Was Beethoven Black? Twitter Debates Race of German Composer

Twitter users are debating whether or not Beethoven was black after a blog post about the subject resurfaced online.

A post from The Concordian, a student-run newspaper, published in 2015, suggests that Beethoven was black and that his portraits and everything we know about him may have been whitewashed.

The legendary composer is not the first historical figure to be subject to speculation over having African ancestry. Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom has suggested that Queen Charlotte, the wife of British king George III, has notably African features when studying her portraits, a theory that has received a great deal of skepticism from fellow historians.

What we do know is that Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770 and moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1792. Beethoven's family came from the Flemish region of northern Europe.

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The speculation in The Concordian suggests that his mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich, was likely of Moorish descent, as she was apparently born in an area under the direct control of the Moors.

The author of the post goes on to cite apparent physical descriptions of Beethoven and refers to a pencil sketch of the composer in which his skin is "very dark" to back up the suggestion.

While portraits of Beethoven appear to be of a white man, the author claims that each portrait offers a different image of the pianist, so they are not reliable.

Beethoven
German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven with the Rasowmowsky Quartet, drawn by the artist Borckmann. Twitter users are debating whether or not Beethoven was black. Rischgitz/Getty

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In the post on The Concordian, the author said: "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."

However, there is no evidence of Beethoven's race aside from portraits that suggest that he was white, and the blog post merely offers up speculation. The conspiracy theory that Beethoven was black "is not based on genealogical studies of Beethoven's past," according to the Beethoven Center at San Jose State University, but rather "is based on the assumption that one of Beethoven's ancestors had a child out of wedlock."

The Beethoven Center adds: "It is important to note that no one called Beethoven black or a moor during his lifetime, and the Viennese were keenly aware both of Moors and of mulattos, such as George Bridgetower, the famous violinist who collaborated with Beethoven."

John Suchet, a leading expert on Beethoven and author of the book Beethoven: The Man Revealed, told Newsweek that while the composer's music was unprecedented at the time in Europe, it does not mean he necessarily has African lineage.

"It is certainly true that in his music, Beethoven's use of rhythm and dynamics was new to western music—emphasis was often put off the beat, for instance on beats two and four of a bar, as opposed to the more normal one and three. The sudden juxtaposition from loud to soft, or soft to loud, was unlike anything that had been done before.

"These characteristics have been used to prove that Beethoven was black, that he was influenced by the music of Africa. To a degree it may be true, but such a bold claim is taking the argument too far. Mozart wrote 'Rondo alla Turca,' but that does not mean he had Turkish blood," he said.

Despite this, many Twitter users began sharing The Concordian story on Thursday.

One Twitter user said: "White historians continue to prove how gross they are, they literally tried to paint one of the best-known musicians as a caucasian and made us believe for years that he was white when Beethoven was black... White people tryna whitewash history again."

A Twitter user shared a TikTok imagining what listening to new music in the 1800s would have been like and said: "This is funnier now that we know that Beethoven is black."

Another user said, "Beethoven being black was not the plot twist I expected this year."

Others have used the discussion around Beethoven to point out accomplished black musicians from the same period in history. Tracy Q. Loxley tweeted, "Don't know how credible the research on Beethoven's heritage is, but there are certainly black composers of his time worth checking out: Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Francis Johnson, George Bridgetower."

Dr. Kira Thurman, German history professor at the University of Michigan, also pointed out that Polish-born Afro-European musician George Bridgetower should be better known."So instead of asking the question, 'Was Beethoven Black?' ask 'Why don't I know anything about George Bridgetower?' I, frankly, don't need any more debates about Beethoven's blackness. But I do need people to play the music of Bridgetower. And others like him," she tweeted.

UPDATED 6/18, 4:00 p.m. This article has been updated to include further details of the speculation that Beethoven and other noted historical figures were black, and to note that the controversy brought attention to black composers who were contemporaries of Beethoven.

Was Beethoven Black? Twitter Debates Race of German Composer | U.S.