Was Beethoven black? Twitter debates German composer’s true heritage

22 June 2020, 17:55 | Updated: 22 June 2020, 21:58

Was Beethoven black?
Was Beethoven black? Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

There’s a theory floating around on the Internet that Ludwig van Beethoven was black – and it turns out the debate’s been alive for nearly a century.

Over the last few days, a theory has been circulating on Twitter: was Beethoven black?

It’s a debate that’s been around since the 1930s, when an African American journalist began to circulate it in an edition of The Week magazine.

The theory resurfaced in 2015 when The Concordian, a student-run Minnesota newspaper, suggested a “white-washing” of the composer’s legacy, citing descriptions of the composer as having a “wide, thick-lipped mouth, short, thick nose, and proudly arched forehead”.

With many seeing these theories for the first time, the reaction on Twitter has been astronomical.

For now, it’s all up for debate. But let’s start with what we do know about the great classical composer…

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770, to a Flemish family (today’s Netherlands). He moved to Vienna in 1792 and spent most of his life there. He is widely regarded to be classical music’s most innovative composer and is credited with bridging the Classical and Romantic periods.

Amid the Twitter frenzy is a popular argument that Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena, was of Moorish descent. We asked leading Beethoven expert and Classic FM presenter, John Suchet, if it holds any water. “It is possible Beethoven had Moorish blood,” he said. “His descendants came from The Netherlands – hence van Beethoven, not von Beethoven.”

But, John says, “If Beethoven had Moorish blood, it is likely to have come from his father’s side, since The Netherlands is where the paternal line originated. His mother, Maria Magdalena, came from the small town of Ehrenbreitstein, further up the Rhine from Bonn. I have seen no evidence that she was of Moorish descent, or that the region was ever under direct control of the Moors.”

As for the debate over Beethoven’s facial features, Suchet says:

“Certainly, Beethoven’s dark complexion was frequently commented on. At school in Bonn he was nicknamed ’The Spaniard’. Soon after arrival in Vienna in his early twenties, Prince Anton Esterhazy is quoted as calling him ‘a Moor’.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven. Picture: Getty

Rather wonderfully, the much-debated theory has led many people on the Internet to the same conclusion: rather than debating Beethoven’s heritage, shouldn’t we be remembering the genius black composers we definitely know existed?

Since the controversy started last week, pictures and names of countless brilliant black composers – such as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – have been brought to the world’s attention.

Read more: 9 black composers who changed the course of classical music history >

Of particular interest has been George Bridgetower, a black violin virtuoso in Beethoven’s time to whom the composer dedicated his ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, before retracting the dedication due to a fall-out between the pair.

It’s also been great to witness Beethoven’s music, from Für Elise to the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, being remixed with hip-hop and rap backing.

A final question to John Suchet, along this vein: was there anything in Beethoven’s music to suggest he had Moorish or North African heritage?

“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,” Suchet says.

“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.”