How black was Beethoven

How black was Beethoven

Why Beethoven

norman lebrecht

January 22, 2023

The issue of the composer’s mixed ancestry is no longer denied It has become a question of degree.

From my essay today in the Sunday Times:

…. What if we are ignoring physical evidence that stares us in the face? Two portraits of Beethoven, drawn in 1801 and 1814, show a man with a dark complexion. A bust by Franz Klein in 1812, taken from a plaster cast, confirms that he looks nothing like a fair-skinned north German of Netherlandish extraction. In Vienna they called him “the Spaniard”. He could be Mediterranean, even north African.

Scholars have known for about a century that his paternal grandmother, María Josefa Poll, belonged to a family that fled north during the 1700s War of Spanish Succession. Recent research locates her in Moorish eastern Spain. Beethoven knew his origins. He felt a deep affinity with Spain, setting his only opera, Fidelio, in the country and cheering Britain’s defeat of Napoleon’s peninsular army.

And that’s just his mother’s side. Take another look at the portraits and you will find that they differ in almost every feature from those of his two brothers.

Read on here.

And in Why Beethoven, out next week.

Comments

  • Clarinet68 says:

    “Recent research locates her in Moorish eastern Spain.”

    The “musicologists” don’t know about music, don’t know about history, don’t know about geography, and definitely don’t know anything about Spain.

  • Miko says:

    How black was Beethoven?
    How Jewish was Mendelssohn?
    How fascinated is Mr Lebrecht with ethnicity in classical music?
    How racist are the consumers of these blog posts?

    • Morgan says:

      Ad hominem seem unnecessary whether you agree or not.

    • Henry williams says:

      It reminds me in my last job people always
      Asked me where are you from.you do not sound
      english. I always told them near Harrow

    • phf655 says:

      Mendelssohn’s paternal grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a significant figure in Jewish history. He was a catalyst in the Prussian emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth century. His mother also came from a prominent Jewish family. His ancestry is well known. The case of Beethoven is different. These were not well known people, and it takes some digging to determine his family tree.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      To constantly bang on about race is racist. Give us a break. who cares whether Beethoven was black or green with pink spots?

    • Sue sonata form says:

      You speak truth. And you must pay!!

    • Richard Zencker says:

      We’ve never known Beethoven’s birthdate, and his appearance, personality and abilities do make it seem like he may not have been genetically related to his family. But attempts to discuss this online have gone sideways from the very first days of the internet. A very famous pianist I encountered in a chat room on AOL 30 years ago damaged my opinion of him by ranting about it in a fashion that can only be described as racist, and I am not using that as an ad hominem insult.

  • Matthias says:

    I guess being 1/4 Iberian makes you a “person of colour” in the UK.
    Someone should inform the Spanish!

    • William Osborne says:

      I think the view is that some of his ancestors were from Moorish Spain and thus possibly partially North African. A DNA study would answer the questions. They seem important because there is a recent history of people in classical music harboring ideas that racial considerations should be a part of employment practices. The Vienna Philharmonic is a notable example. See:

      http://www.osborne-conant.org/prophets.htm

      And in German:

      http://www.osborne-conant.org/prophets-ger.htm

      Unfortunately, this recent history is still a taboo topic in Vienna.

      • Matthias says:

        That seems to me to be a simplistic way of looking at it. Of course Iberians and North Africans have been in contact and intermixing since forever… they are neighbors. There is no clear “racial” divide there and biologists have rejected the idea of races for very good reasons.

        When the Muslims conquered Spain and many Iberians converted to Islam, their DNA didn’t change; perhaps it resulted in increased intermixing. Likewise, during the Christian Reconquista, when many people were forced to convert to Christianity, the Moors in Spain didn’t somehow change races. It is much more accurate to think of them in terms of language, culture and religion, rather than race.

        Anyway, is the evidence suggesting that Beethoven’s grandmother was a Muslim? They would’ve faced heavy repression at that time.
        Or are we just saying that she was from a part of Spain that was Muslim a few centuries before? Because that applies to most Spanish people.

        • William Osborne says:

          Your information is completely false. Recent DNA studies provide detailed scientific information about the ethnicities of the people of Spain. This also includes the era after the Reconquesta when many Muslims and Jews were forced to become catholic. Professor Mark Jobling of Leicester University and Francesc Calafell of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that 20 per cent of men in Spain and Portugal today still have distinctive Sephardic Jewish ancestry while 11 per cent have DNA that reflects Moorish ancestors. More information here:

          https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/dec/07/genetics-conversion-catholicism-spain-religion

          I often notice that people try to obfuscate or undermine with false information the issues surrounding the Vienna Phil’s history of racist employment practices.

          • Matthias says:

            Thank you for this interesting article, I think this is pretty much in line with what I said. That people are mixed and that conversions were the dominant effect, rather than simply one group replacing another.
            The majority ancestry of the Moors of Spain was from Iberia itself, not from Berbers and Arabs moving there, which happened to a lesser extent.

            I didn’t say anything about the VPO.

          • William Osborne says:

            More complete nonsense. The Moors did not originate in Spain. They came from Morocco. See:

            https://www.pilotguides.com/study-guides/short-history-of-the-moors/

            They occupied Spain for 800 years and it is only in that sense that they could be seen as native to Spain which is a different matter. And indeed, you said nothing about the VPO and its history of racial employment practices. It’s a taboo topic most everyone pretends doesn’t exist.

          • Matthias says:

            Sorry for the misunderstanding: When talking about the “Moors in Spain”, I meant the entire Muslim population in Spain, which was the way the term (a Christian exonym) was used in the Middle Ages, at least according to Wikipedia. Not to Berbers or other North Africans specifically, but not excluding them either.

          • William Osborne says:

            I see. Whatever their history, we can be thankful for the musical influences they had on Spanish music, even if indirectly.

  • Herbie G says:

    This sounds like the Third Reich to me. Was Beethoven a true Aryan?

    Everyone is of mixed ancestry. Humanity supposedly began in Africa so we are all either partly or wholly black.

    A bust taken from a plaster cast shows him as black? The plaster cast would have been pure white though! Have you seen Rodin’s bust of Mahler? According to that Mahler was totally black.

    So Beethoven’s maternal grandmother fled from the war of the Spanish succession and had Moorish ancestry – supposedly that’s why Fidelio was set in Spain – but can anyone prove that Beethoven cared enough about her to set his opera there? Never mind though – he had black hair and that clinches the matter.

    He could be Mediterranean? That includes Italy and Greece – neither predominantly black. However, I can now reveal that he must have been partly Greek because he twice set three words of that language to music and wrote incidental music to The Ruins of Athens. He must have been partly British too because he wrote Variations on Rule Britannia and God Save the King – and his Battle Symphony celebrated Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vitoria. What about all those settings of English, Scottish and Welsh songs? A manuscript of a short work for string quartet was recently found in Britain so that conclusively proves it.

    Who will be the next victim of ethnic reassignment? Schubert, Wagner, Brahms? Take your pick.

  • Grumpy says:

    Goodness. So Is Beethoven black enough to be allowed by musicologists ?
    Whats more, half of his ancestors were female, going back many generations. So perhaps we can treat him as an almost trans composer ?
    Suddenly his music sounds even better !

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      I would even go so far as to say that all of his maternal ancestors were female.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Good one, Herbert!

      • Monty Earleman says:

        But, did they all IDENTIFY as females?

      • Guest says:

        My goodness, an unbroken line of virgin births! No wonder Beethoven’s mother took to drink, the trauma of being the first of her family to conceive after intercourse with a man.

        More seriously, I hope Mr Lebrecht wrote this article (which is behind a paywall, so I haven’t read it) with tongue firmly in cheek.

  • Allen says:

    I hope this means that it will now be OK to play Beethoven and thus fulfill that need for diversity and equity programming of minority composers as everyone must do these days in America 😉

    • G says:

      Beethoven’s ethnicity aside, he does belong to another minority. It’s remarkable to think that there are so many people calling for the cancellation of someone with a disability.

  • Marie says:

    So based on this flimsy nonsense, from now on it will be obligatory for Beethoven to be portrayed as a sub-Saharan black person. Nothing else will be considered acceptable; that’s the way it goes.

    Ridiculous.

  • common sense says:

    I think he could have been almost as black as Obama, who is not completely black.

    But the color of his skin does not change at all the value of his music, one way or the other. It is culture that forges music, not race. Folks who believe that Beethoven’s music irradiated from a colonialist, slave trading society, should remain coherent and still believe the same thing, regardless of his ancestors.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    So? What’s the point?

  • HH says:

    Here he looks like he has some kind of autoimmune disease with skin symptoms like lupus (malar rash) or Addison disease (hyperpigmentation of the skin).

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    A definitive conclusion might be possible by DNA analysis of his hair strands, which have been analyzed for their mercury content. While it’s more common to do DNA testing on hair follicles, it’s also possible to extract nuclear DNA from hair strands to yield similar fidelity to Ancestry or 23andMe results. It’s surprising that someone hasn’t already done it.

  • Anon says:

    You need to read: Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History by Nicholas T. Rinehart. https://hcommons.org/deposits/download/hc:17168/CONTENT/black_beethoven_and_the_racial_politics.pdf/

  • MacroV says:

    I think this kind of misses the point about why things like diversity and inclusion are a thing today.

    Race is a social construct – it’s not biology, it’s not DNA. At least in the United States (and probably to some degree in Europe), efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are not based on the color or hue of someone’s complexion, but on being inclusive of people with different life experiences, socioeconomic status, etc.. Because in the U.S., as most people are probably aware, we enslaved Black people for several hundred years and spent another century excluding them by law from equal participation in many parts of society. And haven’t come close to atoning for that.

    None of this is relevant to whether Beethoven had some more southern-originating ancestors.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Exactly. The US playing out its own neuroses and stupidity on the rest of the world, as usual.

      • MacroV says:

        No – I’m thinking more about the trolls on SD who will say “So does Beethoven now qualify for ‘woke’ programming…?”

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Gustav Mahler looks very brown in photographs. What was his “secret” ethnic/racial origins?

  • Michael Endres says:

    Prof. Philip Ewell, distinguished Professor stated on his blog on April 24th, 2020:
    “Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years”.
    Shouldn’t this be slightly reworded?
    (Just asking for a friend.)

    And can we be certain that Beethoven was really male?
    More research is needed.

  • Margaret Koscielny says:

    I guess I have to weigh in as a visual artist afloat in a sea of musicians. Paintings deteriorate in time. Pigments darken, especially yellows and whites, depending on their chemical makeup, as well as the varnishes, applied and re-applied over the centuries. That might account for the dark skin. On the other hand, it could be a simple case of B. having been out in the sun too long before he sat for his portraits. He did a lot of walking out-of-doors, remember? Let us not forget the portrait of him with those wild eyes after he had reportedly downed 30 cups of coffee. Coffee in those days would have been VERY strong, even in demitasse cups.
    Other than these little points of observation, for once, I am pleased that so many have reject the “racist” taint to the premise. Not surprising that it came from the British press.

    • Carl says:

      Well, I don’t believe Beethoven was really African, but you clearly didn’t read the article before writing your reply or have poor reading comprehension. It’s not just the portraits; contemporaries talked about his dark looks and he was called “the Spaniard” or “the Moore.” I don’t think this means much, but it’s certainly more than portraits darken over time. Why haven’t Haydn’s, Mozart’s, Bach’s, et al portraits “darkened”?

  • Luke says:

    I have the answer! Check out this podcast “Beethoven is Black…ish” here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5NzI2y0qIGDhBzd4R5OQxv?si=0948c8bc153346b6

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    The portrait you use with the article is a monochrome, which explains the dark complexion. There is also a color version that shows a white, almost pale, Beethoven. http://www2.csudh.edu/oliver/beetport/beetport.htm The caption to this portrait says, “This engraving was regarded in Beethoven’s circle as particularly lifelike. Beethoven himself thought highly of it, and gave several copies to his friends.”

    The 1801 portrait shows ruddy cheeks, like a Flemish painting. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beethoven_Riedel_1801.jpg

    The first link gives other portraits of Beethoven, none of which give him a dark complexion.

    • Barry says:

      In comparing the two versions, it is interesting to note that the lighter version shows details of his coat whereas the darker, “black” version obliterates the details almost entirely. This suggests to me that it is artificially dark.

      Anyone who has used even basic image software will be familiar with the impact of crude brightness adjustments.

  • Edoardo says:

    but why?

  • Novagerio says:

    Humans first evolved in Africa. The fossils of early humans who lived between 6 and 2 million years ago come entirely from Africa. Any human being with a minimum of intelligence knows that.
    So what? Does that make Beethoven’s music even greater or more special? What’s the point with all this navel-gazing?

  • Leporello says:

    I had a friend who recently took one
    of those DNA tests and it came back
    saying he had some Neanderthal DNA
    in him ! But I could have told him that
    for free ! But the point is …who cares !

  • Kathleen King says:

    OH, for the sake of everything holy, WHY does this great musician suddenly HAVE to be BLACK? He would be Beethoven if he were purple, but to in a new fad to appease a bunch of culturally insecure folk have to be “found” to be of a particular skin color or ancestry. NO, no more special casting of opera or recasting of composers. There is but one “race” — human — and a very few geniuses among them, but a whole lot of folks who have to make themselves feel significant by appropriating the achievements of others (while castigating others whom they say are doing precisely that same thing). BE GRATEFUL for Beethoven who is a gift to everyone.

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    “Recent research locates her in Moorish eastern Spain. Beethoven knew his origins.” Could you give a cite for this?

    Can you give a link for the 1801 portrait that shows a dark complex?

    What about the 1801 portrait that shows a ruddy complexion?

  • Gwyn Evans says:

    The question should be, Was Mozart polka- dot.

  • So many lies says:

    Funny how for so many years, decades, centuries things like this has been done,said . They say Jesus was ? that’s a lie! The lies that been told and showed all get exposed at some time!!! cheers

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