Are We Hearing A Crescendo of Anti-Racism in Classical Music? with Dr. Kira Thurman and Ashleigh Gordon
Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness #169 July 7, 2020
This week on Getting Curious, Dr. Kira Thurman and Ashleigh Gordon join Jonathan to discuss the remarkable work of Black classical composers and musicians through history and today. Dr. Thurman is an assistant professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Ashleigh Gordon is the co-founder, Artistic and Executive Director, and violist of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black Artistry through music.
Follow Dr. Thurman on Twitter @kira_thurman, and follow Ashleigh on Instagram @violashe and at www.violashe.com. Keep up with Castle of our Skins on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @castleskins, and at www.castleskins.org.
And make sure to check out the Castle of our Skins resources page for a list of organizations, ensembles, composers, and more!
Listen to more music from Quiñ by heading over to TheQuinCat.com.
Hear the Episode
- KIRA THURMAN [00:01:24] Please call me Kira.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:01:53] George Bridgetower.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:02:09] Sure. So I will, I guess, begin by saying I did not mean to become accidentally Twitter famous. It's been kind of a roller coaster ride, but also pretty fun. So, yeah, I'm a German historian and a musicologist. I teach at the University of Michigan and my research is on the history of Black musicians in Europe. And I've been working on this topic for, oh gosh, now a decade or so. And the question of if Beethoven is Black has come up over time. I've heard it from all kinds of different people. And I, you know, I, I sort of said, you know, my piece, to pull a name, I said what I said on Twitter. But at the same time, you know, I do think it's interesting to think about, you know, what examples do we have of Black musicians and Black classical musicians in particular? Why have you become fixated on Beethoven instead of, to my mind, celebrating the Black composers and Black musicians that we know of, who were active in classical music? So, so that's been a big question of mine that sort of shaped a lot of my research for the last decade.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:03:54] Sorry.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:05:21] Right. Right. As opposed to a body of work, a body of like articles. Things that you have written and published that then hopefully other people get to read.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:06:10] Right. I mean, if I can help provide some historical context to that. And I think Ashe can provide, I think, really helpful perspectives on the contemporary situation, which I can't because I'm not a professional musician in the industry like she is. You know, I think from a historical perspective, you're absolutely right to sort of make these connection that so much of how we understand race in America also affected classical music and the classical music world, and that there was deep segregation and deep institutional racism that that sort of really prevented a lot of Black musicians from, you know, from, from entering major opera houses, from performing in major symphony orchestra halls, you know. And that really sort of I think, you know, if you, if you were going to succeed as a Black classical musician, you know, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it took so much to be able to do that.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:09:48] That's such an excellent point. Basically, I think one way to think about it is if you're a talented musician in let’s say the 1920s, 1930s, what are your options? Right? One is to try to keep making it through anyway, even though you're facing all of these barriers. Another is to leave the world of classical music altogether, which a lot of people did. They went into jazz. They went into popular music, things like that. Nina Simone, Miles Davis. Or, and this is what Ashe was saying. The other option was to go to Europe, because in theory, in Europe, you could get gigs, you could get, you know, a deal at an opera house or with a symphony orchestra when you couldn't do that in the United States.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:10:44] Right. Right.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:10:47] No, you're right.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:10:58] They do. I mean, I, you know, I, I don't want to speak too much for, for Ashe, I will let Ashe also sort of chime in here. But, you know, but I think there is a way in which, you know, I think the classical music world to a certain extent, is trying to change and trying to sort of, you know, bring in perhaps more people of color to it. Although, again, the point is that we, we've been here, we've, we've done been here right this whole time. You know, but I think that there, that you're right. There's a way in which, you know, how do I put it? There's a, there's, it's understandable why there's such a strong Black criticism against classical music and why oftentimes, perhaps African-Americans don't necessarily sort of leap to this genre, leap to this style, if, if in a lot of ways the main historical examples we have are those of oppression.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:11:55] Yeah.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:13:05] Building on Ashe's last point, I think one of the thing that's been so frustrating oftentimes for Black classical musicians are the ways in which they're oftentimes judged and the ways in which you're judged is sort of you know, they're told it's on aesthetic terms like, oh, well, you're, you know, we didn't, we weren't, we didn't like your interpretation. It wasn't sort of, you know, good quality music. But it turned out oftentimes behind it is racism. Right? So hence this line from Leontyne Price, a fabulous famous African-American opera star who said, you know, in the 50s or 60s that she knew she had to be three times as good to get noticed, three times as good to get attention. You know, if she was going to make it in this business, she had to be three times as good.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:15:18] That's true.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:15:23] Yeah. George Bridgetower was an Afro-European violinist. He was born and raised in the Esterhazy Palace in part of the Habsburg Empire, a part of Austria, it's now part of Hungary. And he lived in the 18th century to the early 19th century. So early, sort of 1800s.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:15:48] And, and he was a very, very talented violinist. He studied with a very well-known composer named Franz Joseph Haydn, who was part of this, what people called the first Viennese school of composers. So Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. They sort of represent this oftentimes Trinity or something of, of composers in European art music. So Bridgetower studied with him. He performed with him in Vienna. At some point in the early 1800s, I think 1801 to 1803, he settled in Vienna. And that's where he met composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who, you know, we oftentimes associate with genius and all kinds of other things, a composer of nine symphonies, you know, all of these other works. And so they became friends, Beethoven dedicated a violin sonata to him, which he had named, actually, the “Sonata Mulattica." Which is sort of interesting and maybe problematic. Right? Right.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:16:54] No. Well-.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:16:58] "Mulattica" like Mulatto or something.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:17:06] I know.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:17:07] I know. Sorry. They're very hetero.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:17:12] Yeah, unfortunately, so what happened, to, to prove that sort of, I guess the hetero-ness of it.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:17:18] So they were-. They were friends and then Beethoven dedicated the sonata, but then they got into a fight over a woman and stopped being friends. And then-.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:17:34] You know what? Yes. I will have to consult the sources.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:18:04] Mmmm. In some ways.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:18:18] So unfortunately, I think oftentimes, you know, it's tricky. On the one hand, yes. Black classical musicians, especially coming from the United States, did historically have more opportunities in Europe. But that's not to say that Europe was somehow this land, you know, of racial acceptance and racial tolerance as well. And I think here, that part of the thing that we're fighting in terms of an erasure, which Ash mentioned earlier, is we're finding that only the sort of an erasure of Black people from classical music, but we're also fighting the erasure of Black people from European history. Right? That, you know, there are famous examples of Black Europeans, for example, Naomi Campbell or Idris Elba. Right? Who are Black and British. But so often they're not written into history textbooks either. Right? And so there were, of course, sort of Black people in Europe going through sort of, you know, back to medieval Europe early, modern and before about as well. But it's been hard work for historians to sort of trace the, you know, trace them, find them, tell their stories, tell their biographies again. You know, so I think right now the consensus seems to be that for a lot of Black Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is a way in which they were, like, hyper visible and also invisible at the same time. So people like George Bridgetower would have been, on the one hand, hyper visible as a sort of, you know, minority in, in Austria and in sort of a Habsburg empire. But then the fact that he sort of then ends up in obscurity, even though he was a friend of Beethoven, sort of gives us an example of how he could also be rendered invisible at the same time.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:21:16] And if I could piggyback off of that to offer perhaps a historical example, which I've been thinking about a lot, which is that there is a contemporary of George Bridgetower in Vienna at the same time as him named Angelo Soliman, who was a Black servant at the Habsburg court. And, and he was a Freemason. He was known to Mozart. Apparently Mozart, the composer, had a character in his opera, "The Magic Flute," that was sort of supposed to be based on him. It's a, it's a really ugly character, actually. It's a caricature in a lot of ways. And to give you a sense of the exoticism associated with being Black in Europe at the time. And this is really tragic and awful. When he died, in, I think, 1796, his body was stuffed and put on display in the Habsburg court. And his daughter had to petition the court to have his body removed from display and given the proper Catholic burial, I found out a couple years ago, which the Hapsburg court denied, and he was put on display for years. You know, in the 19th century, in the 1800s. So this is just to say, you know, that's an example of being hyper visible and invisible at the same time. Right? And also, I think to get closer to Ashe's point is an example of how Black people were sort of always exotic-ized and fetishized in a lot of ways by white Europeans in European history.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:25:59] Yeah, mmhmm.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:26:38] I agree and I, I sort of second that wholly, that there are so many historical examples of, you know, very talented Black kids with parents who would do anything to try to save money to get their child lessons, to get their child an instrument. Yeah. I mean, I think you're right that this all goes back to the issue of sort of the various economic, structural social barriers that have been in the way. But then I really love Ashe's focus on resilience and the ways in which African-Americans, as well as Black Europeans, have sort of constantly tried to overcome various barriers that might have been in their way.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:28:12] You can't.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:28:14] Yeah, that's weird.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:28:32] Ok.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:33:32] Yeah, I, I, I agree wholeheartedly with all of that. I mean, as an academic and really big nerd, I feel like it's my responsibility in a lot of ways to think critically about, you know, textbooks, music history textbooks and curriculum. European history textbooks and curriculum. When and where do kids come across Black musicians? Under what guises? Under what forms? In which stories? You know, so I think that's a huge sort of issue to sort of work out and think through is how do we make sure that both K-12 and also at the university level, people are learning these stories and not simply just encountering them on, frankly, sort of, you know, Martin Luther King Junior Day, which is like the one day of the year where we get to sort of celebrate Black people it feels like sometimes. But, but that they're, they're really sort of part of the curriculum in meaningful ways that we celebrate their works and their legacies while also sort of using them as a way to think critically about the histories of race and racism in Europe and the United States. I mean, I think the other thing is we're still in need of a lot of structural change when we think about who runs classical music organizations and societies and, you know, all of, in all of these different ways. We're still sort of, I think, in need of better conversations about, about just who is on the board of things, who's a director of things and why, why are they the ones doing that?
- KIRA THURMAN [00:37:23] Yeah. Ashe, want to go first?
- KIRA THURMAN [00:41:1903 Oh, man, I. I love everything on Ashe's list. I think I would mention in terms of moments where for me it was extreme joy. It was finding out that Anthony Davis had won the Pulitzer Prize as a composer for, I mean, he just does amazing operas, “Central Park Five” and another opera called "Malcolm X." And these are daring, daring works. Oftentimes in an industry that just hasn't really had these conversations or hasn't been willing to have these conversations. So the fact that he wants to sort of compose operas that sort of center Black men, center Black experiences, it's just, it's amazing. So that's been a huge moment of joy for me this year. Anytime I can hear, for example, the Kanneh-Mason family, which is a bunch of siblings getting together and performing music, I'm always happy. Yeah, you find your joy where you can, right?
- KIRA THURMAN [00:42:56] Yeah, Anthony Davis.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:43:38] How I got into classical music, I will say, I cheated. I grew up in Vienna, Austria, so I grew up in a different country. And Vienna has classical music everywhere. So. And I started playing piano at age 4.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:43:48] Sure, sure. Thanks. Yeah. And I think, you know, I think everybody has perhaps, or least for me, I had a couple of different moments of hearing a piece of music on the radio or hearing it on a C.D. that I bought that sort of, you know, so moved me that I wanted to learn more, you know? So I think in, when I was like 12 or 13, it was like Bach "Air on a G String," which everybody sort of knows and hears. But it was my first time, I think, really encountering it and falling in love with-, falling in love with it. So that's sort of, I guess, how I would say I got into classical music. I'm a pianist and then sort of started listening more when I was in middle school and high school. Yeah. Ashe?
- KIRA THURMAN [00:47:32] Thanks.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:47:40] Right. I guess maybe to get back to your point, though, about like how, how are people supposed to find this music? You know, that's such a really important question. I think if you're at all studying with a teacher, it's definitely, I think, a conversation you have to have with your teacher whether, and parents of kids, you know, also start asking these questions. You know, if your, if your kid is, is a fourth grade violinist, you know, doing orchestra for the first time, asking the teacher, asking the conductor for more representation.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:49:22] Oh.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:50:04] I mean, just for an example, for context, Ashe, I mean correct me if I'm wrong, but we went to conservatory together and I think our four years together, I don't know if we really encountered the music of Black composers. Either in, you know, an orchestra or in our music history lessons or in our piano lessons or, or viola lessons. You know, I, my senior year did a recital. My piano recital was all music by women composers because women in general have been marginalized and told they can't compose music. And I think that's when I started programming music by Black women. And I played Margaret Bonds on my, on my senior recital. But Ashe, I think maybe you could correct me, but I mean, that's just one example, right? Like here we are, we're both two advocates for Black composers and Black classical musicians. But I don't think we encountered it in our own curriculum.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:51:12] No, no.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:51:29] Something like that.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:51:39] In a basement.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:52:33] I think perhaps we still have a ways to go. I mean, things that I found really exciting were hearing the Chineke! Orchestra perform for BBC Proms in 2018, it's one of the largest music festivals in Europe. And seeing them get the recognition that they so rightly deserved was a sort of wonderful moment for me. So there are things like that, I think I've been celebrating lately.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:54:04] Ebony Opera.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:55:48] I mean, at least from my perspective as an academic, I think one of the things that does fill me with hope is that fields like musicology are changing and have changed a lot. Musicology being sort of the study of music and music history. And that there are so many wonderful music historians who are dedicated to completely changing how we teach music history and how people sort of learn about the men and women and non-binary people who were apart of music all along. So I think that's sort of making some huge strides these days. And I'm really excited to see how a revamped music curricula, how they change music history textbooks, and so that we see a sort of much better and richer representation of those involved in music. I mean, the challenges to, that to my mind, still remain are, are always going to be structural, are always going to be about leadership and sort of how, you know, how the, the top sort of communicates, you know, and sort of promotes messages and ideas that might encounter a sort of larger experience of kids, you know, K-12 again, around the United States and in Europe as well.
- KIRA THURMAN [00:59:59] I mean, I'm putting on my historian's hat again, I guess you could say. I mean, I'm really struck by, I, I discovered this looking through old historical newspapers from the 1960s that constantly we see orchestras deciding to start some, quote unquote, "urban project" where they try to reach the quote unquote, "urban youth." Right? Which is all sort of coded for trying to reach sort of poor Black communities. And they sort of present it as, again, this, As Ashe said, the sort of civilizing mission like we're reaching, like we're going into these into these lost worlds and giving them, you know, classical music, which is superior to all others. And everyone always presented us this new initiative. But then I realized when I was looking for these historical newspapers, well, wait a minute, that's not true at all. People have been doing this since the 60s, like orchestras and institutions have been doing the kind of move since the 60s. And so realizing that there's this constant, repetitive notion of trying to save somehow, you know, poor communities of color from themselves or something. It's just it's infuriating to sort of encounter that over and over again.
- KIRA THURMAN [01:03:57] There is actually a podcast run by two African-American students at Eastman School of Music called "Classically Black."
- KIRA THURMAN [01:04:02] Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Right. Right. So we might, I might sort of try to mention that in the, if there are links or whatever for people to if they want to sort of you know-.
- KIRA THURMAN [01:04:17] Oh yeah. Ok.
- KIRA THURMAN [01:04:22] Yeah, violists.
- KIRA THURMAN [01:04:34] Thank you. Thanks for having us.