THE DECADES-long debate surrounding the theory that Beethoven was black recently resurfaced on social media with the hashtag #BeethovenWasBlack. The conspiracy theory quickly turned into an internet meme, where black Twitter users celebrated the news. Though the idea of the composer’s ‘secret’ ethnicity has circulated in studies of history, music and race for centuries.
The original theory first appeared in the 1930’s, where African American journalists began to circulate the theory in popular press. In 1944, Jamaican historian Joel Augustus Rogers published a three-volume collection titled Sex and Race.
Within the series, Rogers concluded that Beethoven was black through a collection of testimonials from the 18th and 19th century. The accounts described the composer as possessing both facial features and the complexion of a black person, as well as being described as “dark” or as a “Moor”. In the 18th century, the term “Moor” referred to a Muslim person or to a African/dark-skinned person.
Later in the 1960s, the theory gained further traction during the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael often mentioned it to his students, whilst Malcolm X mentioned an infamous interview with Playboy.
In the 1963 interview, Malcolm X said “Hannibal, the most successful general that ever lived was a black man. So was Beethoven; Beethoven’s father was one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers. Haydn, Beethoven’s theatre, was of African descent”.
Despite what Twitter would like to believe, there is no non-speculative evidence in support of these theories. The only genealogical evidence dates back to the 1400’s, and unequivocally demonstrates that Beethoven’s family was Flemish. The accounts of his dark complexion, black hair and broad nose are simply anecdotal.
As African American studies scholar Nicholas Rinehart observed, pursuing the idea that Beethoven was black both whitewashes and blackwashes music history. “Blackwashing makes important historical figures black for the sake of seeking to validate the cultural contributions of people of colour.”
The sudden collective interest into black contributions towards classical music is indicative of a positive movement toward understanding historical racial politics within musicology. Though, many argue a more productive use of this interest would be to celebrate existing black composers.
For example, George Bridgetower was a virtuoso violinist and composer was a student of Joseph Haydn and friend of Beethoven. He was the son of an Afro-Caribbean servant and a police mother at the Esterhazy Palace.
At the age of 13, he caught the attention of British Prince Regent, who oversaw his continuing studies in music. He went on to perform numerous concerts and became a greatly celebrated musician in his time. He was the original dedicee of Beethovan’s Violin Sonata, who described Bridgetower as “an absolute master of his instrument”.