Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History

Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History

Issue 112, 2013
pages 117-130
DOI: 10.1353/tra.2013.0056

Nicholas T. Rinehart
Harvard University

Nicholas T. Rinehart debunks theories of Beethoven’s blackness and calls for a reimagining of the classical canon.

The Question

Was Beethoven Black? He surely wasn’t, but some insist otherwise. The question is not a new one—it has been rehashed over the course of several decades, although it never seems to have caused much of a stir in any public intellectual debates. Indeed, what is perhaps most fascinating about this question is that is has remained somewhat under the radar despite its stubbornness. Nobody really thinks Beethoven was black. And only a few have even stumbled upon the possibility. That Beethoven may have been black is pure trivia—a did-you-know factoid for the classical music enthusiast. The composer ranks with Alexanders Pushkin and Dumas as one of history’s great ethnic surprises, with the obvious exception that Beethoven wasn’t ethnic. He was simply swarthy.

The logic goes something like this: Beethoven’s family, by way of his mother, traced its foots to Flanders, which was for sometime under Spanish monarchical rule, and because Spain maintained a longstanding historical connection to North Africa through the Moors, somehow a single germ of blackness trickled down to our beloved Ludwig. This very theory—that Beethoven was descended from the Moors—has reappeared in several works throughout the twentieth century. Jamaican historian Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) popularized this theory in several writings around midcentury, but the birth of the myth can be traced back further to approximately 1915 or even earlier according to music historian Dominique-René de Lerma, the world’s leading scholar on classical composers of color. Rogers assented in his provocative and controversial works such as the three-volume Sex and Race (1941-44), the two-volume World’s Great Men of Color (1946-47), 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934), Five Negro Presidents (1965), and Nature Knows No Color Line (1952), that Beethoven—in addition to Thomas Jefferson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Browning, and several popes, among others—was genealogically African and thus black. Musicologist Donald Macardle and de Lerma both refuted this possibility with several decades between them. De Lerma also authored a brief account…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , ,