W.E.B. Du Bois (above), who spent several years studying in Germany in the 1890s, greatly admired German classical music, and considered it a repertoire full of freedom and possibility for black performers. He especially loved the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the opera house in Bavaria where a festival of Wagner’s operas is put on every year. By this time, it was widely known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer: here is Hitler at the 1934 Bayreuth festival.
As Alex Ross describes the trip:
Du Bois was treated courteously in Bayreuth, but he could not avoid the ideological stench of the place. . . .Pervasive anti-Semitism left him aghast. Even so, he insisted on the universality of the Wagner operas. “No human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life,” he wrote, in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was the summer of the Berlin Olympics, of Jesse Owens’s victory, and Du Bois’s readers might have been awaiting his celebration of that feat. He was, however, suspicious of the cult of sports, and preferred to focus on achievements in science and art. Gazing at mementos of Wagner in a display case, he imagines a young black artist who will one day mesmerize the world with comparable genius. He dreams of a black Wagner, a sorcerer of myth.
Inspired by Du Bois, and by the remarks made by historian Kira Thurman (above) in the “Studying the Lied” colloquy in the Summer 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, here is a playlist of most of the singers mentioned by Thurman, singing German repertoire. Read a transcription of the colloquy here.
A live recording of the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey from 1941 (starts at around 15:00; I couldn’t figure out how to cue the audio, so you may need to listen to a violin sonata by Paul Hindemith first).
The great tenor Roland Hayes, a native of Georgia and the son of former slaves, “fell in love with European art music as a student at Fisk University.” He toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and later studied music in Germany, making it his goal, as he wrote in his memoirs, “to establish myself throughout Austria and Germany as a singer in the great Lieder [German art song] tradition.” Nevertheless, Hayes asserted:
I may be old-fashioned, but I like to think that I am a better singer for having learned to plow a straight furrow when I was a boy in the [Georgia] Flatwoods.
The world must see that the raising of barriers between my race
and yours has robbed both of us, prevented each from realizing the
fullest contribution of the other. When I began my career I realized
that if I would speak to all men, I must learn the language and the
way of thought of all men. What good could I do if I knew only my
own ways and the thoughts of my own people? So I learned to sing the
songs of all people.
When he made his recital debut in Vienna, a critic observed that
Back in the United States on tour, however, Hayes was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk in Atlanta when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident, which he later re-titled “A Warning”:
Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!
In the cotton fields,
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
As Martin Luther King, Jr. described this even in a speech he gave as a high school junior in 1944:
Marian Anderson was barred from singing in [Washington, DC’s] Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday  and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of “America” and “Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen” rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The late, great Jessye Norman, who, in the tradition of Roland Hayes, devoted much of her rich artistic life to German music:
Why do you think Black American singers would have found a particular kind of artistic and personal freedom in German classical music?
Young Black singers of our own time: here, South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises in Zulu, her native language, in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera:
Pretty Yende singing an aria from the same opera:
Tenor Russell More recalls being told “Too bad you’re black,” at an audition.
Thomas talks about his debut as Otello:
Trinidadian soprano Jeanine de Bique singing an aria by Handel in a decidedly non-operatic setting: