Race and German Music in Interwar Europe

by Ellen Harper and Victoria Struys

On November 21, the Institute of European Studies was pleased to welcome Kira Thurman (Associate Professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan) for her lecture “Singing Schubert, Hearing Race: Black Concert Singers and the German Lied in Interwar Central Europe.” In this fascinating presentation, Thurman explained how classical music has been imagined as a universal language and what happens when non-white singers and musicians begin to speak that language.

Focusing specifically on Germany and Austria--the cradles of classical music and the home of composers such as Mozart, Wagner, and Bach--Thurman began by explaining that during the interwar period, Germans praised the universality of classical music. However, this message was tested when non-Europeans espoused it, revealing tensions between a belief in the universality of classical music and the racial ideology of who could perform it. Thurman explained that Germany and Austria appealed to African American musicians because the musical culture of the two countries dominated their education, and they wanted to learn from the best. In addition, Europe was perceived as a more favorable place for African Americans, since institutionalized racism was not as entrenched as it was in the United States during the Jim Crow era. The actual reception of black performers in Europe, however, was highly dependent on the political era. In Nazi Germany, black performers were often met with protest. But in the immediate postwar period, black singers were welcomed, and even encouraged to perform the works of acclaimed German composers such as Wagner.

Finally, Thurman told the stories of Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes, two African American singers who “sounded like Germans.” Despite being met with hostility, they excelled in the traditional form of the German lied to critical acclaim. Yet Anderson and Hayes had to be “whitewashed” in order for German people to accept their success, often being described as “negroes with white souls.” When they did not perform well, critics would attack their blackness. As Thurman pointed out, this double standard faced by black performers reveals the underlying hypocrisy of the “universality” claim of German classical music.

During an intriguing Q & A session with the audience of 25, Thurman discussed how African American performers challenged associations of classical music with whiteness, even as they saw their blackness being erased to fit German ideals of musical universality. Other questions focused on the comparison between classical music and jazz, and the “virtue” associated with both musical forms. Overall, Thurman’s research demonstrates how black performers pushed Germans to reconsider their views on race and music.