Weekly Role Models – Week 4: Ludwig van Beethoven

The Ancestor’s Story

 

For this last Black History Month installment of Weekly Role Models, we thought we’d do something different. This article will serve as more of an exposé piece.

Did you know that Ludwig Van Beethoven was Black? No? Wonder why that is? Probably because we’re inundated with images like the ones below. Even Google, one of the most trusted entities on Earth, is guilty of whitewashing: the White supremacist appropriation of the history and accomplishments of other cultures, usually people of color.

 

 

When having discussions of “race,” it is always important to remember that race is an imaginary construct, largely attributable to the goals of White supremacy. But as modern science has proved, there is no such thing as race. All people are part of one, biological human family. This fact is especially salient in the discussion of history, where we often assign “races” to historical peoples. No doubt that these ancient peoples saw themselves as distinct in several aspects, but we use our modernized notion of race to identify groups of historical people who had no such notion during their time.

This being said, it is not wholly inaccurate to discuss Beethoven’s heritage in terms of race, since he lived from 1770 to 1827. During this time, two of the most influential publications on the new idea of race surfaced: Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1767) and Johann Blumenbach’s On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1775). The ideas of “scientific racism” took off after these two seminal works laid the foundation. Therefore, in this case, it is not improper to use modern notions of race to discuss Beethoven’s background. On that note, let’s get to it.

In 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro with Complete Proof, J.A. Rogers provides one of the most scholarly, eye-opening works of historical proof, confirming that Beethoven was indeed of African descent. Below are a few of his excerpts, along with his cited sources:

Frederick Hertz, German anthropologist, in Race and Civilization, refers to Beethoven’s “Negroid traits” and his “dark” skin, and “flat, thick nose.” (p. 123 and 178). Frau Fischer was a close friend of Beethoven and described him as having, “Short, stocky, broad shoulders, short neck, round nose, blackish-brown complexion.” (From R. H. Schauffler’s The Man Who Freed Music, Vol. I, p. 18, 1929).

For additional proof, check out this excerpt from a 1995 LA Times article entitled “Thanks to Filmmakers, Composer’s Life Still a Mystery : Beethoven’s Racial Ties Misrepresented Again.” The trifecta of cited sources excerpted below should drive home the fact and proof of Beethoven’s African descent.

Emil Ludwig, in his book “Beethoven,” says: “His face reveals no trace of the German. He was so dark that people dubbed him Spagnol (dark-skinned).” Fanny Giannatasio del Rio, in her book “An Unrequited Love: An Episode in the Life of Beethoven,” wrote, “His somewhat flat broad nose and rather wide mouth, his small piercing eyes and swarthy (black) complexion, pockmarked into the bargain, gave him a strong resemblance to a mulatto.” C. Czerny stated, “His beard–he had not shaved for several days–made the lower part of his already brown face still darker.”Kwaku Person-Lynn, Ph.D

Not only was Beethoven of African descent, but Haydn, the man who taught him, was also! We know this through the scholarship of two men: Alexander W. Thayer and Andre de Hevesy. Thayer, a man widely considered to be an expert on all things Beethoven, writes, “Beethoven had even more of the Moor in his features than his master, Haydn.” (The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven, Vol. I, p. 146). Reminder: “Moor” is a term that has been used to describe African people generally, and more specifically, those of Berber or Arab background.

Haydn’s “Blackness” even surprised the royalty for which he performed. In his book Beethoven: The Man, Andre de Hevesy writes of the celebrated Haydn who was Beethoven’s teacher: “Everybody knows the incident at Kismarton or Eisenstadt, the residence of Prince Esterhazy. In the middle of the first allegro of Haydn’s symphony, His Highness asked the name of the author. He was brought forward.

“‘What!’ exclaimed the prince, ‘the music is by this blackamoor? ‘Well, my fine blackamoor, henceforward, thou art in my service. What is thy name?'” Beethoven’s teacher responds, “‘Joseph Haydn.'”

Credit: dorian-b2.deviantart.com

Once again, we see the importance of self-validating all historical information we encounter. Indeed, it is an imposing task, given the sheer scope of decoding millennia of human history, but a worthy task nonetheless. It is unfortunate, but we must fact-check virtually all information we encounter, especially that which is thrust upon us (e.g. mandated school history or news media). Some may ask, “Why do those in power seek to alter historical truth? Why is history “whitewashed?” The answer to this will vary widely depending on who you ask.

It is our belief that those in power take no action except that which is designed to increase or perpetuate their power. Accordingly, the White supremacist system that controls much of the world chooses to re-imagine or omit history because it serves the purpose of sustaining its power. When you control the narrative of history, you control and suppress the knowledge, critical thinking, self-image and “change-potential” of those whom study it. When the dominant group presents an edited version of history that highlights all that is great about itself, downplays the worst parts of itself, and even appropriates the contributions of of other groups for itself, this does an excellent job at maintaining its own power. The negative psychological effects upon the non-majority groups are astounding and cannot be understated. Again, this, too serves to embellish White supremacy.

We should all take advantage of the unprecedented access to information in this technology age. Use a bit of Biblical wisdom for fact-finding in the areas of history and information: “Study to show thyself approved]”! – II Timothy 2:15.

 

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