Classically Black: Against the Grain

Draylen Mason.

One year ago, the city of Austin, Texas was terrorized by a bomber who, over the course of two weeks in March, murdered two people, and injured several more, with homemade bombs sent through the mail to residents of communities of color.

One of the dead was a 17-year-old classical musician, Draylen Mason, the only black member of the Austin Youth Symphony.

Dr. Kira Thurman, who has written extensively about black musicians working in the standard repertoires of western art music, uses this tragedy as the starting-off point for an exploration of what it means to be a black classical musician in the article “Singing Against the Grain: Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era”:

Classical music cannot save anyone. But I still find our discussions of its role in black lives too one-note, tone-deaf and flat. What is absent from conversations on black experiences in classical music and what is grossly underestimated in our debates is classical music’s shocking power . . . Black popular music is not the only thing capable of moving the body irrespective of what the mind wants.

. . . I do not believe that the answer to critics’ questioning of blackness and classical music is for black people to stop playing it. Such an argument allows only white people the freedom to enjoy a musical work for its own sake, and it dictates to black people not only what their social responsibilities are as artists, but the terms by which they are to fight against their own oppression.

. . . Held up as symbols of racial advancement, used to denigrate others who cannot or will not make the same aesthetic choices, or denounced as Uncle Toms, black classical musicians inhabit a liminal space. But it is a space that encourages us to consider the full range of experiences that should be available to people of color, including the pleasure of abstract, even Western, art music. It is a space in which Draylen Mason chose to thrive. And because of him and others, it is a space in which I choose to remain.

Read the whole thing.

Dr. Thurman imagines Draylen Mason performing this concerto for his Oberlin audition:


Here is the music Dr. Thurman played at her own conservatory audition.

A Bach prelude: she doesn’t specify which one, so here are a few.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 2, no. 1:

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor:


Other pieces that Thurman says have moved her in particular:

You will notice that I was unable to find any videos of performances of the above pieces by black musicians. Why do you think this is? Is it important? How can this absence be addressed?

The composer Anthony R. Nelson speaks to some of the issues facing black composers of art music:

As a frequent attendee of new [classical] music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated . . .this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming [whose absence of works by black composers sends] the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” . . . Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. . . There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.

Some examples of new classical music by black composers referenced by Kira Thurman:

Cycles of My Being, a song cycle composed by Tyshawn Sorey, with texts by Terrance Hayes, performed by Lawrence Brownlee.

Read the program for one of Brownlee’s performances of this piece, with the texts, here.

The Spark Catchers, by black British composer Hannah Kendall:


Anthony R. Nelson is himself one of the founders of a classical music ensemble with the beautiful name Castles of Our Skins, which is dedicated to fostering and performing works by composers of color. Here is video from some of their concerts:



Why do you think black composers are so rare in the worlds of classical music? Do you think the western art music traditions offer meaningful opportunities for self-expression for black musicians and audiences?

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