by Gina Balibrera
The question of whether Beethoven was Black is not a new one. Black scholars in the United States approached the question decades ago. But when someone on Twitter asked if anyone with classical music expertise could answer, Kira Thurman, assistant professor in the Departments of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures, weighed in. “I’d love to read through the original 18th century sources again and examine the question, ‘Was Beethoven Black?’ But trust me when I say that there are still plenty of Black musicians for us to study—and celebrate!—anyway,” Thurman wrote on Twitter. “We don’t need Beethoven, fam.”
Thurman’s response, which went viral, addresses the nature of the question about classical music’s selective cultural memory, rather than supplying a definitive answer to the question about Beethoven’s race. Maybe focusing on whether Beethoven was Black misses the point, Thurman argues, when there are already so many Black composers and performers, past and present, whose work and genius have been entirely overlooked by arbiters of the classical music canon.
Thurman’s reframing of the Beethoven question isn’t just an intellectual one-off. Thurman researches—and celebrates—Black cultural history in Central Europe as both an academic and a public historian. For her, the celebration of forgotten Black classical musicians is personal.
In Vienna, the city of Mozart, Thurman began studying piano at the age of four. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in history from the University of Rochester, with a minor field in musicology from the Eastman School of Music. “Vienna is responsible for a couple of things about me,” Thurman says. Her love of classical music is one of them. Her passion for the history of the Black diaspora and for Germanic languages and cultures are two others. In her new book, Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (Cornell University Press, 2021), Thurman’s areas of expertise converge to ask important questions about national belonging, the links between art and identity, and the underappreciated genius of Black classical musicians in Germany and Austria in the 19th and 20th centuries.
At the outset of her research, Thurman surveyed music conservatory archives in the United States, looking for institutions where Black diasporic musicians honed their skills. She discovered that in the United States, in the late 19th century, Oberlin College in Ohio was the place to be. One of the first colleges to accept Black students, Oberlin’s elite conservatory of classical music drew talented Black musicians in droves. Records of Black musicians were also found at Juilliard, Eastman, and at the University of Michigan. But the barriers of institutional racism prevented these talented musicians from finding work in the classical music world when they graduated. They could stick it out in classical music and have a middling career, or they could switch to performing jazz or popular music, genres that white audiences expected of Black musicians.
There was a third option as well, a path that unfolded in letters from friends and teachers abroad: Go to Europe and play the classical music that you love. “The United States wasn’t ready or willing to hear Black classical musicians, but in its own way, Europe was,” Thurman says. Some Black musicians went to Europe and returned to the United States after a few fruitful months or years. With the endorsement of European critics and musicians, many found it easier to get the kind of work they wanted—making it harder for white American audiences to turn them down. The praise of white audiences in central Europe, the land of Bach and Mozart, was like a special kind of certification. Some Black classical musicians collected their degrees from Juilliard or Michigan, went to Europe, and decided to stay.
The Black classical music network in Germany and Austria was intergenerational and connected across the Atlantic. Its members shared apartments, patrons, mentors, and teaching jobs. Black musicians in Berlin wrote to their alma maters in the States, asking after promising students with news of spare rooms and tutoring jobs. “People were definitely talking to each other,” Thurman says.
Thurman shares the story of Bruno Walter, conductor of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, who was forced to flee Germany in 1933 due to the rising anti-Semitism leading up to the Holocaust. Exiled in Vienna, Austria, in 1936, he invited opera singer Marian Anderson to perform. As a result, Walter and Anderson both received death threats and were stalked by plainclothes detectives.
Most classical music aficionados know about Anderson, who was the first Black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1955, but few are aware of the racism she experienced during her years in Germany and Austria. “Even less is widely known about other figures in Black classical music,” Thurman says.
Being able to work in the genre of music in which they trained was vital to Black classical musicians, and the reception that these musicians received in Europe was no doubt a boon to their careers. However, Thurman says that privately, in a letter home or in a diary, these musicians would share how frustrated they were socially, personally, and politically. On one hand Europe was liberating compared to Jim Crow America. But, Thurman says, Europe was not without its problems in terms of racial acceptance.
Some Black musicians were tokenized by white Germans to support their claims to a certain kind of Europe that was free, open, and diverse, Thurman says. Others were ignored, their virtuosity and erudition minimized with racist theories of the limits of Black talent. And others, no matter how well they played classical German music, spoke German, or established themselves in the German community, were threatened or treated like perpetual outsiders.
Classical music is at the heart of German identity, Thurman says, and to play German classical music is to embrace the culture. White German audiences may have provided a stage for Black classical musicians, she says, but they weren’t ready for Black performers challenging their notions of what it means to be German. Music critics were constantly policing the boundaries of race, revealing tensions having to do with identity and nation, and what it meant to belong to either. White audience members were frequently bewildered by performances from Black musicians, Thurman says. They might say something like, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell if the musician is a German or not.” Thurman says that to accept the talent of Black musicians, white Germans had to find ways to minimize or even deny their Blackness. She describes typical music reviews of Black performers by white German critics. In positive reviews, musicians were praised as “negroes with white souls,” given honorary membership in whiteness. In negative reviews, Thurman says that the Blackness of the musicians was often perceived as a fault. Thurman says that performers would be scrutinized for where in the piece the music sounded not “German” according to white critics, but “Black.” The critic might write something like, ‘Oh, it was technically correct, but her mannerisms were Black,’” Thurman says. “Black musicians were always judged along racial lines.”
Thurman’s research on the cultural contributions of Black musicians in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries has implications for the here and now. Thurman hopes her research, especially her public scholarship, can bring attention to the long history of anti-Black racism in Germany. “I want to confront these myths of German whiteness,” she says. “I want to confront the myth of colorblindness or meritocracy in classical music. These myths are so strong that it’s important for me to reach a larger audience in challenging this kind of racism.”
At the website Black Central Europe, Thurman and other colleagues have compiled over a thousand years of history of Black people in Germany and Austria. The website contains photographs, historical documents, music scores, and personal correspondence, all made available in English and German. Thurman uses the website and its archive of primary sources when she teaches her courses the History of Black People in Germany and Black Classical Musicians.
When we listen to the Black musicians who have been excluded from music history, we hear a richer and more diverse world. “There’s so much hidden history here,” Thurman says. “These stories deserve our ears.”
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