When I think about classical music and racism, the second thing that springs to mind – after Wagner of course – is the surprisingly persistent question about Beethoven’s ethnicity. In three words: was Beethoven black?
Yes, Beethoven was black
The story about black Beethoven peaked in the 1970s – together with the Black Power movement. Today, it regularly resurfaces on the internet. But its origin goes back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. You could even say: to Beethoven’s own lifetime.
“Why would an African guy named Beethoven turn up in 18th century Austria?”
You see, the doubts about Beethoven’s ethnicity do have some historical grounds. The people who knew him said he had ‘negroid traits’, bearing a ‘strong resemblance to a mulatto.’ During his youth, he was called ‘the Spaniard’ because of his dark complexion. You can even see it in some of its portraits, right down to the kinky hair.
And there’s more: during the last part of his life, Beethoven lived in the Schwarzspanierhaus – which you could translate as the House of the black Spaniard.
Now you may be asking yourself: ‘Why would an African guy named Beethoven turn up in 18th century Austria?’ Well, Beethoven’s ancestors came from present-day Belgium, which had been occupied by Spaniards for almost two centuries. Since Spain had strong ties with North Africa, it’s not impossible that Beethoven was the happy result of an affair between a local maiden and a Moorish soldier.
And let’s not forget the rumour that he was the lovechild of Frederik the Great and his black chamber maid …
No, Beethoven was not black
Convincing stuff! Were it not for too many unanswered questions. Such as: why do most Beethoven portraits clearly show a white man?
And why aren’t there more eye-witness reports about Beethoven the Moor rising to the rank of Europe’s most celebrated composer? It’s not because people were blind to racial differences. Beethoven himself called his Afro-European friend, the celebrated violinist George Bridgetower a mulattico lunatico.
“Classical music is an almost exclusive lily-white affair. Wouldn’t it be great if its boldest innovator turned out to be of African descent?”
Like any conspiracy theory, the story about Beethoven’s ethnicity is entertaining but doesn’t hold up to closer inspection.
The House of the black Spaniard – actually Spaniards – was named after the Spanish Black Monks who occupied it long before Beethoven.
Those remarkable portraits are bad reproductions.
And the black people in Belgium are not descendants from Spanish occupiers, but more likely from African people brutally enslaved by the Belgians themselves – long after Beethoven’s grandfather left the country.
Was Beethoven black? Why should we care?
It’s easy to see why this story is so attractive. Classical music is an almost exclusive lily-white affair. Wouldn’t it be great if its boldest innovator turned out to be of African descent?
But even with the best intentions, rewriting history on false grounds is never a good idea. Besides, it’s not necessary. Many black musical innovators of the 18th century will forever remain nameless. But those of the 20th century are well on their way to the eternal pantheon of music.
Who knows, in 200 years some people might feel the need to claim that Duke Ellington was white. Or – and you really should have seen this one coming – Michael Jackson.
So no, Beethoven was not a soul brother. He might have been the world’s first metalhead though.
You might also be interested in this other popular rumor from the world of classical music: was Handel gay?