Classical Music and the Color Line
Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms
Cornell University Press, $32.95 (cloth)
Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music
W.W. Norton, $30 (cloth)
Like U.S. history, classical music has become a new front in the culture wars as musicians and music institutions grapple with the legacies of racism. With most performing arts organizations shuttered by the pandemic last year, George Floyd’s murder prompted several classical musicians of color to mobilize and speak candidly about their experiences of racism. A central message converged across platforms: the social conditions throughout the industry—from composers and performers to staff and stagehands—could no longer be divorced from artistic aims. Maintaining the artistic status quo, but with technological bells and whistles in a hybrid future, was simply not a viable path forward.
The pandemic forced concert cancellations through spring 2021, leaving the industry relatively insulated from the raging political turmoil. But with summer and fall relaunches on the horizon, industrywide press releases revealed a noticeable increase in the number of composers and soloists of color on concert programs. And, predictably, right-wing pundits found a new target, decrying the past year’s reform efforts as a “suicide pact” or spelling the end of “Western classical music.”
The canon’s narrow demographic is not a new issue—it has faced mounting public criticism for many years—but its persistence in concert halls decades beyond the literary “canon wars” exposes the industry’s thoughtless acceptance of its flaws. Despite recent commissioning efforts by the country’s wealthiest organizations, such as the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19, classical music culture, far more than the culture of other arts, remains essentially fixated on canonicity—on apotheosizing “the greatest” composers and “the best” repertoire. The result can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, hamstringing many ensembles—especially legacy institutions—with relatively narrow programming, and race has always been a telling line along which these exclusions have been drawn. During the first half of the twentieth century, white conductors risked damage to their reputations for programming Black composers, and Black conductors risked being typecast for doing the same. With so few possibilities for performance, publishers and record companies were even less likely to offer support, and all along listeners have been left in the lurch.
In this context, the sudden programming of music by a handful of historical Black composers—including Florence Price (1887–1953), Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), and William Dawson (1899–1990)—raises fresh questions about the nature of the canon’s historical contingency. What accounts for their previous absence from concert halls when the scramble to present them now might have been possible all along? More than anything, the artistic questions facing classical music today go well beyond the simple dualism of keeping or tossing the canon; they revolve most of all around access and the hurdles facing marginalized musicians.
Two new books, Singing Like Germans by pianist-turned-musicologist Kira Thurman and Dvořák’s Prophecy by cultural historian and concert producer Joseph Horowitz, promise fresh narratives that interrogate the roles of race and access in the history of classical music. This is precisely what the moment demands, but only one book delivers on the promise. The cover copy of Dvořák’s Prophecy touts a “provocative interpretation of why classical music in America ‘stayed white’.” The provocative part, it turns out, is that it mostly appeals to aesthetic and historical debates about the meaning of “Black classical music,” resulting in the glaring omission of racism as a structural force with profound effects for individuals. Singing Like Germans, by contrast, recovers the untold stories of Black classical musicians, complicating any pat suggestion that classical music has “stayed white” while at the same time better explaining the field’s long legacy of racial exclusion, in performance and composition alike. “Like whiteness,” Thurman writes, “classical music is frequently racially unmarked and presented as universal—until people of color start performing it.”
Widely acclaimed as a scholar of Black classical performers past and present, Thurman has played a leading role in documenting the vast history of Black lives in German-speaking Europe. Drawing on this foundational work, Singing Like Germans, which covers the period 1870 to 1989, reveals that Black classical musicians have historically operated within the global contours of the African diaspora, and as a result, many African American musicians have been attracted to, pursued, and benefited from connections to German-speaking Europe and German classical music. Although Thurman’s chief focus is Central Europe, she consistently articulates the transatlantic character of Western classical music—an artistic practice that originated in Europe but, largely through colonial expansion, had become a global phenomenon by the turn of the twentieth century. (Mari Yoshihara’s 2007 book Musicians from a Different Shore traces this development in East Asia, for example.) The lens of diaspora fruitfully links Thurman’s study of Black classical musicmaking to other regions and ethnicities.
At its heart, Singing Like Germans shows that Black musicians active in a presumptively white cultural sphere forced white listeners to confront questions about who could rightfully “possess” or “embody” classical music—questions fundamentally about race and access. Thurman’s opening chapters examine how aspiring African American classical musicians organized their lives around the social and legal constraints of post-Reconstruction Jim Crow. In the second half of the nineteenth century, most American music schools, including the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory and Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, did not admit students of color, and the few that did—the New England Conservatory, for example—often took no steps to curb hostility from white students. These realities prompted Black musicians to funnel toward safer environments, especially the racially integrated conservatory at Oberlin College or historically Black institutions like Fisk and Hampton.
Faculties at these institutions tended to be staffed by German-trained, if not also German-born, pedagogues. As historian Alison Efford has shown, German immigrant families had long supported emancipation and full citizenship for African Americans, thus aligning with their commitment to Black education. These teachers also developed curricula with canonical German-speaking composers like Mozart and Beethoven at the center and encouraged their most talented students to continue their studies in Germany or Austria. Germanic musical culture’s universalist claims, documented by historian Celia Applegate, offered Black students the promise of liberation—aesthetic and physical—from the violence threatened by Jim Crow. Once in Europe, they relied on transatlantic networks of other Black musicians and friends, as well as their white teachers, for continued professional support. Beyond offering letters of introduction, these networks helped students provide for more basic needs like food and physical safety, which their white American classmates continued to threaten.
Through a close examination of diaries and other firsthand accounts, Thurman reveals that the U.S. environment at the turn of the century was so hostile that the African American musicians who traveled abroad often struggled with the decision to return home. Fearing a lack of professional opportunities—to say nothing of their safety—some musicians with a lighter skin complexion opted to “pass” as white on their arrival back in the United States, entering what historian Allyson Hobbs has called “a chosen exile” from family and friends. Others simply stayed abroad and continued to work in Germany and Austria well after Hitler’s ascent to power because attractive professional opportunities were still more accessible there than in the United States.
Beyond narrating the experiences of individual musicians, Thurman also discusses the racialization of classical music in Central Europe that began as early as the 1870s. Her work on this front is deeply informed by Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s concept of “the sonic color line”—a tool for exploring “how and why certain bodies are expected to produce, desire, and live amongst particular sounds.” The middle chapters of Singing Like Germans reveal that German critics and audiences, though more accommodating than their American counterparts, readily constructed sonic color lines reflecting racist beliefs drawn from pseudoscientific anthropological theories and colonialist xenophobia.
At the turn of the twentieth century, theories of racial bloodlines heavily informed German reviews of star Black performers, including soprano Sissieretta Jones and pianist Hazel Harrison. Critics surmised that their acknowledged talent for classical music could be explained by their “mixed” racial heritage—as if having “more” African ancestry would have militated against their superb artistry. The supposition, of course, was that race alone could determine someone’s suitability for classical music performance, with whiteness as the presumptive baseline. A generation later, the presence of African soldiers in the Rhineland and increasing numbers of Black popular entertainers served as new pretexts for racist commentary about Black classical performers. Incensed by his popularity among audiences, critics routinely accused tenor Roland Hayes of “defiling” great German art, stealing German jobs (and wealth), and having a voracious sexual appetite for white German women—all allegedly attributable to his race. Hayes nevertheless drew large crowds and commanded high fees, prompting him to write Alain Locke in 1924, “I never expected to have been so happy in this life as the success of my work (which is my meat and drink) has brought me.”
Thurman examines how race became a filter through which to hear these artists as well—a nod to Stoever’s concept of “the listening ear.” To explain the undeniable popularity and world-class artistry of figures like Hayes and contralto Marian Anderson, certain critics argued that they must have had “white souls,” thus denying the very possibility that a “truly” Black musician could excel at classical music. But the artists themselves rejected this formulation. In a diary entry, Hayes once wrote, “I am not pleased when I am told that my being Black does not ‘matter.’ It does matter, it very much matters. I am Black for some high purpose in the mind of the Spirit.” On the other hand, Thurman concludes that many German listeners found that “Blackness was irredeemable, permeating everything it touched—including classical music itself, which supposedly had little to do with race.”
The later chapters of Singing Like Germans narrate the experiences of Black classical musicians in the divided postwar Germany, revealing that true artistic freedom remained elusive even while avenues for success widened considerably. During denazification after World War II, the U.S. military engaged top Black musicians like Anderson and the Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar to demonstrate that “Americans had succeeded in race relations where Germany had so clearly failed.” But these efforts produced mixed results. White American civilians continued to demand Jim Crow social norms, the military itself remained segregated, and the American promulgation of Germanic repertoire only reinforced local beliefs in German cultural superiority.
These ironies and hypocrisies also manifested in State Department–sponsored cultural diplomacy designed to counter Soviet influence. For decades, Soviet propaganda had portrayed the United States as a deeply racist society, diminishing American claims that the country was a force for global good. To counter this propaganda, the U.S. government enlisted Black classical musicians to serve as ambassadors of both high cultural achievement and improved race relations. But the choice of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as a centerpiece in this effort undermined these diplomatic aims, reinforcing stereotypes about African American “primitivism” rather than undermining them. (The 1950s Porgy tour also received a State Department subsidy of nearly a million dollars, leading to its worldwide reach. Imagine if that investment had been made in composers of color, such as Dawson or Julia Perry.) Building on the work of historian David Monod, Thurman’s analysis of this interface between classical music and state power serves as a necessary complement to Jonathan Rosenberg’s recent study Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War to the Cold War (2019). Rosenberg rightly observes that “classical music was genuinely consequential in America” during this period because it “became entangled in momentous events across the globe.” Yet one of the day’s most pressing domestic political issues—racial injustice—plays no role in his account despite its centrality in foreign affairs.
Carrying her narrative to 1989, Thurman’s final two chapters show that West German efforts to demonstrate racial tolerance and East German efforts to manifest an official antiracist ideology could not dismantle prevailing stereotypes of African American musicians that had emerged nearly a century earlier. West German opera houses welcomed a younger generation of stars such as Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price, and Jessye Norman, but they also took active steps to hide their skin complexion with excessive makeup (which Norman resisted by putting on her own makeup) or cast them in roles not entirely suited to their voices. Critics, meanwhile, resumed their prewar complaints that Black singers were stealing opportunities from white Germans and destroying great art by changing the race of supposedly “white” characters like Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, artists like conductor George Byrd and baritone Aubrey Pankey enjoyed extraordinary success, but, as in the West, racial stereotyping deeply informed casting and criticism. Pankey, for example, boycotted a performance of Earl Robinson’s folk cantata The Lonesome Train when he learned that he had been cast in the sole non-musical role—a preacher—only to provide “Negro atmosphere,” telling an East German official that the production was “an unfortunate instance of Jim Crow.”
Altogether, Thurman’s exacting research, synthesizing a kaleidoscope of source material ranging from diaries and letters to German-language newspapers and concert advertisements, paints a rich portrait of Black classical music-making in Europe spanning well over a century. Filled with compelling accounts of the contradictions inherent in classical music’s universalist claims, Singing Like Germans demonstrates that the lives of Black classical musician cannot be reduced to a narrative of struggle. “Their stories are ones of resilience, true,” Thurman concludes, “but also of musical mastery.”
Horowitz offers a rather different account of “Black classical music.” In his role as an artistic administrator and concert producer, he has consistently argued (and proven) that blending music with appropriate multimedia and research-driven conversation from the stage can generate meaningful relationships between performing ensembles and the communities they serve. Though he has long faced an uphill battle, the scramble to generate substantive online content during the pandemic showed how forward-thinking his approach to programming has been. Horowitz’s historical work complements this artistic vision. In Understanding Toscanini (1987) and Classical Music in America (2005), he argued that classical music attained unparalleled cultural significance near the turn of the twentieth century but later morphed into a stifling “culture of performance” as new technologies and social values handsomely rewarded the reproduction of a small number of “masterworks”—the canon. Decades later, this narrative still offers a relatively workable diagnosis of the industry’s much-bemoaned diminuendo.
Horowitz was thus poised to make a fresh historiographical intervention of the scope found in Singing Like Germans. In Dvořák’s Prophecy and recent essays, however, he grumbles instead about culture war canards: “trigger warnings,” new “behavioral codes,” an “emphasis on diversity and inclusivity,” “political rectitude,” and the “square world of identity politics.” In the book, he contends that this environment “can interfere with the proper pursuit and appreciation of history.” Elsewhere, he concludes that it ultimately “endangers or distorts a cultural canon that we cannot (in fact, must not) wholly jettison.” Despite Horowitz’s earlier attention to an excessive devotion to masterworks, Dvořák’s Prophecy often reads as a jeremiad on the rapidly fading relevance of singular grand narratives.
The book’s essential subject is what Horowitz calls the “bifurcation of American music”—a split propelled by the explosive popularity of jazz in the 1920s. In this scheme, a “Eurocentric” side included the canon-bound “culture of performance” epitomized by the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, as well as younger “highbrow” modernists, while an “American” side included composers who assimilated jazz into classical idioms, with Gershwin in the lead and Europeans like Darius Milhaud and Maurice Ravel tagging along. Readers of Horowitz’s earlier book Classical Music in America will recognize this frame; the new book pulls certain elements from it verbatim. The key difference is that Horowitz now also maps race onto the bifurcation, conflating the first group of figures with a “white” side and the second group with a “Black” side.
But the gesture just doesn’t work. With Eurocentrism pitted against Blackness, Horowitz attempts to divorce an aesthetic from the social realities it inhabits. As Thurman shows, however, the categories “European” and “American” had especially porous boundaries when race entered the equation. Horowitz’s presentation reifies simple racial binaries wrapped by fixed national borders, leaving no mechanism for addressing Europe’s signal importance for actual African American classical musicians or the kaleidoscope of cultural meanings the idea of “America” might generate.
The precise issue at stake in Dvořák’s Prophecy is what Horowitz calls the “pastlessness” of American classical music, an invention of three modernist composers—Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein—who collectively constructed a “standard narrative” of music history portraying American composers active before the 1920s as too imitative of their European forebears. Coalescing in public commentary from across their long careers, this narrative amounted to an “Oedipal revolt” against the vibrant musical environment of the late Gilded Age described in Horowitz’s Wagner Nights (1994). Horowitz’s frustration with this narrative is justified, as he convincingly shows that the modernists in fact knew very little about the past, clung to narrow aesthetic biases, and even made things up. In 1958, for example, Bernstein derisively called the pre-1920 generation “the kindergarten period” of American music—an image few others have since challenged, leaving the canon-obsessed classical music industry numbly untethered to the country’s compositional history.
Horowitz finds a potentially fruitful alternative to this presumed pastlessness in the work of American literary critics Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, who mined the literary landscape of the nineteenth century for what Brooks called a “usable past.” Though the term suggests blunt political utilitarianism, historian Casey Nelson Blake has clarified that these critics mindfully collected nuggets of cultural memory to spark new creative engines. Adopting Mumford’s infectious optimism, Horowitz now sees a usable past as an antidote to the current malaise of pastlessness and submits one of his own.
The effort does not succeed. Reviewing Horowitz’s Artists in Exile (2008), his one-time editor Robert Gottlieb opined, “This approach to cultural history generally adds up to knowing a little bit about a lot of things, and—without solid underpinnings—forcing shaky connections in order to fit a concept. Horowitz just doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know, and by stretching himself so widely and arbitrarily, he’s built his edifice on treacherous ground.” The new book suffers from the same problems. Much of Dvořák’s Prophecy offers breezy reflections on various Gilded Age touchstones such as Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Singer Sargent’s paintings, and Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák’s beloved New World Symphony, written after he moved to the United States in 1892. Horowitz ultimately claims to have “extrapolated a crippled spine of American classical music” that
favors Dvořák and the notion that American composers would prioritize a vernacular legacy. It continues with Ives and his absorption of American tunes of every stripe. And it connects, in a later period, to Porgy and Bess. Filling in the blanks, it ranges to William Billings and hymn tunes, to sorrow songs and minstrelsy, to Louis Moreau Gottschalk and William Henry Fry. It incorporates such prejazz limbo composers as Scott Joplin and Harry Burleigh, and also Black symphonic composers such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Dawson, and Florence Price.
Such is his usable past, his new national canon: an eclectic bricolage of composers whose vast collective catalog he shoehorns into a vague aesthetic of “proximity to the vernacular” and “the American trope of ‘the unfinished.’” The unfinished quality seems especially pertinent, for “usable past” in this case is a good euphemism for ramshackle history.
In an obvious oversight, Horowitz’s loose conflation of Eurocentrism with whiteness and Americanism with Blackness doesn’t account for racist double standards routinely applied to African American musicians. As Thurman’s work shows, white audiences tended to perceive Black classical performers as undergoing a symbolic process of “whitening,” or else possessing a “white soul,” as if Blackness and performing European classical music were mutually exclusive. A white performer’s suitability for the art was never questioned on similar racial grounds. As African American composer William Grant Still observed in 1950, “there is resentment against a Negro composer who doggedly insists that he can and will write abstract music of a non-racial nature. At the same time, if the Negro composer writes racial music [classical music with allusions to Black vernacular genres], his opponents will say that John Powell or George Gershwin did it better!” Contrary to Horowitz’s wishes, “proximity to the vernacular” can’t be collapsed into a shared aesthetic choice free of external pressures. The strength and direction—the vector—of that proximity mattered because race mattered.
Horowitz’s failure to account for these more subtle dimensions of racism aren’t born of ignorance: he excuses himself from doing so with a highly selective use of evidence. To paint a rosy portrait of racially tolerant musical omnivory in Gilded Age New York, for example, he quotes the noted (white) critic James Huneker as saying that “in Europe there is room for race prejudice, but not in America.” Horowitz doesn’t mention that, in the very same volume, Huneker mocks Dvořák’s interest in the centrality of Black artistic production to American music. “Why go to the negro for ‘American’ melody,” he wonders: “he is not an aboriginal, the Indian is; besides, the negro in America, be it understood, never created native music. And has the so-called ‘African’ music exerted anything but a debasing influence?” These racist tropes directly contradict Horowitz’s argument.
In other places, Horowitz portrays racism as a mere inconvenience. Speaking again of Gilded Age New York, he avers that “it was a bad time and place to be Black. Nevertheless, not until Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) did a poisonous ideology of racism—stressing heredity and physiology, preaching racial purity—supplant the more benign racial impressions embedded in the romantic nationalism of an earlier era.” Distinguished historians Marcy Sacks and Nell Irvin Painter (neither of whom Horowitz cites) have convincingly argued the opposite: that Black New Yorkers faced constant threats of police harassment and ethnic violence, and that Grant’s volume was only the culmination of decades-old white supremacist pseudoscience. Horowitz’s nonchalance, rooted in meager evidence, severely injures his credibility as an interpreter of racial history.
On this point, the contrast with Singing Like Germans is stark. Where Thurman places Black lives at the center, Horowitz transforms Blackness into an abstract aesthetic category divorced from human bodies. And though snippets by famous Black thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison dot his book, it is really about three white (male) composer protagonists—Gershwin, Charles Ives, and Arthur Farwell (associated with the so-called “Indianist” movement in American classical music)—with Twain thrown in for good measure. The conceptual differences between the two manifest most plainly in their respective treatments of racism. The words “racism” and “racist” appear only four times in Dvořák’s Prophecy, with the euphemism “cultural bigotry” making an appearance; Thurman, by contrast, uses the words more than a hundred times. This crude metric flattens all context, but Thurman’s clear-eyed treatment deftly ruptures the seeming indelibility of race while capturing the real effects of racism on people’s lives—all while balancing the need to tell uniquely textured stories.
Horowitz elsewhere deploys Ralph Ellison’s 1986 collection of essays, Going to the Territory, as a literary parallel to his own musical argument. Citing one of Ellison’s observations about Twain, he writes that Ellison “espouses a methodology of ‘play-it-by-eye-and-ear improvisations’ to ‘merge’ the vernacular with ‘the most refined styles from the past.’ This is the very methodology of the ‘unfinished’ in [Ives’s] Concord Sonata and [Gershwin’s] Porgy and Bess.” How could Horowitz be wrong if Ellison said it first? In the same essay that Horowitz cites, however, Ellison clarifies that “in the past, the cultural contributions of those who were confined beneath the threshold of social hierarchy—which is to say outside the realm of history—were simply appropriated without credit by those who used them to their own advantage.” Unlike Horowitz, Ellison readily acknowledges that the vector of cultural exchanges matters because race matters. And since race matters, access matters.
Horowitz, in short, is simply out of his depth when discussing interracial cultural exchanges. Nowhere is this weakness more evident than in his writing on “cultural appropriation.” The term has accrued slippery definitions over the years and often takes on a legalistic patina, as if it is a matter of unconditional, all-or-nothing arrogation. But cultural exchange, as Ellison’s commentary indicates, is nuanced and often occurs in contexts where power manifests unevenly, where the parties involved hold opposing conceptions of cultural “property,” or where the benefits are shared inequitably. These three variables, among others, can be combined into a fluid heuristic for interrogating the dynamics of cultural exchange while making space for cultural differences. Even some of the concept’s most outspoken critics agree on this much. Instead, attacking a legalist strawman, Horowitz claims that “misplaced accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’” stand in the way of “recovering our musical past,” noting that invoking the term when discussing turn-of-the-century white encounters with Indigenous musicians, such as Farwell’s, is “serenely ahistorical.” That may or may not be true, but how can we take his word for it when his portraits of the past are themselves serenely deficient?
Horowitz suggests, for example, that debates about “interracial borrowings” didn’t really take off until Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess forced the issue after its 1935 premiere. But, as ethnomusicologist Christopher Smith has argued, interracial musical exchange in the United States has provoked tense, multivalent discussion about propriety on all sides for nearly two centuries. Foregrounding Porgy at the expense of well-documented history lets the tail wag the dog in his claim that Gershwin’s opera is “the highest creative achievement in American classical music.”
The overarching argument of Dvořák’s Prophecy rests on the fulcrum of Dvořák’s famous pronouncement in an interview for the New York Herald in 1893 that “negro melodies” should form the foundation of a “great and noble school of music”—a distinctly American style of classical composition. (Dvořák had arrived in New York a few months earlier to direct philanthropist Jeannette Thurber’s National Conservatory of Music.) Horowitz rightly observes that Dvořák’s conception of “negro melodies” naively conflated Black-composed folk repertoire like spirituals and white-composed faux “Black” music like Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Stretching the evidence to fit a concept, as Gottlieb put it, Horowitz then treats Dvořák’s naïveté as an excuse for insinuating that what Dvořák really meant was to encourage American composers to “prioritize a vernacular legacy” regardless of its source. Voilà! Now Dvořák’s prophecy crystallizes an aesthetic that includes Bernard Herrmann (whom Horowitz calls “the most underrated twentieth-century American composer”) and Silvestre Revueltas (“the great composer you’ve never heard of”). Never mind that these composers bear little relationship to “Black classical music.”
That Horowitz uses this slippery idea as a pretext for touting his idiosyncratic aesthetic ideals is no more apparent than in a chapter on Twain and Ives, two more figures whose connections to Black classical music (or to each other, for that matter) are thin at best. Horowitz claims with not even thinly veiled hubris that if orchestras engaged with scholars more regularly, “the linkage I have proposed between Mark Twain and Charles Ives would have been clinched long ago.” For Horowitz, no novelist before Twain “had nearly so privileged a vernacular speaker.” In fact, the New Orleans–born novelist George Washington Cable certainly had privileged vernacular speakers and stood at the center of Afrodiasporic musical discourse for decades. Cable’s interests in music even intersected directly with several of Horowitz’s protagonists, from critic Henry Krehbiel (with whom Cable collaborated on folk music research) and British composer Frederick Delius (who based on opera on one of Cable’s novels) to Twain (who lectured with Cable in the 1880s) and Dvořák himself (who studied an instrumental suite drawing on Cable’s research)—obvious connections that would significantly alter the contours of Horowitz’s narrative had he looked.
One of Dvořák’s most zealous disciples, Boston composer Henry F. Gilbert, also took direct inspiration from Cable. The result was an orchestral work called Dance in Place Congo (1908). Conductor Karl Muck, whom Horowitz praises for championing the “archetypal American exuberance” and “Yankee salt” of fellow Bostonian George Whitefield Chadwick’s orchestral music, rejected Gilbert’s work precisely because of its Black source material. It’s no wonder that Black composers who wanted to pursue similar artistic paths, such as Dvořák’s erstwhile student Will Marion Cook (whose first biography, by Marva Carter, appeared in 2008), left the classical music industry altogether. Gilbert eventually found a venue for the piece at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in a 1918 ballet version with a scenario loosely based on characters from Cable’s 1880 novel The Grandissimes. Musicologist Carolyn Guzski has shown that the small number of Black dancers in the corps de ballet generated heated press discussions about the suitability of Black performers and performance traditions in the presumptively white space of the Met opera house—the same racist tropes Thurman describes in Singing Like Germans.
Conversely, Gilbert’s reception in the Black press reflected concerns about the propriety of white compositional uses of Afrodiasporic music. A review of the ballet in the Crisis argued that “no other American composer has written so prolifically or sincerely or with deeper sympathy after the Negro idiom.” After hearing Gilbert’s more popular Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1910), however, critic and composer Nora Holt observed that white composers like Gilbert had begun to exploit Black cultural inheritance for their own gain—a situation exacerbated by Black musicians’ lack of access to conservatory training. Is this one of the “accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’” that Horowitz finds serenely ahistorical?
Meanwhile, musicologist and pianist Maud Cuney Hare, the foremost historian of Black classical and Afrodiasporic folk music at the time, spent the World War I years updating Cable’s research on Creole songs. (Cuney Hare was one of two students of color targeted for discrimination at the New England Conservatory. Among those who protested the school’s request that she move out of the dormitory was Du Bois—then a student at Harvard—with whom she remained lifelong friends.) A widely read magazine, the Musical Observer, published her scholarly findings in fall 1920 as she pursued other topics. Cuney Hare also became well-known as a lecture-recitalist, inspiring pianist Camille Nickerson to begin her own studies of Creole music and culture. Trained at the Oberlin Conservatory, Nickerson developed a career as a lecture-recitalist with the moniker “The Louisiana Lady” while serving simultaneously as a professor of piano at Howard University. Florence Price, who also enjoyed studying folk music from around the world, encountered Nickerson’s work through their shared membership in the National Association of Negro Musicians, which elected Nickerson president in 1935. Closing the loop of this story, when Price was composing her evocative Mississippi River suite in the late 1930s, she borrowed a Creole song that had once inspired Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a member of Horowitz’s “usable past,” nearly a hundred years earlier. The connections are clear.
That many of these names make no appearance in Dvořák’s Prophecy (or in the much longer Classical Music in America) is no accident. Horowitz claims that “few Black scholars have undertaken a study of classical music in the United States.” Had he opened Cuney Hare’s Negro Musicians and Their Music (1936), he would have learned that she had been developing a counternarrative to the modernist “standard” he seeks to challenge. Her book even includes an extensive catalog of instrumental works inspired by Afrodiasporic sources—a list far more capacious than Horowitz’s “usable past.” Despite Horowitz’s repeated invocations of “Black classical music,” the intergenerational lineage of Black classical music historiography that stretches from Cuney Hare and Nickerson to Thurman’s latest work is conspicuously absent from his account. And what of any Black composers for whom the “standard narrative” meant little? Thurman explains that researching the lives featured in Singing Like Germans felt like “chasing ghosts” through scant evidence; Horowitz barely peered through the front door, leaving significant Black voices “on the sidelines of the sidelines,” as Daphne Brooks puts it in her new book, Liner Notes for the Revolution.
Ultimately, Dvořák’s Prophecy thus wraps its author’s artistic tastes in an old, loose-fitting historical costume now slightly more tailored to racial concerns. His criticism of the “standard narrative”—that its architects knew very little about the past and clung to narrow aesthetic biases—in several ways applies to his own book.
What do these interventions spell for the future of classical music? Following in the footsteps of groundbreaking books like Marcia Citron’s Gender and the Musical Canon (1993), Singing Like Germans reveals that the “stuff” of classical music history can hardly be reduced to a collection of composers and works. Every performance, Thurman shows, is a dynamic site of social engagement from which musical meaning flows in multiple directions. A song, an aria, or a symphony is never an ending, only a beginning. Yet the American classical music industry has traditionally viewed its charge as the unilateral presentation of discrete works with no regard for the horizons of meaning latent in each new encounter. Ironically, performing organizations themselves are not exactly accustomed to listening; they operate under the assumption that classical music simply speaks for itself.
Many predominantly white organizations have responded to accusations of longstanding systemic racism by taking concrete steps to increase the number of soloists and composers of color on their concert programs—certainly a move in the right direction. But Singing Like Germans shows that the mere presence of composers and musicians from various backgrounds on stage does not counteract the forces of racism beyond it. Those include, but are not limited to, a segregated U.S. education system that systematically deprives so many young people, disproportionately those of color, from education in the arts and a neoliberal economy that helps to keep arts institutions sites of elite class reproduction.
Horowitz’s interactive, multidisciplinary performances, the most recent of which celebrated Black composers Price, Harry T. Burleigh, and Margaret Bonds, do offer a model that fosters mutually enriching dialogue while activating a concert’s dynamic potential. But this work cannot succeed without historical and theoretical foundations for engaging meaningfully with diverse viewpoints—foundations as sorely lacking in Dvořák’s Prophecy as in the broader classical music industry. As Singing Like Germans makes abundantly clear, developing this capacity requires careful research, unflinching curiosity, and a sensitive historical imagination, all of which require serious investment. Historical knowledge is constantly expanding, and performing organizations need to keep pace.
Contrary to Horowitz’s presumption, an industry looking to ground its work in local engagement doesn’t need a hand-selected national canon dropped from on high. (We might wonder how durable canons really are if the sheer act of raising questions about them prints a ticket straight to their cancellation, as he contends.) Creativity and talent are also not in short supply. The greatest challenge facing classical music today is how to rehumanize a practice built on the fiction of transcendence. Smaller organizations like Castle of Our Skins, The Dream Unfinished, and the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, as well as progressive legacy groups like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, are pointing the way with initiatives that directly challenge injustice with artistry designed to educate and liberate. We should follow their lead.
Douglas Shadle is Associate Professor of Musicology; Chair of the Musicology and Ethnomusicology Department at the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music.
Douglas W. Shadle’s award-winning scholarship interrogates the roles played by symphony orchestras and orchestral music in American culture, past and present. Valuable for scholars and classical music lovers alike, his work has been cited in major publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker and Boston Globe, as well as radio stations in the United States, Germany,and the Czech Republic.
His first book, Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise (Oxford, 2016), traces how critics and institutions thwarted efforts to construct a distinct American symphonic repertoire despite robust public support, illuminating what composer-critic Kyle Gann has called "the origins and myriad strategies of the classical music world's eternal animus against American composers." Orchestrating the Nation was honored with the American Musicological Society's inaugural H. Robert Cohen/RIPM Award for its creative use of historical periodicals, as well as the ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomas Award and the Vanderbilt University Chancellor’s Award for Research.
Shadle’s second book, Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Oxford, 2021), resituates this iconic piece within the political context of early Jim Crow America, giving special attention to the racial dynamics surrounding its creation and reception. Research for the book was featured in the New York Times in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the symphony’s premiere and as a clarion call for classical music organizations relaunching after the COVID-19 pandemic.
A leading authority on fellow Little Rock native Florence Price (1887–1953), the first African American woman to earn international acclaim for her compositions, Shadle is contracted to co-author a biography of Price with musicologist-pianist Samantha Ege for Oxford University Press's signature Master Musicians series. His previous scholarship on Price has appeared in NewMusicBox, an edition of Price's music arranged for carillon by Tiffany Ng, and liner notes for the world-premiere recordings of Price's two violin concertos (Albany), Fourth Symphony (Naxos), and Ethiopia's Shadow in America (Naxos).
Bringing his interest in music criticism to a different type of scholarly venture, Shadle was co-editor, with John R. Schmidt, of A Portrait in Four Movements: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink, and Multi (Chicago, 2019) — a posthumous collection of beloved Chicago Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner’s best reviews of the Chicago Symphony and interviews with its conductors. Shadle's introduction to the volume is the first published history of that orchestra's first century in operation.
Shadle has welcomed collaborations on audience engagement materials for a wide range of professional organizations, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati May Festival, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the Louisville Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra, the Shriver Hall Concert Series, the President James K. Polk Home and Museum, and Nashville-based contemporary music groups Intersection and chatterbird.
He currently sits on the Boards of Directors of the American Musicological Society and the International Florence Price Festival.
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