1,000 years of Black culture in German-speaking lands

1,000 years of Black culture in German-speaking lands


norman lebrecht

August 29, 2021

After reading a slightly disturbing article by Kira Thurman in the New York Times, I looked up her collaborative website which specialises in the Black presence in central Europe down the centuries.

It’s a fascinating trawl of stories from the earliest appearances of Moors in Germany to the arrival of US forces in 1945 and the influx of African students in the German Democratic Republic.

Well worth a scroll. Here.

As for the Times article, what disturbed me was the history of African-American conductors and composers like Dean Dixon, Rudolph Dunbar and William Dawson being introduced to Germany by an occupying power at a time when almost all opportunities were closed to them back home. A double standard was being forcibly applied.


  • sam says:

    “Europe has been lax about promoting its own historical Black composers and musicians”

    There’s a difference between “promoting” and “neglecting”, and absent in the entire discussion is “merit”.

    In this post-truth era we live in, everything is relative and in the service of some social cause, and whose social cause is more worthy depends on who is winning the culture war at any given moment.

    Gone are any objective notions of “beauty”, and even the very notion of “objectivity,” which is now thought to be a “white” standard, is tossed out.

    So, Europe is supposed to “promote” its own historical Black composers and musicians, not because it has been argued that their music had been “neglected” because of racism, but because in order to correct historical systemic racism, one must “promote” Black composers as the correct action for the correct social cause.

    We can no longer argue who is better than whom in music, because we no longer have any objective standards of “good”.

    The only recognizable “good” today is the “good” of the Black skin, and the ‘bad’ of the White skin.

    • Tamino says:

      Who are/were Europe’s historical black composers and musicians? (of historical format, classical music).
      Honest question.
      I would like to learn.

      • sam says:

        The link above to her NYT article is very informative (if misguided).

        • Tamino says:

          Nothing about my question in there. But then, post-truth doesn’t need facts as a foundation, only opinion.
          Shall we ask for building a wall around the western nations and call it a mental hospital?

      • Marfisa says:

        If ‘Black’ includes mixed-race, there were some composers. Look up e.g. Vicente Lusitano (16th century), and of course our old friend Joseph Bologne (18th century). No great fuss was made about their racial origins. There will probably also have been many musicians, unrecorded (as most musicians were), especially in Mediterranean countries. The BlackCentralEurope site linked by SD has Christian Ferdinand, a timpanist in a north-German court in the 17th century, who seems to have been treated no differently because of his colour: https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1500-1750/the-timpanist-christian-ferdinand-1670/

        • Marfisa says:

          Vicente Lusitano is not certain. A much later 18th-century source says he is ‘mestizo’; there seems to be no other contemporary evidence for his parentage. Not that it matters particularly.

      • Marfisa says:

        There was a black trumpeter in the Tudor court of Henry VII and Henry VIII. This site gives excellent information: https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/john-blanke/#gs.9jrwa5

        Among other things it states “John Blanke was part of a long medieval and renaissance tradition of black musicians serving at European royal courts. In the 12th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI had black trumpeters in his entourage and in the 16th century James IV of Scotland employed a drummer who was a Muslim Moor.”

        I am not clear about the historical distinction between ‘Moor’ and ‘Black’. Can anybody help?

        • John Borstlap says:

          There was no difference between ‘moor’ and ‘black’, it meant the same – people from Africa. It was only with the onset of the atlantic slave trade that ‘race’ became an ‘issue’.

          • Sue Sonata Form says:

            As explored in that most waaaaysist of all texts, ‘Othello’. When in the world is THAT going to be canceled?

          • A buck for a buck says:

            Jews also called them moors as they sold slaves brokered via Africa and Portugal.

      • Mary says:

        Ah, paywall. Her NYT article cites the following names:

        George Bridgetower, Amanda Aldridge, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Werner Jaegerhuber, Oury Jalloh, Stephen Lawrence, Jerry Masslo, Robert Owens, Benjamin Patterson, Marie Nejar

        • Marfisa says:

          Thank you.

          Jalloh, Lawrence, and Masslo are the odd ones out – they were victims of racially motivated murders, not musicians (as far as I know).

      • Novagerio says:

        Tamino: Try this fellow; His Violin Concertos are mindblowing:


        Also: try George Bridegwtower, the original dedicatee of the Kreutzer Sonata.

        • Tamino says:

          Great stuff. Thank you.
          Were these fellows “neglected” for their skin color?

          • Marfisa says:

            No, they were not neglected for their skin color in their own day.

            Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges was a highly successful violinist, a prolific composer (chamber music, symphonies, concertos, operas), and a conductor, with royal and aristocratic patrons. He directed the prestigious Concert des Amateurs in Paris for nearly a decade. His proposed appointment in 1776 as Director of the Paris Opera was, indeed, blocked by three female singers who refused to work with a black man because “their honor and delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto”! That, however, did not end his musical career. He led an interesting life in other ways too.

            George Bridgetower, a violinist trained in the Esterhazy court, was toured round as a child prodigy by his West Indian father; when they came to England he performed for the royal family, and was taken into the patronage of the Prince of Wales, who arranged for his further education and training, and went on to success as a virtuoso performer. He composed hardly anything. Read all about him: Wright, Josephine R. B. “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99.” The Musical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (1980): 65–82.

            George’s brother Frederic (ca 1780-1813), a professional cellist, worked in Dresden, came to London and performed with George at at least one concert, and went on to Dublin where he set up as a cello and piano teacher before his early death.(https://www.plainsightsound.com/another-bridgetower/)

            I don’t think the reasons for these musicians being subsequently forgotten are racial. How many virtuoso performers, on any instrument, of the late 18th-early 19th centuries are famous today? How many of the hundred or so European composers active in the 1760s to 1780s, like Saint Georges, has anybody, apart from a few specialists, heard of today? They were not all black! A starting-point list is

            I see no harm in acknowledging the historical presence of African people (and other ethnicities) in European music. It is a correction to the concept of Europe as monolithically ‘white’ that I for one unconsciously grew up with. Eventually the present-day exaggerations and excesses around racial issues will die down, and a truer picture will emerge.

          • Althea Talbot-Howard says:

            Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was not permitted to marry, owing to France’s ‘Code Noir’.

            In 1776, several opera singers refused to serve under his direction at the Academie royale de musique, owing to his skin colour.

            As the premier swordsman in ancien regime France, he had to form – and lead – his own Republican cavalry regiment – Légion nationale des Américains & du midi (for soldiers of African parentage) – because he was not permitted to serve with White French soldiers.

            Whether these incidents count as ‘neglect’ is a matter of personal opinion, I daresay.


          • Marfisa says:

            Discrimination rather than neglect.

            I’m not sure about the legal situation under the Code Noir. I couldn’t see anything in it forbidding a free person of color to marry. It is more likely that his color and his illegitimacy together would have been offputting to women of his own class.

            Nice YT arrangement! I liked the historical commentary too, but it is not the case the Haydn and Mozart were ‘close colleagues’. Gossec certainly – he was Bologne’s principal mentor and supporter.

          • Marfisa says:

            Last Word. The Code Noir (1685) applied only to the French colonies, not to France. In any case, the Code did not prohibit interracial marriage (Louisiana’s Code Noir, 1724, did). And there was no prohibition on blacks serving in the army along with whites.

            One example: Pierre Hector, a black man from Martinique, had served 12 years in the cavalry, then 6 in the infantry, and at the time of the 1777 registration was living in Paris with his white wife. (McCloy p.89).

            Shelby T. McCloy, The Negro in France, Univ. of Kentucky Press (1961), covers the years 1600 to 1960, is full of information, and is available to download: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232566119.pdf

          • Marfisa says:

            Althea wrote: “he had to form … his own … regiment …. because he was not permitted to serve with White French soldiers”

            Saint-Georges was permitted to, and did, serve with White French soldiers. In 1766 at the age of 21 he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard – he may have been the only person of color in it.

            In 1790 he joined the revolutionary Garde Nationale (along with white Frenchmen) and, promoted to Captain in 1791, “commanded the company of volunteers that held the line at Baisieux” in April 1792.

            He was not responsible for the formation of the all-black regiment.: “On September 7, 1792, Julien Raimond, leader of a delegation of free men of color from Saint-Domingue (Haiti), petitioned the National Assembly to authorize the formation of a Legion of volunteers, so ‘We too may spill our blood for the defense of the motherland’.”‘ Saint-Georges was immediately appointed its first Colonel, which is why it became known as the Légion St-Georges.

            All this is in the very long and detailed Wikipedia article, highly recommended introductory reading.

            This is not, of course, to deny that ‘racist’ attitudes existed in the 18th century. But interpreting everything through the prism of the appalling and deeply divisive history of slavery and racism in the United States is a huge mistake. History is complicated.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      And watch out!! In the USA Asian and Indian Americans are morphing into the new white ‘privileged’ elite!! Some universities have already woken up to this and imposed quotas.

      You couldn’t make it up!!!!

    • Althea Talbot-Howard says:

      This sounds good to most normal people, judging by their feedback to me.


    • Tom Phillips says:

      Typical white supremacist drivel.

  • sam says:

    “African-American conductors and composers … being introduced to Germany by an occupying power”

    It’s more complicated than that. I doubt very much that Eisenhower sent word down that he wanted Germans to listen to more Afro-American composers, alright?

    The local arts administrators who did the programming were Germans (even if they were appointed by Americans), and local Germans had an infatuation, a fetishizing fasciation, with Black American soldiers and Black American culture (I think Rainer Werner Fassbinder captured that ethos well in his films), and the unique coincidence of an American occupation, the presence of Afro-American conductors in Germany, and the local interest in Afro-Americans and Afro-American culture, all came to head.

    Europeans were not more virtuous or open-minded about Black Americans, American occupying forces were not more racially progressive about promoting Black Americans.

    Just the combination of chance and curiosity.

    • V. Lind says:

      Probably an attempt to get the African-Americans to stay in Europe. Despite their having served in every American war since the one for independence, it is well known that they were never treated with anything resembling equality off the battlefield (and as late as Vietnam, were still suffering highly disproportionate casualty-to-enlistment rates).

      If the usually accurate Foyle’s War is anything to go by, the US army tried to get Brits to segregate bars and the like while the Yanks were “over here.”

    • Adrienne says:

      “Europeans were not more virtuous or open-minded about Black Americans, American occupying forces were not more racially progressive about promoting Black Americans.”

      Google “Battle of Bamber Bridge”.

  • Marfisa says:

    A few points about NL’s final paragraph.

    The Allied occupation of Germany ended in 1955. Dean Dixon was principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, 1953-1960, and the hr-sinfonieorchester, Stuttgart, 1961-74. He was with the Israel Philharmonic, 1949-1951.

    Randolph Dunbar was not African-American. He was Guyanese, and lived and worked mostly in the UK.

    William Dawson: the Tuskegee Choir that he directed toured Europe in the 1930s, and he visited West Africa in 1952. Otherwise he seems to have remained in the United States, where he had had long and a successful career (https://www.singers.com/bio/2781)

    The NYT article was behind a paywall, and I don’t subscribe. Did it have further or different information?

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    Once again, were the Moors (stated above) even black? I thought they were North Africans, such as Arabs and Moors.