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.
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.
At our best, black classical musicians insist on holding these dualities in our hands. At our best, we embody the Brechtian concept of Verfremdung, making the familiar strange and uncanny. Our performances and our musical experiences challenge the bounds of blackness and whiteness and the histories of racial oppression that have tried to culturally and musically determine both. And Draylen Mason represents us at our best. Our best means publicly denouncing racial profiling, critiquing structural inequality, and taking aesthetic pleasure in performing an instrumental concerto, as he did. Our best means using the genre of the art song to explore life as a black man in America, as does Lawrence Brownlee, Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance Hayes’s song cycle Cycles of My Being, or creating sparkling, pointillist orchestral works such as Hannah Kendall’s The Spark Catchers, which the Chineke! Orchestra premiered in August 2017 at BBC Proms.
Held up as symbols of racial advancement, used to denigrate others who cannot or will not make the same aesthetic choices, or denounced as Uncle Toms, black classical musicians inhabit a liminal space. But it is a space that encourages us to consider the full range of experiences that should be available to people of color, including the pleasure of abstract, even Western, art music. It is a space in which Draylen Mason chose to thrive. And because of him and others, it is a space in which I choose to remain.