The less well-known students of Oberlin led—and still lead—no less remarkable lives. Oberlinites have established conservatories at HBCUs like Howard, Fisk, Spelman and Morehouse. They have launched impressive careers in Europe, toured the world and developed bustling and dynamic music studios in disparate locales. Black Oberlinites have been some of the strongest, fiercest and most beautifully talented black classical musicians in global history.
Draylen Mason might have been among them. After his murder, reading through the letters of black Oberlin alumni like Jean Coston, a talented pianist who studied abroad in Denmark in the 1930s, and Nathaniel Gatlin, a bright and smiley clarinetist adored by his professors for decades after he graduated, I felt like the past and present had collided. The tradition that Mason could have joined had been stolen from him, just as he had been taken from it.
If the names of these black Oberlinites are unfamiliar, I suspect it is with good reason: we do not know how to talk about them. Over the course of my life I have learned that to be black and a classical musician is to be considered a contradiction. After hearing that I was a music major, a TSA agent asked me if I was studying jazz. One summer in Bayreuth, a white German businessman asked me what I was doing in his town. Upon hearing that I was researching the history of Wagner’s opera house, he remarked, “But you look like you’re from Africa.” After I gushed about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, someone once told me that I wasn’t “really black.” All too often, black artistic activities can only be recognized in “black” arts.
One reason it is difficult to talk about black classical musicians is because people assume they are elitist, as though to love Haydn piano sonatas—as I do—is somehow to betray black cultures in favor of a white, Western world. I have heard this particular indictment since my freshman year of college, and it hurts because it’s not too far off. Many musicians in the past made the mistake of thinking that classical music could save us from white supremacy, or from an assumed black cultural pathology. Many black and white admirers of classical music still profess such a belief system today.
Sometimes, for example, orchestras and schools of music suddenly “discover” people of color in nearby neighborhoods. In rhetoric that smacks of a civilizing mission, they declare their intention to bring classical music to “the urban youth,” hoping to save black teenagers from themselves, as if, to paraphrase Alain Locke, they were a problem in need of solving. Classical-music institutions have been seized by this tantalizing thought of mass conversion since at least the 1970s. When their initiatives fail—and they inevitably do—the musical missionaries routinely blame the ignorant for rejecting their gifts. They use essentialist notions of race and culture to explain away their failures instead of recognizing the agency and the desires of their potential converts. It is as though they cannot comprehend that someone might listen to a symphony, understand its merits, and choose a different musical preference.
The thin, slick veneer of respectability politics also shines on the surface of much black praise of classical music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In essays full of platitudes and beatitudes extolling the virtues of hard work, black classical musicians argued that only art music was capable of uplifting the race. Augustus Lawson, who studied piano in Berlin with Ossip Gabrilowitsch in the 1910s, told a Fisk University student newspaper that “patience, courage, perseverance and self-denial must be exercised in the pursuit of Art.” Let us pursue the best in music, he urged, and in doing so “be content to advance slowly but surely.” In the 1930s, a Morehouse College student made an even more audacious claim: “No man who plays the piano could commit murder.”
If classical music was the vehicle by which African Americans would advance in American society, nothing threatened to endanger this cause quite like black popular music, including ragtime and jazz (and now hip-hop). In a 1925 op-ed for the Fisk University student newspaper, one student asked, “Why should any singer prostitute a divine voice in ‘Blues’ when the melodies of Handel, Mozart, and Schubert still live?” Many believed that, in a Platonic sense, black popular music was dangerous because its sensuous rhythms appealed more to the body than the mind. Classical music, presented in black writings as ethereal, cerebral, morally pure and intellectually uplifting, promised to display African Americans in the best light to (white) American society. Fearing that black popular music was undoing the work of racial advancement, some black musicians clung to their scores of Mozart and Brahms like rosary beads.
I now know the contours of this kind of praise intimately, both as a lived experience and as a historical reality since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Because I am obsessed with playing and listening to Haydn’s Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI:46, because I eagerly anticipate the first movement of the sonata’s harmonic sequence and feel an immense satisfaction upon the movement’s transition to the recapitulation, which I embrace like a prodigal daughter returning home, I am told with pride that I am “one of the good ones.” I wonder if Draylen Mason, like other black classical musicians I know, might have heard such praise as well.
The first significant indictment of classical music by an African American intellectual that I know of appears in Langston Hughes’s 1934 story “Home.” Published in his collection The Ways of White Folks, the story’s protagonist is Roy, a black violinist wrestling with the racial meanings and cultural ramifications of performing classical music. Lured to Central Europe by the prospect of escaping American racism and fulfilling his musical potential, he returns home to Hopkinsville, Missouri with greater feelings of ambivalence than before his departure. Coughing and weak, sapped from his travels through Berlin and Vienna, Roy performs for white American audiences eager to applaud his story of uplift.
Hughes does not give Roy a happy ending. Through his story, he questions classical music’s abilities to transcend racial boundaries, implying rather that European culture and classical music are diseases infecting the black body. As in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, music becomes a leitmotif for the loss of an essential vigor: the more enraptured Roy becomes by the world of classical music, the more illness takes over his body. Weakened by classical music, suffering most likely from syphilis or a similar disease, Roy wanders around Hopkinsville in a daze.
It isn’t Roy’s illness that kills him. He dies because he has forgotten that he is no longer in Europe, that he is not European. A few months after his American debut, he befriends an aging white music teacher. Seeing her on the street one day, he takes off his hat and gloves to greet her; they begin a conversation about famous violinists. The last thing he hears is her question, “And have you heard that marvelous Heifetz recording of [Sarasate]?” He is beaten to death in the street by white townspeople, who are outraged by his uppity airs and defiance of racial customs. Hughes’s last two lines employ classical-music references to depict this act of terror: “And the roar of their voices and the scuff of their feet were split by the moonlight into a thousand notes like a Beethoven sonata. And when the white folks left his brown body, stark naked, strung from a tree at the edge of town, it hung there all night, like a violin for the wind to play.”
Classical music’s promises of racial transcendence cannot save Roy. Indeed, they contribute to his demise: his behavior changes so much in Europe that he is unable to assimilate back into segregated America. Hughes’s story suggests that black artists must reject the misleading possibility of racial “advancement” through classical music. Only when black musicians abandon “the ways of white folks,” as musicologist Felicia Miyakawa aptly describes in her essay on Hughes’s story, and break free from their classical music training, are they able to express their musical genius and reveal to the world their brilliance. Classical music, Hughes suspects, is white music, sold under the guise of respectability and universality. Black classical musicians play it at their peril.
I have sat for long hours with Langston Hughes’s story and its scathing indictment of musicians like me. I have read countless interviews, memoirs, diaries, letters and newspaper articles in order to make peace with the uncomfortable thought that looms over my aesthetic choices, historical research and lived experience: classical music does not make me a better person, and it will not save black people from white supremacy. This is the story of Hughes’s “Home,” and, in the wake of Draylen Mason’s horrible murder, it has also become the story of my present.
It was irrelevant to Mason’s murderer that he was a classically trained musician; as, perhaps, it should be to those protesting its injustice. In late March of this year, the writer Clint Smith highlighted this very fact on Twitter. “It is heartbreaking to learn that the young man killed by the Austin bomber had been accepted to a prestigious music conservatory,” he begins, “but we should be careful about how this is framed. Even if he were a kid sticking his middle finger up on instagram he’d still be worthy of mourning.” A short tweet quickly follows: “A black child’s worthiness to life is not contingent on them being perceived as remarkable.” Calling Mason’s death a tragedy because he was a classical musician reaffirms the terrible politics of respectability that Hughes and others had come to despise. It assumes that classical music, a genre dominated by white male European composers, is superior to others. It tacitly belittles other ways of listening to the world.
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 of aesthetic pleasure. A few years ago, I was so astonished listening to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C-major, Opus 48 for the first time that I promptly burst into tears. Conducted by Seiji Ozawa, the string ensemble that I listened to played the serenade with such vitality, such reckless abandon and joy, that I was left gasping in the wake, causing loved ones to ask me what was wrong. After all of these years, I was stunned to learn that I could still be moved by a piece of music so deeply and in such a primal way. Black popular music is not the only thing capable of moving the body irrespective of what the mind wants.
Because of the wild, sometimes unpredictable power of musical aesthetics, I must depart from Hughes’s logic even as it continues to inform my thinking. 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. As Coco Fusco states in her essay on race and the visual arts in Hyperallergic last year, it is dangerous when society promotes the “notion that authentic blackness must be equated with realism and that black art must be subject to sociological approval before being evaluated aesthetically.” Two things that appear contradictory must sing in harmony: blackness and abstraction.