Did History White-Wash Beethoven?

Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images.
Centuries after his death, not much is known about German composer Ludwig van Beethoven beyond the standard pop culture trivia — he was a musical prodigy, he was severely hearing impaired, and he had a surprising affinity for macaroni and cheese. But a new discovery is taking the internet by surprise and making us rethink everything we thought we knew about the classical composer.
The face of classical music is often an old, disgruntled-looking white man, but Beethoven may have broken the mold hundreds of years ago. Contrary to popular thought, the "Für Elise" genius might actually have been Black.
Scholars of classical music history have been discussing Beethoven's race for years, debating theories that posited that the composer was actually the love child between son of white German man Johann Van and Maria Magdalena Keverich, a woman descended from the Spanish Moors (who were Black). The Concordian fleshed out this theory in 2015, and its argument has resurfaced five years later thanks to one Twitter user bringing it back to the timeline.
People who came across the tweet were astonished by the revelation. For a genre that has been historically dominated by whiteness, the idea that one of the most influential composers in the game was a Black man obviously made waves (and memes) across social media.
Even if Beethoven wasn't Black (many modern classical music scholars have since refuted the claims that he was), the excitement about the possibility does raise an interesting question about the classical music landscape: What does it say that our understanding of the genre is so linked to whiteness when there were Black people also shaping its sound?
The contributions of Black men and women to classical music have been largely ignored by experts and popular culture alike. That lack of recognition and interest in these pioneers speaks to the ages-old racism that persists in the style and is often reflected across other art forms like ballet and opera, spaces that continue to prioritize whiteness. It has a discouraging trickle-down effect on the stage, where Black and brown conductors, and even orchestra members, run far and few between.
Even if you personally prefer the musical stylings of Beyoncé to those of Johann Sebastian Bach, you're more than likely familiar with the compositions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Frédéric Chopin. But you've probably never heard of William Grant Still, Florence Price, George Bridgetower, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Joseph Bologne, Francis Johnson, or Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. To right that wrong, fans of the genre have to open themselves up to the criminally underrated work of Black composers and make an effort to uplift them right alongside Beethoven and Chopin.
Let the gatekeepers tell it, the greatest minds in classical music were white. But stay woke — Black composers can't be erased.

More from Music

R29 Original Series