Was the great German composer Beethoven African?

Ludwig Van Beethoven by Louis R. Letronne (1814). Lythography by Frédéric D. Hillemacher (1837 ). Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Historical debate on German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was reignited on June 1st 2015, when a collective of historians and musicians published a website named Beethoven Was African.

The collective ambitions to provide a different lens with which to appreciate the legacy of Beethoven, by re-focusing the debate surrounding Beethoven’s origins on the core question: his music. In the following interview, ANY, a member of the collective and the pianist who plays the sonatas in Beethoven Was African: Polyrhythmic Piano Sonatas, gives us some more insights on the results of the research.

When you say “Beethoven Was African” what do you bring that the many other theories that already exist on the possible African ancestry of the composer don’t?

Our research provides a new interpretation and new keys to understanding the music of this composer, as well as to the many mysteries that exist in his biography that have not been resolved to date. For instance, why did such an important man for his time not have a valid baptismal certificate, or a birth certificate? Why was his identity subject to so many rumors and conjectures during his lifetime? This project aims to bring a new biographical light on the composer’s life, and offers a new way to understand and play his musical work.

Ludwig Van Beethoven had a precise and almost absolute knowledge of polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea Region, on the West African coast. Although they are unwritten, I would even say that these West African traditional polyrhythmic patterns, which still exist, were fundamental to his work as a composer. Ludwig Van Beethoven has achieved the perfect synthesis between polyphonic modes and tonal system, developed in Europe in the centuries that preceded his era, with polyrhythmic system and patterns from West Africa.

When playing this music, with this awareness of the polyrhythms present in the work of Beethoven, the music magically becomes clearer, more harmonious, more beautiful.

The album Beethoven Was African is the demonstration of this discovery. By what magic effect do these polyrhythms allow us to discover the multitude of melodies present in each part of the piano sonatas? How come these polyrhythms allow us, for the first time in the history of the recording of these music pieces, to cleanly hear the part played with the left hand, to hear the rhythm of the latter, to reveal its hidden polyphony, and not consider it anymore as a simple accompaniment of the melody played with the right hand?

If you compare the pieces of the Beethoven Was African album with their equivalents in previous recordings of 20th century pianists, for example, you will realize with astonishment that the left hand appears almost with no rhythm, no soul. By listening carefully to the musical pieces contained in the Beethoven Was African album, you will hear that some parts induce something like a swing motion to the listener. These sonatas therefore induce something that was absent in Beethoven’s music so far: dance. It occurred to me that it was impossible at some point to bring out the real nature of Beethoven’s pieces of music, I would even say to recreate the music as the composer played it, if I dismissed the polyrhythmic patterns that guide almost all the piano masterpieces of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

This discovery of polyrhythmic patterns identified in the score left by the composer fed the biographical research. It was necessary to understand why the composer had this  polyrhythmic ability, and who had transmitted it to him in this Europe of the late 18th century.

In regards to the biographical research, the project is new because of the method used. Previous research on the African origin of the composer relied mostly on passages from 19th century biographies on the composer, which never explicitly mention an African identity for Beethoven. Historians involved in Beethoven Was African project questioned documents and artifacts produced while the composer was alive: correspondence, cultural journals, portraits, the writings and sayings of his contemporaries. It is this method of historical investigation that allowed us to move forward and discover unpublished documents, and finally to unravel what is probably one of the greatest mysteries in the history of art.

Why do these 19th century biographers, those who are authoritative today, not mention this African origin?

Because this African identity has been concealed throughout his life by the composer himself. The political and social condition of African or African descendants residing in Europe between 1770 and 1827 explain the adoption of this public image strategy. During Beethoven’s lifetime few people knew his face. He was obsessed with a strange paranoia and kept changing domicile. He moved into at least 67 homes in Vienna alone. Sometimes he lived in 2 or 3 residences simultaneously, so that no one could never really know where he was. An anecdote: one night in 1821 he was arrested on a street in Vienna and brought to the police station. The head of the Vienna Police ignored his true face and was unable to authenticate him, despite the fact that Beethoven had been living in Vienna for at least 20 years. The police chief had to call the director of the Vienna Opera, who was one of the few people who had already met the composer. A strange thing when you consider that Beethoven was at that time the most famous Austrian composer.

Beethoven had a decisive influence on the narrative that was to prevail on him after his death. If he did not write his own memoirs, he dictated them before his death to Anton Schindler who was his secretary during the last 4 or 5 years of his life. The composer himself had chosen his biographer. The biographies published after Schindler’s Beethoven as I Knew Him are variants of this fascinating story that we all know, of this “romantic hero”, created by the composer himself and dictated to his secretary. In addition to being among the most brilliant composers of all time, he certainly possessed an unmistakable narrative genius.

Indeed this original biography would serve to remove the family background controversies that persisted in music and aristocracy circles in Europe in the early 19th Century. It is this illusion created by the composer, hiding his face behind false portraits,  that allowed his first biographer to compose a plausible story that completely eluded persistent questions related to his identity.

What questions about his identity existed in his lifetime?

Who were his parents, for example? It should be noted that this issue was never resolved in his lifetime. Seven successive editions, between 1810 and 1817, of the Paris dictionary of musicians assume that Ludwig Van Beethoven could be the natural son of Frederick II of Prussia. This statement is echoed by other newspapers of the time. For instance, Harmonicon, the most serious London-based music magazine in the 1820s, repeats that assertion in its biography of the composer published in 1823. There is an explanation to this rumor. Frederic II of Prussia was known to own numerous court kammermohrs, or African room servants.

These African slaves were children who had been deported to the European continent, and had the function of being companions for children of the European high society. In writing this, the dictionary of musicians of Paris made it clear to insiders of European courts that Beethoven was the fruit of adulterous sex of the Prussian king and one of his kammermohr. A year before his death, Beethoven was asked once again by one of his relatives about this rumor. He refutes, leaving some doubt, as usual, about the identity of his biological father saying, “Make the true details of my parents, in particular those of my mother, known to the world.”

Afrodescendants in 19th Century Europe had no birth certificate. This was the case of Beethoven. This lack of a birth certificate caused him a lot of trouble in his life. Today, a debate persists on the authenticity of the birth certificate attributed to him. What is certain is that Beethoven himself has on at least three occasions explained, via correspondence to his entourage, that the birth certificate considered authentic today was not his. One of the reasons that prevented one of Beethoven’s weddings from happening was precisely that lack of birth certificate. Similarly, he lost the first part of the trial for the custody of the son of his deceased half-brother. This was because he was unable to provide a credible birth certificate on his filiation.

Why does the portrait of the composer that we all have in mind represent an individual with absolute European phenotype?

You certainly talk about the portrait painted in 1820 by Karl Stieler. It was on the order of Beethoven, even though he paid the artist through a third party. In a letter in which he sent a lithographic reproduction of this portrait to Karl G. Wegeler, a close friend who knew his face, he wrote that it was an “artistic masterpiece”; because unlike the previous ones, this portrait goes very far in the distortion of his features. It was not until the late 19th century, when the myth that he had himself helped to create became the official story, that this portrait began to be disseminated. After the composer’s death, 19th Century art critics regularly published notes on the evaluation of the existing different portraits of Beethoven. Stieler’s portrait was systematically put aside when these critics took the trouble to interview the composer’s living contemporaries.

During his lifetime, Ludwig Van Beethoven concealed his face through false portraits for which others posed in his place. We have at least 13 portraits and engravings that he personally authenticated as depicting his features, but which show at least 7 individuals with different faces and features. Ludwig Van Beethoven definitely had an advanced understanding of the power of image. Without forcing the line, we can say that Beethoven shaped and transformed his public image, in the manner of a Michael Jackson, but two centuries before him. He had no plastic surgery at the time, however he had portraitists who lent themselves to this game of illusion, mainly because they were paid to do so. Beethoven also took advantage of a significant innovation born in Germany in the late 18th century: lithography. By reproducing false portraits and spreading them in European capitals on the cover of his scores, he was certain to sell much more than if he had shown his true features.

Among these portraits produced during his lifetime, and for which Beethoven is deemed to have posed, can we find his true face, or is it lost forever?

Fortunately for us, the composer has left some clues about his real face, a puzzle that has allowed us to identify with certainty his real features. We believe we have found them in a sketch by French painter Louis Letronne, drawn in 1814, and whose original is probably lost today. A copy of this sketch, lithographed in 1837 by another French, Frederic Hillemacher, was preserved [it is featured image on this post].

How can we be certain that this is the only authentic portrait with the true features of the composer that has passed to posterity? Well, we do know that Beethoven had contracted smallpox as a child, and that this disease partially disfigured his face, leaving characteristic marks. In particular, he had a deformation on the left side of the upper lip, and many scars on the left side of his face above the nose and between the eyes. These marks show up in a mask molded over his face by Franz Klein in 1812, and if you look at Hillemacher’s lithograph, the same scars appear at exactly at the same place.

The reasons that lead the composer to conceal his features and his origins during his life are understandable. Why has did he also have the desire to deceive history after his death, since you’re saying he is the author of the biography that we know of him?

There are two reasons he was careful to organize his image for posterity. First, he must have thought that the rumours and social pressures existing during his lifetime would continue immediately after his death. What would have happened if in the 19th Century, historiography had discovered this deception? The risk was that his music would no longer be played. He had spent his life convincing the public to believe that he had only European origins. After composing one of the most important monuments of the history of art and the human spirit, he wished above all that his work would be passed to posterity.

A second, more important reason exists: to play his music as he played it, to understand it, to hear it, so that it produced the same enchantment as when he played or led it when alive, one had to understand that an important part of the music education that he received in his childhood and early adolescence was an intimate knowledge of polyrhythmic science and art. And, he was a bit of a joker. He must have been amused to see that with the scores he had produced, interpreters were unable, and still are, to produce the same music that came out these texts when he played it. He often said, “It will take at least 50 years before my music is understood.” In actuality, his calculation was off by 150 years. Today, we realize that to play it properly, one has to understand that he had a dual identity. That he was also an African.

Further Reading