Was Beethoven Black?

Augustana music professor Alexander Carpenter analyzes the claim that Beethoven was Black, what it means to the current Black Lives Matter Movement and the impact it has on real Black classical music composers.

Alexander Carpenter - 30 July 2020

In mid-June, Beethoven started trending on Twitter. 2020 is a Beethoven year—the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth—so it’s perhaps not so strange that he should be popping up on social media platforms. But what was appearing on Twitter—inspiring bewildered responses and a wealth of memes—was something a bit unusual and certainly unforeseen: the claim that “Beethoven was Black.” 

Where did this idea come from? The circulation of this trope has no doubt been catalyzed by recent events—namely, the death of George Floyd in late May and the subsequent ascendency of Black Lives Matter—and by the rigorous discussions and debates over race that have since permeated mainstream and social media. 

As it turns out, though, “Beethoven was Black” is not a new idea: the notion of the great composer’s secret ethnicity has circulated at the fringes of the press and of scholarly disciplines like history, musicology and race studies for more than a century.

The original theory of “Black Beethoven”—first appearing in the popular press around 1907 and attributed to the mixed-race English composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—hinges on a small amount of anecdotal evidence and a few bold assertions and interpretive gambits. 

Much of the anecdotal evidence was collected in a single source—Sex and Race, a three-volume work by Jamaican historian Joel Augustus Rogers, published in 1944. Rogers concluded unequivocally that Beethoven was Black. He supported this claim with a number of 18th and 19th century accounts of the composer having the features and complexion of a Black person: he was described by some contemporaries as “dark,” or “swarthy” or as a “Moor.” This latter term, “Moor,” has since generated particular interest and conjecture. 

In the context of late 18th century Europe, “Moor” could refer to a Muslim person from the Iberian Peninsula or simply to an African or dark-skinned person. Though it is now known that Beethoven’s family was Flemish, speculation about his genealogy has ranged from there being a family history of racial mixing to the possibility that the composer’s mother may have had an affair with a Spaniard of African ancestry. 

Some of Beethoven’s contemporaries are alleged to have referred to him as “the Moor” or “the Blackamoor” (a now-archaic term). The reference has even been attributed to a member of the Habsburg royal family, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy I, who is reputed at some point to have called both Beethoven and Joseph Haydn “Moors,” supposedly because of their dark complexions. Claims like this are very likely specious, but it is difficult to evaluate their veracity because they are cited only in English sources, not in the original German. One other possibility—distant though it may be—is that, if Prince Nicholas used this term to describe either Haydn (whom he employed as a court composer) or the young Beethoven, he was using it idiomatically: that is, that “Moor” could be a racially-tinged and dismissive epithet for a servant.

Some writers have claimed that Beethoven’s music itself, and especially its rhythmic complexity, points towards his hidden ethnicity, suggesting a knowledge of West African musical practices; a few go so far as to suggest the presence of reggae- and jazz-like rhythms in his piano sonatas.  Beethoven must have been Black, in other words, because his music “sounds” Black, notwithstanding the unlikeliness of his familiarity with African music or the tricky and essentialist argument that race and creativity are somehow necessarily linked. Other writers and historians have cited Beethoven’s friendship with the Afro-European violinist and composer George Bridgetower as evidence of the composer’s own mixed-race identity. In this instance, the argument is that Beethoven must surely have been Black, because he elected to have a half-Black friend in an otherwise racially homogeneous 19th century central Europe.  

Ultimately, as scholars in the fields of Black music research and of African and African-American studies have firmly concluded, there is simply no reason to believe that Beethoven was Black: the genealogical evidence going back well into the 1400s shows unambiguously that Beethoven’s family was Flemish; speculative anecdotes from the early 19th century about his swarthy complexion, “broad” nose and coarse, “kinky” black hair are unsourced and racist; and the suggestions that jazz-like syncopations in his music somehow derive from African genetics are anachronistic and absurd. As it turn out, using the appellation “Moor” for a white person with a darker-than-average visage was, moreover, not uncommon in the 19th century: it is well-known that Karl Marx’s companions referred to him as “the Moor,” not because of his race, but apparently because of his thick black hair and voluminous black beard. 

Pursuing the idea that “Beethoven was Black” both whitewashes and blackwashes music history, as Nicholas Rinehart—the scholar who has published the definitive research on this issue—has observed.  Blackwashing refers to the practice of making important historical figures Black, for the sake of seeking to validate the cultural contributions of people of colour (Darryl Pinckney, the African-American novelist and essayist, responded directly and succinctly to this problematic trend almost twenty years ago, as part of a lecture series at Harvard, insisting “We don’t need to claim Beethoven”). Whitewashing refers to the practice of valorizing Black musicians and composers by giving them white referents: a gifted Black composer thus becomes, for example, the “The Black Mozart” (Joseph Boulogne), or the “African Mahler” (Coleridge-Taylor)—“a footnote” to a white composer, in Rinehart’s words. 

Ultimately, it may be Beethoven’s friendship George Bridgetower, and not Internet memes, or the blogosphere or the Twitterati that provides a way to think about the issue of classical music and racial politics, and perhaps suggests a way forward. 

How many of us, in the 21st century, are even aware of Bridgetower, who was an accomplished and well-known violinist in England and Europe in his lifetime, and who was also the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s famous “Kreutzer” sonata for violin and piano? As the African-American writer and former poet laureate to the Library of Congress Rita Dove notes, George Bridgetower might have become a “household name” in the 19th century musical world, had he not been Black. 

Efforts to make Beethoven Black—an awkward dance of trying to examine the issue of race and classical music while simultaneously maintaining the canonic centrality of Beethoven—ultimately obscures the existence and contributions of real people of colour in the history of music: not only Bridgetower, but also composers like Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-George, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still. Like many of the important women in the history of classical music, as Rinehart argues, these Black composers have simply been “forgotten, overlooked, and overwritten.”    

While the “Beethoven was Black” trope trending on Twitter might seem to somehow serve the interests of current racial politics and of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter—indeed, just as it was put into the service of the Black Power movement in the early 1960s when Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, invoking Beethoven’s would-be Moorish genealogy, claimed that he (along with other historical figures, including Hannibal, Columbus and Jesus) was “a Black man”—it is a dead end for musicologists and scholars of race. 

But just as musicology finally embraced feminist and gender theory in the 1990s, providing new and more inclusive ways to examine the history and meaning of classical music, “Black Beethoven” may create opportunities for and point in the direction of new avenues of inquiry into the history of music and race, which may in turn help to inform our contemporary discourse in these turbulent times. 

A photo of Alexander Carpenter wearing a jacket and a scarf. Alexander Carpenter, Music, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. A shortened version of this column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on July 21, 2020.