Marian Anderson’s voice is another that often defies categorization according to the standard voice register definitions. She classified herself as a contralto, or a woman who sings in the lowest register possible for women. In fact, in some of her recordings and performances, she dropped well into baritone and even basso territory (and soared into mezzo), although voice enthusiasts debate whether or not the words should be used to refer to a woman’s voice.
Anderson was born in or near Philadelphia at the turn of the last century, into a country that did not easily recognize such awesome talent and ambition in a black person of either gender. Anderson was unable to perform in American opera companies, which did not accept black performers, and even audiences were not permitted to be integrated. As a result, she performed as a concert vocalist before finding astonishing success in Europe, freer of color-based tensions than America at the time.
The two European musicians most closely associated with Anderson were the Finn Jean Sibelius, who wrote specifically for her and stated that her voice had revealed the Nordic soul, and the renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, who famously stated that Anderson had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.” Such lauds communicated themselves back to the United States, where she finally found the fame and recognition that her voice and work merited.
She is best known for the free, open-air concert given by her in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial, arranged by then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission to her to sing in Constitution Hall because of her color, and because the audience would also be mixed color. (This resulted in some women resigning their memberships in the DAR, including Mrs. Roosevelt.) Later, in 1943, she was able to perform to a mixed audience at the Hall by invitation of the DAR.
Anderson died in 1993 at the age of 96 and is most remembered, as is fitting, for the beauty, power, and mindblowing range of her voice, as well as for her dignified persistence in the face of unjust obstacles.
Classified as a contralto, Anderson dropped into baritone and even basso more than once without vocal fry but could also sustain mezzo-soprano without strain, truly a once-in-a-century voice as Toscanini claimed. She began singing at the age of six in a choir and beyond that was trained privately, as black people were not welcomed into the vocal academies and schools of the time. The standard belief among voice enthusiasts is that a woman cannot or should not sing baritone or anything lower without risking damage to the voice; the length of Anderson’s career belies this, but it is true that most vocalists could probably not manage her astonishing range. However, as with men who sing countertenor, it is likely that many women are capable of it within the operatic world but are not trained to do so. Anderson’s training outside of the operatic mainstream may well have permitted her to exercise her full voice free of the perceived constraints of that world.
Marian Anderson — Wikipedia entry
Clips illustrating her amazing range:
“Casta Diva” — picks up well into mezzo territory. Contrasting the magnificence of 2:00-2:30 with the following link makes clear just how immortal this woman’s voice was.
“Deep River” — excellent contralto, very smooth and confident.
“Ave Maria” — Truly the most perfect version ever recorded.
“Death and the Maiden” — an amazing range, perfectly clear through her entire range. Contrast with the clip below, where she drops into baritone, with the general tonal quality one expects from a woman’s voice. Drops into basso at 2:21.
“Hear de Lam’s a Cryin’ — well and firmly into baritone. Contrast with Roland Hayes, who sings it exactly in the same key and register, if Anderson’s voice is a bit woodier in the same range while Hayes’s features a contrasting lightness.
Clip illustrating her speaking voice:
Interview in 1990 — discussing Roland Hayes. Again, a very unremarkable speaking voice, lower than some but she was also quite old here.