December 8, 2021

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Marian Anderson’s Bone-Chilling Rendition of “Crucifixion”

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Over the summer, the Sony Classical label released “Marian Anderson: Beyond the Music,” a sumptuous boxed set containing the contralto’s complete published recordings for the RCA Victor label, from 1924 to 1966. It amounts, effectively, to a coffee-table book with fifteen CDs attached, containing more than two hundred pages of biographical text, archival photographs, and discographic information. Classical labels routinely manufacture such luxury objects these days to entice collectors to pay anew for recordings that they already own or that they can easily obtain from streaming services. The Anderson set stands out because it feels in some way necessary. The singer’s towering historical stature is given its due—we see images of her epochal performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939, an event that materially influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the same location twenty-four years later. But the disks remind us that Anderson attained that status first and foremost because of the magnificence of her musicianship.

Marian Anderson’s wide-ranging contralto possessed the kind of resonant halo that technology is helpless to reproduce.Photograph by Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress

No great singer can ever be fully captured on a recording, and Anderson proved more elusive than most. By all reports, her wide-ranging contralto possessed the kind of resonant halo that technology is helpless to reproduce. A complicating factor is that racism in the music business prevented her from being fully documented when she was in her prime, and by the time she had become an almost universally lauded figure, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, her voice had gone into decline; she continued recording until she was almost seventy. Still, the boxed set readily bears out the conductor Arturo Toscanini’s famous claim—uttered after hearing Anderson sing in Salzburg, in 1935—that her voice was of a kind that comes along only once in a hundred years. (There is a standard term of appreciation in German: “Jahrhundertstimme,” or “century voice.”) She was at her most transfixing in the unearthlier stretches of the Romantic repertory: Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger,” Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody,” Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder.”

On this journey through the Anderson discography, though, I was stopped short by a track on the first disk, which is devoted to her early recordings of spirituals. I found myself listening obsessively to the Easter hymn “Crucifixion,” also known as “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.” Anderson’s best-known rendition of the song was for an album of spirituals, released in 1953, but this version was made twelve years earlier, at the Lotos Club, in New York. “Crucifixion” exists in various guises: Anderson used an arrangement by the Black singer and composer John C. Payne, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and later settled in England. The text is a paean to forbearance:

They crucified my Lord

And he never said a mumblin’ word

They crucified my Lord

And he never said a mumblin’ word

Not a word, not a word, not a word.

Anderson sings two more verses, with “They crucified my Lord” replaced first by “They pierced him in the side” and then by “He bowed his head and died.” The melodic line has a kind of granitic simplicity: it reaches from B up to the tonic note E; wends its way back to B; makes the same ascent and descent; and then, with the repetitions of “not a word,” reaches down to G, F-sharp, and, finally, low E.

Anderson liked to sing “Crucifixion” at a glacial tempo, but the 1941 recording flirts with absolute stasis. The pace keeps slowing as she goes along: the first verse lasts around seventy seconds, the second eighty seconds, the third a marmoreal ninety-five seconds. Anderson’s extraordinary breath control allows her to sustain an unbroken line over unreal spans of time. For the most part, she maintains an imperturbable steadiness, bordering on coldness, but she allows her voice to break expressively at the word “side.” She also adds a brief three-note ornament on the last “mumblin’ word.” The descent to the bottom E inspires a particular kind of awe: the dynamic is low, but the ground seems to tremble. Anderson’s accompanist, Franz Rupp, plays with elegant spareness, inserting single notes as accents.

In a perhaps futile urge to understand the power of this performance, I delved into the history of “Crucifixion.” One of the earliest sources for the spiritual is the collection “Favorite Folk-Melodies as Sung by Tuskegee Students,” which the influential bandmaster, composer, and educator N. Clark Smith assembled in 1913, when he was based at the Tuskegee Institute. James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson subsequently included a more elaborate, lieder-like arrangement in “The Book of American Negro Spirituals,” from 1925. In the same period, the celebrated Black tenor Roland Hayes added the song to his repertory; he later recorded it in stark a-cappella style, at a tempo considerably quicker than Anderson’s but hardly less eerie in effect. A report in the New York Age, from 1923, claims that Smith had received the song from a descendant of a Zulu tribe. Hayes was under the impression that it had been written by his great-grandfather Abá ‘Ougi, who grew up on what is now the Ivory Coast and was enslaved around 1790.

A jauntier, faster-paced version of the spiritual spread outside the concert arena. In 1933, the folk-song collector John Lomax recorded prisoners singing it at Parchman Farm, a notorious forced-labor camp in Mississippi. Cast in the major mode, their rendition amounts to a different song entirely. The hymn proceeded to wend its way through interesting corners of pop-music history: Lead Belly made a recording in the forties, which, decades later, fell into the hands of Kurt Cobain. These variations demonstrate the complexity of the spiritual tradition, in which distant folk origins entwine with the individual creative choices of latter-day performers. Anderson’s version represents another drastic revision. At that extreme slow tempo, the piece becomes almost a radical, modernist gesture.

Certainly, “Crucifixion” had a spellbinding impact on European and American audiences when Anderson began regularly including it in her recitals, in the nineteen-thirties. When she sang it in Salzburg, in 1935, a witness reported, “At the end of the spiritual there was no applause at all—a silence instinctive, natural, and intense, so that you were afraid to breathe.” Likewise, an anonymous review of a recital in Burlington, Vermont, in late 1939, singled out “Crucifixion” as the most striking item on the program: “As the great voice repeated over and over the refrain, ‘Not a word, not a word, not a word,’ the audience was caught and held in an emotional tension that kept a breathless hush throughout the building.” (Ironically, Anderson was said to have been wearing a “black Scarlett O’Hara type gown.”)

What, exactly, was happening when largely white audiences were stunned into silence? The simplest explanation is that Anderson’s delivery demanded such a response: by slowing the tempo, and by growing ever softer, she forced the audience to lean forward and, at the same time, turn inward. Audiences steeped in Christian teaching fell understandably dumb before this unadorned musical evocation of the Crucifixion. Anderson, who was herself intensely religious, gave a matter-of-fact explanation for the song’s effect in her autobiography: “In its simple words and moving music it captures the terror and tragedy of that awful moment.”

Alex Ross
2021-10-19 06:00:00

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