environments for Jews and people of color in the twenties and thirties. By 1925, performing in these countries without racist and nationalist opposition at concert venues had become virtually impossible for Black musicians. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, in 1933, coupled with the birth of a Fascist state in Austria, meant that Black people in Central Europe—whether Afro-Germans, African migrants, or African-Americans abroad—encountered more violence in their daily lives, not less.

Anderson discovered the depths of anti-Black racism for herself, when she sought permission to perform at the Salzburg Festival, in 1935. The last time that a Black musician had sung in the city, Nazi rioters chased him out. “I thought I was in some of the southern sections of the United States when I heard the mob,” the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey told the Chicago Daily Tribune. “I never expected this in Europe.” An op-ed that appeared in the local Austrian newspaper the following day denounced Pankey’s performance as an act of desecration. “A negro who sings German lieder,” the author wrote, “jeopardizes German culture.”

Unsurprisingly, the Salzburg Festival rejected Anderson’s petition to sing. But what Anderson did next illustrates a pattern of behavior that she would deploy as a weapon throughout her career: she showed up anyway. The first night of the festival, she sang at the Mozarteum concert hall, to a small number of listeners. Word spread. A few nights later, she sang again, this time in a hotel ballroom to hundreds of élite musicians, who applauded her act of defiance—and, by sitting in their seats and thumbing their noses at the festival’s administration, joined her in that defiance. After her recital, the conductor Arturo Toscanini came backstage to utter his now famous declaration: “What I heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.” Anderson became an international superstar overnight.

Nevertheless, she faced racist criticisms of her musicianship throughout her European tour. Listeners constantly fetishized her voice, calling it guttural or negroid—“a dark voice, brown like her skin.” Even those who claimed to adore her did so on racial grounds, treating her voice as an audible marker of her race. Other Black musicians received similar responses. Sick of Austrian tabloids smearing his name, Hayes left for the United States, saying that European racism was partly to blame for his departure.

Anderson, in contrast, kept touring. In June, 1936, just a few months before the track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, Anderson was scheduled to perform with the conductor Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The menace of Nazi stink bombs at their concerts were reason enough to deter most singers. The death threats that Anderson and Walter received were another matter. But Anderson stood on the main stage of Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall with him anyway, and sang Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody” to a sold-out house, observed from the shadows by plainclothes detectives. One Viennese music critic stated that the audience had witnessed something bigger than itself—a performance of musical brotherhood despite a rising tide of racial hatred.

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