Kira Thurman


Kira Thurman
University of Akron, Ohio

Kira Thurman is an Assistant Professor of Modern Central European History at the University of Akron. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Rochester in 2013, where she also pursued a minor field in musicology through the Eastman School of Music. Her research areas include German cultural history, American-German relations, music & identity and the history of blacks in Europe. Her current project focuses on the history of black musicians in Germany and Austria in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Talk Title: African American Music in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms: The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 19th-Century Germany

Before the Fisk Jubilee Singers embarked on their transatlantic tour of Europe to raise money for their university, they were not entirely sure what to expect. They had performed  throughout the United States and it was the promise of new European sponsors that had led to these  international travel plans. It was when the African-American ensemble sang spirituals such as ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ in Berlin that they realized how they had enchanted a new musical audience. Royalty wept during their performance of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, audiences gave them standing ovations and countless newspapers applauded the work of these “former slaves.”

This conference paper is about African-American music in an unlikely place: the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The Jubilee Singers’ tour to Germany provided Germans with one of their first encounters with African-Americans and more importantly, with African American music. One of the key points this paper will address is  how, upon first listening to African-American music, the Germans arrived at some fascinating conclusions about what African-American music was, who the singers were and whether Germans could or should recreate what they heard for future audiences. In spite of its exotic differences and in spite of (or because of) its perceived simplicity, the paper will argue that German musical audiences believed that African-American music could be appropriated into a larger German musical tradition and used for German cultural purposes.