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Was Beethoven’s African Heritage Whitewashed?

Famed music composer Ludwig van Beethoven created some of the most impressive works of art in his time that are still played worldwide today. Aside from being a musical genius, what most people don’t know is that Beethoven may have roots tracing back to Africa. An exact conclusion has yet to be determined, but there is a lot of evidence and research that strongly supports the claim. If it’s true, why is Beethoven’s African heritage white-washed?

Describing Beethoven

Images of Beethoven are recognized worldwide, depicting a white male with wild hair. But are these images accurate for the famous musician? Photography didn’t exist until around the end of Beethoven’s life so we must rely on artistic paintings and written descriptions of Beethoven to get an idea of his actual appearance. While many of the images detail him with fair skin, written descriptions of the composer render us a different image of Beethoven.


Many sources have been gathered throughout history from anthropologists, historians, and even close acquaintances of Beethoven that have described him in brief detail, raising the question that Beethoven may have had some trace of African heritage based on similar features found in African descendants.

It’s important to reference how Beethoven was considered in the public eye. Many texts have been uncovered that refer to Beethoven as a “Moor.” In this era, ‘Moor’ translates to ‘negro,’ before the term was extended to include Arabs in later times. The German translation for ‘negro’ is also ‘mohr.’ A renowned Beethoven Historian, Alexander W. Thayer, can be quoted stating “Beethoven had even more of the Moor in his features than his master, Haydn.” Many people suggest that Moors introduced the classical music style to Europe, evident by the hint that Beethoven’s musical master was also of Moorish descent.

A description of Beethoven was also discovered, written by one of his close friends, Frau Fischer. Beethoven is described as having a “blackish-brown complexion” and “short, stocky, broad shoulders, short neck, round nose…” A similar description was given by Frederick Hertz, a German anthropologist in his book Race and Civilization. He mentions that Beethoven has “Negroid traits,” “dark skin,” and a “flat, thick nose.”

Combine these descriptions with the visual depiction of his curly hair, and we can draw parallels between characteristics of people of African descent such as African Americans or West Indian mulattos.

Beethoven’s Parents

While Beethoven’s African heritage may have been white-washed, examination of his parents may lead to other evidence that the famed composer has roots to Africa. It’s not determined which of his parents’ sides that trace back to Africa but there are possibilities from either.

Most would agree that Beethoven’s musical talents were derived from his father’s side. His grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven, was a famed Bass singer turned music director in Boon, Germany. His father, Johann van Beethoven, followed by becoming a music teacher for keyboards and violin. One piece of evidence on his father’s side that causes inquiry into his heritage is that Johann was half-Flemish and born in Belgium, a known Moorish territory during his time.

Suggestions of African heritage are also derived on his mother’s side, perhaps more so than from his father. Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich, was born in Ehrenbreitstein, Germany, also encompassed within the Moor territory. His mother is rumored to be moor or even mixed with a white father and black mother, or vice-versa.

A least favorable consideration for Beethoven’s African heritage could also be that he was an illegitimate child, as some research suggests. Beethoven has been referred to as a ‘kammermohr,’ a German word describing the offspring of relations with a servant of black skin.

Moors in Europe

Based on research and evidence, there is a high likelihood that Beethoven had some heritage traces to be a Moor. It’s easy to hear the term ‘Moor,’ but most people are unaware of what precisely a Moor is and their historical presence throughout Europe.

‘Moor,’ ‘Mohr,’ ‘Mohrer,’ are all related terms that described dark-skinned people living in Europe. Not only did they live in Europe, but Moors were recognized as royalty throughout the era. Moors originated from the Northern African region who eventually conquered significant territories in Europe. The Moor kingdoms extended from Spain to neighboring areas now called Germany, Belgium, etc. In Germany, Beethoven’s birthplace, Moors had a presence in the country until the mid-1800s, existing from the time of his birth to death.

Why White-wash his African Heritage?

With Moors being respected individuals during his life in Germany, why did Beethoven white-wash his potential African heritage and hide any convicting evidence of the fact?

Sure, Moors were thought of as royalty, but mainly within the Moorish communities and affiliates. There were still complications of blending within society since they essentially conquered non-native land and created stake holds in the regions. Even the fact that the Moors were eventually overthrown and ran out of Europe due to wartimes shows that there was always tension between societies.

Whether the rumors of Beethoven’s African heritage are true or false, he was a musician in search of success in a place where Moors were thought of as outcasts. He had a choice of acknowledging his African heritage and being considered the same, or white-washing the truth with hopes of being accepted by the mass public. The decision to white-wash his true heritage was made to preserve his image in the public eye and ensure his success despite his identity.

If Beethoven would have publicly acknowledged his African heritage, we may not recognize Beethoven today as one of the most famous music composers who ever lived. If he had chosen NOT to conceal his African heritage, it’s quite possible he would have still been admired as the great man of musical genius he is today, and perhaps he could have broken through some of the “moor” accessible racial barriers of the time.