Protests and tears: how black musicians perplexed Germans before WWII

Black musicians in Germany are normally only associated with jazz. In fact, black classical musicians have been influencing German high culture since the days of Beethoven.

Protests and tears: how black musicians perplexed Germans before WWII
An engraving of the Fisk Jubilee Singers on their second European tour during the 1870s. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

The rare anecdotes found in Kira Thurman’s research read like prose. She describes, for example, how Beethoven composed a sonata for his black violinist friend George Bridgetower – as an inside joke, Beethoven dubbed it Sonata Mullatica. To the rest of the world it was known as Sonata No. 9 and the two debuted the piece in Vienna in 1803.

Then Thurman recalls how Prince Friedrich’s wife wept when she watched the African-American Fisk Jubilee Singers (a gospel ensemble) perform in Potsdam in 1877. The princess was so mortified by her sobbing that she approached one of the singers and apologized for losing her composure.

These are tales that have remained largely buried under the façade that black musicians in Europe solely performed jazz. But University of Michigan professor and current fellow at The American Academy in Berlin, Kira Thurman, sheds light on black musicians who were here long before Europe had heard a note of jazz music.

George Bridgetower. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

“I didn’t know most of these people until I started my research,” Thurman admits. “It reflects how we teach western art, music history and classical music history.” Thurman is also a classically trained pianist. The daughter of an African-American father and a Jamaican mother, Thurman grew up in Austria, the home of many of classical music’s greatest composers.

On November 21st at The American Academy, Thurman will present more examples of mostly African-American classical musicians who performed in Germany during the most racist periods in the county’s history. She will address the dilemma Germans at the time faced when many believed, on the one hand, that black people were inferior but on the other, were deeply moved when blacks performed “European” music.

“Black classical musicians provoked listeners in Austria and Germany into renegotiating their definitions of race, music, and national identity,” Thurman argues in her research.

In one of her most compelling historical examples, she recalls how Roland Hayes, an African-American tenor, was met with boos and protests, even before he set foot on stage for a 1924 performance in Berlin. Once he began singing a Schubert lullaby, the angry audience grew silent and listened quietly for the rest of the performance. The press later called Hayes, a “Negro with a white soul.”

Human zoos versus virtuosos

When reading through Thurman’s anecdotes, it is impossible to forget what else was brewing in Germany during the same time period. For example, Völkerschauen, (or human zoos) were popular between 1870 and 1940. Nineteenth-century German politician Wilhelm Marr wrote that “Negroes are closer to beasts than to human beings.”

Still, black classical musicians and singers were appearing in concerts in European cities to large crowds.

“By the late 19th century there was an emerging hierarchy of blackness,” Thurman explains. “But it was blurry, African-Americans were considered to be somewhere in between the “primitive” and “civilized” people. Black classical musicians exposed the German limitations of their knowledge of blackness,” says Thurman. “They suggested a wider range of black experience.”

For African-American musicians during the interwar period, performing in Europe was a chance to hone their skills in the Heimat of classical music. It also offered them more job opportunities than back home in the States. They also knew that to be respected classical musicians and singers in the US, they had to prove themselves through time spent training and performing in Europe.

The threat of black classical musicians

Marian Anderson. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Fascism soon cast an ominous cloud over black musicians and singers in German-speaking Europe. While the legendary contralto Marian Anderson performed throughout Europe in the 1930s, “by the end of her stay in Vienna, the city was divided about her,” says Thurman. “On the one hand she represented the brotherhood of all men. But there was a growing far-right presence and they threw stink bombs at her concerts.”

While black classical musicians were admired they were also seen as dangerous to the rising nationalist sentiment.

“’Negros who sing German Lieder jeopardize German culture,” Thurman said of the thinking at the time. “It was more dangerous than jazz.”

A new day

After the war, inviting black musicians to Germany was part of the de-Nazification process, says Thurman. African-American conductor Rudolph Dunbar was invited to Berlin in 1945. Headlines ran: “Negro Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic!” African-Americans would not see a civil rights act for another nineteen years and experienced regular discrimination on and offstage.

Nina Simone was known by many as a jazz singer but had, as Thurman says, “been kicked out from classical music. She was a student of acclaimed German pianist Carl Friedberg at the Julliard School but she was rejected from Curtis,” says Thurman of the renowned classical music conservatory in Philadelphia. Simone, who famously said: “My music is black classical music” suspected that she had been rejected because of her race.

“Classical music has its own racist history,” Thurman says. “(But) change lies within the diversity of perspectives.”

Kira Thurman’s talk Singing Brahms Performing Race: Black Musicians and the German Lied in Interwar Germany and Austria, will take place at The American Academy in Berlin on November 21st at 7:30pm.

Correction: This article originally named the African American tenor as Ronald Hayes. He was in fact called Roland Hayes.