Do you know the "dark side" of classical music?
Every Saturday morning, I wake up to the neighbor's turntable playing classical music here in Berlin. It is a Bach, a Beethoven, a Brahms, or a Schubert that enter the room, reminding me that another Berlin Saturday begins in a typical German and traditional neighborhood.
When I wake up, I feel like I'm in the middle of a movie scene with various soundtracks. Some cheerful, others dramatic, others gloomy, with all the overwhelming sensations that classical music awakens in those who hear it.
If even before thinking about living in Europe, I already enjoyed this musical genre, now, living in Berlin, my universe about this art has expanded even more.
Of course, for obvious reasons. Germany is one of the countries that most consumes this type of music. The country is the cradle of great masters, such as those mentioned at the beginning of my text (except Schubert, Austrian). Deutsche Welle reports that classical music has been present in the life of Germans from an early age: “of the almost 83 million inhabitants, about 14 million play an instrument or sing in a choir. One in six families plays one or more instruments. There are waiting lists to study in music schools and kindergartens with music education. There are almost a thousand public music schools across the country, attended by almost 1.5 million children and young people ”, says the article.
And it was here, in this lavish land of concert halls, choirs, orchestras, theaters, and neighbors, that wakes you up with Haydn remembering that the world has its dramas and also joys, that I learned about the history of the Afro-American conductor Brandon Keith Brown.
One of the few at the helm of renowned orchestras, Brandon has lived in Berlin for seven years. He has conducted such summits as the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Badische Staatskapelle, and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB). Besides, the musician collects conductances across Europe, Asia, Africa, and his motherland, North America.
However, more than his masterful conducting, what draws attention to Brandon's work is that he does not dispense with the privilege of his place and denounces, without being tongue-tied, the danger of having so few blacks in classical music, whether in the stage, composition or audience.
Photo by Neda Navaee
With a fierce speech, baton, and writing, Brandon is the author of several articles on Medium where, among other topics, he describes how racism and bias operate subtly to keep black audience and musicians away from the world of classical music.
The conductor questions why black people don't go to concert halls and why less and less of their black peers - men and women - are hired to conduct renowned orchestras.
Historically, the vast majority of conductors are white men. However, with many data and stats, Brandon points out that the scarcity of black professionals, men or women, is not in the absence of excellent dark-skinned musicians. On the contrary. Black excellence exists in different musical genres, and in the said classical music is no exception.
"The problem lies in the fact that the organizations that lead the classical music environment are inevitably white institutions and, therefore, carry traces of institutionalized racism that ends up not seeing the excellence of the performance of black musicians. When black people do not see themselves represented on stage, we understand that we are not welcome in this environment; then, be there for what? It is uncomfortable to be where we don't see each other," he points out.
During a coffee we had on a blissful Autumn afternoon in Berlin, Brandon tells me that classical music is also for black people, especially when access to concerts and shows is encouraged.
According to him, there are many stories of excellent black classical musicians that have not always been told with due prominence.
Beethoven wrote his Sonata n. 10 for the black virtuoso violinist George Brigetower.
In the early 18th century, when black slavery still reigned in much of the world, Joseph Bologne, the Saint-Georges Knight, was impressed with his masterful compositions, unique regency, and virtuous violin. The master has born in Guadaloupe in 1745, son of a black mother with a slave trader. Bologne was taken as a child to Paris at an early age, where he began his music studies at 7. He wrote symphonies, violin and orchestra concerts, string quartets, sonatas, and songs in Mozart and Haydn's style. He also wrote at least five operas and became known as "The Black Mozart" of his day. Here you understand why:
The African-American Harry Lawrence Freeman, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was considered the "Black Wagner." Maestro, opera composer, teacher, and businessman premiered the first opera in the United States written and produced entirely by black artists. His best-known work is the opera "Voodoo," from 1928.
Harry was very close to Scott Joplin, another great name in early 20th century classical music, a talented pianist and symphony composer. Few people know that the famous song "The Entertainer" is his composition. In Brazil, the play has been popularized as a soundtrack for a bank advertisement. Check it out here:
And Brandon's examples do not stop: Rudolph Dunbar, British with Guyanese origin, was the first black conductor to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic; the North-American Dean Dixon, principal conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; George Byrd, conductor of North Carolina, USA, the first black man to conduct the famous Gewandhausorchester orchestra, located in the German city of Leipzig.
"Have you never heard of these authors? Don't be surprised. When those who write about the history of classical music have only a white vision of this universe, the legacy of black masters is left out", reports Brandon.
As a black conductor, I ask him how he became aware of the impact of the low representation of black artists in classical music.
He tells me that from an early age, when he started acting professionally. One episode that marked his career was being fired six weeks after starting as a conductor at Brown University, one of the most celebrated in the United States. The reason? The students were not used to his conducting nor to the discipline he imposed in teaching classes. "Of course, it was not common for them to have a black regency teacher giving orders. I sued the institution for resigning for racial reasons, and the case is still running in court," says Brandon.
The musician collects evidence of the difficulty that exists in being black in front of an orchestra. He emphasizes that white musicians work their whole lives without ever having conductors of color. Thus, they do not experience the same sense of loss due to this lack of representativeness.
"Musicians learn that we have no competence and our musicality is worthless. I am constantly looked at with suspicion when I introduce myself as the new conductor. My skills are constantly put to the test, and often the members of the orchestra do not accept my guidance during the rehearsals", he reinforces.
"As a black conductor acting in an environment with low diversity, my main competence at work becomes my ability to adopt white cultural values and repertoires, not my artistic ability. My detailed knowledge of each harmonic aspect of Mozart's work is not relevant. Adapting to whiteness, that is what defines my success", he evaluates. "Being alone in a room full of people who don't understand - or have no interest in understanding - my cultural repertoire or narrative is very unpleasant," he says.
I ask how, then, can he resist all this and remain in the conductor position, even invited to conduct excellent projects inside and outside Germany?
"Music is my best expression and my only chance to be seen. It is the way I communicate and the best opportunity to empathize with those who are different from me. When I am in front of an orchestra, I am in at least three places at once: in the present, past, and the future. You plan and rehearse everything about what you want from a particular piece. Still, it could be that, depending on the performance of the musicians, you can allow something different, spontaneous. You use the audience's attention and energy to create intuitive sensations of unexpected inspirations. The greatest emotion of live music is when the orchestra reacts and responds at a certain moment. My conducting serves as a conductor between the composer and the orchestra, sending their message to the audience", he reports. "For me, all of this is stronger and more important than the adversities of racism," he says emotionally.
I agree with Brandon. Above all difference and intolerance, the ideal should prevail the beauty of music, with its sounds, noises, silences, and emotions that reach the soul's deepest. Questioning why the low number of black people on stage, composition, or audience should be the first step to be taken by everyone appreciating classical music. Thus, only then, this work of art would genuinely reflect the wealth of its diversity. Either here in Germany as in the world.
I end this story of black excellence in Berlin with another golden tip from Brandon:
“Involving and hiring more black conductors, giving us autonomy and responsibility for our artistic creation in the masterpieces of classical music, signals to the white audience that we are also competent and familiarize them with the artist and the black audience. All this together would be the best indicator of positive racial changes that music organizations can start to make ”.
I, from my side, will leave a note on my neighbor's door, thanking him for the kindness of waking me up with good classical music every Saturday. However, next time, might he plays a beautiful black composer. We both deserve it.