Let’s go for a little historical perspective. Ludwig van Beethoven was black. His father was German, while his mother was from Spain, and was referred to as being a “Spanish Moor.” What does that mean? Well, starting in the year 711, and ending roughly 781 years later, in the year 1492, there was an Islamic kingdom in southern Spain. This brought over a lot of people from North Africa – people of color. Now, I realize that Beethoven was born significantly after 1492. He was born in 1770, but even then, there was still a lot of darker people in Spain. The pictures of Ludwig tend to show a pale man, with a wide nose, and wild, fly-away hair. However, descriptions of him while he lived included these phrases: “His face reveals no trace of the German… He was so dark that people dubbed him ‘The Spagnol’ [dark-skinned]” “Coal-black hair… stood up around his head.” “Complexion was brownish, his hair was thick, black, and bristly” And - “Short, stocky, broad shoulders, short neck, round nose, blackish-brown complexion”
This view of Beethoven is disputed. Some biographies of the man completely overlook this, others say that “the rumors that he was black are largely dismissed by historians.” The justification for this is that in pictures he is always shown as being white. However, there exists a pencil sketch that was made of Ludwig that he had copied and gave out to friends and family. In this sketch, he could be a person of color.
I have read that his racial heritage gave him an innate knowledge of African rhythms. That part I have trouble with. To me that seems as racist as the white-washing. Why was it important to hide how dark his skin was? Because he was a great composer. Even during his life, he was acknowledged as a great composer. And how could someone so talented be black?
In the year before Beethoven died, 1826, Stephen Collins Foster was born. Foster would go on to become the father of American music, with such hits as Camptown Races and Old Black Joe. Most of his compositions are classed as parlor songs or minstrel songs. Minstrel songs were to be performed by white people in black-face makeup, using caricatures of what they thought slave dialect sounded like.
Let’s speed forward a few years, to around the turn of the 20th Century. A man generally considered to be one of the great American composers – Irving Berlin, born Israel Beilin. Many of his early compositions such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, grew from a racist meme. The “joke” was how could a black man have such a highfalutin’ name like Alexander?
This leads us straight to Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson. I was given the collection of sheet music that had belonged to the great-grandfather of one of my students. In the collection is a lot of first editions of Al Jolson hits, all of them with the performer in black-face. I don’t think we’ll be using those.
The opera world has promoted what it calls “color-blind casting” for decades. In the 1990s I saw an amazing production of Don Giovanni that starred an African-American man as Don Juan. But all too often what this really meant was white people playing roles that called for a person of color. I have played Madame Butterfly, an Asian woman. At least I was not put in makeup to make me look Asian. But it was only in 2015, (five years ago!) that the Metropolitan Opera company in New York City stopped putting their Otellos in black makeup.
I have overlooked the vast amount of music that is out there. These are but a few examples, but I think they are indicative of the whole. Music, as all art, reflects the time in which it was composed. Are we getting better? Yes, I think we are. Is our music more reflective of inclusion and respect? Yes. Do we still have a long way to go? Damn straight we do.
Until next time!