Marian Anderson, contralto – Var det en dröm (Sibelius)

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an African-American contralto and one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century. Most of her singing career was spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and with famous orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965. Although offered roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined. She preferred to perform in concert and recital only. She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals. She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.  Between 1940 and 1965 the German-American pianist Franz Rupp was her permanent accompanist.

Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall. The incident placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level unusual for a classical musician. With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. She sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. Anderson continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, becoming the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Operain New York City on January 7, 1955. Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage.

One thing that I should like to point out is that by the time Anderson made her debut at the Met, she was already well advanced in her career.  The offer should have come twenty years earlier, but that, unfortunately, speaks to the state of prejudice in the United States.  This artist, and I don’t use that word lightly, was a supreme interpreter of everything that she sang.  Also, while she is a contralto, she isn’t at the same time.  The voice was so free (by that, I mean that there was no grabbing in her throat and darkening the sound), that she had an enormous range.  This is why she could sing the following song.  I cannot say enough superlatives about her, both as an artist and as a human being.  It is unfortunate that so few people listen to her recordings today.  I remember seeing a film about her a long time ago.  It was called “The Lady from Philadelphia”.  It’s worth watching.

I am only including one song sung by Marian Anderson.  It is call “Var det en dröm”, by her friend Sibelius.  Miss Anderson sings it in Swedish.  Just for comparison, I am including the same song sung by Jussi Björling, a Swedish tenor.  See which one you like better.  The words and a translation are below.

Var det en dröm?

Var det en dröm, att ljuvt en gång
jag var ditt hjärtas vän?
Jag minns det som en tystnad sång,
då strängen darrar än.

Jag minns en törnros av dig skänkt,
en blick så blyg och öm;
jag minns en avskedstår, som blänkt.
Var allt, var allt en dröm?

En dröm lik sippans liv så kort
uti en vårgrön ängd,
vars fägring hastigt vissnar bort
för nya blommors mängd.

Men mången natt jag hör en röst
vid bittra tårars ström:
göm djupt dess minne i ditt bröst,
det var din bästa dröm!

Was it a dream?

Was it a dream, that once upon a blissful time
I was your heart’s friend?
I remember it like a silent song
Whose melody still lingers on.

I remember you gave me a rose
With a look so shy and tender,
I remember the glistening of a parting tear.
Was it all just a dream?

A dream like a wildflower’s life,
So brief in the verdant meadow,
Whose beauty quickly withers away
Within an ocean of new flowers

But on many a night I hear a voice
Through a stream of bitter tears.
Hide this memory deep in your heart
For this was your best dream.

Early life and career

Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and the former Annie Delilah Rucker. Anderson’s parents were both devout Christians and the whole family was active in the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. Marian’s aunt Mary, her father’s sister, was particularly active in the church’s musical life and, noticing her niece’s talent, convinced her to join the junior church choir at the age of six. In that role she got to perform solos and duets, often with her aunt Mary. Marian was also taken by her aunt to concerts at local churches, the YMCA, benefit concerts, and other community music events throughout the city. Anderson credited her aunt’s influence as the reason she pursued a singing career. Beginning as young as six, her aunt arranged for Marian to sing for local functions where she was often paid 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs. As she got into her early teens, Marian began to make as much as four or five dollars for singing; a considerable amount of money for the early 20th century.

Anderson attended Stanton Grammar School, graduating in the summer of 1912. Her family, however, could not afford to send her to high school, nor could they pay for any music lessons. Still, Anderson continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who was willing to teach her. Throughout her teenage years, she remained active in her church’s musical activities, heavily involved in the adult choir. She joined the Baptists’ Young People’s Union and the Camp Fire Girls which provided her with some limited musical opportunities. Eventually the directors of the People’s Chorus and the pastor of her church, Reverend Wesley Parks, along with other leaders of the black community, raised the money she needed to get singing lessons with Mary Saunders Patterson and to attend South Philadelphia High School, from which she graduated in 1921.

After high school, Anderson applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts) but was turned away because she was black. Undaunted, Anderson pursued studies privately in her native city through the continued support of the Philadelphia black community. In 1925 Anderson got her first big break when she won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. As the winner she got to perform in concert with the orchestra on August 26, 1925, a performance that scored immediate success with both audience and music critics. In 1928, she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall. Eventually she decided to go to Europe where she spent a number of months studying before launching a highly successful European singing tour.

European fame

In 1933, Anderson made her European debut in a concert at Wigmore Hall in London, where she was received enthusiastically. She spent the early 1930s touring throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices she had experienced in America. In the summer of 1930, she went to Scandinavia, where she met the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who became her regular accompanist and her vocal coach for many years. She also met Jean Sibelius through Vehanen after he had heard her in a concert in Helsinki. Moved by her performance, Sibelius invited them to his home and asked his wife to bring champagne in place of the traditional coffee. Sibelius commented to Anderson of her performance that he felt that she had been able to penetrate the Nordic soul. The two struck up an immediate friendship, which further blossomed into a professional partnership, and for many years Sibelius altered and composed songs for Anderson to perform.

In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in New York at Town Hall.  She spent the next four years touring throughout the United States and Europe. She was offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack of acting experience, Anderson declined all of those offers. She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio, which became bestsellers.

Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout Europe during the mid-1930s. She visited Eastern European capitals and Russia and returned again to Scandinavia, where “Marian fever” had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of fans. She quickly became a favorite of many conductors and composers of major European orchestras. During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years”.

In the late 1930s, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the United States. Although by then quite famous, her stature did not completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring the United States. She was still denied rooms in certain American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American restaurants. Because of this discrimination, Albert Einstein, a champion of racial tolerance, hosted Anderson on many occasions, the first being in 1937 when she was denied a hotel before performing at Princeton University. She last stayed with him months before he died in 1955.

Midlife and career

On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. On that occasion, she sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (opposite Zinka Milanov, then Herva Nelli, as Amelia) at the invitation of director Rudolf Bing. Anderson said later about the evening, “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.” Although she never appeared with the company again after this production, Anderson was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, which became a bestseller.

In 1957, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration and toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress through the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy.

On January 20, 1961 she sang for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and in 1962 she performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House, and also toured Australia. She was active in supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.


Anderson died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993, at age 96. She had suffered a stroke a month earlier. She died in Portland, Oregon, at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist, where she had relocated the year prior.[38] She is interred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.