Did you know Beethoven was black? No? That’s because you haven’t read Norman Lebrecht’s recent article on the subject.
I have, and that effort gave rise to a few thoughts, starting with some general observations.
When savage fanatics try to force their wicked ways on the rest of us, the worst thing we can do is join the fight on their territory. Because they know the terrain better than we do they’ll quickly make us cede ground.
Such people must be stopped along the whole front line of ideas and language. Allowing them to impose them on us means they’ve won – even if we continue to put up token resistance.
Mr Lebrecht’s article is a case in point. He is a music critic, a decent one. Not great, but these days cultural beggars can’t be choosers. So decent is the best we can do.
He certainly knows and likes music, especially Beethoven. Understandably, it pains Mr Lebrecht to see his favourite composer being ‘cancelled’ by the kind of people I describe as savage fanatics but, being a more civilised man, he doesn’t:
“In the summer of 2020 a cry went up to ban Beethoven. Amid the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, the composer’s 250th anniversary was seized on as an opportunity to silence his music for good – literally, for the good of all who had suffered historical prejudice and injustice. The prohibition quickly caught on.”
How would you fight against that sort of outrage? I’m putting you on notice that I shan’t entertain such answers as “with a 12-bore shotgun” or “with a baseball bat” (the latter implement is selling like hotcakes in London, where no one plays baseball), although that would be my own first impulse.
However, upon mature deliberation I’d arrive at the real answer: I don’t know. Things just might have gone too far for decent people to put up any meaningful resistance.
But I do know how not to fight against it. The absolutely last thing we should ever do is concede defeat in the war of language and values. That’s why Mr Lebrecht is wrong in the way he takes exception to the cancelling of Beethoven on the grounds of his being too white, too male and not sufficiently sensitive to BLM sensibilities he knew nothing about.
He claims that Beethoven himself might have been black – well, blackish – which puts him out of reach for any such criticism. This line of defence is tantamount to admitting defeat.
The arguments Mr Lebrecht uses as weapons misfire badly. “Two portraits of Beethoven,” he writes, “drawn in 1801 and 1814, show a man with a dark complexion”.
I’m sure you’ve met quite a few people with a dark complexion who don’t have a single drop of tar in the family barrel. I know I have. I can think of a young Scottish aristocrat with that chromatic feature, several Russians, a Welshman and any number of Englishmen – to say nothing of some of my French friends.
Yes, but “his paternal grandmother, María Josefa Poll, belonged to a family that fled north during the 1700s War of Spanish Succession. Recent research locates her in Moorish eastern Spain.”
Quite. And I fled north from Texas in 1984, which doesn’t make me a Texan born and bred. What else? “He felt a deep affinity with Spain, setting his only opera, Fidelio, in the country and cheering Britain’s defeat of Napoleon’s peninsular army.”
Mr Lebrecht knows better than I do that setting operas in Spain was par for the course in Vienna at the time. Mozart, for example, set his Don Giovanni, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro there. Was he an Afro-Austrian then?
By the same logic Bach was an Italian because he wrote The Italian Concerto, Mendelssohn, with his Scottish Symphony, was a Scot, and don’t get me started on Gershwin with his Porgy and Bess.
But when Mr Lebrecht is hot, he’s hot. “Take another look at the portraits and you will find that they differ in almost every feature from those of his two brothers. Are we sure they shared the same father? Johann van Beethoven was a violent alcoholic. His 23-year-old wife, Maria, miserable in her second marriage, might perhaps have found comfort with a passing stranger.”
There’s always that possibility. But siblings looking different wouldn’t stick in divorce court as proof of adultery. Again, I know, as I’m sure you do, many siblings who don’t look at all alike. Yet that’s not a sufficient reason for impugning their mothers’ fidelity.
Actually, Beethoven himself was a dipsomaniac, borderline alcoholic. How about using that as proof of his father’s paternity? Alcoholism may well be hereditary, after all.
And then comes the other old chestnut: Beethoven’s best friend for five years was a Jewish medical student, Alois Isidor Jeitteles…” If that’s not proof of negritude, I don’t know what is.
But we are getting warm: Beethoven liked the playing of a mulatto violinist and even called his famous work Sonata for a Mad Mulatto, only to rename it the Kreutzer Sonata later. That nails it. Then again, a certain English pianist admires the playing of the Russian-Jewish pianist Maria Yudina, yet, to the best of my knowledge, Penelope is neither Russian nor Jewish.
To clinch the argument, Mr Lebrecht then lays on some technical expertise: “Having spent three years poring over two centuries of Beethoven interpretation, I find ultimate proof of his multiculturalism in the final piano sonata, Opus 111. Three minutes into the second movement the music starts rocking from side to side, like a ship caught in a Channel storm…”
Would that be a slave ship carrying chained Africans to their European servitude by any chance? Thank goodness I haven’t tried my hand at musical criticism. The syncopations of logical inference would be beyond me.
Quite apart from the utter vulgarity of interpreting music that way, Mr Lebrecht commits a great tactical error. He implicitly issues a carte blanche for savage fanatics to cancel any composer who can’t boast a dark complexion and affection for Spain.
Civilised people shouldn’t care about the racial background of the seminal figures in our culture. True enough, most people aren’t civilised, and those BLM zealots are downright savage. But we can’t keep them at bay by accepting their cretinous assumptions. Therein lies perdition.
6 thoughts on “Yo Beethoven, my main man”
But but but…Norman Lebrecht tells us in last week’s Spectator: ‘I loved music before I could walk. It seemed I could harmonise anything my sisters were singing. I had perfect pitch, a mixed blessing since wrong notes made me cry.’ How could such an instinctive musical genius be wrong about anything musical? Shame upon you, Mr Boot, for daring to doubt anything Maestro Lebrecht says! (Sarcasm off.)
I’m properly ashamed, as ordered. Alas, I could doubt before I could walk.
Beethoven briefly anticipates ragtime by nearly 100 years about 15 minutes into the same sonata. It erupts from nowhere and vanishes as quickly as it arrived. It’s extraordinarily strange.
This idiotic “cancel culture” operates on the belief that historical wrongs, that resulted from the unfair treatment of individuals based on factors beyond their control, can be rectified by the unfair treatment of individuals based on factors beyond their control. Justice!
That whole thing with Beethoven being a black man is something that has been regurgitated from the 1960s there was something originally said at that time and now is become popular again the Flemish background of Beethoven is wearing very well documented and understood he was not a black man but I guess he had a lot of rhythm that is why do you think that some of us have very long memories about this sort of stuff
Yep. My mother in New Zealand was dark enough to be taken for a Maori, although she had no Maori blood.
I never realized that Beethoven was banned in 2020. Clearly the ban never reached my part of the world- although most people here are not white. YouTube never got the memo so I continued to enjoy listening to dead white male composers during the lockdown.
Beethoven is my favorite composer, and I don’t want to hear no BS ’bout ma homie! I know that he was dark by the standards of Vienna circa 1800, and given the Moorish occupation of Spain and the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, I suppose it is possible that one of his Flemish ancestors had a Spanish ancestor who had a Moorish ancestor who had a Sub-Saharan ancestor. We’ll have to wait until they do the DNA test on his remains.
At any rate, I reckon this has nothing to do with the “ragtime/jazz” section of his 32nd piano sonata.
(16:45 to 19:00 in the above video.)