Miscellanea

The Beethoven Newsletter, Summer 1989 | Go to article overview

Miscellanea


Bseethoven as a cultural icon has shown up in a bewildering number of places, arguments, and guises lately.

The most incomprehensible was the appearance of Beethoven drawn as a black man with wild hair, big lips, and red eyes on a poster two white students tacked to a black student's door at Stanford University's Ujamaa House, a black theme dormitory. This was but one in a series of racist incidents on campus this past spring; a week later the word "nigger" was scrawled across a poster advertising a black fraternity party. After several of these incidents, Stanford's Faculty Senate and Student Conduct Legislative Council vigorously debated various proposals to change the university's 83-year-old "Fundamental Standard" to ban "intimidation of students by other students" in their exercise of free speech rights and "discriminatory harassment" based on sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin.

Because black groups in the 1960s sometimes repeated the claim that Beethoven was black as a point of racial pride, we cannot imagine the point of the white student's poster, except to suggest that Beethoven's wildness, fleshliness, and madness were attributable to his supposed black heritage. Whatever the intent, the symbolic gesture was inaccurate, confused, and crude.

The notion that Beethoven was black may be traced, according to Dominique-René de Lerma, back to 1907 when, in an interview with Coleridge-Taylor and Raymond Blathwayt, Coleridge-Taylor opined that Beethoven had "coloured blood" in his veins because of his type of features, many little points in his character (?), and his friendship for the mulatto violinist Bridgetower. The question persists today, and librarians frequently field this inquery. Readers may wish to refer to de Lerma's concise article, "Beethoven as a black composer," Black Music Research Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Fall, 1985), pp. 3-5, which also includes a bibliography of genealogical writings on Beethoven.

A much less objectionable use of Beethoven's face can currently be found on the European "Eurocheque," which since January 1 incorporates pictures of Beethoven. The cheques carry a sophisticated watermark picture of the composer, and the cheque guarantee cards have a hologram of Beethoven. The new designs were introduced to prevent the fraudulent use of eurocheques and counterfeiting efforts. Previously there were a number of designs being used in the twenty-one countries issuing eurocheques.

The article in the Saturday, March 11 issue of The Times did not explain why Beethoven's image was selected to represent Europe, but an English American Beethoven Society member has suggested that Beethoven was chosen because the Ode to joy is unofficially the anthem of the western European nations.

A dvocates of the early-music movement continue to rile some critics and listeners, particularly when these advocates get their bows on Beethoven. In a "Music View" that appeared in The New York Times on March 26,1989, Donal Henahan carped his way through an editorial that accused supporters of early-music of being devoted to obscure instruments, ignorant and ill-conceived reasoning, parochialism, and zealous fervor. Roger Norrington's performances of Beethoven, meanwhile, continue to receive rave reviews, such as Mark Swed's review of Norrington's New York debut with the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies (Wall Street Journal, April 13,1989). Swed waxes about Norrington's readings: "What Mr. Norrington does that is so remarkable is to take Beethoven scores at their word, following the composer's often disputed metronome markings and employing a style of phrasing common to the period - but with geniune elan. …

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