He helped galvanise the US civil rights movement, and today sparks intense debate about cultural dominance and the musical canon. In his 250th anniversary year can we listen to Beethoven and what he represents with fresh ears?
Exactly 80 years after Beethoven’s death, in 1907, the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor began speculating that Beethoven was black. Colderidge-Taylor was mixed race – with a white English mother and a Sierra Leonean father - and said that he couldn’t help noticing remarkable likenesses between his own facial features and images of Beethoven’s. Having recently returned from the segregated US, Coleridge-Taylor projected his experiences there onto the German composer. “If the greatest of all musicians were alive today, he would find it impossible to obtain hotel accommodation in certain American cities.”
His words would prove prophetic. During the 1960s, the mantra “Beethoven was black” became part of the struggle for civil rights. By then Coleridge-Taylor had been dead for 50 years and was all but forgotten, but as campaigner Stokely Carmichael raged against the deeply ingrained assumption that white European culture was inherently superior to black culture, the baton was passed. “Beethoven was as black as you and I,” he told a mainly black audience in Seattle, “but they don’t tell us that.” A few years earlier, Malcolm X had given voice to that same idea when he told an interviewer that Beethoven’s father had been “one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers”.
“Beethoven was black” became a refrain chanted on a San Francisco soul music radio station and, in 1969, hit mass consciousness when Rolling Stone magazine ran a story headlined: “Beethoven was black and proud!” In 1988, two white students at Stanford University in California, following a heated discussion about music and race, defaced a poster of Beethoven, giving him crude stereotypical African American features, an act reported in the press as an act of racism.
Itchiness about Beethoven’s cultural dominance would continue to bring classical music out in occasional hives, and in 2007 Nadine Gordimer published a collection of short stories called Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. But the issue of race laid largely dormant until this year – the 250th anniversary of his birth – when against the backdrop of Covid-19 becoming inextricably linked with the Black Lives Matter movement, echoes of Carmichael and X were voiced, coming from directions nobody expected.
William Gibbons, a musicologist at the College of Fine Arts in Forth Worth, Texas, had already put a bomb under classical music Twitter with a thread that began: “As 2019 winds down, here’s a short thread about one of my big resolutions for 2020: spending a full year avoiding Beethoven.” Then the pandemic struck and swept all the Beethoven celebrations aside anyway. With Europe heading towards lockdown, the composer Charlotte Seither, debating at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, caused a stir when she spoke of Beethoven fatigue and of his “toxic cult of genius” and “thinking in categories of dominance”. Andrea Moore – assistant professor of music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts – writing in the Chicago Tribune, called for a “year-long moratorium” on Beethoven performances. His music is ubiquitous, she reasoned – so how about using the “Beethoven-sized hole” left to commission new music, then return to the composer with fresh ears in 12 months’ time?