Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nadine Gordimer on Beethoven: Review by Dominique-René de Lerma

[Beethoven Edition: Complete Works (85CD Box Set); Brilliant Classics (2007)]

The New York Times Book Review for Dec. 16, 2007 included a review by Siddhartha Deb of the fictional work Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories, by Nadine Gordimer. Dominique-René de Lerma has written a letter to the Editor concerning the book. Dr. De Lerma, principal adviser for, is Professor of Music at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. He is also former Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, and has specialized in Black Classical Composers for four decades.

Beethoven as a Black composer

Dominique-René de Lerma
Lawrence University

It is time to put to rest the belief/theory/hope that Beethoven had African ancestry, a factor somewhat implied during his life and intensified by Joel Augustus Rogers. When Rogers published a picture of Beethoven the portrait was darkened.

On the facing page was a picture of Clarence Cameron White, as I remember, whose picture was very lightened by contrast.

The work of Rogers should not be belittled but, unable to interest publishers he approached, he was forced to publish his own works, thereby not having these reviewed in advance by an outside jury.

In 2005, Cecil Adams of the Chicago reader stated that, as far as he was aware, “no one in a position to know has taken the idea of Beethoven’s being Black seriously, but the story survives. Too bad.” (cited at

I have searched all scholarly literature that might be relevant in German, Dutch, Flemish, Italian, and English. It is not at all uncommon for European musicologists to dedicate monographs to such matters as a composer’s physicians or ancestry, and I have not found even a single suggestion that Beethoven had any Caribbean, Moorish, or Spanish heritage. Rogers did locate Frederick Hertz’
Rasse und Kulture from 1925, which includes the statement “Man kann in Beethovens Physiognomie leicht negerähnliche Zuge finden,” but this, to which Beethoven’s friends observed obliquely, offers no more proof than the 15 other sources Rogers consulted. Darryl Pickney, at Harvard University’s Alain LeRoy Locke lectures , dismisses the theory (published in his Out there; mavericks of Black literature, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002).

On his father's side, the great grandfather was Henry Adelard, a tailor who died in 1745. His son, Louis van Beethoven (born in 1712), a tenor, moved from Louvain to Bonn and was appointed Kappelmeister to the Elector in 1733. His wife was Maria Josepha Poll. The youngest of their three children, Johann (born about 1740) was Beethoven’s father. He was married in 1767 to Maria Magdalena Keverich who was the widow of Johannes Leym, of Trier. Maria’s mother had the maiden name of Westorff. When confronted with these facts advocates of the “Black Beethoven” theory argue that Beethoven’s mother was from the Caribbean. This was not so. If it were, and it would certainly have been fully documented, it would be reason for extraordinary discomfort on the part of the Nazis, who regarded those of African ancestry as half apes. This would also certainly have been noted by Maud Cuney-Hare in her study of her own people in 1936,
Negro musicians and their music.

There is certainly no doubt that, despite his fervent romanticism, Beethoven was heir to the age of enlightenment and that his musical pun of including a Turkish march in the finale of his last symphony must be allied with the text, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” In spirit, Beethoven is united with the African concept of the community and the spiritual, like John Coltrane, but we are richly blessed by authentic Black heroes. Having Beethoven as an in-law is quite sufficient.

Black+Beethoven" rel="tag">Black Beethoven
Dominique-René+deLerma" rel="tag">Dominique-René de Lerma
Joel+Rogers" rel="tag">Joel Rogers
Nadine+Gordimer" rel="tag">Nadine Gordimer
One-Sixteenth+Black" rel="tag">One-Sixteenth Black
Beethoven+ancestry" rel="tag">Beethoven ancestry

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