Beethoven as a Black Composer

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Nadine Gordimer laying a wreath in the black township of Alexandra, South Africa, where protesters were killed by police in 1986.

The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The titles about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black

the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.

Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.

Once there were blacks wanting to be white.

Now there are whites wanting to be black.

Is Beethoven’s blackness real?

In 1934, the Jamaican-born journalist Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) published a book called 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof (a title borrowed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a recent book of his own). As Gates notes about the author of his own book’s namesake:

Sometimes, [Rogers] was astonishingly accurate; at other times, he seems to have been tripping a bit, shall we say, as in his “Amazing Fact #8,” which I quote in full: “Beethoven, the world’s greatest musician, was without a doubt a dark mulatto. He was called ‘The Black Spaniard.’ His teacher, the immortal Joseph Haydn, who wrote the music for the former Austrian National Anthem, was colored, too.”

Both claims are false, I am afraid, though I love the work of both composers! But no one can get everything right all the time, correct?

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Poster from the 1960s.

Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and  “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors) originally from North Africa off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.


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Spain in the 11th century.

This may seem like a bit of a stretch — not unlike Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Native American identity — but if Beethoven had been alive in the Jim Crow south, it would have been enough to subject him to segregation.

The notion that Beethoven was black became popular in the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael mentioned it in his speeches to students, as did Malcolm X in his famous Playboy interview with Alex Haley in 1963.

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Although the claim of Beethoven’s black ancestry has been refuted by scholars, the idea has never stopped cropping up.

It appears in this picture-book biography of Arturo Schomburg, which you will see in class.

A project called “Beethoven Was African” aims to show that the polyrhythms Beethoven uses in his piano sonatas bear a resemblance to the polyrhythms of West African drumming.

Reviewing the Beethoven Was African project, the music critic Tom Service writes:

My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.

This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.” 

Read Rinehart’s article here.

The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:

If Beethoven’s “blackness” is based on rumor, rather than evidence, what does that say about what race is?

Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Is it something defined by affinity?

Who gets to decide the racial identity of another? Of oneself?

Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it black?

Why do you think it was important for black activists to assign a black identity to Beethoven?

The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.

Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.

Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.