Being Black and Performing German Identity: Black Concert Singers and the German Lied in Interwar Europe

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kira Thurman, University of Michigan
If music is a universal language it has a strong German accent. Western art music in particular has a reputation for transporting the listener to another realm, transcending national boundaries, and transforming social formations. But the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms is also regional and local, an audible expression of the German sense of self. At once for all and also authentically German, the Austro-German musical canon has served as a vehicle for national, racial, and gendered transformations.

This paper explores the ever-present tension between the transcendental powers of German art music and the (trans)national conversations that developed about who could perform it. It focuses on African American performers in Germany and Austria in the twentieth century such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Roland Hayes who learned the music of Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and others. Often dubbed “negroes with white souls,” their performance style, elocution, and diction transformed them in their audiences’ minds from black entertainers into Germans with intimate knowledge of the most cherished works of the Austro-German musical canon. How had they managed to sing like Germans?

My paper answers that question by exploring how music travels and how it creates new racial and national identities. Black performances of German music in interwar Berlin and Vienna show us when categories of blackness and Germanness are reinforced as mutually exclusive and when these categories collapsed. Singing a Brahms Lied or performing a Mozart piano sonata, a musician temporarily circumvented the popular belief that one could not be black and German. As they performed that paradox, suspended in time and space, they connected different musical, racial, and national diasporas and in so doing transformed them.