Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TheGuardian.com: Does Beethoven's music reveal his African roots? [Dominique-René de Lerma: We have already put this fiction totally to rest]

TheGuardian.com: An engraving of Ludwig van Beethoven. Photograph: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images 

The Guardian

Tom Service

9 June 2015

A new album by the group Beethoven Was African aims to prove that the polyrhythms of the composer’s music point to west African heritage. But does their quest open up a more important debate in classical music?

My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no”. It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.

This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.” Rinehart says we must reimagine the entire history of western art music.

Dominique-René de Lerma:
This is sheer rubbish!  Beethoven has been the subject of more extensive research than anyone else in music but perhaps Wagner, and German  musicologists never shy away from matters that to others might seem exotic or somewhat irrelevant -- his social life, his health and physicians, diet, and particularly his family and ancestry.  We have already put this fiction totally to rest, but the author of this item, who is neither a competent musician nor scholar, is oblivious of the literature -- including the bibliography of Beethoven's library wherein not a single item treats Africa. For that matter, not even missionaries knew that much about African musicduring Beethoven's life.  Had it turned out that he was even partly African, he would have been banned by the Nazis, no matter his fame (think only of Mendelssohn in this respect).  Further, there is absolutely no more of Africa in any of his music -- including the piano sonata examples -- than inthat of Machaut or Mozart.  Now why not investigate the African influence in the moresca?  It would be more profitable and a lot less foolish.

Dominique-René de Lerma

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