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.

Naomi Swanson

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

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