What would you do if you knew that you were one of the best young classical singers in the world because you had won the 1925 New York Philharmonic voice competition over more than 300 of America’s best up-and-coming young singers, got wonderful reviews as the first black singer to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and then because of your skin color:
• you were not offered a chance to sing at the Metropolitan Opera,
• you were not allowed to give concerts in many concert halls
• the concerts you gave had sparse attendance.
In 1930, 33-year-old Marian Anderson responded to this discrimination by going to Europe where she was acclaimed as one of world’s greatest singers. Back in the United States in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) would not allow the now world-famous contralto to give a concert in Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Because of this, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and asked her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to have Harold L. Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, open the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson to perform a concert on Easter Sunday. Mr. Ickes introduced her to the more than 75,000 people who showed up and the millions more who listened to her on the radio.
In 1937, she gave a concert in Princeton, NJ, but was denied a room in a local hotel, so she was invited to stay at the home of Albert Einstein. They became good friends and in 1955, she stayed with him a few months before he died. On January 7, 1955, at age 58, she became the first black person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, but she was still denied seats in restaurants and rooms in hotels.
At age 96, she died prematurely at the home of her nephew, the famous classical conductor James DePreist, of congestive heart failure that many people incorrectly think is caused just by aging. How can I say that she “died prematurely” when she lived to the ripe old age of 96? Read on.
Early Life and Musical Career
Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia in 1897. At age six, she joined the choir at the Union Baptist Church, but her family was too poor to pay for singing lessons. When she was 12, her father was hit on his head at work and died a month later. Her mother had no savings, so she had to move with her three daughters into her husband’s parents’ home. Her grandfather was an incredible person who was born a slave, had become a free man only 40 years earlier, and was the first member of his family to leave the Deep South to move to Philadelphia. Marion adored him and was devastated when he died just a year after they had moved in to live with him.
When she was 15, her family could not afford for her to go to high school, but her church paid for her first formal singing lessons and raised money so she could attend South Philadelphia High School. In 1921, at age, 24, she received her high school diploma but she was turned down by the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts) because she was black. Members of the black community in Philadelphia paid for private singing lessons and she gave recitals but she was limited by her lack of exposure in the white community. In 1925, at age 28, she got her big break when she won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This should have launched her career, but the color of her skin barred her from many concert opportunities. Finally in 1928, at age 31, she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall, but did not get the offers for concerts that a person of her talent should have gotten.
She was advised to go to Europe where audiences would appreciate her talent without regard to her color. When she sang in Finland, Jean Sibelius dedicated his composition, “Solitude,” to her. In 1935 Arturo Toscanini said that a voice like hers comes along once in a hundred years. Sol Hurok heard her sing in Paris, signed her to a contract and that same year, she sang to a sold-out audience in Town Hall in New York. In 1939 she gave her famous Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR refused to let her appear at Constitution Hall. By that time, she was famous all over the world and was giving more than 70 concerts a year. Four years later, she was invited by the DAR to give a concert at Constitution Hall.
She was not allowed to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera until 1955. She was 57 at that time when she became the Met’s first African-American soloist in Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. The audience gave her a prolonged standing ovation and most had tears in their eyes. Twenty days later, baritone Robert McFerrin, the father of jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, became the first male African-American soloist at the Met when he sang the part of Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida . This marked the beginning of integration in classical music in the United States.
After years of battling racial prejudice, she was finally being accepted as one of America’s greatest concert singers. She sang at the inaugurations of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy in 1961. President Eisenhower appointed her an alternative representative in the United States delegation to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. In 1963, at age 66, she sang at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. On April 18, 1965 at age 68, she gave her last recital at Carnegie Hall. At age 66, and again at age 81, she received gold medals with her face on them from the United States Treasury Department, and in 1986, at age 89, she received the National Arts Medal from President Ronald Reagan.
Her Personal Life and Death
When Marian was 19, a 16-year old boy asked her to marry him and she refused. In 1943, when she was 46, he proposed again. This time she said yes, and married architect Orpheus H. Fisher. They moved to a 100-acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut and built several houses and a rehearsal studio on their estate.
In 1986, after 43 years of marriage, her husband died at age 86. She was 89 and already had been retired for 21 years, but the loss of her husband was a terrible blow to her active life and she reduced her activities to almost nothing. She became increasingly immobile and had to use a wheelchair to get around. In July 1992, she moved to Portland to live with her sister’s son, James Anderson DePreist, who was one of the first world-famous African-American conductors. He was a Director at The Juilliard School and was Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony. On April 8, 1993, at age 96, Anderson died of congestive heart failure after suffering a stroke one month earlier.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
Congestive heart failure means that the heart keeps on beating, but is so weak that it is unable to pump adequate amounts of blood through the body.
• The kidneys start to fail and the arms, legs and body fill up with fluid.
• The lungs fill up with fluid and the person has difficulty breathing.
• The brain suffers from lack of oxygen and the person becomes forgetful and may not be able to communicate.
• Eventually the brain dies from lack of oxygen, the patient stops breathing and dies.
Why Do So Many People Die of Heart Failure in Later Life?
Your heart is a muscle. All muscles get smaller and weaker with aging. You can delay this loss of heart muscle by exercising your heart, and to exercise your heart muscle, you have to exercise your skeletal muscles. Your skeletal muscles drive your heart. When you contract your skeletal muscles, they squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood back to your heart. When you relax your skeletal muscles, the veins near them fill up with blood. This alternate contracting-and-relaxing of skeletal muscles pumps extra blood back to your heart. Your heart responds to the extra return of blood from your skeletal muscles by beating faster and contracting with more force. This is called the Bainbridge Reflex and makes the heart muscle stronger (Anesth Analg, March, 2012;114(3):520-32). When you lie in bed for a few days at any age, you lose heart muscle. You have to keep moving to retain heart muscle strength. The more vigorously you exercise at any age, the greater the gain in heart muscle strength. Older people who spend most of their time lying in bed lose a tremendous amount of heart muscle and are at high risk for heart failure.
Causes of Congestive Heart Failure
Risk factors for congestive heart failure include:
• physical inactivity
• cigarette smoking
• high blood pressure (Arch Intern Med, 2001 Apr 9;161(7):996-1002).
The most common cause of heart failure is lack of exercise. Your heart muscle can also be damaged by:
• Coronary artery disease: The arteries carrying blood to the heart are plugged up with plaques, and the heart muscle is damaged by lack of oxygen.
• Heart attacks: A heart attack occurs when a plaque breaks off from the inner lining of an artery leading to the heart and completely blocks the flow of blood through that artery. The part of the heart muscle that is not getting any oxygen dies.
• Cardiomyopathy (which means “heart muscle disease”): The heart muscle can be damaged by infection, alcohol, drug abuse, nutritional deficiencies, poisoning, high blood pressure, heart valve disease, thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, heart birth defects, lack of oxygen from lung or brain disease, certain drugs, auto-immune diseases and so forth.
Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
• Shortness of breath, first only on exertion and eventually all the time
• A chronic hacking cough or wheezing,
• Swollen ankles, legs, belly
• Weight gain from fluid retention
• Urinary frequency and need to urinate at night
• Loss of appetite or nausea
• Dizziness, fatigue, and confusion
• Muscle weakness
• Constant tiredness
• Rapid or irregular heartbeats
• You may have no symptoms at all or the symptoms can come and go,
Treatment of Congestive Heart Failure
When a patient has these symptoms, the doctor usually prescribes medications, particularly if high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes also need to be treated. He should also prescribe lifestyle changes, including:
• Avoid smoking or chewing tobacco.
• Avoid alcohol
• Lose weight if overweight
• Exercise regularly
• Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and restrict red meat, fried foods and sugar-added drinks and foods.
What You Can Learn from Her Death
How can I say that Marian Anderson died prematurely when she lived to age 96? When elderly people die, the obituaries often say “natural causes”, which implies that they died just because they were old. However, old age does not cause congestive heart failure (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, July 6, 2015) . I believe that this great lady died from inactivity. She apparently had no other life-shortening diseases, so the odds are overwhelming that she could have lived longer if she had exercised more as she aged and not become so inactive. No matter how old you are, do not spend your days sitting in a chair, lying in bed, or using a wheelchair if you are able to walk. Maintain a healthful weight and stay as active as possible.
February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993