Beethoven the Black Spaniard

Beethoven the Black Spaniard


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Beethoven was one of the most innovative and amazing musical geniuses, ever.

His deafness made that amazing genius even more so.



 Beethoven compositions: The Great Fugue   “Waldstein” Sonata   “Emperor” Piano Concerto   “Choral” Symphony

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Beethoven, the Black Spaniard

By Deborah D. Moseley


Just how does an individual with a Teutonic surname born in eighteenth-century Germany acquire the moniker “The Black Spaniard”?  One of the homes in which Beethoven resided in Vienna, Austria, the music capitol of European Music at that time, was called the “Schwarzspanierhaus,” the “House of the Black Spaniard.”  In the book entitled Beethoven by David Jacobs (p. 133), is a facsimile of this non-extant  building, which, according to the author, was formerly a monastery.  The center facade has the sign “I Resley,” the left facade is unlabelled. But the right facade is labelled, “Zum Schwarzspanier,” “To the Black Spaniard.” 

Such an individual living amongst a land of predominantly White citizenry must have had some apparent physical and ethnic characteristics and strains in his heritage to not only be branded “The Spaniard,” but also “The Black Spaniard.” Additionally, in a PBS presentation about Beethoven, the host and narrator, Russian Actor Peter Ustinov, said that Beethoven would become angry when people called him “inferior.”  Clearly, he must have been an exotic and at times disparaged presence in Germany and Austria.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -1827) was born in Bonn, Germany, but his family originated in Belgium, which was then called Flanders.  Interestingly, his family name, as noble and grand as it sounds, is a Flemish one quaintly and literally meaning “beet garden.”  For over 200 years, Belgium/Flanders had been occupied by Spain.  One need only look at a map to see how close in proximity Southern Spain is to Northern Africa, separated by the Strait of Gibraltar, which, from a geological standpoint, appears to have forged its way through an erstwhile connection between the two terrains. 

Africans had easy access to Spain, the zenith being the 700 year reign of the Moors in that country. (“Moor” comes from Greek/Latin root words meaning “Black” or “dark-skinned.”)  The protracted Black presence in Spain apparently protracted its presence in Belgium/Flanders along with the Spanish. Thus, Beethoven inherited this Black Spanish strain. Which leads to a very critical question:  Why the proliferation of spurious portraits that hide his ethnic heritage as a man of color?

Beethoven was one of the most innovative and amazing musical geniuses, ever. His deafness made that amazing genius even more so.  As a Black woman and a musician who has spent a lifetime listening to, studying, and performing his music, I believe his music reveals a cultural connection to his African ancestry.  In the Blom edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, p. 20, is stated, “A rhythmic or time-active cast of thought was inherent in his nature,” and “(n)umerous examples could be given from familiar music in which an off-beat accent converts an ordinary into an extraordinary passage.” The distinctive characteristic of off-beat accents, or syncopation, is intrinsic and integral to Black people’s music making, which gives it a unique vitality and kinetic energy. 

My favorite examples of this rhythmic trait are his mammoth string quartet known as “The Great Fugue,” which sounds “way ahead of its time” and foretells 20th century atonality.  Also, the second movement of the last Piano Sonata he wrote, Op. 111 in C minor, sounds like the genesis of jazz. I believe he had exquisite foresight as to how music would evolve in the future. He was an astounding piano improvisateur, which moved Mozart to prophesy, “He will give the world something worth listening to.” The last movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata, op. 53, has a syncopated bass, which might inspire gospel music clapping. It is also the same off-beat pattern used in reggae and Hip- Hop music.  

Beethoven makes prolific use of the syncopating kettle drum in much of his orchestral music, such as the dramatic Symphony No. 5, which contains one of the world’s most famous themes, and the majestic “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5. He was the first composer to invigorate European Classical Music with prodigious use of this decidedly inherent African rhythmic trait.  He was also one of the first composers to deviate from the musical template of eighteenth-century rules and regulations.  In his Fourth Piano Concerto No. 4, the piano begins the opening, as opposed to traditionally beginning with the orchestra.  The “Waldstein” Sonata begins in G major, even though it is written in C major. 

He was the first composer to include a chorus in a symphony, which became known as the “Choral” Symphony No. 9, the theme of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  He was also one of the first composers to inject his personal thunderous temperament in his music, as evidenced in such piano works as the “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57 and the fittingly named “Tempest” Sonata, op.31, no.2.  He was the first composer to explore and exploit the virtuosic possibilities of the piano, which necessitated piano makers’ building stronger, more durable instruments. 

His was the first piano music to require the pianist to play the trill and the melody with one hand, as in the “Hammerklavier” Sonata where he took piano music where it had never gone before. (It reminds me of Robert Johnson, who played the chords and the melody simultaneously on the blues guitar). With his daring musical innovations, formidable piano technique, the injection of deep musical subjectivity as opposed to abstract musical objectivity, he rendered the composer free from stilted, restrictive dogma and ushered in the Romantic Period. 

He gave inspiration to Liszt, Schumann, and Chopin.    I opine that in the ugly throes of Institutional Racism during Beethoven’s lifetime when Chattel Slavery in America was in full operation and Europe was preparing to subjugate the entire continent of Africa for itself, the European Colonialist and Imperialist Masters found it necessary to obscure certain facts in order to justify keeping an entire people in bondage and sub-human status.

The U.S. Constitution even slated Black people as being only 3/5 human.  Such an imperative necessitated academic fraud.  The dubious system that portrayed the Ancient Egyptians as White people is the same dubious system that portrayed Beethoven, one of the greatest composers ever, as White. The same dubious system is still intact, which would motivate Hollywood to give false ethnic representations in the Beethoven movies ‘Immortal Beloved’, and ‘Beethoven Lives Upstairs.’  Fortunately, the world does consist of honest people who were and are willing to nullify historic prevarications. 

 In Alexander Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, vol.1, p. 134,  the author states, “there is none of that obscurity which exalts one to write history as he would have it and not as it really was. The facts are too patent.” On this same page, he states that the German composer Franz Josef Haydn was referred to as a “Moor” by Prince Esterhazy, and Beethoven had “even more of the Moor in his looks.” On p. 72, a Beethoven contemporary, Gottfried Fischer, describes him as round-nosed and of dark complexion. Also, he was called “der Spagnol” (the Spaniard).

Other “patent” sources, of which I found many, include, but are not limited to, Beethoven by Maynard Solomon, p.78. He is described as having “thick, bristly coal-black hair” (in today’s parlance, we proudly call it “kinky”) and a “ruddy-complexioned face.” In   Beethoven:  His Life and Times by Artes Orga, p.72, Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny of the “School of Velocity” fame, recalls that Beethoven’s “coal-black hair, cut a la Titus, stood up around his head [sounds almost like an Afro].  His black beard…darkened the lower part of his dark-complexioned face.” 

Also, in The Changing Image of Beethoven by Alexandra Comini, p.31, the author relates the Czerny account using the word ‘bristled’ and ‘shaggy’ in reference to the composer’s  hair. On the same page, a composite description is presented based on eye-witness accounts: “his complexion was brownish, his hair was thick, black and bristly.” I suggest that his physical appearance was so strikingly uncommonplace, that those who knew him and had seen him could do no other than give an accurate description.

According to Alexander Thayer, p. 238, “A true and exhaustive picture of Beethoven as a man would present an almost ludicrous contrast to that which is generally entertained as correct.  Sculptor and painter in turn have idealized the work of his predecessor, until the composer stands before us like a Homeric god—until those who knew him personally, could they return to earth, would never suspect that the grand form and noble features . . . are intended to represent . . . their old friend.”  

According to the Sadie edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, p.392, the most approximate impression we can expect of the composer’s physical appearance is the 1814 engraving by Blasius Hofel and the 1812 life mask, which clearly reveals his broad, flat nose (which can be seen in the Jacobs book, pp.142-143, the Hofel portrait on p. 150.) The author of this edition of Grove’s, p. 392, insists that the “idealized portraits and busts . . . owe nothing to literal or even to poetic truth.”  So a picture is not always worth a thousand words.

In a just and equitable society a person’s skin color is supposed to be of no consideration.  Beethoven was a phenomenal genius and during the many years of childhood and adult life when I was unaware of his ethnic heritage, being constantly confronted by persistent and insistent portrayals of his image as White which I thought were correct, that just did not matter.  I saw him as a great composer whose music I enjoyed listening to and performing. 

Unfortunately, the European oppressors, colonialists, and imperialists who instituted a universal system based on color superiority and color inferiority, falsifying and suppressing evidence to exalt one people and debase another have made it matter. Such perpetration of academic theft was based on color, which makes color a major consideration in the imperative of seeking academic justice for the people whose great and noble past was stolen and hidden from them to prevent their aspiring to a great and noble present and future. It is time to build that just and equitable society that redresses academic pilferage, recognizing the color-blindness of genius and the historic contributions of all people thereby engendering understanding, respect, and equality. 

posted 15 February 2007

Deborah D. Moseley — i reside in charleston, s.c., where i began my piano study at the age of seven and have taught music education at the elementary, middle and high school levels for over 20 years.  i have a bachelor of music degree in piano performance and a master of arts in teaching degree, both from winthrop college in rock hill, s.c. currently, after having neglected playing the piano for over ten years, i am taking a hiatus from teaching so i can devote more time to rebuilding my technique and repertoire. 

my past performances have included a solo concert at the college of charleston, and at the sottile theatre here in charleston i presented the piano works of the black composers r. nathaniel dett and samuel coleridge- taylor for a black history month celebration.  as a child, my parents played a variety of music genres in the home:  jazz, r&b and classical, so i appreciate all styles of music.  however, when it comes to performing it, i’m partial to classical;  it’s just ‘me’.  i developed and interest in writing after i read ‘the autobiography of malcolm x’ and when i’m inspired, i enjoy writing about music, history and politics. some of my favorite hobbies are reading and doll collecting.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 2 October 2007 




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Related files:   Beethoven, the Black Spaniard  Sam Cooke and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   Review of Amiri Baraka’s Essence of Reparations  George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower

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