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Anne Brown: A spotlight on the soprano who debuted Gershwin's Bess

Soprano Anne Brown sings 'Summertime' in a vintage clip. YouTube

Editor's note: This article is reproduced from a blog post with permission from the St. Paul-based Schubert Club.

The eldest daughter of what she called a "terribly conservative middle-class Black family," Anne Brown (1912-2009) grew up in a West Baltimore neighborhood, then home to the city's segregated Black elite. A powerful, music-loving Baltimorean encouraged her to apply to the Juilliard School in New York. At the age of only 16, she became the first Black student admitted to that conservatory. In 1933, while still at Juilliard, she read that George Gershwin was composing an opera titled Porgy about African Americans in Charleston, S.C. She decided to write to him. The composer promptly invited her to audition: "I had brought songs by Schubert, Brahms and Massenet, and I also had one of his own songs, 'The Man I Love,' to perform for him."

Gershwin listened politely, then asked if she could sing a Negro spiritual. At first, Brown bristled: "Why is it that you people always expect Black singers to sing spirituals?" But from his expression, she could see that Gershwin understood her resentment of the stereotype she was defying. "Then I wanted more than anything else to sing a spiritual for this man," she recalled, "because I loved spirituals, my mother had sung them, and I sensed that he loved them, too. So I sang 'A City Called Heaven,' unaccompanied and with my whole soul, as a thank you to George Gershwin. Afterward, he said, 'Wherever you go, you must sing that spiritual. It is the most beautiful one I have ever heard.'" He then gave her the part of Bess.

Marvel to Brown performing "City Called Heaven," from an album of spirituals she recorded for Mercury in the 1940s:

Not only did Gershwin give Brown the starring role in his new opera, he was inspired by her to change its title: "In our last days of rehearsals in New York before heading up to Boston for previews," she related, "George took me to lunch. 'Come on,' he said, 'I'm going to buy you an orange juice. Then, when we were seated, he made this announcement. I remember his words exactly because they thrilled me so. 'I want you to know, Miss Brown,' he said, 'that henceforth and forever after, George Gershwin's opera will be known as Porgy and Bess."

The production opened in New York in October 1935, to muted, conflicting reviews. Many African Americans, including Brown's father, were disturbed by what they saw as the depiction of old Black cliches — drug peddlers, loose women etc. — but Brown firmly believed that "DuBose Heyward and Gershwin had simply taken a part of life in Catfish Row, South Carolina, and rendered it superbly." Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances, followed by a national tour with stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and, lastly, at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Brown was livid when she found out — she knew that theater was segregated: "I told them I will not sing at the National. If my mother, my father, my friends, if Black people cannot come hear me sing, then count me out. I remember Gershwin saying to me, 'You're not going to sing?' And I said to him, 'I can't sing!'" After long, drawn-out negotiations, the National agreed to integrate, but as soon as the curtain fell on the final performance of Porgy and Bess, the theater reinstated segregation.

Brown sang in a number of revivals of the opera in subsequent years and recorded highlights for Decca in the early '40s. She was also featured in the 1945 Hollywood Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue, singing "Summertime" (rearranged to include chorus) in an extended sequence re-creating the original production's opening scene:

In February 1943, the Schubert Club presented Brown in recital at the St. Paul Auditorium. Writing in the Pioneer Press, critic Frances Boardman proclaimed her a "singing artist of such superlative gifts and craftsmanship as seldom adorn any concert season more than once, if at all." But her visit to Minnesota wasn't all smooth sailing. Prejudice reared its ugly head when the artist's sponsors tried to secure a room for her in one of St. Paul's hotels. And there was said to be complaints when a Schubert Club member (yes, you read that right: 1942-43 was the last season that it really was a club with membership), a local music teacher, offered her tickets to the recital to a 14-year-old Black music student and her mother. Schubert Club officers tried to counteract those attitudes by engaging the baritone Todd Duncan, Porgy to Brown's Bess in the original production. He appeared the next season in St. Paul.

Eventually, Brown left the U.S. for Europe, where she found more receptive audiences and a less oppressive racial climate. She also felt her singing was better received because she mainly sang works by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and other European composers. (I haven't yet been able to track down any recordings of her in that repertoire.) From 1948 until her death in 2009, she lived in Norway and became a citizen there, marrying a Norwegian and raising a family. "If I had been born even 20 years later, I might have sung at the Metropolitan Opera," she mused in a late interview. "I might have marched for civil rights. I would have been here for that. I would certainly not have lived in Norway, and my life would have been very different. Of course, I would not have met Mr. Gershwin and that would have been a shame."

Here's Brown at her home in Oslo in 2004, recollecting her auditions for Porgy:

This charming 7-minute snippet is taken from a documentary film commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research.

About the author

Richard Evidon is a longtime friend and contributor at Schubert Club. The Minneapolis-born musicologist/writer/translator/editor was on the London editorial staff of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the 1970s and for nearly two decades was English editor and editorial manager of Deutsche Grammophon in Hamburg, Germany. He has written music criticism for the Times (London), Musical Times, American Record Guide, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune, as well as program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival and BBC Proms. He currently writes for several classical record companies and translates for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

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