Are Beethoven’s African Origins Revealed By His Music?

Are Beethoven's African Origins Revealed By His Music?
Ludwig Van Beethoven by Louis R. Letronne (1814). Lythography by Frédéric D. Hillemacher (1837 ). Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

AFRICANGLOBE – Historical debate on German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was reignited on June 1st 2015, when a collective of Historians and musicians published a website named Beethoven Was African.

The collective ambitions to provide a different lens with which to appreciate the legacy of Beethoven, by re-focusing the debate surrounding Beethoven’s origins on the core question: his music. In the following interview, ANY, a member of the collective and the pianist who plays the sonatas in Beethoven Was African: Polyrhythmic Piano Sonatas, gives us some more insights on the results of the research.

When you say “Beethoven Was African” what do you bring that the many other theories that already exist on the possible African ancestry of the composer don’t?

Our research provides a new interpretation and new keys to understanding the music of this composer, as well as to the many mysteries that exist in his biography that have not been resolved to date. For instance, why did such an important man for his time not have a valid baptismal certificate, or a birth certificate? Why was his identity subject to so many rumors and conjectures during his lifetime? This project aims to bring a new biographical light on the composer’s life, and offers a new way to understand and play his musical work.

Ludwig Van Beethoven had a precise and almost absolute knowledge of polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea Region, on the West African coast. Although they are unwritten, I would even say that these West African traditional polyrhythmic patterns, which still exist, were fundamental to his work as a composer. Ludwig Van Beethoven has achieved the perfect synthesis between polyphonic modes and tonal system, developed in Europe in the centuries that preceded his era, with polyrhythmic system and patterns from West Africa.

When playing this music, with this awareness of the polyrhythms present in the work of Beethoven, the music magically becomes clearer, more harmonious, more beautiful.

 

 

The album Beethoven Was African is the demonstration of this discovery. By what magic effect do these polyrhythms allow us to discover the multitude of melodies present in each part of the piano sonatas? How come these polyrhythms allow us, for the first time in the history of the recording of these music pieces, to cleanly hear the part played with the left hand, to hear the rhythm of the latter, to reveal its hidden polyphony, and not consider it anymore as a simple accompaniment of the melody played with the right hand?

If you compare the pieces of the Beethoven Was African album with their equivalents in previous recordings of 20th century pianists, for example, you will realize with astonishment that the left hand appears almost with no rhythm, no soul. By listening carefully to the musical pieces contained in the Beethoven Was African album, you will hear that some parts induce something like a swing motion to the listener. These sonatas therefore induce something that was absent in Beethoven’s music so far: dance. It occurred to me that it was impossible at some point to bring out the real nature of Beethoven’s pieces of music, I would even say to recreate the music as the composer played it, if I dismissed the polyrhythmic patterns that guide almost all the piano masterpieces of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

This discovery of polyrhythmic patterns identified in the score left by the composer fed the biographical research. It was necessary to understand why the composer had this  polyrhythmic ability, and who had transmitted it to him in this Europe of the late 18th century.

In regards to the biographical research, the project is new because of the method used. Previous research on the African origin of the composer relied mostly on passages from 19th century biographies on the composer, which never explicitly mention an African identity for Beethoven. Historians involved in Beethoven Was African project questioned documents and artifacts produced while the composer was alive: correspondence, cultural journals, portraits, the writings and sayings of his contemporaries. It is this method of historical investigation that allowed us to move forward and discover unpublished documents, and finally to unravel what is probably one of the greatest mysteries in the history of art.

Why do these 19th century biographers, those who are authoritative today, not mention this African origin?

Because this African identity has been concealed throughout his life by the composer himself. The political and social condition of African or African descendants residing in Europe between 1770 and 1827 explain the adoption of this public image strategy. During Beethoven’s lifetime few people knew his face. He was obsessed with a strange paranoia and kept changing domicile. He moved into at least 67 homes in Vienna alone. Sometimes he lived in 2 or 3 residences simultaneously, so that no one could never really know where he was. An anecdote: one night in 1821 he was arrested on a street in Vienna and brought to the police station. The head of the Vienna Police ignored his true face and was unable to authenticate him, despite the fact that Beethoven had been living in Vienna for at least 20 years. The police chief had to call the director of the Vienna Opera, who was one of the few people who had already met the composer. A strange thing when you consider that Beethoven was at that time the most famous Austrian composer.

Beethoven had a decisive influence on the narrative that was to prevail on him after his death. If he did not write his own memoirs, he dictated them before his death to Anton Schindler who was his secretary during the last 4 or 5 years of his life. The composer himself had chosen his biographer. The biographies published after Schindler’s Beethoven as I Knew Him are variants of this fascinating story that we all know, of this “romantic hero”, created by the composer himself and dictated to his secretary. In addition to being among the most brilliant composers of all time, he certainly possessed an unmistakable narrative genius.

Indeed this original biography would serve to remove the family background controversies that persisted in music and aristocracy circles in Europe in the early 19th Century. It is this illusion created by the composer, hiding his face behind false portraits,  that allowed his first biographer to compose a plausible story that completely eluded persistent questions related to his identity.

 

Part Two