German Concert Review of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1878)

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were an African-American musical touring group founded by missionaries in 1871 to help raise funds for Fisk University. They are credited with being the means by which African-American folk music, spirituals above all, were adapted into concert pieces to be appreciated as high culture, and they became world-famous after multiple tours around the globe, including to Germany in 1877-1878. Frederick J. Loudin joined the group in 1874 and quickly became a leading spokesman and promoter. He was also a political radical who hoped to use the Singers’ growing international profile to draw attention to the struggle against American racism and raise funds to combat it. In his “correspondence” with The Christian Recorder, reproduced below, he provides American readers with glowing reviews of their German performances. The praise showered on the Singers by German experts–as Loudin makes certain to emphasize–is an implicit reminder of the lack of respect which they faced in many quarters of the United States.     



European Correspondence

Notwithstanding our success before the royal household, we had great fears as to the result on the public ear and mind. That by no means second to be feared was the press, each one of the leading ones a which employs a critic educated to the highest degree in music, and some of them graduates from the highest schools of the art in the world. I shall not speak of our success at our public concerts, the first of which given in the “Singing Academy” of Berlin on the 7th inst., further than modesty will permit of, but send you an extract from the leading Berlin paper and written by a gentleman whose word is regarded as authority throughout Germany . There are many other equally complimentary and even more so, but I select this one on account of the very high position of its writer as authority. Evidently the writer has been in America during “our little unpleasantness.” ‘Tis from the “Volks Zeitung.”

It begins:
– “Long, long ago I stood outpost in the solitary woods of Arkansas. It was in the winter season, but in those regions nature does not perish in December, it merely dreams. And as in a dream there was lying the almost endless solitary forest, the heaven-aspiring tree tops, which I could behold form the hill on which I stood, on the boundary of the setting sun sank down on it. Around me stood the mighty oak trees with their long, fluttering beards of moss, the proud sycamore and the dark serious cypress. And the evening wind was rushing through the branches and produced a roaring which sounded like a lullaby hummed easily and dying away as in a whisper. All at once it seemed to me as if the wind got words and a distinct melody. But no, that was no more the wind nor the spirit of the woods! The sound came nearer to me and I distinctly distinguished a human voice, which strongly harmonized with the roaring wind and which entirely corresponded with the disposition the nature, “Rock me to sleep, mother,” it sounded towards me, and then sounded a long, drawn, woeful “All day, all day.” The singer who gave such a musical impression, that her mother might rock her to sleep, was soon visible on the darkened path, which led through the woods. It was a ragged negro child about ten years old. With bare feet she was striding over the dry branches and fawning color foliage. All her clothing consisted of a white, torn linen gown fastened around her hips. One thing, however, proved to me that the little [ ] was the real daughter of Eve, because she had a kind of crown wound of twigs of the evergreen wholly fastened by [ ] to her exuberantly growing [ ]. I [ ] singer, who at first timid [ ] still near the thicket; but here [ ] she became more confident and slowly approaching us. To many questions she answered [ ] but ‘I do not know it.’ The only thing she knew was that her name was Maggie. The day of her birth she would not tell. I then asked, “where is your mother?” “Sold,” was her answer. “Your father?” “Sold.” “Your sister?” “Sold.” “Your brother?” “Sold.” “Who provides for you, Maggie?” The little girl was confused, and after having reflected for some time, she said timidly and bashfully, “the driver.” These communications contained the little slave’s whole history of life, in which all the misery and all the horrible calamity of her race was reflected. The little girl went on her way, and soon I heard her melancholic “Rock me to sleep mother, all day, all day.” Oh, now I comprehend that she was longing backwards for the time when her mother was still rocking her to sleep. Now I knew also why her simple song touched me so deeply. A strange natural feeling was to be heard from the long extended gentle expiring sound. When I asked me who may have awakened this feeling in this timid, half wild, child, there stood at once before the fatal word, sold!” The misery of her slave-cursed life of the little girl was seeking for a poetic utterance and that she found.” “In this and no other view the undertaking of the Jubilee Singers must be regarded, who were yesterday greeted by so very friendly and brilliant an audience at the Singing Academy.”

* * *

“In a concert it is entirely indifferent to what degree of accomplishment the musical technics have risen. The main point is the effect. If any execution of art is able to produce in our soul a poetic disposition, it has done its duty. The Prince-Royal however, the point when he said,- ‘That takes by storm, that catches hold of one’s feelings!’ The songs of these colored ones move in fact our very soul and raise us into a poetical sphere. Most of them cause an elegiac disposition, for from the songs there is sounding the scream of the persecuted and enslaved ones, and sometimes it is a wild shriek, corresponding to the hot blood of the negro race. It is the cry for delivery of deep calamity, which lowly dies away in the appeal to the Lord and the consolation of the next life. The song “Steal away to Jesus” was song originally, we are told, by slaves who sought refuge in the solitary woods for praying to the Lord. The song begins like a low secret prayer, swells to a hot anxious imploration till the deep bass tones, powerfully raising like mighty columns, on which an invisible church is being erected.” A wonderful song of consolation is that funeral hymn of the slaves, which was sung at the grave. The hallelujah which swells on and dies away like the sounds of an Aeolian harp has an entirely celestial brilliancy. It appears as if it had wings to carry the soul of the decreased one to distant better worlds. Also the naivete of the black race is expressed very drolly in the songs. As to the singing, these colored singers make an especial effect by their splendid ensemble. The management of the pianissimo passages is quite wonderful. It commences like a distant singing and dies away like a breath of wind. Besides, all the voices unite to one tone, which glitters in a beautiful splendor. An artificial work of the most charming character the singers executed by Seward’s song of “The Bells.” In this fine composition the ringing of bells is excellently imitated, and the singers who held the closed so wonderfully let them swell and die away so gradually that the effect was quite overpowering. We also had several solos. So the pitch-black Miss Jackson sang “The old folks at home” with a fine voice, warm feeling, and a great taste. Of brilliant execution was the terzetto “O restless sea,” between Miss Porter, Mr. Ruoling and Mr. Loudin, where the clear soprano voice of Miss Porter streamed out over the powerful voices of the men like sunlight over the raging sea. The song of the bass singer had a ravishing effect upon the audience. This mulatto has a deep bass, which sounds and touches us powerful as tubor-tones and yet able to express the most tender feeling. Imagine a lullaby executed by a basso-profound, and yet this singer enraptured the audience to the highest applause and was encored. He is master of a very grand voice of great compass (over two octaves) the enormous power, the wonderful subtle soft and sure falsetto and the clear intonation are all perfect; and if Mr. Loudin understands how to sing European music, which we have no reason to doubt, he would be one of the finest singers in Europe.” “As the children of Israel in the bondage of Egypt, as the Christian martyrs, under the persecution of Rome poured forth their misery in song, so the enslaved Negro face begot the hymns of faith and trust which were heard last night “in a golden sitting.” Out of the woes of the tormented soul of the people these songs sprang up; they are passing flowers of the blood of the martyrs, and we advise our readers not to let escape this peculiar enjoyment of art.”-

R. E. I have quoted and written thus at length with a hope that it may encourage and inspire our people to greater diligence seeing as they will where it is possible to stand, if the talents God has given us are employed. What we have done has been with the songs the ment of the work, saying, “I am he that productions of the negro mind and with negro talent. I ought again to apologize for repeating what is said of me as an individual, and only consent to do so with the hope that others may be encouraged by my so doing. Again you see I have violated your injunction to write “short letters,” but found myself unable to do so for want of time.

 

In a second installment of his correspondence, Loudin sent in a German review translated by Miss Frazelia Campbell, Teacher Institute for Colored Youth.

On Wednesday evening, the first concert of the so-called Jubilee Singers took place in the Singing Academy, under very favorable auspices. The Negroes in America call the year of their freedom, the year of Jubilee . Certain ones of them having organized themselves in a company under the name of Jubilee Singers have formed the brave resolution of traveling through different countries and singing their national songs, for the purpose of acquiring the necessary means to erect in that part of the country where they have been enslaved, a university, in which those of their race can acquire a liberal education. The feasibility of their undertaking, was for a long time a much debated question; they had to work against the incredulous and the indifferent once of the white race; but their success everywhere has demonstrated their ability for the enterprise; their tours in America, England and Holland have yielded them already a considerable sum for the realization of their purpose. On Wednesday, they made their first public debut in Germany.

At the appointed time with far different feelings than we have hitherto experienced, on similar occasions, we entered the Singing Academy. Our thoughts kept running upon those things upon which one is least apt to reflect in a concert room; we expected, at the most, to receive that enjoyment, that we would experience in witnessing the first, timid essay of a child when about undertaking something for its own culture; like the philanthropical side of the enterprise impressed us- that of a whole race of mankind making the attempt to procure for itself educational facilities,- this alone, seemed to us worthy of our patronage. At any rate, we were eager to know whether there were any special characteristics among the songs, in a word, we had counted not at all on any musical enjoyment, but regarded the matter from an ethnographical or philanthropical standpoint; the Singers ever from this view of the one securing our ready sympathy.

We were disappointed.- The negroes and Negresses- four gentlemen, one of them necessarily absent, and six ladies, among them a lady pianiate- interested us more than we expected. What first struck us concerning the singing, was a certain monotony not easily overlooked by one whose ear has been accustomed to the best music. Yet, the monotony by no means lacks any of those charming suggestions in which, at times, the dormant natural feeling is so rich; the uniformity and the frequent repetition of the same, short and melodious resolutions have for some time a peculiar fascination reminding is of the tranquility and symmetry of nature, in its primeval simplicity. But, considering the origin of the songs, we do not believe, they have been bred in the original abode of the Negro, i.e., Africa; the Negroes have probably first invented them, when they heard, as slaves in America, European- music. This seemed to us especially so from the fact that a species of sharps formed the groundwork of all their melodies. We think, that they have taken the melodies, which they have heard, and have transformed them in their own peculiar way. There is apparent everywhere in national songs certain characteristics. We considered in these songs, the frequent repetitions of the same short modulations, the abrupt transitions from tranquility to motion and vice versa, the rhythmical freedom, which indeed strongly marks them, but does not always come within correct musical time, lastly, the abundant appogiatmas.

Yet still, there is a music accompanying them, which is suited to the nature of their part-songs, even, here and there, covering original deficiencies and embellishing them. It appeared to us in the songs themselves, which the Negroes declaim, that there was something of a nationality, but only in the sense, that the creative national mind has the same share in its origin as their melodies. But be it as it may the singing performance of the Negroes is an entirely superior one and since we have been speaking of him we are able to relinquish our ethnographical or philanthropical standpoint from which we began and consider his ability now in the fine arts. They have beautiful well trained voices of a pure, healthy sounding timbre; entirely free from those tricks (artificialities) which we so often censure in European singers , and possessing a unity of intonation worthy of the highest admiration. Already the first piece, “Steal away to Jesus,” has surprised us in this respect, and we must confess that it would be difficult to find eight singers in Berlin, who would be able to sing in such perfect accord. The purity of their voices, flowing like Italian voices, is shown in their deep, intricate passages; here, too, the strength of their will adds to their success, their determination to triumph in this, one can detect in the long-held sounds. It is a real pleasure to observe how long and with what purity the high notes were kept. A great virtuosship have the Negroes in piano and pianissimo, the latter is rendered exquisitely and infallibly. The forcible and strong passages are excellently made, their high notes are taken with such precision and strength, and even in the portaments passages are clearly and expressively given. The audience, at first, conducted itself evilly and expectantly, but in the course of the evening it became enthusiastic and encored repeatedly.

In the solo singing, we could hear two sopranos, a tenor and a bass. The sopranos have full clear voices; the tenor also made a splendid impression, but the bass singer, Mr. Loudin, exhibited, strikingly, a voice of good material, of great compass- ranging over more than two octaves. The sonorous strength of the deep notes, the wonderful flexibility the softness and sureness of the falsetto in the high notes the good intonation, the perfect execution, indeed everything is so entirely superior that, Mr. Loudin, if he would apply himself to European, classical music would become one of our most distinguished concert singers . The only unpleasant thing of the entire evening was a single high tenor note touched in the last pieces; this intonation was the only faulty one, it occurred in but three pieces (out of seventeen) and these, have in two the same remarkable reason. There were two minor melodies of the evening, and it twas noticeable that the minor third of the singers became regularly too high, and occurring high so uniformly that it seems their intention to so express it. Does it not betray that immaturity so common with amateur singers when the minor chords are not yet clearly comprehended? We believe it is so, because we find analogies for it in a long, personal experience.

But notwithstanding this we think it wonderful that they, in their narrow limits, have been able to accomplish much charms of beauty. We have much to learn from them; we with our old culture, with our classical achievements piled one above the other, like some palatial structure, do not see that the foundation upon which the superstructure is raised is beginning to decap, in other words, in ours study, of theory we are losing sight of the primeval simplicity so excellently delineated by these Negroes. The whole evening was one of suggestiveness and keen enjoyment to us, and we would wish that the German people would give to their black brothers the support, which they so richly deserve.


Source: F. J. Loudin, “European Correspondence,” The Christian Recorder (3, 17 January, 1878).