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.
"Singing like Germans is one of the most original and revelatory books to have been written about classical-music history in many years. Kira Thurman brings to bear a passionate dedication to Black musicians' lives and a supremely sensitive grasp of their historical complexity. An instant classic that deserves the widest possible audience."
Alex Ross, author of Wagnerism
"A wonderful book. Kira Thurman explores how generations of Black classical musicians navigated lives between the United States and Germany, never allowing her analysis of the racism they faced to eclipse her compelling portraits of these extraordinary musicians and the beautiful music they made."
Andrew Zimmerman, author of Alabama in Africa
"Kira Thurman brilliantly challenges our preconceptions and expands our understanding of the ways in which racial politics have shaped the careers of Black classical musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. This is an important, impactful book."
Laura Tunbridge, author of Singing in the Age of Anxiety
"An exceptional book about Black musicians in Germany that is alive to the pervasive racialized thinking that they faced, and attuned to their remarkable exercise of individual agency. Singing Like Germans is pertinent, beautifully written, and persuasive in every respect."
Neil Gregor, author of Dreams of Germany
"Kira Thurman's marvelous, sensitive treatment of oft-hidden and sometimes fraught histories of the German-speaking world's relationship with Blackness affirms the mosaic, diasporic identity of classical music. A triumph."
George E. Lewis, composer and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself
"Enlightening and provocative. Thurman names the whiteness underlying claims of Austro-German music's universality and writes Black musicians back into the record, applying theories of racial listening to a century's worth of sources. She will change the way you hear and think about this music."
Joy H. Calico, author of Brecht at the Opera
"In this brilliant book, Kira Thurman addresses the association of classical music with whiteness by recovering the history of Black classical musicians in Central Europe who, despite their desire for artistic and economic freedom, were inescapably subject to the racial listening of their audience."
Priscilla Layne, author of White Rebels in Black