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Viewpoints: Eye On History: Exploring Beethoven’s African roots

By Eva M. Doyle


Many people reading this article will ask the following question: What is the name of Ludwig Van Beethoven doing in a column on black history? The answer comes from the works of such scholars as Frederick Hertz, Alexander W. Thayer, Robert H. Schauffler, Richard Specht and Joel Augustus Rogers.

In a 1928 book titled “Race and Civilization,” Hertz, a German anthropologist, stated, “Beethoven had coal black hair, dark eyes and skin, a receding forehead and a flat, thick nose. One may easily trace in Beethoven’s face Negroid traits.”

Specht, in his 1933 book, “Beethoven as he Lived,” offered this description: “He is a sullen being, his face is of darkish brown, like that of a Mulatto – a shock of obstinate black hair. They say his name is Beethoven.”

Thayer, the foremost authority on Beethoven, noted in 1921 that Beethoven had African features. He was referred to as Moor by those who met him. A European prince, after hearing the music of Beethoven, wanted to know the name of the composer. When he saw him in person he was surprised and referred to him as the “Blackamoor.” This was a term used in Europe to describe black people. In Germany the word was Mohr.

An article written by Elmer E. Wells in the Negro History Bulletin dated September-October 1978, provides some interesting observations about this great composer. Thayer reported in his book that if Beethoven returned and happened to view one of the pictures of himself, he would not recognize it. The New York Times on July 1, 1940, carried an article that mentioned Beethoven as one of the great Germans of Negro ancestry.

Historian Rogers noted that if Beethoven had lived to visit the Southern United States before the civil rights movement, he would not have been allowed to sit in the front of the bus. Beethoven’s death mask reveals the facial appearance of a man with Negroid features.

Beethoven was one of the greatest composers in music history. He presented an expression of music with a fierce independence and creative energy. He worked hard at his music – caressing it and revising it. He shaped it and molded it to perfection. His music will live on forever.

On the evening of March 24, 1827, Beethoven went into a coma. He died two days later. According to the official record of his death, he was 57 years old. His funeral took place on March 29, 1827. The number attending the service was estimated at up to 20,000 people. Nine priests performed the final rites. More than 200 carriages participated in the funeral procession. There was a rumor that a large reward had been offered for his head after death. To protect the body, the coffin was covered with two thick layers of bricks and stones.

Some of the words expressed at the funeral included: “Standing by the grave of him who has passed away, we are in a manner representing the whole German people, mourning the loss of one highly acclaimed departed splendor of our native art. There yet he lives – and let his life be long!”

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 38 years.

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