How Speculating about Beethoven’s Race Misses the Point

Monday, 22 June 2020 4-minute read

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black<br>the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces […]<br>Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself. (Nadine Gordimer, ‘Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black’)

The South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s short story, published in Granta in 2006, opens with this ironic speculation about the composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s ethnicity. In an uncannily similar scenario fourteen years later, a radio station in Britain publishes an article on its web site in response to a brief Twitter storm over the same question. This discussion emerged in response to a similar conversation about the whitewashing of Alexandre Dumas’ identity a few days earlier. I ignored the Beethoven discussion when it first emerged because there are far more important questions on race that need attention, and I can get back to Beethoven in December when we get around to celebrating his 250th birth anniversary if the world hasn’t already gone to hell in a handcart by then. But this Classic FM piece highlights some revealing prejudices in the way in which we approach the race of historical figures.

As far as I’m concerned, however, I don’t consider this to be an important question. While there are some interesting dimensions to this issue which I will discuss shortly, I am very much with the historian Kira Thurman that rather than speculating whether or not Beethoven could have been black, we should be paying attention to European musicians and composers whom we know were black, such as George Bridgetower, Joseph Bologne the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Nevertheless, I enjoyed revisiting this question because the first table-top role-playing scenario I wrote was based on Beethoven’s falling out with Bridgetower and the discrimination that the latter faced during his life.

Returning to Gordimer’s short story, it is about the politics of claiming an identity to legitimise a sense of belonging within the present. It is set amidst the persisting racial injustices of post-apartheid South Africa. The ironic tone with which the radio presenter is described as ‘claim[ing] restitution’ — seen by the protagonist as disingenuous and self-serving for the redeeming of the presenter’s own whiteness — contrast with the protagonist’s own, desperate search for black ancestry in order to feel some sense of belonging as a white settler in the country. The story is very much about why white people are so fixated on the question of whether or not Beethoven was black, and what ideologies these claims justified.

While the so-called ‘debate’ about Beethoven’s race is a fairly old one, the present discussion was spurred by a critical re-appraisal of Black history in Europe, and the systemic erasures therein. The evidence for Beethoven being black is scant, and from what I have gleaned I can do little but speculate. But if it is true, and Beethoven’s history was whitewashed, then this speaks to injustices in the way in which knowledge is produced and disseminated. The philosopher Miranda Fricker coined the term ‘epistemic injustice’ to describe such injustices pertaining to someone in their capacity as a knower. One kind of epistemic injustice, for Fricker, is what she calls ‘testimonial injustice’, or an injustice where the perspective of someone in a position of power is given more credence over another’s. In this case, the act of whitewashing is the result of a Eurocentric historiography that denies Beethoven’s putative Moorish descent being given more credence than this hypothetical reality.

In addition to testimonial injustice, Fricker describes what she calls ‘hermeneutic injustice’, which is injustice that arises because an individual does not have the conceptual resources to interpret and understand their reality. But further to these testimonial and hermeneutic injustices, I would argue that there is a further ‘heuristic injustice’ of disparities in the subjects and kinds of knowledge that are deemed valuable or legitimate. This is particularly the case in Gordimer’s short story, where the radio presenter has an ‘unspoken wish’ for claiming blackness, and in the inequality that Thurman highlights: that people are more concerned about claiming blackness for a canonical European composer whose history and works carry a great deal of cultural capital rather than programming the works of Black musicians. Claiming Beethoven as black serves to erase other Black musicians and further exacerbates the inequalities of prestige and value. Unlike testimonial injustice, which is about whose voice is heard, this heuristic injustice is about what inquiries are allowed or resourced. It forestalls asking the questions that can redress the other problems.

But above all, speculating about whether or not Beethoven was whatever fraction Black misses the point: to be true to the radical politics of Beethoven’s music, and his defiance of a tyrannical autocrat, we need to be similarly defiant of the shadow he casts over the Black musicians who were his contemporaries. We need to question these hierarchies of knowledge and disparities in cultural capital, and recover the history of actual Black musicians rather than tokenise what we already have.