African-American musician Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was one of the most famous Black entertainers in his lifetime. In 1887, he traveled as a promising young Oberlin student to Berlin, Germany to study music at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In his unpublished memoir, which musicologist Marva Carter published in her 1988 dissertation on his life and career, Cook shares his experiences traveling to Germany for the first time, auditioning at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and meeting General Graf von Moltke (1800-1891). Like many other African Americans, he testifies to the feeling of liberation that came from escaping American prejudices, being able to pursue both his education and amorous encounters.
My mother’s warnings before I left for Berlin would fill many pages; I only wish that I had written them all down and, more important, that I had heeded them. In fact, throughout most of my life, I’ve probably received more good advice than anyone alive, but somehow I’ve seldom remembered it until too late. Professor Doolittle [Will Marion Cook’s violin professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music] sent me a letter of introduction to a Mrs. John Morgan, who had formerly lived in Oberlin. Armed with that letter, more money than I had ever seen, and my usually well-stocked supply of dreams, I took a North German Lloyd steamer for Bremerhaven.
Before many hours passed, I made a disagreeable discovery, that has been verified on each of my subsequent twenty-eight voyages across the Atlantic: I was a rotten sailor. Nevertheless, the tempestuous trip over was beautiful to me. I was getting away from prejudice, ignorance, oppression, and on my way to a real land of promise.
European immigrants may smile at this idea which reverses the order of things, but many Negroes have felt exactly as I did on leaving the U.S.A. I knew scarcely a word of German, yet at Bremerhaven, where we had to entrain for Berlin, the conductors and everybody were so helpful, so polite, that I asked myself, “Is this heaven.”
I reached Berlin the following morning and went to see Mrs. Morgan even before securing lodgings. She received me like a long lost brother, borrowed 300 marks from me, told me where to get a room, and suggested that I study awhile with Herr Moser before attempting the Hoch Schule probe (examination). Her daughter, Geraldine, was one of Joachim’s favorite pupils, though never very brilliant as a violinist, and afterwards came to the United States, where she married David Belasco’s secretary. All the Morgans — Geraldine, Paul, the cellist, and Mrs. Morgan, translater [sic] of Brahm’s [sic] and other German writers’ songs into English — felt that I was not ready for the Hoch Schule. Strangely enough, I took their advice.
After securing rooms, which I changed often, I went to see Herr Moser. By this time what little technique I once had was nil, from lack of practice. Only my tone and soul remained. I’ll still have them after I’m dead.
The very first week I was in Berlin two events occurred that proved important in my life. On Wednesday night at the Philharmonic, during the promenade after the first period, a tall, slim-looking chap, very handsome and finely dressed, walked up to me and said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? Well, one doesn’t wear a flannel shirt (which I had on), no matter how fine the material. You must wear a white shirt and high collar or people will ignore you.” We became great friends. He taught me how to dress properly and saw to it that I had appropriate clothes made. He never could have learned to play the violin in a hundred years, and he didn’t have to. His name is Max Adler — still my friend — one of the biggest real estate men in Chicago, and brother-in-law of the late Julius Rosenwald. I haven’t seen him since 1935, but I hope he’s still living, for he has done lots of good in Chicago, and is one of the finest men I have ever met anywhere .
And now for the second occurrence…One morning during that first week I am sitting on a bench resting [in the Tiergarten], when a tall, soldierly man passes, gazes at me intently in my blue-flannel shirt and foreign-looking clothes. He seems about to stop but, after another scrutinizing glance, passes on. The next morning at the same time, I am sitting on the same bench and the same man appears. This time he stops, greets me quietly in German, then sits beside me and begins asking questions. Who am I? Where from? What am I doing in Berlin? As soon as I blurt out, in bad German and not much better English, that I am a Negro from the United States, studying music in Berlin, all other questions are forgotten. In English rather clipt but most perfect, he wants to know what I think about the future of my people in the United States. How is the problem to be solved ultimately?
As readers of these verbose pages must have surmised, I’m a talkative old soul, and was an even more talkative soul. I had plenty of ideas, some of which have come true, but more haven’t. Most of my ideas haven’t materialized because such men as Fred Douglass never came back. Too many Booker Washingtons have appeared, spilled their poisonous doctrines, then died as they should. Anyhow, I talked a mess, and this great man — he was, as I afterwards learned from his pictures, General Graf von Moltke — smiled quizzically and patronizingly. Often he would interrupt with sharp, terse questions right to the point when I started to ramble. And I’m a rambling man. For nine or ten days, until I read in the papers that he had left Berlin, he used to stop regularly, if only for a moment, to say a word or two. And he didn’t forget me. Once or twice he even got me out of trouble
For the first six months I continued to study with Herr Moser and to seize every opportunity to hear great music. I saw the eminent conductors, Nikisch, Paur, Von Bulow, Seidl, and heard artists like Amalie Joachim and Lillian Nordica sing Italian opera at Kroll’s Summer Garten. There were many others, but my space is so limited now and I have digressed so much that we must hurry along.
Finally the examination for admission to the Hoch Schule took place. Telling no one that I intended to take it, I got some very technical composition (I forget which) and went up to the outer hall. In truth, I was terribly nervous, and when I saw and heard boys much younger than I with superb technique, playing exercises by Fiorillo and Paganini as if they were simple scales, my heart sank. One chap, Johannesson, not only had technique, but also a tone and soul that equalled or exceeded mine. Whatever became of that boy I never knew. Perhaps life in Berlin got him as it did me. There must be men still living who remember hearing him at that time. They can vouch for his talent — nay, genius. Surely he is dead, or he would be world famous.
And then it was my turn. I was to be accompanied by Kruse, an Australian violinist and teacher of piano. (All real musicians have to study and play piano). I started out to play the technical number I had selected, but was so nervous that I could hardly hold my violin in position. I went all to pieces, forgot where I was, what I was doing. Crying and swearing softly under my breath, I tucked my violin under my arm and started to leave the podium. Suddenly a deep, musical voice spoke: “Ask the young man if he plays anything else.” And that voice spoke pure English, without accent. Kruse repeated the question. I was discouraged, disgusted, and still weeping as I replied: “It’s no use, I’ve lost.” And, under my breath, “To hell with it!”
Professor Kruse spoke rather sternly this time. “The Master says to play something else.” Slowly it dawned on me who the Master was: Joachim, himself! I couldn’t see him, but could feel his presence, could feel the confidence his great heart and magnetism were giving me. So I answered, “Beethoven’s Melody in F.” Again Kruse accompanied me as I played the simple but beautiful composition by the greatest of composers. My nerve, soul, tone and talent came back. Over the big room the melody rang, possibly phrased all wrong, yet there must have been something there to impress the judges for, as I finished, a huge, black-haired, black- browed man was holding out a hand larger than both of mine, and saying: “You are a stranger in a strange land. We are going to become friends. Come to my house for lunch Sunday.” Pointing to Kruse and the other teachers, he added: “They will give you the address.”
Next morning I read the list of applicants accepted; my name was either first or second. This must have been due to pity, for there were many in that probe who surpassed me in everything except soul and tone.
Others have written of the Joachim String Quartette, of Paderewski’s first concert in Berlin, of the opera, the many conductors, von Bulow’s recitals. Incidentally von Bulow conducted an orchestra rehearsal in the morning, have a piano concert in the afternoon, and at night conducted a Wagnerian opera. Others have dealt with this in a more musicianly and more readable form. It would only be a sad waste of paper were I to discuss in my fashion what I heard and what impression it all made on me. Suffice it to say that in efficiency, especially in music, the German is the last word. True, he has allowed himself to be misled in two world wars. Why? It is not for me to say.
Another spectacle that I witnessed was the funeral of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (William I), who died [in March 1888] shortly after my arrival. The ceremonies were so grandiose, so awed was I, that for all my gift of gab, I was unable to describe them in my letters to Ma. Though I had seen the Grant and Garfield funerals at home, Kaiser Wilhelm’s obsequies and procession — the Beethoven funeral music, the muffled drums, the thousands upon thousands of uhlans, foot-soldiers, the millions of spectators, royalty from everywhere — left me breathless and speechless.
To get back to my personal life in Berlin, I am not proud of it. For a year I studied seriously and strenuously; eight or ten hours a day I put in on my fiddle. When the landlady did not allow regular practice, I laid aside the bow and brought my fingers to iron strength by raising them and letting them hit the finger board with a thud. I began to gain in technique all I had lost by beginning serious study of the violin so late in life. I refused to take harmony, counterpoint, or piano, so necessary in the training of a musician. Why they let me remain in the Hoch Schule without attending those classes is a mystery to me as it was then to all my pals. I have often regretted my dumbness, obstinacy, or call it what you will, for not taking advantage of this great, almost free opportunity, but it is now too late to whine about it. Instead I must record something worse, which led to real disaster.
I had plenty of money and when that was gone, presto! more would somehow come in overnight. Thanks to Max Adler, I knew how to dress. My brown complexion and bushy hair made me something of a novelty with the frauleins. By this time my German had become fluent: I could make love in two languages. What more did a young man about town need? Since the early experience with Hattie, I had played around with other girls in Washington and Oberlin, but never had the pickings been so plentiful. It wasn’t that I preferred white girls, as the Negro stereotype is supposed to; there simply weren’t any brownskins around. Totally unprejudiced in the matter, I just liked girls, period! A good dancer, I met most of my conquests at balls, public or private.
Despite the amorous and adventurous interludes, I made phenomenal progress on the violin. As at Oberlin, I became a favorite at the Hoch Schule. Regularly there were invitations to visit Joachim’s. Once the Master even arranged for me to play for Bismarck, but the crowning triumph came at graduation, when the American Negro boy finished at the head of his class and received a Stradivarius as his prize.
Three years had passed since I had first arrived in Berlin. In that time I had learned to love those hospitable, unprejudiced, pre-Hitlerite Germans, to worship Beethoven, Wagner and Joachim. My technique on the violin had improved, not so much as it might have had I practiced religiously, but sufficiently for me to outstrip my classmates. Discipline, a sine qua non of German education, I had learned to admire — in others — but personally I had not yet acquired it. In this respect, the Germans, like Grandfather Lewis, had failed.
Source: Marva Griffin Carter, “The Life and Music of Will Marion Cook” (PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana, 1988), 412-21.
Will Marion Cook travels to Germany, auditions at the Royal Conservatory of Music, meets General Graf von Moltke (1889) by Kira Thurman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.