Jeez O Pete, really? I mean c’mon, guys, REALLY?!?
If there’s anything we should have learned from months of “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter street protests, statue toppling and online mobs seeking to silence anyone who dissents against leftist narratives about “racism,” it’s that no one, living or dead, is safe from the attentions of woke fascists. Even Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven’s work is not only at the core of the standard repertory of classical music; some of his most popular works have also become part of popular culture, their melodies recognizable even to those who’ve never heard an orchestral concert.
For the last 200 years, Beethoven’s compositions have also been symbols of the struggle for freedom against tyranny. The “Ode to Joy” from the conclusion to his Ninth Symphony remains the definitive anthem of universal brotherhood. It is no coincidence that the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony — whose rhythmic pattern duplicates the Morse Code notation for the letter “V” as in “V for Victory” — were used by the BBC for broadcasts to occupied Europe during the Second World War.
But to woke critics, Beethoven’s music has taken on a new, darker meaning. To musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, stars of the “Switched on Pop” podcast produced in association with the New York Philharmonic, the Fifth Symphony is a stand-in for everything they don’t like about classical music and Western culture. As far as they’re concerned, it’s time to cancel Ludwig.
Just hold onto your hats, folks, we haven’t gone completely around the bend yet.
Exactly 80 years after Beethoven’s death, in 1907, the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor began speculating that Beethoven was black. Colderidge-Taylor was mixed race – with a white English mother and a Sierra Leonean father – and said that he couldn’t help noticing remarkable likenesses between his own facial features and images of Beethoven’s. Having recently returned from the segregated US, Coleridge-Taylor projected his experiences there onto the German composer. “If the greatest of all musicians were alive today, he would find it impossible to obtain hotel accommodation in certain American cities.”
His words would prove prophetic. During the 1960s, the mantra “Beethoven was black” became part of the struggle for civil rights. By then Coleridge-Taylor had been dead for 50 years and was all but forgotten, but as campaigner Stokely Carmichael raged against the deeply ingrained assumption that white European culture was inherently superior to black culture, the baton was passed. “Beethoven was as black as you and I,” he told a mainly black audience in Seattle, “but they don’t tell us that.” A few years earlier, Malcolm X had given voice to that same idea when he told an interviewer that Beethoven’s father had been “one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers”.
“Beethoven was black” became a refrain chanted on a San Francisco soul music radio station and, in 1969, hit mass consciousness when Rolling Stone magazine ran a story headlined: “Beethoven was black and proud!” In 1988, two white students at Stanford University in California, following a heated discussion about music and race, defaced a poster of Beethoven, giving him crude stereotypical African American features, an act reported in the press as an act of racism.
Itchiness about Beethoven’s cultural dominance would continue to bring classical music out in occasional hives, and in 2007 Nadine Gordimer published a collection of short stories called Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. But the issue of race laid largely dormant until this year – the 250th anniversary of his birth – when against the backdrop of Covid-19 becoming inextricably linked with the Black Lives Matter movement, echoes of Carmichael and X were voiced, coming from directions nobody expected.
Was Beethoven black?
Nope. He was just a damned ugly old sumbitch, that’s all. Glenn sticks the fork in, calls the whole thing done: “If you start with the presumption that pretty much all talk about race today is going to be dumb and self-indulgent, you also won’t go far wrong.“