Friday, November 5, 2010

Was Beethoven Black?

Short answer: no, he wasn't. But that is assuming that by "black" you are referring to African American in the contemporary sense, and obviously Beethoven himself had little relationship to American racial discourse. But was Beethoven of African descent, or have dark skin? Possibly. His maternal ancestry is not firmly-established by scholars, and as Michael Broyles explained in a paper this morning, there have long (since at least 1907) been persistent rumors that Beethoven's family tree involved descendants of Spanish Moors who were once stationed in the Flemish region his family was from. So, the long answer is, maybe.

The paper Broyles gave this morning covered these biographical issues briefly, but was more concerned with how the trope of "Beethoven was black" was used in radical black politics in the 1960s. As with a number of other figures--Jesus probably being the more famous one--putatively white cultural touchstones were mobilized by some black nationalists as examples of a suppressed black cultural heritage. Broyles primarily looked at various writings by figures such as Amiri Baraka, and also noted examples of radio stations that used the phrase "Beethoven was black" as a call sign, the infamous Ujamaa House incident at Stanford, and the track "Beethoven" by the rap outfit Soulja Boyz.

Unusual for a paper at AMS, there were some pointed critical comments afterwards. After one audience member described the paper as "wonderful," Guy Ramsey--the well-known scholar and practitioner of African American music at Penn--stood up to say that the paper might be cool, but it wasn't "wonderful." Ramsey mostly picked at the examples used, especially pointing out the diversity of black nationalism. A more provocative comment came from Richard Mook of Arizona State. He lit into the choice of the Soulja Boyz song, asking what this had to do with black nationalist appropriations of Beethoven's heritage. He didn't say this exactly, but I think he was suspecting that Broyles had simply found a random example of a black person listening to Beethoven--as Rick rightfully said, highly problematic. I would also point out that there was no ethnographic component to Broyles's paper; many of the people he discussed are alive, and rather than relying upon the bits of writings here or there, it would be interesting to actually ask them about it as well. If you're going to write about the recent racial past, it's best to, you know, actually talk to the people who were involved.

Another respondent whose name I didn't catch voiced what I had been thinking, that this wasn't really a paper about blackness. Rather, the idea of a "black Beethoven" forces us to name whiteness. If Beethoven wasn't black--and that's the reaction most have to the titular question--than you have to say what he was, which is to say, white. As my friend pointed out afterwards, many people like to believe in the universal appeal of Beethoven. If his music really was transcendently universal, than it wouldn't matter what race he was. And yet the visceral, violent reaction to the idea of a black Beethoven, a reaction disproportionate to the issue at hand, shows that for many people it is actually quite important for him to be white.

The interesting question here is not why black radicals in the 60s used Beethoven--I think that the cultural work being performed by that intellectual position is pretty obvious. One only need to look at the furious and overtly racist reactions from the 1960s to see how well it did its job of exposing covert rhetorics of white superiority. And to be perfectly honest, one might also look at the session itself: There were probably about 150 musicologists seeing this paper, and as with any session at AMS, those musicologists were overwhelmingly white. I think that might possibly explain one audience reaction to Broyles's paper that I found occasionally disconcerting: anytime he quoted one of the black nationalists claiming a black Beethoven, the audience responded with laughter. Whereas the threat of a black nationalist Beethoven was a very real one in the sixties, our contemporary audience was confident enough in the whiteness of Beethoven that we can find it amusing. I'm not sure that's progress!


Glenn said...

"And yet the visceral, violent reaction to the idea of a black Beethoven, a reaction disproportionate to the issue at hand, shows that for many people it is actually quite important for him to be white."

I'm not sure those two things automatically follow each other. It might not matter what race he was if you're talking about some universally transcendent conception of his music (or whatever), but it matters that the biography is at least historically justifiable. To point out that Beethoven wasn't black doesn't necessarily mean, phew!, he was white. It's like saying Beethoven wasn't black...and he also wasn't of South Asian decent either. Or Arabic decent. Those assertions would just be incorrect. I wasn't at the session, but maybe the laughter was more about leaps being made without historical evidence than racial reassurance? As you said, the evidence of Beethoven's maternal line is largely lost to us, but were the folks in the audience resistant to the idea of Moorish ancestry, etc?

6.54 said...

Great post, Phil. I'd heard a little debate on whether Beethoven could be black, but didn't realize the history that this implied in America. I also agree that interviews with proponents of the idea when it was a live issue would be invaluable.

@Glenn: I wasn't there either, but I'm skeptical. Being factually wrong can certainly be funny, but not usually more than once –- whereas violating a strong racial norm in a context like this is a sure way to repeatedly provoke a certain kind of laughter.

Another tight question along these lines: Was Jay Gatsby black? Again, it's probably not literally the case (as Fitzgerald intended it) –- but what's much more interesting is everyone's utter inability to take it seriously as a legitimate reading of the text, which it is.

smoothatonalsound said...

Excellent post on this paper, Phil. I heard this paper and had a different reaction than you did, but I also missed the entire Q&A session as I had to go do some volunteer work, and only heard about the heated exchanges afterwards.

I agree - ethnography would have gone a long way in making this paper shine. I will say that I think Broyles was trying to expand his scope from a reading of how black nationalists were appropriating Beethoven in the 60s to how certain black musicians continue to invoke Beethoven now, stressing the important role that Beethoven has for many people, black, white, or otherwise. In that context, I found his use of the Soulja Boyz recording - which cites Beethoven as a muse ("I gotta get Beethoven to help me on this one" says the MC at the beginning of the track) - constructive. It seems that, whether it was radical black leaders in the 1960s or hyphy hip-hop from this decade, the idea is centered wanting to invoke a communion with Beethoven as an expression of blackness in some way.

However, I can see the other side of the coin too...since there is nothing about the rap song that tries to claim Beethoven's race. Soulja Boyz are merely trying to invoke Beethoven's musical spirit, thus bringing him into their musical discourse, but NOT their racial discourse. This was the point that Broyles failed to make, he seems to equate the two of them as the same type of expression.

I'll be interested to see how this notion of the African-American reaction to Beethoven plays itself out in a longer chapter of his book.

MMR said...

Andrew and I were talking about it and he brought up another interesting direction that was not taken by the paper--which is the issue of masculinity. Carmichael (I think) had that quote where he said white people can keep Bach, but black people are taking Beethoven. I feel like you could get into all the Beethoven/Schubert/Masculinity stuff via an interrogation of how black nationalism was often specifically an embracing of black MASCULINE power, possibly a violent power (machine guns! Sexual threat!)--intended to terrify white people. And white people WERE terrified. So in that context the choice of Beethoven becomes more interesting and contributes another cool side to arguments about Beethoven's music representing violent masculinity. Why did they choose Beethoven above all other composers? Maybe this is why! And was that intentional, or is that perception of Beethoven subconscious, or what.

nikitakis said...

Hello Philip,
I would be very interested to learn how the Cold War session went. Was it interesting? Which new ideas were brought up? What was the reaction to my paper?
Nikita Braguinski

PMG said...

Great comments folks, and sorry to be MIA. Reentry from the conference made for a rough week!

@Glenn, it's an interesting question. I agree there's nothing intrinsically wrong with disagreeing with the idea that Beethoven was Moorish. (I don't buy it myself!) But it's funny how different that disagreement feels when it is being voiced by a large group of mostly white people at the same time, producing a spectacle of white scholars laughing at examples of black nationalism.

Broyles was definitely trying to be respectful towards the material, but more self-reflexivity about the nature of the research question might have helped. I'd be curious to know if other attendees out there had the same reaction I did; it was common to a number of people I talked to.

@smoothatonalsound, yeah, I think the soulja boyz thing could possibly be better in the longer version, especially if he looks at other examples and contextualizes things well. The perils of conference papers!

@Nikita, the session went very well, with a good-sized crowd despite the lateness of the hour! (Taruskin was there for the whole thing, bless him.) Something that was I think immediately noticeable to everyone was that nearly all the papers veered away from affect and into issues of space and geography. I don't know if perhaps you could get a copy of Caroline O'Meara's official response, since I think it did a good job of summing up things.

nikitakis said...

Thanks, I'll try to look for that response. I wish I could be there.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
PMG said...

Congratulations, Anonymous 7:53, on writing the first non-spam comment I've had to delete in five years of blogging! Personal attacks are not welcome here.

Anonymous said...

African Americans cant get credit for anything. The man was African American for goodness sake.