Marian Anderson Embraces Israel

By Brackman, Harold | Midstream, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Marian Anderson Embraces Israel


Brackman, Harold, Midstream


As an historian and an "armchair traveler," how I view a special place like Israel has been shaped mostly by what special people have written about their experiences in the Jewish state. I would like to share with readers the experience of a very special person: Marian Anderson, the great singer of classical music and Negro spirituals about whom Arturo Toscanini said that a great voice like hers comes once in a century.

When modern Israel was born in 1948, Marian Anderson was a well-wisher, but at a distance. The famed African American contralto had hoped to visit the Holy Land in 1935, the same year that the Nazi regime vetoed her appearing in concert in Berlin, but the trip never materialized. Her iconic status, not only as a great artist but as a crusader for human rights had been secured in 1939 when, denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to sing at Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C., Anderson appeared instead at an open air concert--commencing with her rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee--on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an integrated throng of 75,000 plus a radio audience of millions. (1)

Finally, in March-April, 1955, though afflicted by a virus that lasted her entire trip, she flew from Rome to Israel where she made 16 appearances in under three weeks. "Flying over the coast line," her diary reads, "I had a strange and exhilarating feeling. Keen excitement ran through the plane's capacity load of those coming to spend Passover in the new land."

Landing at Lydda airport, she was greeted by a departing passenger, Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1959 had resigned in protest from the DAR and helped arrange Anderson's historic Lincoln Memorial concert. (2)

First appearing with the Israel Philharmonic on April 2, she performed the "Alto Rhapsody" by Brahms. Boycotting German, the chorus sang its part in Hebrew. …

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