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Marian Anderson and James DePreist discuss their experiences in music ; part 1

BROADCAST: 1966 | DURATION: 00:29:53


Marian Anderson recalls singing on stage for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1957 and how it was the realization of a dream come true. Marion's nephew, James DePreist remembers being able to conduct a piece of music he had never conducted before because his aunt Marion had exposed him to it when he was a child. James said when his aunt Marion sung spirituals, he couldn't help but feel religious and he's an atheist.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel I thought we could open with the voice of Miss Anderson and the Metropolitan tenor. She's Ulrica. Ulrica in "Un ballo in maschera". [content removed, see catalog record] In listening to this aria and to this voice and to the situation, this time, I suppose it's a memorable one for American music--for music and for people generally--it was Marian Anderson making her debut as Ulrica at the Metropolitan the night--it was 1955. Was it January 7th? Miss Anderson is our guest this afternoon or rather I am her guest, she and her very gifted nephew, James DePreist. It was last week he was conducting the Chicago Symphony at Grant Park--Grant Park concerts--"Daphnis and Chloe" among other pieces we'll discuss. Miss Anderson was the guest, offering the preamble to the music of Aaron Copland. As I think you say we're with your nephew, Miss Anderson, your very gifted nephew. Your thoughts that day in 1955, January? You were on stage as Ulrica. It was the first time there was a Negro singer on the stage at the Met. Your mother was in the box. Do you recall that moment?

Marian Anderson Very vividly as a matter of fact. One had looked forward so many years to the time when one might appear with a regular company at the Metropolitan Opera House. And mother, who was not a demonstrative person, that night had a glow around her which was something that cannot be described. And as the family was there and a lot of people who shared one's dream there was an electricity in the house that few escaped. The orchestra started up. And there was a thump in one's heart that came straight up to the throat and did make singing very difficult. But it was the realization of a dream. And though it came at a time when one would have--one knew that--how can I say that--we had hoped that it might have been earlier but it did come. And this is an experience [knock on door] which will always. This is an experience which will always remain with one as one of the greatest points in life.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this moment, of course, that has been written about and talked about by those who were there at that particular moment. Now your nephew, James DePreist, conductor--this was 11 years ago, you were quite young, you were a small boy. Do you remember that or were you too young?

James DePreist No, no. It's not the kind of thing that you forget. It was my first time in the Metropolitan Opera House and--

Studs Terkel You were there? Yes?

James DePreist I was there, yes. And not only was it a tremendous experience to hear and see Aunt Marian but the music of Verdi was so thrilling and so moving that all together it was an overpowering experience. This coupled with the fact that Mitropoulos was conducting and Mitropoolos, I guess, from earliest days was sort of an idol of mine and it was a thoroughly rewarding and richly moving evening.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking as James DePreist is talking here, his two idols were at work here, Mitropoulos, he, conductor, Mitropoulos--one of his mentors, idols--and his aunt, certainly one of the most remarkable voices of our--well, in fact Toscanini has said it. You know, he said that to you, didn't he? He heard you at Salzburg, didn't he? When you made your debut at Salzburg with--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel With [unintelligible]--

Marian Anderson And you know--

Studs Terkel And the phrase, if we may, I know Miss Anderson won't say this--her voice is--

Marian Anderson No.

Studs Terkel Is one that comes once every hundred years. What was that about Toscanini?

Marian Anderson As a matter of fact one had read a lot about Toscanini but one had not seen him ever. And, you know, close. And we knew beforehand that he was going to be at the performance and of course that doesn't make one so easy. And when it was over, Madame Cahier, who was an American but married in Sweden to Dr. Cahier, is a teacher, was a teacher of voice and one had coached with her. She knew Toscanini and when it was over she brought Toscanini backstage. By the time he got back there I was just about speechless. I know that he said something. But if anyone would say to me, "Your life depends on these few words which he has said to you--what did he say?", I would not have been able to tell them. But Madame Cahier was there. She said, "Did you hear what he said? Did you hear what he is saying?" And there the next time I knew about it, it was in print. But it was a great thing that he did come. It was a great honor to us.

Studs Terkel I suppose, let's remember that Toscanini is not known for overpraising people, you know. Do you remember that--it's interesting--that Salzburg hadn't heard you yet and this is--when we return perhaps to childhood--you had traveled to various other parts of the world. You'd been--Sibelius, of course, there's a marvelous crack that Sibelius made. He said, "We have coffee," and after he heard Miss Anderson, Jim DePreist, "Make it champagne."

Marian Anderson You know, speaking about James a moment, he has never been a person to come out and say what he is doing. I think his mother as did the rest of the family found out from other people. And to say they weren't as proud of him puts it very mildly. He is, without wanting to make him embarrassed at all, he's a very dedicated person to his art. He's a thorough musician. He's a fine person. He has a great deal of faith in the one above. He's a believer of things that are good. And with this combination we feel that Jim will go far.

Studs Terkel Now I was thinking as Miss Anderson was speaking, James DePreist, if we could make this perhaps just, in a sense, the memory of two people separate, yet together. Meaning, she is your aunt. At the same time you are two separate individuals. You, yourself, how you came to music--was your aunt an influence? In your life?

Marian Anderson Don't you ask him that! No, that's alright.

James DePreist I think it's a good question. Yes. The best kind of influences, you know, are those that are available without being prescriptive. By that I mean Aunt Marian saw to it that there were recordings and there were scores available. When I was very young I had no idea of music as a career but I was exposed to good music. And great music. And I used to play the records--I don't think that I attached to them at that time the importance that I later found in them. But an interesting thing is that when I went on my first State Department tour and I was in Thailand and I was working with the orchestra there and one of the works that was scheduled to be done was the Schubert, the 'Great' C major Symphony. And the score was not there but I started, I began conducting the work and we went through the symphony and I wondered how I had done it and how I had known the work because I had not conducted it before. And then I realized that this was one of the recordings that Aunt Marian had gotten for me when I was, oh, must've been around 13 or 14 years old and I think that the result of this exposure is responsible for my interest in serious music.

Studs Terkel You were conducting, you conducted with the State Department in Thailand.

James DePreist That's right.

Studs Terkel Perhaps you can compare it to memories or reactions of audiences of various parts of the world when your aunt has visited various parts of the world and you have, apparently. What is the--it's not America. It's not the Western world, it's the East. In other words, their feeling about the music you were playing which is primarily Western?

James DePreist I think that the statement that music is a universal language is in part true. I don't think that nations and countries that do not have a tradition of Western music and Western harmony appreciate, for example, say Beethoven the same way that a Western country would but there is a certain humanity that exists in all great music and in truly effective performances and I think that this is the, this is the quality, this is the attribute to which audiences responded and I found that there was a genuine appreciation--very, very warm appreciation on the part of all of the Asian countries that I've visited--to music that we were playing and most of the music was Western. But the essential aspect of the music was the fact that it was warm and it was very, very deeply moving.

Studs Terkel "The Ode to Joy." "The Ode to

James DePreist

Studs Terkel Joy" in any language. Absolutely. Miss Anderson, your thoughts, thinking, since your nephew mentioned Thailand. You were in Bangkok and there's an experience of yours when you performed for some of the schoolchildren there, you spoke of one there. What are the memories that come to your mind?

Marian Anderson Yes. You know, in preparation for our visit one or two of the Americans there had acquainted the children with the Negro spirituals which comprise a part of every program that we give. And they, the children had rehearsed these for quite some time I understand. And the morning that we went there they--there was a lesson on the board and they were telling the meanings of the words. And later when they took their seats they were very delighted to begin singing Negro spirituals. They had a feeling for them which had been translated to them by their teachers but probably even more than having heard them sing spirituals was the feeling that we got from them when they came outside and this was very unrehearsed. We sat in the car about ready to leave and these children who had stoic faces for the whole time that we were there which was probably an hour, hour and a half, came out and stood by the car and the first one looked and put her hand on, just across my fingernails. Then there was another hand up to maybe the knuckles. Then another one until there were hands all the way up to the shoulder. And some girls leaning almost into the car and they looked at each other in astonishment and then there was laughter. And I had never seen that happen before and don't expect to see it afterwards because there wasn't a single one of those who gave you the impression at all that there could ever be a smile on the face. Now so far as audiences were concerned over there, we, of the con--of the numbers that we did on the program, I think the spirituals they liked probably most of all. And, particularly, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." And although we feel that the applause for the whole program was more than just being polite, it was "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" that we needed to repeat without exception everywhere that we had performed it.

Studs Terkel I think, perhaps, since these little children in Bangkok remember this and I imagine different parts of the world knew this, perhaps we hear the voice of Miss Anderson, Marian Anderson, and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand," [sic] or whatever. RCA. [content removed, see catalog record] I suppose in listening to this spiritual many thoughts come to mind. I imagine memories of childhood as we hear this, Miss Anderson. "Trampin'," "Hold On," "The Great Gettin' Up Morning," or "He Never said a Mumbling Word." "The Crucifixion Song." We go back to childhood now, don't we? Beginnings. Because you sang as a kid in church, didn't you?

Marian Anderson Oh, yes. In the Union Baptist Church of which one was a member every Sunday morning a part of their service was the singing of a Negro spiritual. And then in school, in high school, the Negro girls sang there very often a Negro spiritual. And I was very interested that several years after we had left school the head of the music department who was the one who was there when I was in school came one day to call and wanted to know why that the girls in school now were not interested in singing the Negro spirituals. But that is another thing--they are far removed from it.

Studs Terkel Now this is an interesting point, isn't it, James DePreist? This point, too. Was there a time--we know today there's a great feeling of pride, you know--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel Thanks to the movement. Was there a time when Negro people--middle-class people were ashamed, let's say, of the richness of spirituals? Was there such a time? Did you encounter this ever? You know--that is, looking down upon it?

Marian Anderson Well, let me say this: I don't know that she looked down upon it but my aunt said--when we started with Negro spirituals--she said, "Can't you find something else to sing?" Now, my Aunt Mary was a person who loved music but this was an association with a time which was very unpleasant. And the richness of it and all of that and it did not make a great deal of difference. There were other aspects of it that overshadowed any beauty that there might be.

Studs Terkel But this shunning away from it because of the, of the bad memories--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel That were attached to it--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel And yet not recognizing the incredible richness and life that is there. If we can perhaps, even, return when you--perhaps, you could answer this--please do, Mr. DePreist. Your own thoughts and memories that are told to you by your--would Miss Anderson be your mother's sister?

James DePreist That's correct.

Studs Terkel Yeah. By your mother about her sisters. I mean, were the people at church who first paid for your musical education? How did it happen? When did you discover that it was singing you wanted to do above all else? [telephone ringing]

Marian Anderson As a matter of fact I think we knew this a long, long time ago before we ever sang in public, really. [conversation in background] And we sang with the children's choir at the Union Baptist Church. And it so happens that with this chorus we had a great opportunity because they became quite good and we sang not only at the church but places outside and even outside of the city. And when the distances were too great to send the whole group then they sent a representative or two and we happened to be one of that group.

Studs Terkel Just to make clear, perhaps, just a parenthetical comment: comments in the background you might be hearing as we're in the suite of Miss Anderson here in Chicago prior to the Grant Park weekend concert at which James DePreist is conductor. So, it's interesting, so, you were aware of that but then the people of the church knew of the special--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel There was something extra here.

Marian Anderson We were there every Sunday for the children's choir for the Sunday school and on the fourth Sunday in every month, I believe it was, a children's choir sang. And then at 14, 13 or 14, my aunt took me with her to the senior choir and they, of course, one had the greater opportunity of the two, really, her greatest opportunity up to that time because we had an opportunity to sing everybody's part.

Studs Terkel On that point--I want to ask you what the--Jim, what your mother--her thoughts, her memories of this time. But Miss Anderson, you sang everybody's parts--you sang all the parts--you mean, alto, soprano, etc.?

Marian Anderson Yes, absolutely. The conductor was good enough to let us take the music home and we learned everybody's part. And of course this choir, it was a big church and it was a church of money but people felt they liked to give their services so if they needed to go away on a Sunday they went. And so the conductor would simply, the choir director would beckon his finger and point to the soprano chair. And there is a choir and whether they call it an old horse, I guess, which is done by most choirs and it's called "The Inflammatus". And it has a number, a string of high Cs, you know, as you go along which is something that everybody wouldn't just choose to do. But if there were special visitors of the church and the soprano wasn't there he'd simply give me a call and beckoned to me and point to the soprano seat and over I would go and be as happy as could be and without any inhibitions go along with as many high Cs as they wanted to put out, you know? But it was a wonderful time, really.

Studs Terkel Of course, there is this point, isn't there, of youth itself--you like a bit of [unintelligible] --

Marian Anderson Oh, yes. Yes. You can't get away from that. No. And it's lovely to have it, to have had it and to have the beautiful memories about it, you know. Not to feel that the whole thing was lost. And one has often wondered what she would have done at that period so far as music is concerned if she had not been in church.

Studs Terkel The churches. Was church a factor in your life, James?

James DePreist Yes. Also because of the--where the church was and especially for me--the church was at the corner of the street in which I grew up. And--

Studs Terkel This was Philadelphia, too?

James DePreist Yes. And this is where my aunt also lived. And I know for me, on Sundays when I was in church, of course, the spiritual and the singing of the choir was always a very, very important part. An important part in the service because of the emotional catharsis that one went through in that was something that really didn't have to be explained. And in the spiritual when the congregation would join in you'd hear some of the most beautiful harmonies from people that just came in, you know, that they hadn't had training in music but it was just something that was very lovely. Recently when I came back to the United States I was living also on Martin Street. Sometimes I was not in church on Sundays and especially during the summer when the windows were open you could hear throughout the whole street, you could hear the choir and it was really tremendous. And the effect of this upon one's musical outlook--not so much in terms of trying to take spiritual harmonies and use them--but just that spiritual, small 's', effect and the meaning and the warmth and everything, the directness, was I think so great that it's difficult to even assess how great it is. I know that in the spirituals that Aunt Marian is doing at Grant Park one of my real concerns in orchestrating them was that I try and retain that flavor, that atmosphere that I heard every Sunday in church because often, you know, arrangers and orchestrators get carried away with the technique of their craft. The result is that you have a lot of things in there that don't have to be in there and the essence is gone. But it was Aunt Marian who I think more than--well I haven't heard anyone else convey the real sense of meaning that is in the spirituals. I haven't heard anyone else do it. And I think one of the greatest compliments which I had mentioned to you earlier was the other day I was speaking to someone and I mentioned the concert and they were thinking about Aunt Marian and said, "Yes, whenever I hear Marian Anderson sing I always felt very deeply religious and when I listen to her recordings I feel very deeply religious." And they said, "And that's very surprising because I'm a devout atheist."

Studs Terkel That's a fantastic compliment. I think, Miss Anderson, Marian Anderson, listening to James DePreist, your nephew, speak with us about the spiritual, he raises an interesting point, doesn't he? The danger--which you have been able to overcome uniquely--the danger of arranging a spiritual, to lose the spontaneity, this feeling, the zest for life that is there. At the same time a trained singer singing--this is always a challenge, isn't it?

Marian Anderson Yes, rather and I think there is an exuberance that you can get out of a spiritual without distorting it to make it, what should I say, give it a jazz flavor or some--very often a dance form. It has enough in itself to take it anywhere you need to go with it without dressing it up otherwise.

Studs Terkel She has a marvelous way of putting it, yeah.

James DePreist That's a [good?] one.

Studs Terkel Has enough to go without you taking [anywhere?] with it. In other words, you need not impose then. This is, I'm sure, it is a very interesting artistic point, isn't it? And this applies I'm sure to conductors as well as to vocalists, to instrumentalists. This imposition of self. You know, it's a natural thing: personality upon a great creative work. But Marian Anderson, the true artist is saying that you respect the work, isn't that it? And you, through your own arc, carry it along with you rather than trying to trick it up.

James DePreist But I think one of the requisites there is that the artists meet the standard of the work and not all artists do. I think Aunt Marian uniquely does in that when she does "Ave Maria" the reason that it's not just another "Ave Maria" and the reason that spirituals are not just spirituals done by anyone else is because her ability is her ability and her humanity is equal to what the work requires. And I think that this is true in all music. It's very, very difficult to really bring it off. And that's why I have unlimited respect for.

Studs Terkel Hasn't this been, Miss Anderson, in a sense, that the hallmark of an artist--I think specifically of you but say of an artist--is this association of the person and the work. That is, the person as an artist, the person has the instrument. You have your remarkable contralto voice but there's something else: your respect for the work itself.

Marian Anderson I think you must love it and you must believe in it. You must believe so thoroughly in it that you can convince those that listen. And I think if you don't it's like a person trying to sell an article because somebody wants him to but his heart isn't in it and you can very often tell that before he's gotten very far with what he's doing.

Studs Terkel I remember the last time we had met you were speaking of Schubert, later which you interpret so beautifully. But "The Erlkonig"--the dying son--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel And the father. And you think, though this was written about another century you were saying you could not sing it as Schubert would have meant it to be sung then but as you interpret it now. Could you expand on this just a bit? Just take this work that you sing so beautifully.

Marian Anderson You know, as a matter of fact--I use that phrase a lot, too. There are a number of people who feel that there's a certain tradition that you must follow and those who consider themselves, some who consider themselves very wonderful musicians, feel that a composer meant for a thing to be done a certain way. And that is probably very true. But we can also say if that composer lived in this particular time his expression for the very thing that he has written might have taken a different approach to the--he might have had a different approach to it. And a story is a story. If a son is dying he can die in a century quite different to this one and the hurt is as great for the father then as it would be now. He might express it a little differently or he might not but I think when a person is doing his selection he has to bring himself into it as much as he possibly can. He has to feel the hurt, too. And since you do not know very often the composers of yesteryear there is a certain something that you have to bring to the interpretation which you had not gotten from the man and therefore you must have your own belief in the story.

Studs Terkel Isn't that a question of it being a 20th-century artist interpreting the work of, say, of a 19th-century man, or--not a 19th century man--an 18th century man. Respecting the work. But at the same time you live in the 20th century. I suppose as a conductor you're--

James DePreist Yes. This is one of the crucial problems in all of music. You hear so many purists say, "Well it wasn't Bach the way Bach intended it." But if you're going to be really sticky about it then let's go back and get the instruments that Bach had during his time and I think that in the final analysis what we're concerned about is communicating certain material to an audience. That's what I'm concerned about, anyway. And I think that the important thing is what is going to be meaningful for the audience of today. Now there are going to be some people who perhaps like Haydn and they want to hear it or they feel that they would like to hear it the way Haydn intended but that is totally impossible because of the different instruments that are here today. And I think that's a bit inconsistent to say, "All right. Well we're going to be very, very sticky about this point and get all of these notes correct and get all of the phrasing correct in terms of Haydn's time and not concern ourselves about getting the same instruments and dressing the people in the same way." I think that people are different and I don't think that it is invalid to put the question thusly: If Haydn lived today how would he react to his music? Now that doesn't mean that we're going to change the notes but I think that there is more leeway than the purists would allow within the bounds of good taste and I think that the job is not to have people come and say, "Oh, yes. Wasn't that very interesting?" But to have them totally involved in the music. Music of certain periods present fewer problems than others. But I do think that what is important is communicating the material. And this should come before any concern about, "Well, was it exactly the way Haydn wanted it?"

Marian Anderson I agree.

Studs Terkel Were you thinking of something about--a connection with that, Miss Anderson? A point that James DePreist was just making. Obviously a very key one. That had Haydn been alive today, or Bach, they'd have said, "Yes. By all means if you are in the 20th Century my music is--by all means interpret it as it would affect the people alive today.

James DePreist Plus one other fact: For example in Beethoven, in Beethoven's "Seventh Symphony" and others there are notes that are written and the notes are written specifically because there were not instruments even at that time that were capable of playing it in a different way. So to our ears, with all of the development and orchestration and development of the instrumentation, you hear things that you're sure that if Beethoven had the instrument he would have written it differently. So I think it's the job of musical scholarship not only to tell us how it really was written so that we know, "Yes, Beethoven in the original autograph did write it this way." It isn't enough to say that. What we want to know is why did he write it that way. And if he wrote it that way because he wanted it, fine. But if he wrote it that way because the instruments were not there to play it another way and if it also, if it's logical to infer that he would have preferred it some other way then I think that that should be done. But there is a great deal that can be done, as I said, within the bounds of good taste, you know, and musicianship.

Studs Terkel You know, I think what James DePreist is saying, is perhaps we heard Marian Anderson in "The Erlkonig" and hear that as a perfect example of a 20th-century artist singing the work of another century composer, another century writer, Goethe--as Father, then. This is eternal, is it not?

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel The father trying to stave off the death of his child.

Marian Anderson Right, right. Mmm-hmm.

Studs Terkel And it's, as you said earlier, this is eternal. It is now.

Marian Anderson Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.