Having accepted Thomas Sowell's great thesis that differences among peoples commonly attributed to race really reflect culture, I was struck by two CDs that have recently appeared. Both contain American vernacular music sung by men trained in the classical operatic tradition.
One is Thomas Quasthoff, the renowned German bass-baritone now in his late forties who has overcome serious physical handicaps caused by thalidomide to become one of the great singers of our time. Barely four feet tall, his hands resembling flippers, he has a big and flexible voice that is particularly strong in classic solo song cycles. In this respect, may I particularly recommend his DVD of Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise with English subtitles. Quasthoff’s The Jazz AlbumWatch What Happens, recorded mostly with German back-up musicians, contains such standards as “My Funny Valentine,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face,” and the Gershwins’ “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.”
The other singer is Morris Robinson, a large African-American perhaps a decade younger than Quasthoff, more of a bass than a baritone, very much a star-to-be who looks like a sometime football lineman, as indeed he was. In the five years since I heard him singing John Cage, Robinson has appeared at New York’s Metropolitan Opera mostly in the role of a king, in part because of his physical size and his resonant deep voice. Among the songs in his Going Home, recorded in America, are “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.”
Take out two CD players and listen to Quasthoff and Robinson alternately, and in a blind testno cheatingyou can’t with your ears alone identify differences between them. For a while I thought a German accent in English would distinguish the two, but when my eyes told me that my ears mistook Quasthoff for Robinson, I realized that I was really hearing the more formal diction developed by opera singers. Only when I read the album notes did I recognize the differences, already noted, in their repertoire.
The similar sound of Quasthoff and Robinson reflects, of course, their common musical training and culture, notwithstanding differences in race, nationality, mother tongue, and physical size. In understanding musical art as well as society, Sowell gets it right. That he has written little, if anything, about music is a measure of his persuasive truth.
Richard Kostelanetz's complete britannica.com bio entry can be found on richardkostelanetz.com.