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Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago

Beethoven as a Black Composer


Author(s): Dominique-René de Lerma
Source: Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 118-122
Published by: Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago and University
of Illinois Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/779545
Accessed: 22-06-2019 23:07 UTC

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BEETHOVEN AS A BLACK COMPOSER

DOMINIQUE-RENE DE LERMA

Perhaps it was late in the 1960s when Charlie Brown's diminutive


pianist, on hearing unequivocally that Beethoven was black, exclaimed,
"I've been playing soul music all my life and didn't know it!" The ques-
tion of Beethoven's African ancestry has been raised at various times. I
the story reached the comic strips, where did it begin?
I do not recall when I first heard the story, but I knew that Beet
hoven's forebears were Flemish and that that region had become Span-
ish when Joan "The Mad" married the Hapsburg Philip I. During th
sixteenth century, Spain carried its inquisition into the area, where nei-
ther the Protestant nor Catholic inhabitants really wanted to benefit
from Spain's church-state union. But perhaps an ancestor of Beethoven's
was Spanish. That would open the door for African background.
Africa was firmly entrenched in Spain well before 711 A.D., when the
Islamic chapter of Spanish history begins. There was no wall separating
Africa from Spain, such as the 11,000-foot Pyrennes mountain range tha
defines the Franco-Spanish border. The Strait of Gibraltar is only a few
miles wide, and in much earlier times, there was not even water sepa-
rating the area. A few instances of relationships follow. About 250 B.C
Spain was the site for Carthaginian trade in the Mediterranean and the
source for much of the Carthaginian armies until 201 B.C., when the sec
ond Punic War put Spain under Roman control. The Vandal king,
Gaiseric, accepted an invitation to establish a Vandal kingdom at Car
thage in 428 A.D., which was accomplished by his 80,000 subjects. Dur-
ing the time of the Moslems (politically until 1492, although the culture
and the language were of permanent influence in Spain), there wer
some Arabs and Syrians in Spain, but most of the new citizens wer
Berbers from Africa. Between times of political and religious conflict,
there was trade, as well as intermarriage between the Spanish an
Moors. These relationships are confirmed by the celebrated cantigas of
Alfonso X "el Sabio" (king of Castile and Le6n from 1250 to 1284) and
the slave-singers in the Moslem courts of Abd-er-Rahman III (912-961)
and Almanzor (978-1002). And when the Moors were gone, we fin

Originally published in Black Music Research Newsletter 8, no. 1 (Fall 1985):3-5.

118

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Beethoven as a Black Composer 119

negritos,
negritos,negros,
negros, andand
quineos
quineosin Spain,
in Spain,
Portugal,
Portugal,
and Mexico;
and Mexico;
there were
there were
sixteenth-century
sixteenth-century songs
songsin the
in the
language
languageof the ofcountry,
the country,
but on but
blackon black
themes
themesand andwith
with African
African accents,
accents,
witnessing
witnessingthe continued
the continued
presencepresence
of of
Africa
Africain inSpain.
Spain.
An
An iconographic
iconographic study
studythatthat
relates
relates
to this
to question
this question
is The is
Image
The of
Image
the of the
Black
Black in
inWestern
Western ArtArt
(Devise
(Devise
and and
Mollat
Mollat
1979).1979).
On page
On193pageof 193
the second
of the second
part
part of
ofvolume
volume 2 ("From
2 ("From thethe
Early
Early
Christian
ChristianEra toEra
theto Agethe
of Age
Discov-
of Discov-
ery"),
ery"),plate
plate193
193offers
offersa detail
a detail
from from
a 1520 a 1520
painting,
painting,
held by held
Lisbon's
by Lisbon's
Museo
MuseoNacional
Nacional dede
Arte
ArteAntiga.
Antiga.
The The
panel,panel,
calledcalled
the Santa
the Auta
SantaAltar-
Auta Altar-
piece
piece and
andtaken
taken from
from thethe
Monastery
MonasteryMadre Madre
de Deusde in
Deus
Lisbon,
in Lisbon,
shows ashows a
sextet
sextetof ofblack
black musicians
musicians performing
performing on trombone
on tromboneand shawms
and shawms
for the for the
wedding
weddingof ofSt.
St.
Ursula.
Ursula.ThisThis
workwork
and andits many
its many
companions
companions
document document
African
Africanpresence
presencein in
Europe's
Europe's
earlier
earlier
days,days,
particularly
particularly
in Iberia
in and
Iberia and
Italy.
Ernest Borneman (1969) has advanced the belief that Caribbean tradi-
tions and the evolution of jazz in the United States is based partly on
the Africanization of music in Spain, before Columbus, despite
Schuller's objections (1968, 59). This is further suggested by "`Donde
esta la Ma Teodora?" by Teodora Gines, a son from sixteenth-century
Cuba, and by any number of works from Renaissance Spain.l These
ideas alone open the possibility that, if Beethoven had Spanish ancestry,
the African might have been there, no matter how remote.
It has been thought that the story of Beethoven's alleged black ances-
try began with J. A. Rogers (1944), but Berwick Sayers ([1915] 1969, 203)
reports on an interview with Coleridge-Taylor conducted by Raymond
Blathwayt (not further identified, unfortunately) no later than 1907 in
which the matter was brought up. Berwick Sayers was asked by the
composer to review the transcribed interview. "In it he returned to the
theory that Beethoven had coloured blood in his veins. The supposition,
he thought, was supported by the great composer's type of features and
many little points in his character, as well as by his friendship for

1. For commentary on the Gines sisters, see "A Glimpse of Afro-Carribean Music in the
Early Seventeenth Century," reprinted on pp. 94-96 of this issue. To this may now be
added the following musical example:
Solo Cho

i^s8r
JDon - de es-t la Ma Teo - do - ra? Ra - jan -do la le-naes-
r
Solo Chorus

X I J
tA. LCon su pa-loy su ban - do- la? Ra - an-do la le-naes-
I"r
Solo Chorus

. D-does-
t5. dDon-does-ti que no 1a ve - o7 Ra - jan-do-la le-naes-ta. que n

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120 BMR Journal

Bridgetower, the mulatto violinist. And he could not avoid a sarcasm: 'I
think that if the greatest of all musicians were alive today, he would
find it somewhat difficult, if not absolutely impossible, to obtain hotel
accommodation in certain American cities.'" It really must be said that
Beethoven's friendship with Bridgetower cannot be considered as evi-
dence. We have no reason to think, for example, that Bartelemon, Att-
wood, or Giomovichi were "coloured" because they had accepted
Bridgetower as a student. But we are well aware that Beethoven was
dark complexioned and had features that were noted by his contempo-
raries.
J. A. Rogers treats the subject in Sex and Race (1944, vol. 3, 306-309),
basing his argument initially on these rather provocative observations;
but he comes to the conclusion that "In short, there is no evidence what-
ever to show that Beethoven was white." And the darkened reproduc-
tion of Letronne's portrait of Beethoven (Rogers 1944, vol. 1, 8) is com-
pared with a photograph of Clarence Cameron White. No matter how
circumstantial or speculative Rogers's arguments might be, they are cer-
tainly ardently posed and are most provocative for those who still think
of a black/white dichotomy. They deserve notice.
Some relatively new to musicology might wonder why there is litera-
ture on a composer's physicians or family. Nettl's study (1956), for ex-
ample, tells us of Beethoven's favorite taverns and foods, how his morn-
ing coffee was prepared, what books he read, and how he felt about
bathing, although he does not stop with these points. Small wonder
then that a composer's ancestry is traced. During the time of the Nazis,
studies identified those who were not Aryan (African or Jewish blood
would have caused Beethoven to fail the test, but he passed). Flemish
scholars took pride in finding so solidly a Flemish background with
Beethoven. Donald W. MacArdle (1897-1964) sought to prove nothing
da capo with his serious genealogical studies, which culminated with his
1949 article in Musical Quarterly and his resume in Beethoven Abstracts
(MacArdle 1973, 346-347). He shows that the Beethoven family ap-
peared before 1500 and, continuing to 1917, was populated totally by
the Flemish-no Spanish, no Belgians, no Dutch, no Africans.
In New Orleans a few years ago, I joined John Henrik Clarke and
Josephine Wright for a panel on black contributions to eighteenth-
century Europe at a meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-
American Life and History. One of the auditors, a school teacher, looked
as if his entire career and reputation had crashed from under him when
Dr. Wright and I agreed that Beethoven lacked African ancestry. I have
twice been questioned about the matter on radio broadcasts; and then,
as I served as a guest speaker on a college campus, a member of the
audience wanted to know by what authority I had disenfranchised Beet-
hoven. A partial listing of the authorities is included below, not one of

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Beethoven as a Black Composer 121

whom,
whom, as
as noted
notedby
bymy
mycollege
college
campus
campus
questioner,
questioner,
waswas
a genealogist.
a genealogist.
Myths
Myths die
die hard.
hard.

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