Anne Brown 1912-2009

Written by: Martin Anderson

Anne Brown, who created the role of Bess in Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, died in Oslo on March 19th at the age of 96. She was almost certainly the last musician who had had any direct contact with Gershwin. At 22 years old, having just graduated from the Institute of Musical Art, she read that Gershwin was auditioning singers for his new ‘folk opera’, then simply called Porgy, and wrote to offer her services, explaining her mixed-race background. To her surprise she was summoned to Gershwin’s flat, sang him Schubert, Brahms, Massenet and his own ‘The Man I Love’. When Gershwin asked her to sing a spiritual, she hesitated, fearing racial stereotyping from him, too; when he told her what Porgy was about, she apologized, sang him ‘A City called Heaven’ unaccompanied and a friendship was born. ‘After that first day, I went very often to the Gershwin flat – singing the music he was writing before the ink was dry on the music paper.’ The friendship survived Gershwin¹s suggestion that she share his bed, which she rejected; indeed, he thought so much of her musicianship that he gave her the role of Bess, changing the title to the one we know now so that she would have a title-role – thus also making it one of the great love-stories in music – and altering the score, at her request, to allow Bess to sing ‘Summertime’.

After its successful run in New York, Porgy and Bess began a tour, but when it arrived at the National Theater in Washington, which had a policy of segregation, Todd Duncan, who had created the role of Porgy, refused to play in a theatre where he himself would be barred, and Brown quickly supported him, despite threats from the management and the Musicians’ Union and entreaties from the other members of the cast. The management capitulated and blacks were allowed in – only until the show moved on, but it was an important moral victory, and a beginning of the dismantling of the colour bar.

Decca recorded some of the songs from Porgy and Bess with Duncan and Brown in 1940 (a recording now available on Naxos Historical 8.110219) and she took time out from her concert career to star in the New York revival in 1942. She also sang a memorable ‘Summertime’ in Rhapsody in Blue, the 1945 Warner Brothers biopic of Gershwin, where she played herself.

Anne Brown was born in Baltimore on August 9th, 1912, into a comfortably middle-class family (her father was a surgeon) and embarked on her musical training realizing that an operatic career in the USA was not an option (it was 1955 before Marian Anderson became the first black singer to perform at the Met), but she refused to let questions of race colour her own judgement. With the success of Porgy and Bess behind her, she toured widely, in South as well as North America, and was also heard in Europe, settling in Oslo in 1948, explaining later that she was fed up with the prejudice she encountered at home.

In Norway, though her own singing career was ended by asthma in 1953, she became a valued teacher (Liv Ullmann was one of her students), continuing to work into old age. On a visit to Oslo in 1998 I was surprised to discover her living and well and – if a photograph in the paper was anything to go by – remarkably well preserved. I got in touch and found her to be enormous fun. Over lunch, on another visit, she explained that the hand-tremor which kept spilling her soup was a genetic condition inherited from her father; she had been able to keep it in check with yoga, which she had discontinued after a bout of illness, adding with a grin: ‘The two dumbest things I ever did – give up yoga, and marry the three men I married!’

Thereafter we kept in touch by e-mail and phone. At one point, after I hadn’t heard from her for a few weeks, I wrote to ask if she was OK. I heard back a few days later when she apologized for her silence, explaining that she had been in hospital with cancer of the colon and had had to have 18 feet of intestine removed – ‘but don’t worry: I don’t need that end of it’. Old age finally began to claim her as she approached her mid-nineties but she leaves behind the memory of an independent spirit with an unquenchable twinkle in her eye – and a mark in the history-books.

  • This article was written for International Record Review and published in the May 2009 issue
  • It is reproduced on The Classical Source with permission
  • International Record Review

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