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  • Regina Harris Baiocchi

    Than you, Dr. Kira Thurman, for your scholarship and musicianship. Thanks for taking the time to daydream, ponder and contribute to the African American critical thinking, intellectual curiosity and for writing. This powerful article lifts me in ways that only a fellow musician with perfect pitch can master. Brava, Sis! Thanks to The Point for providing a forum for Dr. Kira Thurman’s vital voice.

  • Rick Robinson

    Kira, THANKS! I too was extremely moved by Draylen’s life and murder, enough to produce a stirring tribute concert that ended with the finale of the Tchaik Serenade for Strings! I created a tribute page to him at cuttime .com and hope to repeat the program across the country to raise awareness of his fearlessness, cross-cultural embrace and optimism. As a black classical bassist who made it into the big leagues, the dilemmas you bring into relief are valid, as is the attitude of righteousness toward choosing for ourselves such seemingly inauthentic vocations. My family embraced classical music, two even studying at Oberlin. In turn, I embraced it as a tool laying on the floor one could pick up, blow the dust off, use the tool and then fashion a new tool. You should hear my compositions to understand sonata form is adaptable. Classical music doesn’t belong to the ancient Greeks or even Bach any more. Beethoven’s music doesn’t even belong to HIM any more. They belong to US, the living. They are the promise of the public domain that Mozart’s, Schubert’s and Brahms’ music shall pass into the legacy of a progressive humanity. Draylen Mason was embracing that legacy as are we.

  • Paul Kenyon

    As a middle-aged Caucasian piano professor, reading your words humbled and challenged me. I, too, love Haydn sonatas—I have performed them and recorded them. It disturbs me to my core that the musical culture from which these compositions emerge could possibly be weaponized in such a damaging way. It also disturbs me to learn that for all my liberal-leaning best intentions, I am only just beginning to be woke. Please forgive my blindness and insensitive. For many years my mantra as a performer and teacher has been simply to get out of the way so that the music itself can “touch, delight and inspire.” Thank you for impetus to question more deeply how I can be a better host at the musical table.

  • jason kennedy

    Thank you. I was touched while reading this by how much Ralph Ellison would have concurred with your views on the right of access to culture, all culture, for black and white Americans alike, a view that is currently out of favor in a time of recriminations over ‘cultural appropriation’. I wish you all the best from Taiwan.

  • Saksin

    The contradictions and confusions of this article are epitomized in the fact that it was Seiji Ozawa who conducted the Tchaikovsky piece that moved the author to tears (the latter being the most common response to strong experiences with music, IRRESPECTIVE OF GENRE, for which see Alf Gabrielsson’s book of that title). Ozawa was born and raised Japanese. Being Asian, and Japanese, presents no particular problem regarding classical music, so why should “blackness”? Moreover, would the author hold that a black American faces an analogous problem regarding, say, physics (also, incidentally, created by mostly white European males)? And finally: European Classical music is not the only classical music tradition on this earth, nor is it unique in its “shocking power of aesthetic pleasure”. The Indian one, with its several branches and schools, is an outstanding case in point. Is there a specific “black” problem with Indian Classical music, as there appears to be – if we are to follow the author – with European Classical music?

  • Rick Robinson

    The comparison with Seiji Ozawa (whom I’ve worked with in BSO years ago) is hardly fair. With the exception of the East-Indians, Asians were not enslaved by Europeans for centuries. Thus a deep-seated cultural pushback against European classical music isn’t there.
    The “black problem” with European classical music is further exacerbated by the aesthetic values of proscribed refinement versus liberated spontaneity. Non-white Latino cultures also seem to prefer the latter. That doesn’t mean we blacks never chose the former; our choice simply meets ideological resistance (cognitive dissonance) from both blacks and whites.

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Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D Major is a standard of the string repertoire. A Czech composer and musician who performed with Joseph Haydn, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vanhal most likely wrote the bright and shimmery concerto for double bass in the 1760s, around the same time that he was saving money to purchase his freedom from a Bohemian count. Secure as it is in the canon of string music, it is a testament to the underdog that the composition even exists. Concertos were not intended for the double bass, which is often excluded from the circle of solo instruments. It can be plucked. It can hum the harmonic foundation of a symphonic overture. It can scat the bass line in a Cole Porter song. But unlike its lighter, supposedly more versatile sibling, the violin, the double bass is not supposed to sing.

Vanhal’s concerto is just the kind of piece that an extremely talented young student like Draylen Mason might have selected for his audition to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, which asks that applicants perform, among other works, two contrasting movements of a sonata or a concerto. Playing Vanhal’s concerto requires ingenuity and flexibility, a quick and light technique, and good cheer, all qualities that Mason possessed.

Mason earned admission to study double bass at Oberlin, although he never knew it. He never will know, because on March 12, 2018 in Austin, Texas, he was murdered by a white bomber who targeted one of the city’s oldest black neighborhoods. I imagine his hands shaking as he clicks open the congratulatory email. I imagine him flipping through course catalogs, planning out his fall semester. Music theory. Eurythmics. Orchestra. Solfège.

I remember the excitement from when I was his age. Arriving at my audition for music school, I was starstruck by the Hamburg Steinway in the concert hall, the lights beaming, the glossy black piano glowing. I walked onto the stage with puppy-like eagerness, ready to play a Bach prelude, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Minor, op. 2, no. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2. I left the audition scheduling courses in my head. For four years I studied the music of Beethoven and other composers, learning the rules of counterpoint and figured bass, memorizing the movements of a baroque suite, creating twelve-tone rows in the style of composer Arnold Schoenberg, and watching opera sopranos die on stage. I have spent my career since then as a historian of black classical musicians and their performances, finding the ghosts of people who looked like me and loved the same music.

Many of them attended Oberlin, a thirty-minute drive from the conservatory I attended so many years ago for my bachelor’s degree. In conducting research on the history of black classical musicians, I discovered that the high number of black students at Oberlin’s music school was not a coincidence. In addition to being the oldest continually operating conservatory in the United States, Oberlin has a long and rich tradition of training black classical musicians. The first black student to graduate with a degree in music from Oberlin was Harriet Gibbs Marshall, the daughter of African Americans who left gold-rush California for Canada. After graduating from Oberlin in 1889, Gibbs founded the first-ever all-black music school, the Washington Conservatory of Music, in the nation’s capital.

Others followed, and theirs are stories of triumph and obscurity. The Oberlin Conservatory’s early black alumni include composer Nathaniel Dett (1908), a central figure in the creation and promotion of African American art music as its own genre, and Sylvia Olden Lee (1938), a brilliant vocal coach and commanding accompanist who was also the Metropolitan Opera House’s first black employee. Will Marion Cook, one of the first black musicians and composers to make it on Broadway, and William Grant Still, perhaps the most famous African American composer in Western art music, both stated in interviews that Oberlin was the top choice for African Americans to study music. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker frequently returned to Oberlin after graduating to visit his piano-playing sister, Frances, who later became a professor at the conservatory.

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  • Kindle
  • Regina Harris Baiocchi

    Than you, Dr. Kira Thurman, for your scholarship and musicianship. Thanks for taking the time to daydream, ponder and contribute to the African American critical thinking, intellectual curiosity and for writing. This powerful article lifts me in ways that only a fellow musician with perfect pitch can master. Brava, Sis! Thanks to The Point for providing a forum for Dr. Kira Thurman’s vital voice.

  • Rick Robinson

    Kira, THANKS! I too was extremely moved by Draylen’s life and murder, enough to produce a stirring tribute concert that ended with the finale of the Tchaik Serenade for Strings! I created a tribute page to him at cuttime .com and hope to repeat the program across the country to raise awareness of his fearlessness, cross-cultural embrace and optimism. As a black classical bassist who made it into the big leagues, the dilemmas you bring into relief are valid, as is the attitude of righteousness toward choosing for ourselves such seemingly inauthentic vocations. My family embraced classical music, two even studying at Oberlin. In turn, I embraced it as a tool laying on the floor one could pick up, blow the dust off, use the tool and then fashion a new tool. You should hear my compositions to understand sonata form is adaptable. Classical music doesn’t belong to the ancient Greeks or even Bach any more. Beethoven’s music doesn’t even belong to HIM any more. They belong to US, the living. They are the promise of the public domain that Mozart’s, Schubert’s and Brahms’ music shall pass into the legacy of a progressive humanity. Draylen Mason was embracing that legacy as are we.

  • Paul Kenyon

    As a middle-aged Caucasian piano professor, reading your words humbled and challenged me. I, too, love Haydn sonatas—I have performed them and recorded them. It disturbs me to my core that the musical culture from which these compositions emerge could possibly be weaponized in such a damaging way. It also disturbs me to learn that for all my liberal-leaning best intentions, I am only just beginning to be woke. Please forgive my blindness and insensitive. For many years my mantra as a performer and teacher has been simply to get out of the way so that the music itself can “touch, delight and inspire.” Thank you for impetus to question more deeply how I can be a better host at the musical table.

  • jason kennedy

    Thank you. I was touched while reading this by how much Ralph Ellison would have concurred with your views on the right of access to culture, all culture, for black and white Americans alike, a view that is currently out of favor in a time of recriminations over ‘cultural appropriation’. I wish you all the best from Taiwan.

  • Saksin

    The contradictions and confusions of this article are epitomized in the fact that it was Seiji Ozawa who conducted the Tchaikovsky piece that moved the author to tears (the latter being the most common response to strong experiences with music, IRRESPECTIVE OF GENRE, for which see Alf Gabrielsson’s book of that title). Ozawa was born and raised Japanese. Being Asian, and Japanese, presents no particular problem regarding classical music, so why should “blackness”? Moreover, would the author hold that a black American faces an analogous problem regarding, say, physics (also, incidentally, created by mostly white European males)? And finally: European Classical music is not the only classical music tradition on this earth, nor is it unique in its “shocking power of aesthetic pleasure”. The Indian one, with its several branches and schools, is an outstanding case in point. Is there a specific “black” problem with Indian Classical music, as there appears to be – if we are to follow the author – with European Classical music?

  • Rick Robinson

    The comparison with Seiji Ozawa (whom I’ve worked with in BSO years ago) is hardly fair. With the exception of the East-Indians, Asians were not enslaved by Europeans for centuries. Thus a deep-seated cultural pushback against European classical music isn’t there.
    The “black problem” with European classical music is further exacerbated by the aesthetic values of proscribed refinement versus liberated spontaneity. Non-white Latino cultures also seem to prefer the latter. That doesn’t mean we blacks never chose the former; our choice simply meets ideological resistance (cognitive dissonance) from both blacks and whites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *