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.