Monday, September 7, 2020

Black Beethoven and the Black Mozart

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Maehler, 1805

Was Beethoven Black?

It's no surprise that in a year of reckoning with systemic racism the speculation that Beethoven had African ancestry has resurfaced. (Of course, every human who has ever lived has African ancestry, but I don't think that's what's meant. Also, let's not forget that race is a social, rather than biological, category. But I digress.)

The evidence is circumstantial: Beethoven's complexion was described by acquaintances as dark, his nose was described as round, and he was nicknamed "The Spaniard." Beethoven's family history has been traced back several centuries, and was Flemish, but of course nothing can be ruled out.

In "Beethoven was black" (The Guardian, 7 September 2020) Philip Clark writes that the speculation may have originated in an interview with the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father was from Sierra Leone and whose mother was a white Englishwoman. Coleridge-Taylor noted the resemblance between his own features and Beethoven's, as described by contemporaries and represented in engravings and paintings. But Coleridge-Taylor was using the question of Beethoven's identity to highlight the racial prejudice he himself had just experienced during a recent visit to the United States: "If the greatest of all musicians were alive today, he would find it impossible to obtain hotel accommodation in certain American cities."

Following up on Coleridge-Taylor's insight, it's especially interesting to me why the question of Beethoven's race seems to recur during moments of widespread black political mobilization. Coleridge-Taylor's interview took place in 1907, just a few years after the publication of W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and the founding of the Niagara Movement (1905), and a few years before the founding of the NAACP (1909). Beethoven's ancestry next receives prominent attention, according to musical scholar Dominique-René de Lerma, in J.A. Roger's Sex and Race, Vol. 3 (1944); during World War II, racism's contradiction of American ideals was made starkly apparent as African-Americans fought against fascism abroad but found themselves facing prejudice and violence at home. Rogers provocatively turns the question of Beethoven's race around: "there is not a single shred of evidence to support the belief that he was a white man."

During the Black Power movement of the 1960s, both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael asserted that Beethoven was black. In 1969 Rolling Stone carried an article entitled "Beethoven was Black and Proud!," and in his comic strip Peanuts Charles Schulz had Schroeder, on hearing that Beethoven may have been black, discover that all along he's been playing soul music.

This year the question of Beethoven's race has arisen again, in part because issues of racism have once more come to the fore, and partly because it is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. In a recent article, "Was Beethoven Black?," (Smithsonian Magazine, 23 June 2020) Nora McGreevy quotes University of Michigan history professor Kira Thurman:
There’s a way in which white people, historically, have constantly denied black people any kind of association with genius. And in a lot of ways, there is no figure that we associate more with genius than Beethoven himself. The implication of the idea that Beethoven might be black was so powerful, was so exciting and so tantalizing, because it threatens to overturn how people have understood or talked about race and racial hierarchy in the United States and around the world.
But of course the whole 19th- and early 20th century notion of musical history as a succession of geniuses is precisely what led to the exclusion and neglect of composers who did not fit prevailing (i.e., racist and sexist) models of genius. One of the most exciting developments in classical music during my lifetime has been the rediscovery of music outside of the established canon (see, for example, my post on Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music).

As Thurman has written, "So instead of asking the question, 'Was Beethoven Black?' ask 'Why don’t I know anything about George Bridgetower?'"

Portrait of George Bridgetower by Henry Eldridge, before 1821. 
Image source: British Museum

Bridgetower was a virtuoso violinist and composer. His father was Afro-Caribbean and his mother was German-Polish. As a child he may have studied with Haydn; he gave concerts before Habsburg Emperor Joseph II and Britain's King George III and Queen Charlotte, and later became first violinist in the orchestra of the Prince of Wales (the future George IV).

In April 1803, at age 24, Bridgetower was invited to Vienna by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian von Lobkowitz, a patron of Beethoven, to play the set of Beethoven's string quartets (Op. 18) dedicated to the Prince. The violinist charmed and delighted the bearish Beethoven, and he immediately began composing a piece for them to play together at a concert given for Bridgetower's benefit in late May.

The concert was postponed for two days to enable Beethoven to finish composing, and even so he just made it: it wasn't until 4:30 in the morning on 24 May, the day of the concert, that Beethoven asked a student to copy out the first two movements for the violin (the third movement had been composed some time before). In the event there was only time to copy the first movement before the concert began. Patricia Morrisroe in the New York Times, 4 September 2020, describes what happened next:
Beethoven and Bridgetower took the stage for the morning concert, having never rehearsed the piece. Bridgetower was sight-reading.

Beethoven had given Bridgetower an opening solo that began with an explosive declaration, moving into a fiery, sensual dialogue. At one point, Bridgetower surprised Beethoven by imitating and then expanding on a short piano cadenza in the first movement. Beethoven, jumping up, hugged him, crying, "My dear boy! Once more!"

After the performance, Beethoven presented Bridgetower his tuning fork and wrote a dedication on the score: "Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" ("Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great mulatto madman and composer").
However, Bridgetower and Beethoven later fell out (it was very easy to fall out with Beethoven). When the piece composed for Bridgetower was finally published in 1805 it was dedicated to another violinist, Rudolphe Kreutzer, and has been known ever since as the "Kreutzer Sonata." The designation is doubly invalid, first because the work was written for Bridgetower, but also because Kreutzer never played it (he found the piece that Bridgetower had sight-read at the first performance to be "unintelligible"). Kreutzer, though, has been immortalized by his tenuous association with this work, while Bridgetower has been largely erased from music history.

The first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, performed by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy:

Was Mozart Black?

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Image source: New York Times

Mozart wasn't black, but there was a "Black Mozart." As Marcos Balter, professor of music composition at UC San Diego, writes in "His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not 'Black Mozart'" (New York Times, 22 July 2020), "this erasure of Boulogne’s name not only subjugates him to an arbitrary white standard, but also diminishes his truly unique place in Western classical music history."

Joseph Boulogne's father was a Frenchman who owned a plantation on Guadeloupe, and his mother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. Meaningful consent is not possible, of course, when one partner holds life-or-death power over the other. Remarkably, though, when Boulogne was about 10 his father took him and his mother back to France and paid for his education, including fencing and music lessons.

Boulogne became a champion fencer and a highly regarded violinist. When in 1769 the composer François-Joseph Gossec was forming an orchestra for his Concerts des Amateurs series he invited Boulogne to join the violin section; within a few years he had become concertmaster and then musical director, and the orchestra established a reputation as one of the best in Europe.

Boulogne was also a pioneering composer. According to Balter he wrote some of the first string quartets by a French composer, and achieved his greatest success with the eight symphonies concertantes he wrote between 1775 and 1778. A symphonie concertante features two (or more) solo instruments with orchestra; Balther calls it "a virtuosic dialogue that emulate[s] a musical duel."

Interestingly, in 1778 Mozart travelled to France and stayed for a time in the same house as Boulogne. During and immediately after that visit in 1778 and 1779, perhaps inspired by the work of Boulogne, Mozart wrote six symphonies concertantes. Balther also reports that another musicologist, Gabriel Banat, has identified a musical passage in a Mozart symphonie concertante that seems to derive from a Boulogne violin concerto from 1777.

Here is a performance of the Allegro from Boulogne's Symphonie Concertante in G major by the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble:

Boulogne would go on to negotiate the commission for Haydn's six "Paris" symphonies and conduct their premieres in 1786. He also composed operas, one (Ernestine, 1777) with a libretto by the author of the scandalous Les liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Boulogne's vocal works were not as popular as his instrumental music, however, and most have been lost entirely or in large part. One opera, Le Droit de seigneur (1784), is known only by a single surviving aria, but the title suggests that Boulogne may have written an opera based on Beaumarchais' Le mariage de Figaro two years before Mozart and Da Ponte premiered Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna.

As Balter writes of this accomplished composer and musician, "Boulogne doesn't need to be anyone's second best—let alone anyone's Black echo."

Update 9 September 2020: Ars Minerva, the SF Bay Area group focusing on neglected composers of the Baroque and Classical eras, will present a "Cocktails & Chit-Chat" event on the life and music of Joseph Boulogne on Thursday 17 September, 6 pm Pacific Time; for details see the Ars Minerva website.