When you think of classical music, one of the first names that come to mind is most certainly Ludwig Van Beethoven. His pieces are still performed until this very day, nearly 200 years after his passing. Interestingly though, the German composer was one of the true rock stars of his time, with tons of juicy details surrounding his personal life. And yet, there is one specific detail about his identity that has thrown the internet into a frenzy.
Have Researchers Discovered the Truth?
You would think that it would be relatively easy to unravel the background of one of the most iconic composers of the 18th century. Ludwig Van Beethoven is one of the most synonymous figures with classical music and his music is some of the most performed in the world.
However, certain details about the German composer have been shrouded in mystery and uncertainty over the years, with numerous researchers particularly skeptical about key details – specifically, his race. But what is the truth behind Beethoven’s identity?
How True Are the Paintings?
Over time, historians have developed an idea of what they believe Beethoven looked like, mainly through his many portraits. They often depict a man who was craggy-faced and sported long gray hair that was wild and flowed in every direction.
But are these paintings reliable? For a start, Beethoven didn’t look the same in all of them. Towards the end of his life, the composer was depicted with a long beard, which many suspected was a bi-product of his decline in mental health. But is there more to it?
History Is Constantly Changing
The recent debates surrounding Beethoven’s identity remind us that history is a constantly evolving tapestry, layered with new discoveries that enhance our understanding of all sorts of events, societies, and even individuals. The subtlest of discoveries can completely shatter our preconceptions of the most important historical figures.
Details, theories, and widespread opinions can be altered if the right evidence is provided. Over the last century alone, a number of key developments have sparked intense debate about the iconic German composer and his origins.
Was the Truth Hidden From Us?
Over the course of history, it is believed that word-of-mouth, unreliable narrations, and false portrayals have been passed from one generation to the next. They have worked to push the agendas of those who were once in power.
Time tends to turn those falsehoods into historical fact and all we have left is a distorted version of the past. This suggests that there might be key details about historical figures that we are yet to have learned about, and this could also apply to Beethoven.
The Whitewashing Controversy
One tool that people have previously used to alter the facts goes by a controversial term: whitewashing. Take into consideration that many people of power in Europe during the time of Beethoven were white and very conservative in their views.
So it would make sense that some may have whitewashed the most influential dark-skinned people of their time in order to convince future generations that only white people were at the forefront of all innovations. There are numerous examples of historical figures who are believed to have been whitewashed.
From Jesus to Nefertiti
For thousands of years, historians believe certain important figures may have been whitewashed for superiority purposes. One figure whose racial background has been heavily debated is Jesus Christ. Many images of Christianity’s key figure portray him as a white man, despite many agreeing that he was of Middle Eastern origin.
Queen Nefertiti of the Ancient Egyptians is also speculated to have been whitewashed by western media. Beethoven is simply another example of a historical figure who researchers believe may have been whitewashed.
The concept of whitewashing is something that also appears in present-day media. For example, there have been numerous instances in the film that have seen characters that are of a specific ethnicity, only to end up getting portrayed by white actors anyway.
In the last couple of years alone, fans were outraged when white actress Scarlett Johansson portrayed a Japanese character in the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. Exodus: Gods and Kings is another recent example of this kind of controversy.
Was Beethoven Black?
The latest historical figure that many believe might have been whitewashed during his heyday is none other than Ludwig van Beethoven. There seems to be a lot of insights and discoveries from the last century that point to the possibility that the man responsible for iconic pieces such as “Moonlight” and “5th Symphony” actually wasn’t white.
On the contrary, many speculate that he may have been of partial African descent and that this aspect of his identity was purposefully hidden.
Was Hollywood Wrong About Beethoven?
If the theory of Beethoven’s real identity is in fact, true, then that would change the way we look at the way he was portrayed in numerous movies about his life. Actors such as Gary Oldman and Ed Harris, who happen to be white, have played the German composer in movies such as Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, respectively.
Hollywood wouldn’t necessarily be at fault for wrongfully portraying Beethoven as a white man, but it would be indicative of the secrets that were potentially hidden for so long.
A Man From the 18th Century
Seeing that he was alive during the late 1700s and early 1800s, Ludwig Beethoven lived in a time where black people were looked down upon by many Europeans. It was unheard of for a black person to be an artist. This led researchers to theorize that Beethoven took extreme measures to conceal his true identity.
This included potentially using body doubles for his portraits, as well as even powdering his face. But signs of his identity can be traced even further back.
One key detail that points to the possibility that Beethoven was of mixed race is that his mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich, was possibly a Moor. For those who don’t know, the Moorish people were dark-skinned people from North Africa who eventually made their way to the Spanish Netherlands after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.
Maria was born in an area controlled by the Moors, while Ludwig’s father Joann Van was from Belgium, which was also part of the same territory.
He Kept His Love Life Secret
What you will learn about this story is that Beethoven was a very private person. Although there are a lot of details out there surrounding his love life, the composer wasn’t interested in hanging out his dirty laundry. Not only did he never marry, but he was apparently entangled in numerous love affairs during his time in Vienna.
One of his most iconic love secrets revolves around a mystery woman who he referred to in letters as “Immortal Beloved,” though historians speculate that it could have been Antonie Brentano.
She Was “Hypnotized” By Him
Another member of the Brentano family who had fascinating things to say about Beethoven was Bettina von Armin, a famous writer of the time. She was a friend of the composer and claimed to be completely “hypnotized” by both his appearance and his talents.
Her following description of him is rather telling: “He is small, brown and carries the marks of the small pox […] dark hair, very long, that he throws back […] his clothes are torn, he looked completely tattered.”
He Controlled His Public Image
Another aspect of Beethoven’s life that he was extremely protective of was his public image. The composer had close ties with the popular music journal the Allgemein Musikalische Zeitung and he would threaten the editor that he wouldn’t give him copies of his latest pieces if he wrote negatively about his music.
This was just another indicator that Beethoven liked to keep his cards close to his chest and that maybe, he was keeping his identity a secret too…
He Hid His Identity?
Whatever the case may be, Beethoven would have been aware of his identity. If the theories about the German composer were true, there is a good chance that he would have worked hard to conceal his African origins.
While plastic surgery wasn’t practiced back then, Beethoven may have applied white powder to his face. Also, he may have paid whoever painted his portraits to alter certain facial features in order to make him look more convincingly white.
You could say that that society has come full circle in that we are able to alter our appearance even through the power of photography. However, there is no denying that Beethoven’s identity would have been harder to conceal had he lived in a time where photography existed.
The main point of reference when observing Beethoven’s appearance is through portrait paintings. While the many available examples all have differences, most of them seem to have one thing in common: his white skin color.
He Had Royal Blood?
There is also a theory that suggests not just that Beethoven was mixed race, but that he descended from a royal line. Some have speculated that his father may have been Frederick II of Prussia. As the theory goes, Frederick ended up having an affair with one of his room servants, who happened to be African.
However, numerous historians believe that the theory is just one of many that try to use rumored royal lineages to explain historic figures’ influence on society.
The House of the Black Spaniard
One detail concerning Beethoven’s rumored hidden identity that many have debated over is his Viennese residence, which was called Schwarzspanierhause. This translates loosely into “House of the Black Spaniard,” which by all intents and purposes, backs up the theory that he descended from Moorish settlers in the Spanish Netherlands.
However, some have pointed out that the title more likely translates into “The House of the Black-Robed Spaniards,” alluding to the likelihood that this was once a monastery.
What About His Descendants?
One of the obvious places historians would turn to in order to explore Beethoven’s racial makeup would be his descendants. Although there is a huge community of people who are confirmed relatives of the composer, there hasn’t yet been a mass study to cross-examine the racial links that they have in common.
Most recently, the descendants came together to celebrate Beethoven’s 249th birthday. Most of the descendants live in Belgium but traveled to Bonn, Germany for the celebration.
He Had Black Friends
Another detail that backs up the argument for Beethoven’s African heritage was the fact that he had black friends, which unfortunately would not have been all too common during this time. It is widely agreed upon that Beethoven was close to Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower.
Beethoven even composed the violin sonata “The Kreutzer” for Bridgetower. However, he ended up dedicating it to another violinist after the two friends fell out over a shared love interest. Nevertheless, the friendship adds to the theory.
African Rhythms Inspired His Music?
In more recent times, musicians and musical historians alike have found loose links between Beethoven’s music and rhythms that can be traced back as far as Africa. One musician specifically claimed that the classical composer had detailed knowledge of “polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea region, on the West African coast.”
With that said, historians are skeptical of such claims, finding it difficult to believe that a 19th century Beethoven based in Vienna would even have access to such rhythms.
His Favorite Portrait
One particular portrait of Beethoven seems to stand out from the rest, particularly due to the fact that the composer singled it out as his favorite one. The pencil sketch shows that “his face is broad, his hair is unruly, and his skin is very dark.”
According to historians, Beethoven had distributed many copies of the sketch to friends and family members as it is how he wanted to be remembered by his loved ones. This doesn’t exactly add up.
Most Portraits Are White
The unique sketch of Beethoven is something of an anomaly in all of the images that highlight his appearance. This is because practically all of the professional portraits he had painted of himself seem to tell a very different story.
Most of the paintings that casual fans are familiar with depict the composer as a thin-lipped white-skinned man, with flowing grey hair. The only difference that is often on display pertains to what he is wearing from painting to painting.
Described by His Loved Ones
Throughout time, historians and researchers have unearthed a handful of accounts written by family members, lovers, and friends who were closest to Beethoven. These accounts reveal some telling details about the composer that those in power or not as close to him may have wanted to conceal.
One description goes as follows: “Wide, thick-lipped mouth, short, thick nose, and proudly arched forehead.” These words certainly fail to match what can be found in a lot of his paintings.
No Trace of a German
Despite his reputation as being one of the most recognizable names in all of German history, one sentence that one of Beethoven’s loved ones chose to describe him with suggests that he didn’t bear the traits of someone typically born in this part of the world.
“His face reveals no trace of the German,” the person wrote. “He was so dark that people dubbed him ‘The Spagnol’ [dark-skinned].” The term “Spagnol” certainly alludes to the theory that Beethoven descended from either Meditterarean or even North African heritage.
Other descriptions provided by loved ones seem to paint a similar picture that Beethoven’s appearance didn’t quite resemble what could be found in his most famous paintings. One person described him as being “short, stocky,” and having “broad shoulders, short neck, round nose, blackish-brown complexion.”
Another person claimed that he had “dark skin, flat, thick nose” and “coal-black hair [which] stood up around his head.” This provided indications of both his size and his facial features, amongst other details.
Thick, Black, Bristly Hair
Some also commented on the color and even the texture of his hair, which by all accounts, didn’t quite line up with what we tend to associate with the stereotypical features of a German. According to one friend, his “complexion was brownish, his hair was thick, black, and bristly.”
Another person shared similar observations, commenting on “his somewhat flat, broad nose and rather wide mouth, his small, piercing eyes and swarthy [dark] complexion.” And there is also tangible evidence that supports these descriptions.
His Death Mask
One important detail that also lends credence to the theory of Beethoven’s hidden identity is his “death mask,” which can be found at Beethovenhaus, his birthplace in Bonn, Germany. This was a cast that was made out of the shape of someone’s face after they passed away and was meant to remind people of what the person’s face looked like long after they were gone.
Beethoven had his very own and as you can see, his death mask clearly indicates that his facial features weren’t stereotypically European.
While the theory of Beethoven’s hidden identity has been heavily debated in historian circles for a while now, the subject has only recently gained traction on social media. The online debate began when a Twitter user called Alyssa wrote a pretty simple tweet.
“Beethoven was black?? L***o y’all aint gonna hear the last of this from me,” she wrote. The Tweet went viral pretty quickly, receiving 254,000 likes and 66.9k comments as of August 2020. The online debate was well and truly on.
People Are Upset
The revelations surrounding Beethoven have sparked some pretty passionate reactions from people online, with many Twitter users expressing sadness and anger at the fact that the composer potentially had to conceal his true identity throughout his life.
When one person commented on the possibility that he had to powder his face, another suggested that he was probably ordered by others to do so. This opened up a wider discussion about the way that people of ethnic minorities have been treated throughout history.
Assume at Your Peril
One person wrote the following statement: “I’m gone start assuming famous historical figures are black the same way white people assume they’re white.”
While it’s a contentious statement that is bound to elicit some passionate responses, it seems like the point she is trying to make is that it’s difficult to be totally sure about the finer details about famous historical figures.
People Also Argue About Shakespeare
Beethoven isn’t the only historical figure whose identity has been heavily debated over the last 100 years and beyond. The following Twitter user also pointed out what she claims to be a valid theory that nearly all of the works of William Shakespeare can be credited to a black artist.
While we don’t have a stance on this opinion, it is widely accepted that many aspects of Shakespeare’s identity are shrouded in mystery, with some even believing that he didn’t exist at all.
Will the Same Thing Happen to MJ?
One user wrote an interesting tweet highlighting the power that time has on our perceptions of historical figures. It is common knowledge now that Michael Jackson was an African-American whose skin color changed after suffering from the long term effects of vitiligo.
However, this user suggests that this information will become the subject of debate 200 years from now, the same way that people are disputing the identity of Beethoven now.
This Has Been Debated for Years
The following person wrote a tweet explaining that they had been well aware of this theory since they were a child and firmly believe that Beethoven was of African descent. While teachers are generally well-intentioned and strive to teach their students the truth in all subjects, not even teachers can be 100% sure about everything that is on the syllabus.
Maybe the way that teachers will handle the topic of Beethoven will change as time goes on as more information surfaces.
Opinions from Both Sides
While many were excited by the theory and were heavily convinced by the information presented, others were more skeptical, including this person. They tried to remind people on the thread that Beethoven has been heavily researched and there is just as much evidence to disprove the theory as there is that proves it.
Whatever the case may be, the debate about Beethoven’s identity opens up a greater conversation about the finer details historians aren’t sure about and the truth about historical figures, in general.