Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Beethoven, Blackness and Bonn

First appeared
Friday, 12 June 2015


Regular readers of this column will know that the “art” part usually has to do with the visual arts (the other part is less predictable). But this week’s musings are on a musician – and perhaps a little literary introduction is required.

Nadine Gordimer produced almost fifty books over the course of her career, but none has a title as striking as her 2007 collection of short fiction: Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. Between the covers the material is perhaps less arresting, bearing that combination of somewhat plodding realism and unconvincing experimentation that marks much of the writing from the last decade of her life. 

Although she didn’t always have her finger on the pulse, however, the grand dame of South African letters did not shy away from this country’s perplexities and paradoxes. In the title story of that collection, the narrator-protagonist hears a radio presenter delivering the throwaway line, “Beethoven was one-sixteenth black” – a casual assertion that unsettles him because he wishes that he, too, had a black forebear: “Once there were blacks wanting to be white. Now there are whites wanting to be black. It’s the same secret.”

The controversy over Beethoven’s racial “status” is a well-worn one, and every few years a new theory emerges to address the question marks hanging over the composer’s provenance and his skin colour. Were there Spanish Moors on his mother’s side of the family? Did he wear white powder on his face for rare public appearances? Did he commission portraitists to paint him with a pale Teutonic complexion rather than dark skin? Or was he just “swarthy”?

Now a collective of historians and musicians, under the mantle Beethoven Was African, has given new impetus to the debate by releasing a recording of his music that emphasises its polyrhythmic quality: if Beethoven “had a precise and almost absolute knowledge of polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea Region, on the West African coast”, the argument goes, this lends credence to the idea that he was the extramarital offspring of Prussian King Frederick II of Prussia and a kammermohr or African chamber maid.

Beethoven would thus not only be, as the consensus has it, “a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western music”; he would also be the first major composer to bridge or synthesise “African” and “European” musical systems (although these are in themselves vague and inaccurate terms). To put it another way, Beethoven would be a fine example of Africa’s suppressed influence on Europe – an influence effaced by Eurocentric historiography and apologists for the colonial project.

That may be an overstatement, but one can see why Beethoven’s skin colour is a contested symbol. If he was “black”, or “African”, or simply darker-skinned than the rest of his compatriots, he had to hide this to be accepted by Viennese high society; it was a necessary compromise to protect his musical legacy. Moreover, if it is true, his achievements undermine precisely the racialised notion of “Western Civilisation” that they have been taken to represent.

Certainly, you won’t find any mention of LVB’s dubious origins in the official accounts of his life and work provided by the city of Bonn, where a statue of the great man dominates the main square (plastic reproductions can be found scattered across town). Bonn is where young Ludwig grew up, and also happens to be my base in Germany for a few months. After losing its role as the capital of West Germany, it has gone back to being a quiet little spot along the Rhine, chiefly known for its famous son. You can’t go very far here without bumping into Beethoven in one tourist-friendly form or another.

Every time I see him, I wonder about the other implications of making his race or “ethnicity” sit so heavily on him. On the one hand, African music – however defined – doesn’t need a Beethoven in its Pantheon to give it value or authority. And, on the other hand, musical cross-pollination between Africa and Europe, or across the Atlantic Ocean, or from port to port of the Indian Ocean, has occurred in a hundred thousand anonymous instances. It is not attributable to one man alone.



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