SINGING LIKE GERMANS
Black musicians in the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms
368pp. Cornell University Press. $32.95.
ONE SUMMER EVENING IN BAYREUTH in 1961, Grace Bumbry took to a dimly lit stage. Her performance to the enraptured audience, of the role of Venus in Richard Wagner's Tannhauser, was as electric as it was astonishing. In 1940, Adolf Hitler had stood at a first-floor window in that building to address cheering guests. Twenty-one years later, an African American woman was singing one of German opera's leading roles there.
Cultural history is full of performances that subvert what we think we know about the access people of certain minorities had to artistic forms. In Kira Thurman's revelatory and thoroughly-researched book, Singing Like Germans: Black musicians in the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, the story of African American classical musicians in Germany and Austria is illuminated in painstaking detail. The liberating intellectual breathing space that twentieth-century France afforded African American writers such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright has been well documented, but the analogous creative landscape that Germany and Austria gave African Americans since the abolition of slavery is only now being considered. Through letters, concert posters, reviews and other sources, Thurman reveals an unacknowledged strand of musical and transatlantic history; between the 1870s and the 1960s, African American classical musicians were able, through talent, personal connections and patronage, to escape racial oppression in America and travel to Central Europe where many became virtuosos of classical repertoire.
Throughout the book, Thurman tells us stories such as those of Harry Lawrence Freeman, a Black composer from Cleveland whose relationship with his teacher, the German-American composer and conductor Johann Geinrich Beck, helped advance his career: he wrote dozens of operas during the Harlem Renaissance and had two of them--Epthalia and The Martyr--performed at Denver's Deutsches Theatre in the 1890s. We discover the life of the contralto Marian Anderson, whose performance in Salzburg in 1934 was so captivating that it moved Arturo Toscanini to describe it as the kind of concert "one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years" (see TLS, July 17, 2020). We learn about the virtuoso pianist Hazel Harrison, who by way of her German piano teacher...