What Custom Had Strictly Divided: On Kira Thurman’s “Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms”

By Olivia GiovettiFebruary 7, 2022

What Custom Had Strictly Divided: On Kira Thurman’s “Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms”

Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms by Kira Thurman

IN 2020, on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth and amid renewed public interest in Black Lives Matter, an old rumor resurfaced on the internet: was Beethoven actually Black? The timeliness of the topic, combined with the fact that lockdowns had left many people aggressively and pervasively online, resulted in rampant speculation based on scant historical evidence. It was at this point that German historian and classically trained pianist Kira Thurman entered the chat. “[T]o my mind, Beethoven being black is a red herring,” Thurman tweeted on June 18, 2020. “We don’t need him to prove our genius.” Instead, she argued, we’d be better off investigating the lives of Black musicians such as George Bridgetower. A contemporary of Beethoven’s, born to an Afro-Caribbean father and a Polish mother, Bridgetower later became a violinist and the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s notoriously virtuosic “Kreutzer” Sonata.

The (non)question of Beethoven’s race doesn’t come up in Thurman’s new book, Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The thesis of her book, however, echoes her point about Bridgewater: “Black people have been part of German-speaking Europe’s musical history all along. We simply had to listen.”

Singing Like Germans begins with a cultural cartography: by the mid-1800s, German and Austrian composers, with their themes of transcendentalism and brotherhood, had come to dominate the field of classical music. Beethoven and the recently rediscovered Bach became synonymous with music’s spiritual plane. Schubert’s and Schumann’s art songs merged the poetry of Goethe and Schiller with a purity of emotional expression and musical economy. Wagner dominated the latter half of the 19th century with operas that eschewed economy in favor of an artistic experience that stretched past the limits of the universe. “[I]f music is a universal language,” Thurman quips, “it has a strong German accent.”

This artistic explosion traveled across the Atlantic, reaching a postbellum United States where Black people were now technically free but faced with many of the same systems of oppression that had been in place since 1619. As a result, a “serious” classical education became a foothold that many Black people could use as a possible tool of social advancement. The Black futures that “lay in the German musical past” form the historical through-line Thurman traces here, beginning in a reunified America in 1870 and ending in a Germany awaiting its own reunification in 1989. Along the way, generations of Black musicians came to “master” a German identity through music studies and performance. With Singing Like Germans, Thurman joins Naomi Adele André, author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (2018), at the vanguard of cultural histories reexamining musical production and consumption through the lens of critical race theory.

We meet first a generation of Black musicians in the United States studying with in-demand German émigré instructors. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow, many promising voice, instrument, and composition students chose to continue their studies in Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, and Salzburg. While these musical capitals had their own appeal, turning away from the United States was just as important as turning toward Germany and Austria. As the coloratura soprano Sissieretta Jones told an American journalist in 1897: “It is the artist[’s] soul they look at there, not the color of his skin.”

Contemporary accounts such as Jones’s, culled from interviews, letters, journals, and memoirs, evoke a utopia built on heilige Kunst — sacred art. We can hear its voice in the text of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” that paragon of musical universalism: “Magic binds together what custom had strictly divided; all men will be brothers.” But Thurman is not shy about pulling back the curtain on the magic to reveal the smoke and mirrors behind the sentiment. The “racial uplift” that African American musicians enjoyed by studying classical music came at the expense of reinforcing class distinctions within their own race and “upholding middle-class Victorian values rather than undoing them.” And the fault line extends beyond class and economics. For all the universalism German music espoused in theory, in practice that same universalism was used to reinforce social hierarchies “even while its rhetoric of transcendentalism obscured them.” All men will be brothers, but some will be more brotherly than others.

This weaves in the other thread of Thurman’s narrative: the reception of Black musicians by white audiences, who were the ultimate arbiters of Germanness. They were often erratic critics. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Germany in 1877–’78, their concerts of African American spirituals led to sold-out houses, in part due to the novelty of the program. Going to such concerts, Thurman argues, becomes a performative act, which calls to mind the number of contemporary opera houses and concert halls that posted black squares on their social media feeds in 2020. The fact that such performances fell short of some audience expectations speaks to the limits of universality: one Berlin critic complained that, of the 10 singers, “only two appeared truly Black to the eye; the rest were more or less mixed, some so much so that their African heritage would not even be suspected on this side of the ocean.”

It’s hard not to see the historical parallels, which Thurman leads us to without spelling them out. As early as the 1890s, many critics claimed they did not see color, to an almost literal degree. The liberal-leaning Berliner Börsen-Courier demurred that “‘Black’ seems to us unnecessarily impolite” when writing about Sissieretta Jones. They instead downplayed her Blackness by insisting she “is a mulatto of bronzed complexion and pleasant expressive features.” Similar arguments were made in early reviews of Marian Anderson, of whom the ​​Salzburger Volksblatt wrote in 1935 that she simply “looks as if she had sunbathed too long in Africa.” When Wieland Wagner cast Grace Bumbry as Venus in Tannhäuser for the 1961 Bayreuth Festival, breaking nearly a century-long color barrier, he told the press that “my grandfather did not write for skin color, but for voice color.” (The full, complex legacy of that production is one of the highlights of Thurman’s analysis.)

While race was downplayed visually, it was heightened as an aural experience. When pianist Hazel Harrison became the first Black woman to play with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1904, she was also seen to be biracial, but her Blackness was equated with a melancholic stoicism linked to American slavery. This was, one reviewer wrote, how she was able to convey the “beautiful melancholy of Chopin. […] [M]elancholy is a characteristic of the young woman’s race.” In East Germany, the politically outspoken Paul Robeson was welcomed as a people’s hero, “a dark St. Christopher, a Black St. Francis,” whose concerts of spirituals were authentic displays of “melancholy, sadness, and restrained rage against the white robber.”

Such aural authenticity — even at the expense of reality — becomes key for German audiences. “Authentic” and its derivatives are used no fewer than 45 times in Thurman’s text. It’s the term German critics used to describe early 20th-century singers when they “supposedly dropped the act [of performing Germanness] to reveal their ‘true selves’ […] in nineteenth-century antebellum America.” The term is equally high (and highly confounding) praise when used half a century later to describe Camilla Williams’s Madama Butterfly in Vienna. “The dark-skinned artist fulfilled all demands (including the optical ones),” wrote one critic for Neues Österreich of Williams’s performance. Williams was a 37-year-old Black woman singing the role of a 15-year-old Japanese geisha.

Indeed, the magic that bound together what custom had strictly divided was seemingly selective. It’s in its handling of the chasm between opposing but coexistent truths that Thurman’s analysis is at its finest — relentless, prismatic, and at times even acerbic. Central Europe may have been a genuine refuge for individual artists from one decade to the next, yet this was not a universal truth. While music students wrote home marveling at their ability to sit in non-segregated cafés and opera houses, they were also living in Germany at a time when Black people abducted from Africa were on display in human zoos throughout the country. These young musicians may not have had full rights in the United States, but they had a key privilege in Europe: they were American. One of the more fascinating and unsettling examples of this dichotomy, coupled with a historical cameo straight out of E. L. Doctorow, is the story of pianist Portia Washington. When Washington had exhausted the allowance her father, Booker T. Washington, had given her for her studies, she received a loan from the German Colonial Society, which had hired her father (himself born into slavery) to assist in building cotton plantations across Germany’s colonial holdings in Africa.

Anti-Black and other racist sentiments were never absent from the cultural landscape, as many of even the most well-intentioned reviews demonstrate. Marian Anderson’s success was built in part on a public image that placed her in stark contrast to her hypersexualized contemporary, Josephine Baker. Her early concerts in Salzburg were as politicized and charged as her later performance in the United States on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Men, particularly singers, had an even more difficult time; women could be viewed as sexual objects, but men were taken, especially in the Weimar era, as sexual threats. After Grace Bumbry broke the color barrier at Bayreuth in 1961, it would take another 13 years for a Black man, Simon Estes, to debut there.

Racial purity wasn’t a new concept in Hitler’s Germany, and much can be gleaned about the historical attitudes that led to World War II in some of these early concert reviews. This era represents an obvious breaking point in the cultural exchange, with many Black artists leaving the continent in the late 1930s. Those who stayed were interned in concentration camps. While Thurman doesn’t dwell on this part of the timeline, its inclusion speaks to one of the hypotheses she offers up for the elliptical nature of history: the vagaries of memory. Our notion of the classical music canon is rooted in what Katrin Sieg calls “technologies of forgetting,” a concept Thurman references several times throughout her book. Such technologies allowed Beethoven to survive while relegating Bridgetower to the historical recycling bin; they’re used as security blankets when identities are challenged or revealed to be more porous than originally thought. “The act of forgetting made it possible for listeners to feel a sense of discovery and novelty each time a Black musician performed on stage, thus presenting Black performances as rare occasions,” Thurman explains of this cultural amnesia.

Lately, Germany has been held up as a contrast to the United States when it comes to historical memory. There are, after all, no statues of Nazi generals in Germany. Nothing, however — especially memory — is that simple. Of the 75,000 Stolpersteine, brass “stumbling blocks” embedded in German sidewalks to commemorate those who were persecuted by the Nazi regime, only four as of September 2021 were for Black victims of the Holocaust. It may seem superficial to compare this to African American conductor George Byrd making his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1959 — an event the Austrian press covered as a “first,” forgetting that Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar had that honor 14 years earlier. But it’s another symptom of that same cultural amnesia, a syndrome that persists to this day. In the summer of 2020, The New York Times dubbed cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason “what the classical music world has long lacked: a Black headliner.” To paraphrase Katie da Cunha Lewin’s essay on “The Politics of Rediscovery” for this publication, Thurman seems to wonder how many times “rediscovery” can happen before we begin to grow tired of being constantly reacquainted with the figure of the neglected Black artist.

Given this dissonance, the concept of authenticity takes on an added dimension. Thurman echoes Australian anthropologist Inga Clendinnen when she asks, how real was the listener’s comprehension? Even in examples from the last 12 months, it seems the answer is not real at all. But if it’s not real, it’s at least authentic: the lack of comprehension represents shortcomings that are still part of our cultural life. What Thurman challenges here is the idea that the burden of comprehension lies entirely on the artist. “Audience reception is never a passive experience,” she writes, “but rather an active process where social, cultural, and political categories are constantly arbitrated.” If musical performance isn’t a universal language, perhaps listening is.


Olivia Giovetti has written for The Washington Post, London Review of Books, Literary HubElectric LiteratureThe Millions, and VAN magazine (where she is also an editor). She’s currently working on a memoir.

LARB Contributor

Olivia Giovetti has written for The Washington PostLondon Review of BooksLiterary HubElectric LiteratureThe Millions, and VAN magazine (where she is also an editor). She’s currently working on a memoir.


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