Marian Anderson

April 9, 2009
Program of Marian Anderson Lincoln Memorial Concert, April 9, 1939

Program of Marian Anderson Lincoln Memorial Concert, April 9, 1939

Thursday, April 9, 2009 marks the 70th anniversary of contralto Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial.  This concert is remembered for many reasons: her voice; the songs.  The fact that the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her request to sing at Constitution Hall, the largest venue in Washington, DC.  In response, Eleanor Roosevelt withdrew her membership in the DAR, and President Roosevelt, along with other supporters, sponsored a concert on the Mall where 75,000 people came to hear her sing.

There is a Smith connection.  In March 1939 Agnes Morthenthau Newborg, Class of 1914, wrote to President William A. Neilson about a meeting at the Smith Club of New York City, where it was suggested that the College confer an honorary degree on Anderson, in “…protest to the DAR over their undemocratic treatment of Marian Anderson.”  She writes that “…It would be appropriate to have so liberal a gesture made by the College at the close of your distinguished career and in keeping with your liberal tradition.”

Letter to William A. Neilson from Agnes Morgenthau Newborg, Class of 1914

Letter to William A. Neilson from Agnes Morgenthau Newborg, Class of 1914

Letter to Neilson from Newborg, p.2

Letter to Neilson from Newborg, p.2

Letter to Neilson from Newborg, pg 3

Letter to Neilson from Newborg, pg 3

Neilson writes back to Newborg that the Trustees Committee on Honorary Degrees has already met and finalized the degree recipients, but that he would “…be glad to lay it before the committee for consideration another year.”  One of the sponsors of the concert was William A. Neilson, and the program shown at the top of this blog is a form of thank you note from Anderson.  His name is listed among Washington luminaries and politicians as a sponsor on the back of the program.

Anderson gave the first concert of the1939-1940 Smith College Concert Series on November 22, 1939 at John M. Greene Hall.  This was her 2nd appearance at Smith College.  She returned to John M. Greene Hall to give a concert in 1950.

1950 Marian Anderson concert in John M. Greene Hall

1950 Marian Anderson concert in John M. Greene Hall

In between, the Board of Trustees honored Anderson with a Doctorate of Music (Mus.D)  in 1944.  President Herbert John Davis read the following citation at the Commencement ceremony:

“Marian Anderson: An American woman of unselfish devotion, who through the splendor of her voice and nobility of her art, has awakended and fortified in the hearts of countless thousands a deeper understanding of that humanity in which we are all one.”

Anderson continued a long and distinguished singing career, both here and abroad.  For most people, the breadth of her career is not as well known as that Easter Sunday concert on the Mall in 1939.   She died in 1993 at the age of 96.

Further information about Marian Anderson can be found in the Werner Josten Performing Arts Library, Smith College, including her autobiography and many recordings of her work.   Additional information about her Smith honorary degree, and other visits to the Smith campus can be found in the Smith College Archives.

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Faculty Operas

January 7, 2009

During Smith’s January term, a night at the opera is offered.  Students, faculty and staff lucky enough to sign-up early got to go see “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera this year.   I thought it would be interesting to see how Smith’s history and opera converge.  Was I surprised!

In the late 1920s, professor of music, Werner Josten, began an experiment and produced a series of baroque operas by Monteverdi and Handel at Smith.  The local community was ripe for such musical events.  For years, the Academy of Music had been offering dramatic and musical performances on its stage.  Critics from Boston, Albany, Springfield and New York would come to see a great number of performances by leading dramatic lights of the time, and a local community reperatory group, the Northampton Players, also staged plays for the enjoyment of Northampton and environs.

The Academy of Music, Northampton, MA

The Academy of Music, Northampton, MA

In 1926, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea was performed on April 27 and 28, at the dedication of the new Sage Hall, the performance space of the Smith College department of music.  This was the American premiere of Monteverdi’s work.  The cast included Mrs. Werner Josten in the title role, and a professional tenor from New York City in the role of Nero.  The secondary roles and members of the chorus were made up of Smith students, faculty, and townspeople.  The orchestra that played was composed of Smith students and faculty members.  The stage production was overseen by Samuel Eliot, Jr., professor of theater and the scenes were created by professor of art, Oliver Larkin.

The Coronation of Peppaea by Monteverdi, 1926

The Coronation of Poppaea by Monteverdi, 1926

Critics and audience alike acclaimed the production. In subsequent years, Josten brought to life the baroque operas of Handel including, Julius CaesarXerxes, Apollo and Daphne, and Rhodelina, and Monteverdi’s Ill Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, and Orfeo to the delight of the community.  Larger productions were held on the stage of the Academy of Music, and Ill Combattimento was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House.   By the end of the 1930s, the annual faculty opera performance ended.

Handel's Julius Caesar performed at the Academy of Music, 1927

Handel's Julius Caesar performed at the Academy of Music, 1927

Interest in composing and performing opera was not, however, abated.  In 1959, professor of music and composer John Duke’s opera the Sire de Maltroit was performed, with Adrienne Auerswald, Class of 1943, and later professor of music at Smith, singing the lead female role.  In 1967 Mozart’s Idomeneo was performed with faculty members as part of a symposium called “The Land of Crete.”  In 1971 Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was performed.  In both productions, the Smith College Glee Club, and the College Orchestra were major contributors.

In 1989 the opera The Yellow Wallpaper with music composed by Professor of music, Ron Perera, and libretto by Constance Congdon was premiered in May during Commencement Week.  The opera was based on the life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  In 1995, the same team brought to life John Updike’s novel S.  For both productions, numerous Smith College faculty played important roles.

So, as you can see, there is a deep connection at Smith College with opera.  There’s even more to discover in the files located in the Smith College Archives.  Stop by and take a look!