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Marian Anderson discusses her career, and how she interprets songs

BROADCAST: Feb. 20, 1960 | DURATION: 00:21:04


Marian Anderson talks about her singing career, including her singing in Sunday School and her first singing experience in 4th grade. She shares how she interprets the songs she sings. Includes Studs reading the poem "Gertrude" by Gwendolyn Brooks. The interview takes place in Anderson's suite in the Sheraton Blackstone in Chicago.


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Studs Terkel "When I hear Marian Anderson sing, I am a stuffless kind of thing. Heart is like the flying air. I cannot find it anywhere. Fingers tingle. I am cold and warm and young and very old. But, most, I am a stuffless thing when I hear Marian Anderson sing." This is a brief poem by our Pulitzer Prize winner in Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks. A tribute, of course, to an artist and human being, our guest - we're delighted to be her guest I should say in her suite here at the Sheraton Blackstone - Ms. Anderson, a distinguished contralto, but more than that, a woman of the world, I suppose. The question: when you hear a poem like this what's your first reaction? When you hear tributes that have been paid to you?

Marian Anderson As a matter of fact I just heard this a while ago, you know. And I felt like a stuffless thing. I met the young lady less than two hours ago. She appeared a very shy person and her writing is just the opposite. She is all of the things that she has put in the poem.

Studs Terkel Isn't this point you make, Ms. Anderson, one of the signs perhaps of certain kinds of artists in their personal lives they are overwhelmingly modest and shy and yet their inner self, the true self is is in their art.

Marian Anderson Rather dynamic, I think, she is in her writing, certainly. It does happen in the case of many, many, many, people.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of Marian Anderson this moment you, you were being paid tribute by the American Friends at the Hebrew University this morning for your interest in so much of the world. You've been a delegate too to the United Nations but we think of you, in the beginning at least, we think of you as the singer. Whether it be a spiritual, "Der Erlkonig," a Schubert lied, whether it be Ulrica in "A Masked Ball," when did you, you, instead of the woman from Philadelphia, the little girl from Philadelphia, when did you realize singing was for you?

Marian Anderson Probably as long as one can remember that music was important and that was a long, long time ago. Even sitting in, I started to say high chair, but probably not that far back, but my sisters and I had little chairs, children's chairs. And I remember the point where our chair, my chair which had a lid on the back would you flip over the top, you know, and the food was put in front of one there. Very often the spoon would come out of the food and be banged on the table to which one would sing to the top of her voice any tune which came into her mind it didn't have to be something that was really a melodic thing but just the noise probably. But hoping that it was a song. And then later on when we had graduated from that stage one would sit on a stool and play on the table with her hands or with her fingers and then actually make up little tunes. We're six years old, we were taken to the children's choir with my aunt. There we got an actual opportunity to sing with other little girls and boys and not only just the melody but sometimes an accompaniment to a melody you know there would be probably two or three voices, maybe more, in a small chorus, a little quartet, a duet, anything.

Studs Terkel This was in the in the church connected with the church?

Marian Anderson In the church, yes.

Studs Terkel Was it then the people the community recognized something in your voice?

Marian Anderson Well, as matter of fact, it came a little later than that, but we went to Sunday school every day and when we became 13 - I mean every Sunday -and when we became 13 years old we were taken to the senior choir at which point one felt rather graduated from the children's choir although we did stay in that for quite a long while. But it was there that one got an opportunity to sing the solos of all of the people I mean of all of the voices in the anthems. And the choir director would permit us to take home the sheet of music and we would dutifully learn the soprano part, the soprano solo, the alto solo, the tenor solo, and the baritone solo. And we would go to church Sunday morning hoping desperately that one or the other the soloists might be away on that morning. They were not paid for their services and there wasn't the what should I say urgency for them to be there that there might have been might have been if they'd been paid being paid for their services. So if either of them were away, the music director did not hesitate to do whatever song he had thought he would do that morning. So we got an opportunity to sing all voices and probably when very very young, the thing that interested us most of the things that the choir did was a selection called "Inflammatus" which had a series of high Cs. Now, today I wouldn't think of doing it because I know better, but then there were no inhibitions and when he would pass out the Inflammatus, we'd look around and find out that the leading soprano wasn't there and we would see the the choir lead, or conductor, beckoned that one should take the seat of the leading soprano. It was the happiest day you can imagine. And one would toss the head back and just take the high Cs in one stride.

Studs Terkel And something just said, Ms. Anderson, that's the most interesting, lead to so many avenues of discussion, when you were young you had no inhibitions you say and you sang the song you wouldn't think of singing today.

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel It's something you said before we went on about how much we take for granted when young--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel --and I suppose applies to the repertoire itself too?

Studs Terkel Yes. There's no doubt about it you know on this line we could go along for quite a long while. Awareness is very important in any and everything we do. There happens to be sometimes an appear-, a period of awareness in children, or lack of awareness in children, which can which will permit a person to play the piano in a fashion which after he learns certain rules and regulations he'll feel certain fingers don't belong on certain notes in relationship to other notes that he has to do. And when he doesn't know this, the finger works. But the minute that he knows it shouldn't be there that same finger feels that it's committing a crime to act in the way that it had before. And if you should ask if this is right or wrong who am I to say which it should be.

Studs Terkel A matter of a little loss of freedom perhaps even though--

Marian Anderson For the person--

Studs Terkel Technically--

Marian Anderson For the person who's worked at something serious and has his own technique, his own way of doing it without being aware of a lot of things. But for the person who has not worked at it seriously has not, I should say, found his own way of expression then the other he learns from the beginning as it should be learned.

Studs Terkel That is the understanding as well as the natural--

Marian Anderson Yes quite.

Studs Terkel --art must be there too. But certainly your your, if I may, well, perhaps to start you you told a very charming story before we went on about sleep, polly sleep--

Marian Anderson Oh, yes!

Studs Terkel Would, would you mind telling that?

Marian Anderson Not at all. In the primary school, you were asking how early one realized or one noticed that singing was going to be most important. In the primary school, I think it was a fourth grade when the music was taught first to the pupils in the school and when we reach the third grade we were next door to the fourth grade. And during the period when the music lesson was going on I heard absolutely nothing in the room in which I sat because my mind and my ears were in the other room. So came the day when we reached the fourth grade, and came also the day when we had our first singing lesson in fourth grade and came also the day when the song that I liked most of what I had heard through that year was given to us to sing. I just threw my head back and began to sing "sleep, Polly, sleep." This was what I heard through the walls of the fourth grade class which had gone up that year. And so pretty soon it was a tap on my shoulder, by the teacher, and she said, "What are you singing? Look at the blackboard." There were the words, you see, music. And so what was it? Peacefully sleep, peacefully sleep, sleep Polly sleep, you see? There was that little story which I remembered so well because I had waited so long to get into the fourth grade when we might be able to sing "sleep, Polly, sleep."

Studs Terkel The will to sing was there, but along with, this is again buttresses the point you made earlier about the older you become, the more mature as an artist--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel --the very song you enjoyed very much, you even more enjoy don't you?

Marian Anderson Oh yes, definitely so. As we said before, I think there are a lot of things that we learned when we were younger that whet the appetite for wanting to know more about the thing in which we've become rather interested. And it makes a broader person of one. And if you have set a basis upon which to build a good structure, it is very good.

Studs Terkel In your travels about the world, in your observations, the woman from Philadelphia, I know that you probably have come across so many raw talents, seen you know, among the young. And the question arises how, you know, you've mentioned this earlier but I went on to what is the way to to plum these openings? What is the way to [solve the problem?]?

Marian Anderson This is the thing that one would like to find out the answer to this. And finding the answer to this, we could find the answer to many other things. The raw talent which is around today, which is in sore need of of being developed may in some instances never be developed. And these people will, in order to live, have to choose have to make a second choice which means that you're not getting 100 percent out of the individual. Regardless of what happens to us, we find ourselves in need of making a living. And if one cannot get it in the thing that he most desires, he tries to take something else which is not too objectionable to him. Whether or not we will ever see the day when, and I do hope that we may, the bulk of the people who have something to offer to this great country of ours may also find the opportunity to have it developed. It will be a wonderful thing. It is a great task. One does not know at the moment hardly where to begin because this happens not only in one area but in many not only with one group of people but with several groups of people. Many, many groups of people, and could we but find the answer, it would be wonderful.

Studs Terkel I suppose there have been suggestions offered one time or another, of course. Think internationally, here too of course, but internationally with the new nations emerging and all the cultures long buried--

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel If there are some, as you say,"the stomach first must be full."

Marian Anderson Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel The pity is if it isn't exploited properly, exploited in a beneficial way, of the Schubert that might be around or the Marian Anderson who might be around. Perhaps, did you make, were there some specific observations you made in your, in your various [unintelligible].

Marian Anderson Yes, and not only that we know what happens here with a lot of people say, for instance, there are in New York alone thousands of young people who have studied different professions and find not, at the moment, a place to practice what they've learned. And in the Far East though we were not directly in contact as much as we had wanted to be with the masses of people, we can only believe that the certain thing exists there even to probably a wider degree.

Studs Terkel The reservoir is there.

Marian Anderson Yes, there's no doubt about it. And I think there's a great excitement awaiting the world when some of these people from different places in the world are able to put before the rest of us in the other parts of the world things that are within themselves waiting to be expressed in one way or another.

Studs Terkel Someone used the phrase about you I've heard used about someone else - the only other person [unintelligible] - When she is on that,I think this is in connection with what you just said, when we know what these people can do about you is she reveals herself, this is the artist on the stage reveals himself and to me of course this is the supreme complement, that is, to you the art that you offer the song, the work of the creative, of the man who created and is found foremost. Yet you yourself in doing it reveal yourself the performer, the interpretive artist.

Marian Anderson Probably so--

Studs Terkel [Unintelligible] does this matter?

Marian Anderson Probably so but in the things that we do we try most definitely to be a part of it in that we must believe in it to present it in the manner in which people will know that you believed in it. If you don't it's like a salesman who is going out only to make a living but does not believe in his product. And you can spot that right away too.

Studs Terkel The personality with quote unquote the personality [unintelligible] who sells this is a problem I suppose in the field of serious music too isn't it?

Marian Anderson Yes.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Marian Anderson I think the idea is not to inject or project yourself into these things so much as to try to live what the composer wanted. It has to mean something to you if it does not mean word for word what the composer might have had. You can't tell that, you did not live in his time and what he wrote was flavored by his time. How you see it will be flavored also by your time but there are certain definite things that he has put down as an example which you are to follow.

Studs Terkel I think as you say this I know you're, you have many things to do and you've been so gracious with your time, when you say this it raises a point several of us at the station are always bowled over when we play your recording of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig" to the words of Goethe. Think of this, for example, you have sung this numerous times.

Marian Anderson Number of times, yes.

Studs Terkel And yet each time you sing it - what is it - do you, the word of Schubert and Goethe both here. The whole idea of this powerful -

Marian Anderson Yes. And the thing that it could be as powerful now, as gripping now as it was when he wrote it. Probably even more so because we have conditions which are much more serious in many areas than they were then. I think all of these things or many of these things you can read into or you are and, or I should say, the your feeling for everything that comes to you is somehow influenced by the time. For instance, you get an all over picture, many people learning German have as a lesson to learn the poem, [German], and [German]. So, a little later on, [German]. i.e. He asked the question. Before, it's just a sentence. Who's going there? I said, who is going there? That's important to [unintelligible]. And then you say all right it's father embracing his child. And then the more you read it the more you want to put into it and we try, when we're doing a song to project enough that a person can get a picture of it if the translation was not there. And this is brought more to one's mind because as a very young person Roland Hayes came to our church to sing. And it was the first time I had ever heard anyone sing a group of German songs. We sat there with a paper and pencil, and tried to write a story, tried to get an idea of what Mr. Hayes was singing about. We came away with three or four songs after the [unintelligible] we made a note, came away with three or four songs the story of which we thought we had grasped rather well. It was interesting to note that we got a story from each of these songs. It was not necessarily what he was singing about but he portrayed something. It made sense.

Studs Terkel It made sense.

Marian Anderson It made sense.

Studs Terkel And perhaps to each one of you in a different way too possibly.

Marian Anderson Absolutely. And that's in our life today, we have to make sense to ourselves and to people around us.

Studs Terkel Perhaps this is the the sign, you might say, the hallmark of Marian Anderson's art that she does make sense to herself and, thus, to us. And using the same song, the Schubert song, as the example her growth, your growth as a person as an artist is reflected in everything you do too. It has to be this - one last question and that's it. You've been much, I know we're much overtime, one last - at the very beginning you spoke of tapping talents reaching people because communication is the problem of our day.

Marian Anderson Oh, definitely so -

Studs Terkel Reaching the machine age we live in, technological advances, LPs, new media and yet, is the truth coming to people artistically? Because [unintelligible] worth of digests of companies that put out excerpts to give people [unintelligible] fool thing, so we have the pro and con on this?

Marian Anderson Well, as a matter of fact, that comes in for a great deal of discussion and it depends on what side of the fence you are as to what viewpoint you will take. We must consider that those who are interested seriously in it should certainly be given the whole thing as it really happened in the beginning. But those who are longing for something and would just love to get a taste of it, and whose appetites would be whetted by such a thing it would not be out of one's better judgment to feel that this is not a wrong thing to give to these persons an idea what lies ahead for him, what is in store for him if he's willing to take the chance, the opportunity to go a little farther and explore.

Studs Terkel If I can but open the door in a way --

Marian Anderson Right. Absolutely.

Studs Terkel That people walk in, this is it. Well, you've done this to a great many of us all over the world. Marian Anderson. Artist. Person. Thank you very much.

Marian Anderson You're most welcome, it's been a pleasure.