Conductor Roderick Cox walks across the stage, bumps elbows with the concertmaster, bows to the audience, and steps up to the podium.
The performance is sold out, but the audience is sparse, masked, and seated apart, limited to 500 despite the Grand Hall’s capacity of 2100. Guests had to present a negative COVID-19 test to attend.
Cox takes a breath, raises his baton, and cues the orchestra. The first notes of Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja / Anthem for Unity”— pizzicato plucks from the strings—reverberate in the hall.
On May 31, 2021, after a seven-month break, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, reopened to live audiences for the finale concert of “Song of America: A Celebration of Black Music.”
Professor Kira Thurman wasn’t able to make it in person, but her work was represented. She was scholar-in-residence for the three-concert series, which focused on the contributions of Black composers, writers, and artists.
“Thinking about the historical big picture, the Black Lives Matter movement has always been a global historical movement. And African American activism has always been transnational,” said Thurman. “This particular festival is a great example of how African American music and creativity has always had an international dimension.”
She was invited to contribute by series curators Thomas Hampson and Louise Toppin, who both share connections to the University of Michigan. Toppin is a professor of music and voice in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and Hampson is a distinguished visiting artist at the school.
Hampson and Toppin were looking for someone “to explain these concerts to an international audience,” said Thurman. “Discussing the music of Black composers and Black musicians in an international context is totally in my wheelhouse.”
Thurman is a historian, musicologist, and pianist who studies the Black diaspora in Central Europe. This includes the many international connections between Black Americans and Black Europeans—as well as the many Black American artists who have performed in Europe.
“It does fit in really nicely with my research because it’s about how African American classical musicians have always looked overseas for recognition,” said Thurman. “These contexts in particular came out in the wake of George Floyd—that it’s time for more global international recognition of Black artistry, and Black American artistry more specifically.”
“Achtzehn Monat im Kittchen! Achtzehn Monat im Loch!”* sang Louise Toppin, accompanied by piano, during the first concert.
She was performing composer Wilhelm Grosz’s “Afrika-Songs,” which set German translations of Langston Hughes’s poems to music, including ”Ballad of Gin Mary.”
Hughes was only 21 when his poems were first translated into German by young German Jews. Thurman calls this “solidarity through translation.”
“We see in the 1920s a strong generation of German, Jewish socialists—one in particular, Anna Nussbaum, who’s also friends with W.E.B. DuBois—who take it upon themselves to translate African American poetry,” said Thurman.
“Nussbaum brings her translations to these young modernist German composers”—like Grosz—“who then start setting them to music and creating German art songs.”
Thurman’s program notes are full of historical context like this. They are available on the website (for those who stream the performances) and in the printed program (for those who attended the finale’s live performance). Listeners can reference the notes while listening, or refer to them after the fact.
To prepare she dug into primary sources.
“I revisited a lot of historical documents, a lot of memoirs,” said Thurman. “I went back and re-read the original diary entries of this African American woman named Ella Sheppard from the 1870s. She was part of the Fisk Jubilee singers, and she recorded their time in Germany, over ten months.”
Thurman incorporated Sheppard’s accounts into the notes for the finale concert, which focused on Black spirituals: “At the Royal Palace in Potsdam, Crown Princess Victoria (1840-1901) burst into tears once the ensemble began to sing. She apologized after their concert for openly weeping so much. What moved Crown Princess Victoria then, and what continues to move us today, are some of the core beliefs that spirituals express in beautiful harmony: hope, strength, and resilience,” Thurman wrote.
Thurman also coordinated the German translations of the songs that would be performed in English. These were done by two PhD students in Germanic Languages and Literatures, Özlem Karuç and Dominic DeSocio.
Thurman is no stranger to public projects.
In her 2020 New Yorker article on African American singer Marian Anderson’s trip to Nazi Germany, she wrote: “By the late thirties, walking around in a Black body in Germany and Austria meant having a target on your back.”
Producers tapped her expertise on Anderson for Voice of Freedom, an American Experience documentary on Anderson that aired on PBS in February 2021. And her work in the collaborative Mapping Black Central Europe project documents Black history in Germany, Austria, and other German-speaking lands through a series of interactive maps (blackcentraleurope.com).
Thurman’s work on “Song of America” is part of a greater project— to show how African Americans have sought recognition outside of America, but also to specifically tie Blackness to Germany. “Germany has always been a site of the Black diaspora,” she said.
Given her expertise, she’s perfectly suited for this task.
“Writing about Black people in European history, I’m constantly fighting against myths of erasure and denial,” said Thurman. “How better to fight against that than by making it as public as possible?”
Visit elbphilharmonie.de to view concert streams and explore supporting materials, including program notes.
*“Eighteen months in jail! / O eighteen months locked in!”