Was Beethoven Black?

Was the great composer of African descent? And should it matter?

Photo: "Beethoven" by aisiposis licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For some time now, there has been a good bit of speculation concerning the ethnicity of one of Western music's most respected composers.

In light of this, I'd like to discuss an interesting article that popped up in The Guardian recently.

According to the article, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor initiated the speculation about Beethoven, which gained a good bit of traction in the United States, eventually becoming a divisive topic among musicians and historians.

The bottom line? There simply isn't enough evidence to come to a definitive conclusion on this topic.

There is, however, another question that is just as important as Beethoven's racial identity.

Does it really matter?

Does it really matter if Beethoven was Black? Well, on the one hand, the quality of his music wouldn't change, and his ethnicity doesn't affect our perception of his creative genius, right?

However, let me propose this... let's imagine that one of the greatest musical innovators in history was black.

Let's imagine that one of the most influential composers of Western European music was of African descent.

Let's imagine that the man that helped to usher in a new era of classical music was Black.

Ok, now finally, let's imagine this... this Black composer that we've just described has his music performed in our contemporary concert halls more than Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky.

That may be a little bit harder to imagine.

So on the one hand, it shouldn't matter, but in reality, it actually does matter. Because it draws our attention to a larger problem.

Racial Bias

The larger problem is historically, European classical music has been racially biased.

In the early 20th Century, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is quoted as saying (about Black Beethoven), “If the greatest of all musicians were alive today, he would find it impossible to obtain hotel accommodation in certain American cities.”

Composers such as Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, William Grant Still, and Florence Price were prominent Black composers in the 1930's who were essentially rejected by the classical genre despite composing significant works during that period.

So Beethoven may have been Black, and he may not have been. And it really shouldn't matter, but it does.

Because al long as he is perceived as European and not African, he will continue to be one of the most popular classical composers in the history of Western music.

And you know what? If he's perceived as African, he will still be just as popular, but along with that popularity, perhaps some stereotypes will be shattered and more doors will be opened to create a more diverse field of composers.

What do you think? Does it really matter if Beethoven was Black? Would it make a difference in overcoming racial bias? Let me know in the comments...