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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Marian Anderson, "Spirituals"

Marian Anderson
RCA (1953)
1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Listening to “Spirituals,” the classic 1953 recording set by classical vocalist Marian Anderson, one can’t help but notice something off about songs. There is no doubt as to the beauty of Anderson’s voice, which conductor Arturo Toscanini described as “a voice like hers is only heard once in a hundred years,” but the format in which the recordings were done don’t do her justice.

I need to tread lightly here, because Anderson is hallowed ground for American vocalists, as she should be. She was a contralto, the deepest of female singing voices, but her range was considerable, thanks to her self-training for every voice part in songs as child. Compare the change in pitch between the sequential tracks “Were You There?” which highlights here lows and then the following “On Ma Journey,” in which she stretches high as the heavens.

The problem is that this album holds such a powerful voice in such a small cage. The single accompanying instrument, Franz Rupp’s piano, pales in comparison to Anderson’s epic vocals. Anderson was classically trained, and her voice would do well to be framed within an orchestra, not a mere piano. Unfortunately, not many of Anderson’s classical recordings exist. Her recordings of spirituals and religious hymns are undoubtedly heartfelt, but her classical training cuts into the loose, gospel feel that a group like the previously examined Abyssinian Baptist Choir provides. Tom Moon might have been better off labeling these recordings under "vocals" but he was correct to say that they were classical, not gospel.

Regardless of where Anderson stands in a list of the greatest American vocalists of all time, the historical precedent she sets is a high one. She rose to stardom in Europe due to racial discrimination in the United States, and even after having floored the European populace, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the right to sing at an Easter Sunday recital because of her skin color. Among Anderson’s supporters who protested was Eleanor Roosevelt, who threatened to cancel her membership to the organization. As a result of the ensuing uproar, more than 75,000 showed up for her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, making her both a political and artistic figurehead.

INTERESTING FACT: I don’t suppose you have a $5000 U.S. Treasury Series I Bond, but if you did, it would have Anderson’s face on it.

Go down Moses - Spiritual by Marian Anderson on Grooveshark

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