Immortal Beloved?

Perhaps this is a good time to admit to a longstanding obsession of mine. Actually, I hate to call it an obsession; it was simply a similar birthdate that brought it to my early attention- that, and perhaps my love of his music. Oh yes, and the way Beethoven wore his hair. Coincidences like that are bound to have an effect, don’t you think?

Of course, despite his curly locks, I doubt that he wore glasses, or had to endure braces on his teeth that compromised his social life away from the piano. Similarities can never be exact, though. For one thing, he was really good at his music, and also, I didn’t notice much of a hearing loss until I retired. But I can deal with that. I’ve never fit entirely into his shoes -it just gave an otherwise unremarkable little boy like me a doppelgänger to flaunt as I negotiated the exigencies of growing up.

And even as the years began to clog my pipes, I have continued to follow any stories of his life with interest. Of course, after all this time, not much fresh information has surfaced, so I had settled into a kind of contented paterfamiliarity with him; I did not really expect any breaking news. A rather provocative question in a headline from the Smithsonian magazine caught my attention, however: Was Beethoven Black?

I mean, it wasn’t a question I had considered, and I immediately found it interesting, if not mildly surprising. I had always subscribed to Black Lives Matter, and the question certainly added to his cachet, and yet I wondered what had prompted the query. What had I missed in a lifetime of borrowing his fame to compensate for my own involuntary obscurity? Wheels within wheels -good old Ezekiel- I thought excitedly. I love this stuff!

The essay was written by the freelance journalist Nora McGreevy. Curiously, however, her titled question, was immediately qualified by two words which were also included in the headline: Probably Not. But it was not enough keep me from diving into the article and her references -at least one of the more current ones: (and, yes, I was rather sceptical of the ‘African-American’ part).

The question about his ‘ethnicity’ has been around for a while though, it seems. ‘Conventional scholarship dictates that Beethoven (1770-1827) was born to Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, whose genealogy is Flemish. Those who dispute the composer’s whiteness argue that his mother might have had an affair with a Spanish person with African ancestry, or that Beethoven’s Flemish ancestors mixed with people of African descent when their region was briefly under Spanish monarchical rule. Berbers from North Africa—known to Europeans at the time as “Moors”—have a long historical connection to Spain… de Lerman [Dominique-René de Lerman, a musicologist and historian]… writing in the Black Music Research Journalcited evidence of the claim being discussed as long ago as 1907… Those who argue in favor of Beethoven’s black heritage point to contemporary accounts of his likeness that describe the composer in ways stereotypically associated with people of African descent.’

‘“This theory, however, is not based on genealogical studies of Beethoven’s past, which are available to the public. Rather, it is based on the assumption that one of Beethoven’s ancestors had a child out of wedlock,” writes the Beethoven Center at San José State University on its website. “[I]t is important to note that no one called Beethoven black or a moor during his lifetime, and the Viennese were keenly aware both of Moors and of mulattos, such as George Bridgetower, the famous violinist who collaborated with Beethoven.”

Hmm. Maybe McGreevy’s initial question was more clickbait than anything substantial, but it makes me wonder why it was even asked. I mean what if he was black? So what? Kira Thurman, a German historian, musicologist and a professor at the University of Michigan who studies black musicians in Europe writes ‘“There’s a way in which white people, historically, have constantly denied black people any kind of association with genius… And in a lot of ways, there is no figure that we associate more with genius than Beethoven himself. The implication of the idea that Beethoven might be black was so powerful, was so exciting and so tantalizing, because it threatens to overturn how people have understood or talked about race and racial hierarchy in the United States and around the world.”’

So, maybe it’s only the courage of my white male privilege bravely daring to enter a territory hitherto forbidden to my ilk, that would make me feel entitled to that access, and yet I love the possibility of my lifelong hero being something I had not expected.

In all the years I’ve known myself, I have never wondered about own ethnicity, although I suppose it had never come up -until a year or so ago, that is. A friend, who had known my family when I was in my twenties, mentioned to me that she had seen a man in a painting hanging in a small town restaurant  who, she was convinced, was a younger version of my father.

My father, who had worked for years as an accountant for the Canadian National Railway, had died a few years before, so naturally I wondered why there would be a picture of him in a town I doubted he had ever heard of, let alone visited. So, after receiving detailed directions to the restaurant, I decided to visit it when I could find the time.

It took a few months, but I eventually visited the town and made a point of finding the restaurant. It was located in the interior of British Columbia in area that was obviously proud of its indigenous heritage. Indeed, much of the artwork in the little café was made by local artists -including the painting my friend had seen.

The room was almost empty when I entered, and I was able to find the canvas fairly easily -in fact I actually sat at a table right beneath it. The scene was one depicting several aboriginal men who were working on a railway track somewhere in the area, I assumed. And the man in the foreground about to swing a pick was my father. He wasn’t, I suppose, but the resemblance was truly startling.

I spoke with the elderly woman who came to take my order, and asked about the painting. She smiled and rested her eyes softly on my face.

“It was painted by my brother,” she explained. “He’s gone now, but I think those were his friends. Most of them were from our village,” she added when I seemed interested. “Except the man with the pickaxe…” She pointed to the one who looked just like my father. “I think he was just working his way around the province at the time. Western Cree, I believe…” She glanced at the painting again. “We’re Wet’suwet’en First Nation,” she explained, proudly.

She didn’t know much more about the painting, and her brother had died, so I left it at that. But there had always been a lot about my father I’d never thought to ask; he was a very private man, but I was thrilled to think he was also an unknown quantity.

And the most intriguing aspect was that therefore, so was I -although I think I had always known that… Maybe it was why I was always fascinated by that observation of Hamlet, early in Shakespeare’s play, that There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Yes, Hamlet, I think there are…


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