Beethoven may have been black

Evidence suggests whitewashing of the composer’s legacy

beethoven-death-mask
Beethoven’s death mask. Photo by Daniel Hass, Public Domain.

As probably very few of you outside the music department know, the Fargo-Moorhead area is currently in the throes of something called Beethovenfest. This is basically a community-wide celebration of Beethoven’s life and works. For those readers not very familiar with classical music, it’s pretty cool. Lovely, lovely Ludwig Van lived from 1770-1827. He resided most of his life in Vienna. He studied with both Haydn and Mozart, and is widely regarded as the genius king of the Romantic Period. He was also very likely a black man.

I’ll start with a little history. In 711 A.D., the Moors (black-skinned Muslims of North Africa) crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into what was then the Spanish Netherlands. The Moors were the dominant group there for over 700 years. Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich, was likely Moorish, being born in the area that was under the direct control of the Moors. Beethoven’s father, Johann Van, was half-Flemish, with Belgium also being within the Moorish territory.

The absence of photography at the time makes it impossible to prove his race, and it seems to not be important enough to dig him back up again. Portraits aren’t reliably accurate either, as a quick google search provides numerous paintings that are all quite different in every aspect save one: his race. Every depiction of Beethoven is of him as a white man. However , the following are physical descriptions  of Beethoven from various credible sources including, his lovers, students, teachers, anthropologists, historians, and authors.

“Wide, thick-lipped mouth, short, thick nose, and proudly arched forehead.”

“Negroid traits, dark skin, flat, thick nose.”

“ His face reveals no trace of the German… He was so dark that people dubbed him ‘The Spagnol’ [dark-skinned]”

“Coal-black hair… stood up around his head.”

“His somewhat flat, broad nose and rather wide mouth, his small, piercing eyes and swarthy [dark] complexion, pockmarked into the bargain, gave him a strong resemblance to a mulatto”

“Complexion was brownish, his hair was thick, black, and bristly”

“Short, stocky, broad shoulders, short neck, round nose, blackish-brown complexion”

 

There is one pencil sketch that has stood the test of time, and was supposedly Beethoven’s favorite depiction of himself.  This is a photo he had printed and reprinted, distributing it to all his friends and family as a memento. In this photo, his face is broad, his hair is unruly, and his skin is very dark. This is where things start adding up.

We know that Europeans have a tendency to white-wash their history, and I don’t mean Huck Finn-style. European colonialism dehumanized those with colored skin, ignoring their stories and taking credit for their achievements. At one point, Great Britain alone had control of over a fifth of the world’s population. The fact of the matter is that white is the de facto “default race” of the vast majority of European art. Non-white artists work’s often go unrecognized, or even go on under the name of someone else.

 

In the Beethovenhaus of Bonn, Germany, (Beethoven’s birthplace), rests Beethoven’s death mask. A death mask is cast made from someone’s face after they die. The purpose is to preserve their facial features long after they rot off. A simple google search will show you that, quite clearly, Beethoven’s death mask supports my argument.

 

I am no Beethoven expert, but bringing up this topic is important. While getting to the bottom of the truth about Beethoven’s race will change nothing about the supreme quality of his music, it will open up dialogue about the massive effects of European colonialism that promote racism still today. This is an important conversation to have, especially when you consider the lack of racially ethnic genius actually attributed to ethnic races. It’s time we gave credit where credit was due, and attention where it ought to be directed. White people have been hogging the stage (both figuratively and literally) for too long.

Sources:

“Beethoven and Haydn: Their Relationship.” Classic FM. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

Bekker, Paul, and M. M. Bozman. Beethoven. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1925. Print.

Blackmore, Josiah. Moorings Portuguese Expansion and the Writing of Africa. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.

“Gallery of Portraits: Ancient Paintings and Masks – Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Website -.” Gallery of Portraits: Ancient Paintings and Masks – Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Website -. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

Landon, H. C. Robbins. Beethoven; a Documentary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Print.

“Louis Letronne (1790-1842), Ludwig Van Beethoven, 1814 – Stich Von Blasius Höfel Nach Einer Zeichnung Von Louis Letronne.” Digital Archives of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

“Maria Magdalena Van Beethoven (1746-87) Beethoven’s Mother.” Classic FM. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Schauffler, Robert Haven. Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran &, 1929. Print.

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Naomi Swanson

Vocal Music Ed. student at Concordia College ('17) Mainly concerned with social justice and sarcasm.

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34 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Whoever wrote this is completly ignorant about geography and history.

    The moors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into the “Spanish Netherlands”? What are you talking about? Spain wasnt even a thing back then and neither was the Netherlands, not the mention the territory that one would call the Netherlands is over 2000 Km away from the straits of gibraltar and was never in moor control.
    Neither was Belgium like this “article” says, the moor invasion was stopped in southern france.
    Anyone with a 5th grade education stopped taking this seriously after the first paragraph.

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    This is fascinating, thank you for writing! Also fascinating that apparently you’ve gotta prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was anything but the whitest of white dudes /sarcasm The default white assumption in European (and US) history is so harmful and dismantling it is important work… I mean you know that obviously! Anyway. I’m sorry you have so many nasty comments.

    I’m in the Twin Cities as well and I’m happy to think that there are young adults like you in the community. The white supremacist pearl clutchers can suck it – I’m sharing this with other parents and a bunch of kids are going to hear “Beethoven wasn’t white” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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    Beethoven most likely had non-caucasian genetic material; it seems more-or-less obvious. There are loads of people with such mixed genetic heritage in Europe.
    Where I balk at your argument is the complaint about how horrible Europe treated people. It’s for the most part true ideologically, yet plenty people of both mixed race and African went through professional institutions, including music conservatories. Very different to overtly segregated societies like e.g the United States and South Africa. If it it was so bad in Vienna in Beethoven’s time he would hardly of risen to the top of his game on his talent would he?

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    It extremely difficult for white to except the real truth when the facts are staring them right I nbn the. My suggestion do your research with an open mind, not a racist heart. You will come to some facts about Betoweenvan and Mozart as well as Jesus Christ all descended from Black African ancestry with Moorish cultural lineage.
    Prof. JCB

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      although I do very much like to believe that Beethoven would not have made success if he was black, Mozart is Austrian, Jesus Christ was Hebrew or Jewish. your opinion and insight is much appreciated

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    Quote: “In 711 A.D., the Moors (black-skinned Muslims of North Africa) crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into what was then the Spanish Netherlands.”
    ROFLOL!!!
    There’s roughly 1500 – 2000km (1000 – 1250 miles) between the straight of Gibraltar and the Netherlands with all of the Iberian peninsula (Spain + Portugal) and France between them, the moors barely managed to cross the Pyrenees mountainrange before they were kicked back into Spain and by the time the Netherlands and Belgium came under Spanish rule they lost their dominance in Spain anyway. The “reconquista” (= the reconquering of Spain by the Europeans) started at 800 and was finalised in 1492 when the last Morish stronghold, the kingdom of Granada in the southern tip of Spain, fell.
    As a Dutchman (with most likely some German and possibly Belgian or French ancestry) I can assure you that the moors never made it this far north and never ruled this area, and we’re as white as white can be.
    In other words: this is bollocks

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      * anytime the story doesn’t add up….you discredit it

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    Two new novels deal with this topic: The Black Spaniard (Unsolicited Press, 2016) and Invictus (Harvard Square Editions, to be published in 2019), both by L.L. Holt. Regardless whether Beethoven was genetically Black or not, he suffered discrimination as a dark-skinned person in a world that favored the fair and blond. A vigorous response to that discrimination may have encouraged the development of a driven, almost relentless musical style.

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      That’s hilarious! Beethoven’s driven, relentless music a result of identity politics and discrimination. Ha ha ha!

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    Beethoven was not black in any way shape or form. Furthermore, the Moors (which Beethoven also was not) weren’t black either. They were Hamitic Caucasoids. not sub-Saharan Negroids.

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    This is Great information.

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    As many have pointed out already, this article is factually wrong rught down to basic geography. It should be deleted as fake news. But hey it’s anti white people so it gets a pass. This is why student activists are a laughing stock everywhere but they tight little exho chambers on campus.

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    “There is one pencil sketch that has stood the test of time, and was supposedly Beethoven’s favorite depiction of himself. This is a photo he had printed and reprinted, distributing it to all his friends and family as a memento. In this photo…”
    Mmm, so Beethoven died in 1827… photography established as a practical technology in 1839. A minor detail which could get lost in this morass of wishful thinking, so I thought I would just point it out.

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    these rude comments are too much…even if Beethoven isnt black and this person is wrong. there still is a problem with the canon and music education of that does not include any people of African descent. its very hypereurocentric. especially since thats how we have to learn and get jobs to survive. if you look up any black composer listed in earlier comments see how many books are written on them…hardly any. these other guys have been deified in our culture.

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    So, I am having a real issue with this “essay,” while it seems very thought out and well researched, to me, there is one GLARING inaccuracy. This is not about where the Moors settled or empires or anything like that. It is about “We know that Europeans have a tendency to white-wash their history, and I don’t mean Huck Finn-style.” If you want to be taken seriously, don’t make simple mistakes like this. The white-washing was TOM SAWYER (fact). When you make little mistakes on things such as this, you have shown yourself to be uneducated about anything, everything you have to say is garbage. By the way, I am sick of hearing that black people can’t be racist. This whole “essay” is racist. To further prove my point, if we are all descended from Africans, then we are all “black,” which means that all of those racist “white” people are actually “black” people who are racist. How about, instead of arguing over a petty thing like Beethoven’s race (which is all conjecture), we listen to some of his awe inspiring music, and wonder at the fact that this DEAF man composed some of the most riveting, timeless, well known music that has every been. Stay in your own lanes.

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      The simple thing is that, no one said black people were not racist. She spoke about whitewashing. If you saw the news recently, Queen Nefertiti with portrayed to be white for some odd reason . Well she was not.

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      Oh sit down, Becky. No one is arguing here, it’s an essay. It’s a full year later so hopefully you’ve learned not to use your real name on racist/DUMB replies to articles.

      Also…hopefully by now you know how to read…because the Huck Finn reference is correct.

      (Also.no. black people can NOT be racist. Prejudice… sure. Racist…no.)

  13. Avatar

    This essay is incorrect on so many basic, irrefutable points.

    1) The “Spanish Netherlands”, established in 1581, were not across the Gibraltar Straits from North Africa: they were up by the North Sea, in the area of the present-day Netherlands and Belgium. The Moors DID invade the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711, and though their realm lasted hundreds of years, it never occupied more than about 2/3rds of the peninsula, hundreds of miles from the Netherlands. The Moors never set foot in the Netherlands as conquerors or rulers. By the late 1200s, this Moorish realm was reduced to a small rump in the far south of the Iberian Peninsula, hanging on until it was conquered by Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1492, eighty-nine years BEFORE the establishment of the “Spanish Netherlands”.

    2)During the time of the Moorish realm in Spain, the Netherlands were part of the ancestral holdings of the House of Valois-Burgundy. In 1477, the heir of this dynasty, Mary of Burgundy, married the Austrian Maximilian von Habsburg. Maximilian was Archduke of Austria, Holy Roman Emperor (i.e. King of the Germans), and also ruled parts of Italy. After their marriage, the Netherlands became known as the “Habsburg Netherlands”. Mary and Maximilian arranged the marriage of their son, Philip I, to Joanna of Castille, the daughter of Ferdinand II and Isabella. Philip and Joanna’s son, Charles V, was probably the greatest ruler in the history of Europe, inheriting Spain and its New World possessions, Burgundy, and the Habsburg’s possessions in Central Europe and Italy. Charles eventually grew weary of his vast realm and decided to abdicate, bequeathing his Central European and Italian holdings to his brother, Frederick, and his Spanish and Burgundian holdings to his son, Philip II. Finally, with the Act of Abjuration of 1581, eighty-nine years AFTER the end of the Moorish realm, the “Habsburg Netherlands” became known as the “Spanish Netherlands”. The Spanish connection was as a hereditary possession of the Spanish branch of the Habsburg Dynasty. The right was through Salic Law, not through conquest.

    3)Beethoven’s genealogy is well-researched: he was 3/4 German of peasant and middle-class stock. The other 1/4 was Dutch and Flemish of peasant stock. His paternal grandfather’s family came from the Brabant region of what is now the north of Belgium and the south of the Netherlands, with some Flemish as well. His mother was Rheinland German. Beethoven’s face, especially his eyes, look typical of so many Dutch and Belgians even today, with slight epicanthic folds. His lips were thin, not full, as shown clearly in his life mask and numerous paintings. Lots of Europeans have coarse or wiry hair – it doesn’t necessarily mean wooly hair! Lots of Europeans, even Northern Europeans, have dark or tanned skin. Is there a chance that he had an African ancestor? Sure! I have some abd you woukd never guess it in a million years. Of course I’m not famous. Maybe Beethoven was descended from a Moorish trader who traveled to Bruges centuries before, but not because of nonsensical, non-existant “Moorish rule” of the Spanish Netherlands!

    The greatest thing about Beethoven was that his genius was universal. Everybody wants to own him. To claim his genius as part of themselves. So arrogant and vain!

    Finally, I offer a variant of Ludwig’s famous comment to a princely friend: “There are many of us – many whites, many blacks, many in between. But there is only one Beethoven!”

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      King Phillip II and emperor Charles V were both black/moorish as well. The moors migrated all throughout Europe. The moors didn’t only dominate Spain & Portugal but France, England, Scotland, Austria, Scandinavia, etc. Claiming that the “Moorish armies” didn’t reach the Netherlands or Austria doesn’t mean that individual Moorish families didn’t settle in those regions. There was a famous “moor” named Angelou Solimon that lived in Austria and he was a contemporary of Beethtoven. Both Moorish/black musicians as was many other classical musicians of Europe such as George Bridgetower, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Hadyn, and Samuel Coleridge Taylor.

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        The Moors “dominated” Scandinavia. Do you have proof of this ridiculous claim or you just like telling fairytales?

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        Your comment about Phillip II, Charles V, and Moorish “domination” of Europe is absurd. And please note that I did acknowledge that there is a chance Beethoven was descended from a Moorish traveler of some sort. But not because of some nonsensical Moorish domination.

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      Your quote of Ludwig actually confirms that he is black . A white person does not normally comment on their colour because most of them feel they have nothing to prove.

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          The citation of Bethoween is “Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

          Replacing Prince by Black and others is a joke from “Matteo De Nero”
          It is clear in his text that he modified the citation, ang you can google it to verify what I am saying.

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        He misquoted Beethoven for this exact purpose. Your lack of knowledge is embarrassing. The quote is, “There are and always will be thousands of princes, but there is only one Beethoven!” This poster changed it to blacks and whites and in between and even said it was a variant for effect. Your insane lack of knowledge to derive to this also insane conclusion should more show how you are grasping at straws…any straw. Its embarrassing dude.

        The problem is with the word Moor. Moor was used loosely to describe pretty much every Muslim. The sad this is how recessive must black genes be if they ruled all of Europe and a few inconsequential whites became the predominant race in just a couple hundred years? I guess Africa will be white soon as well since black is clearly recessive as hell.

        Also there was a Moor who was a contemporary of Beethoven and actually worked with Beethoven. He was identified as a Moor. Why would Beethoven not be? Wouldn’t they be “those two Moors?” If blacks really want to try to take credit for Beethovens work they would have a more plausible and less arguable case to simply say he stole everything from Solimon. It would be a lie but at least more plausible than some massive conspiracy involving insane bloodlines, the recessiveness of black genes and the idea that at some point after the Spanish Inquisition, Moors were living in Spain and when to the Netherlands and Beethovens great grandmother cheated with one or something. Beethovens nephew had kids and that bloodline lasted until 1940…we have photographs. The whites people you will ever see. Again, if Beethoven was black, pretty soon all of Africa will be white.

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        Chana, he was referencing a conversation with Prince Lichnowsky in which Beethoven stated “ what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Mr. De Nero said variant, not a direct quote. Beethoven didn’t mention race/color.

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        the original Beethoven quote wasn’t about race.

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        My play on words went over your head. Beethoven supposedly said, “You are but a prince! There have been many like you and there will be many more. But there is only one Beethoven.” My point is that it’s stupid to try to claim him as your own.

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    Even with evidence right in your face you still choose to ignore it. The truth hurts sometimes. And please do your research of the Moorish Empire. And read the publications provided, learn something new.

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    JEFF MORSE YOU NEED TO READ AND LEARN MORE ABOUT EUROPEAN HISTORY BEFORE COMMENTING.

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    Jeff Morse
    You need to study a little bit more. Then check out the original of your last name. Really check it out, because in the beginning all come African descent. Now that’s true facts.

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    What a load of crap. His mother was Rhineland German with a little Polish ancestry. For a short time the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) were controlled by the Spanish crown. The Moors of North Africa had nothing to do with them and didn’t settle there. The Spanish had kicked them out long ago from Spain and Portugal.

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      The death mask in this article looks of African descent. Problem is…its not his death mask. Look up what his death mask actually looks like. You’ll see what I’m saying…

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