In Singing Like Germans, Kira Thurman tells the sweeping story of Black musicians in German-speaking Europe over more than a century. Thurman brings to life the incredible musical interactions and transnational collaborations among people of African descent and white Germans and Austrians. Through this compelling history, she explores how people reinforced or challenged racial identities in the concert hall.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, audiences assumed the categories of Blackness and Germanness were mutually exclusive. Yet on attending a performance of German music by a Black musician, many listeners were surprised to discover that German identity is not a biological marker but something that could be learned, performed, and mastered. While Germans and Austrians located their national identity in music, championing composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as national heroes, the performance of their works by Black musicians complicated the public's understanding of who had the right to play them. Audiences wavered between seeing these musicians as the rightful heirs of Austro-German musical culture and dangerous outsiders to it.
Thurman explores the tension between the supposedly transcendental powers of classical music and the global conversations that developed about who could perform it. An interdisciplinary and transatlantic history, Singing Like Germans suggests that listening to music is not a passive experience, but an active process where racial and gendered categories are constantly made and unmade.
Introduction Part I: 1870–1914
1. How Beethoven Came to Black America: German Musical Universalism and Black Education after the Civil War
2. African American Intellectual and Musical Migration to the Kaiserreich
3. The Sonic Color Line Belts the World: Constructing Race and Music in Central Europe Part II: 1918–1945
4. Blackness and Classical Musicin the Age of the Black Horror on the Rhine Campaign
5. Singing Lieder, Hearing Race: Debating Blackness, Whiteness, and German Music in Interwar Central Europe
6. "A Negro Who Sings German Music Jeopardizes German Culture": Black Musicians under the Shadow of Nazism Part III: 1945–1961
7. "And I thought they were a decadent race": Denazification, the Cold War, and (African) American Involvement in Postwar West German Musical Life
8. Breaking with the Past: Race, Gender, and Opera after 1945
9. Singing in the Promised Land: Black Musicians in the German Democratic Republic
Kira Thurman is Associate Professor of History, German Studies, and Musicology at the University of Michigan. A classically trained pianist who grew up in Vienna, Austria, she is also a founder of the website blackcentraleurope.com.
Singing Like Germans is a superb piece of historical research enlivened by its author's deep fascination with her subject matter. This book will be fascinating to a wide body of readers who are interested in classical music, German history, and African American history.
~New York Journal of Books
Thurman's exacting research, synthesizing a kaleidoscope of source material, 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 musicians cannot be reduced to a narrative of struggle.
Sometimes, a book comes along that completely breaks new ground—a total eye-opener. And that's the book called Singing Like Germans. It's meticulously researched, but the writing style goes down like water. Most importantly, it uncovers a story of people and a performance practice and rebuilds an unknown period in music history.
In Singing Like Germans, the historian Kira Thurman adds a new dimension to the story by focusing on African American classical musicians who studied, performed, or settled in German-speaking Europe, offering valuable insights into how Germans viewed these Black artists.
~New York Review of Books
We love history like this that explores how people reinforced or challenged racial identities in specific circumstances.
~East Bay Booksellers, Oakland, CA
Thurman's study of Black musicians is an indispensable and foundational achievment. Thurman's work represents a monumental and necessary step towards rewritng the history of German music.
With Singing Like Germans, Thurman joins Naomi Adele André, author of Black Opera, at the vanguard of cultural histories reexamining musical production and consumption through the lens of critical race theory.
~Los Angeles Review of Books
Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in Germanic Languages and Literatures
Royal Musical Association and Cambridge University Press Monography Prize
George L. Mosse Prize
Marfield Prize, the National Award for Arts Writing
Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award