Anya Wassenberg, Ludwig Van, September 29, 2020
The classical music world is celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday throughout 2020, so it’s perhaps not surprising that #Beethoven would begin to trend in social media during the summer.
As a theory, however, it turns out the idea has been bouncing around for more than a century. The question itself may not be the most interesting part; a look at the evidence reveals a great deal about the intersections of culture and race in the Western world.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a mixed race composer and conductor, well known in England in his day. In 1907, he wrote what is now cited as the first documentation of the theory that Beethoven was Black. During the early to mid 20th century, Black scholars were looking to reclaim their own history, including noted historian Dominique-Rene de Lerma, a scholar on the subject of classical composers of colour. In the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael also claimed Beethoven as one of their own.
Jamaican-American author and journalist Joel Augustus Rogers devoted much of his career to writing about the history of Africa and the African diaspora, particularly in America. His writing often challenged accepted theories about race and African inferiority that were prevalent at the time. Between 1941 and 1944, he published a three-volume tome called Sex and Race. In it, he posited his conclusion that Beethoven was Black. The evidence he cites are still the talking points for current social media debate.
Some of Beethoven’s contemporaries noted the fact that his colouring was dark or “swarthy”. Prince Nicholas Esterhazy I of the infamous Habsburg royal family is said to have called both Beethoven and Haydn (his court composer) Moors. To Europeans of the 18th century, a Moor might be someone who came from Northern Africa, or simply a person with a dark complexion, to add to the lack of clarity.
There is genealogical evidence of Beethoven’s heritage that goes back to the 14th century, and firmly places the family history as Flemish. Theories about an affair between Magdalena van Beethoven and a Spaniard of Moorish descent, or other mixing of blood in the family persist, however.
In 2015, a group with the unsubtle name Beethoven Was African released an album with the goal of proving that it was the Master’s music itself that proved his ethnicity. This theory posits that the composer’s use of polyrhythms points to West African heritage. That theory, however, assumes that it is not only musical talent, but musical genre in some way that is inherited, or the unlikely possibility that Beethoven was somehow exposed to traditional West African music.
Beethoven’s friendship with violinist and composer George Bridgetower is another indisputable fact, and one that is often used to bolster the theory of his African origins. After all, why would Beethoven choose to be friends with a Black man in 18th century Germany? So the theory goes. Bridgetower was an Afro-European, and while they eventually had a falling out, Beethoven made his original dedication of the Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower.