Racism in America
Why Germany was an opportunity for black artists
03/17/2022 By Julia Scholzel
For many years, Germany was a place of aspiration for Afro-American artists. Until the 1960s, many classical singers came to the United States to escape racism and to be able to practice their art. Historian Kira Thurman wrote a book about it: “Singing like the Germans: Black musicians in the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms”.
Photo source: Picture-Alliance / DPA
BR Classic: In your book you are talking about black Afro-American musicians who have performed in Germany or trained here. What brought these musicians to Germany in the first place?
Kira Therman: For all of them, the environment here was more open and free than in the United States. Germany did not have racist racism like the United States. For example, if they came to Germany in the 1890s, they could stay in any hotel and enter any opera house or concert hall. There were no restrictions for him, not even in personal or professional cases. All the artists I have introduced in this book have been particularly enthusiastic about this. What brought him to Germany was, of course, classical music. The land of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms was the best place to complete or continue his music education.
BR Classic: What social environment did these musicians come from and how did they come to Germany financially?
Kira Therman: They come from different social classes. Roland Hayes, the famous tenor of the 1920s and 1930s, was the son of a former slave. So he really came from a poor background. He funded his education in Europe through grants and donations. He later became very successful in Europe. In the 1920s he earned the equivalent of about 100,000 euros a year, which made him financially independent and rich.
BR Classic: How did the audience react to your search?
Historian Kira Thurman | Image Credit: Lisa Thompson
Kira Therman: There was a very mixed reaction among these musicians. Some were very open and enthusiastic when black musicians performed Mendelssohn or Wagner. They considered it appropriate and saw it as important evidence of the universality of German music. But there was also a widespread perception that the singers’ ethnic backgrounds had been “identified”. For example, many still claim that one of Schubert’s songs sounds “black” in contrast to the African-American Marian Anderson. His voice has been described as dark, gloomy and smoky. The presence of black female artists was received and criticized in various ways. But it also makes it clear to me how much the listening experience is thematic. It is strongly influenced by personal attitudes.
BR Classic: Why do we know so little about these particular musicians from the United States in this country?
Kira Therman: I believe there are several reasons for this. They are not well known in the United States because most of their careers are in Europe. For this reason they do not appear in the history of American music. Among them are singers like Matuilda Dobbs and many more In terms of German music history, the reason may be that Afro-American artists have always been seen as somewhat exotic and therefore never properly integrated.
BR Classic: If you look at Germany today, in cultural openness, are your results still valid today?
Kira Therman: My research makes it clear that everyone can be passionate about classical music. Anyone can study and explain them. If we remember this knowledge and understand that classical music is for everyone, we can learn to listen with different ears. We can hear classical music performed by people from different backgrounds for different reasons and purposes.
BR Classic: Would you say that there is no latent racism in the classical world?
Kira Therman: No, not at all. Instead, I feel that racism and diversity still have a long way to go in the world of classical music. Again, a big problem is the social bias that affects our listening habits. We need to overcome stereotypes, such as the idea that Asian artists play cold and technically focused. We assume that black singers always sing loudly. When we go to a concert we have to shake off these expectations.
BR Classic: International Week Against Racism is being celebrated around the world. What do you think of this kind of action?
Book cover – Kira Therman: Singing like the Germans Photo source: Cornell University Press
Kira Therman: These are definitely very good first steps. However, my research shows that this cannot be done with just one concentrated week of action. The system of hiring female artists in opera houses and orchestras should be reconsidered in different ways. But this is just the beginning. It would be advisable if the Opera House and the orchestra not only hired different artists, but also applied diversity at the administrative and management levels. This should not be limited to the cast-technical area, but should also include dramatic issues. So the impact of change should be on the upside.
The interview was conducted by Julia Schulzel for BR-KLASSIK.
Show: “Leporello” on March 17, 2022, at 4:05 pm in BR-KLASSIK