Lawrence Toppman

Was Beethoven Black?

By Lawrence Toppman

This controversy surfaces every decade, most recently in a Twitter feed that blew up two weeks ago. African-American writers first debated this in the early 20th century, noting contemporary accounts that described him in terms often applied to them: swarthy, dark-complected, round-nosed. Nobel Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer, a white South African, fancifully revisited this idea in a story from her 2007 collection, “Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black.”

Centers for Beethoven studies point out that this claim relies on unsupported speculation: His mother might’ve had an affair with a Spaniard of African ancestry, or his Flemish ancestors mixed with people of African descent while Spain ruled their land. Beethoven befriended George Bridgetower, an Afro-European violinist, and initially dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 to the Polish-born virtuoso before a falling-out. Could this have been a racial bond?

Unfortunately for these theorists, nobody has dug up positive proof that a person of color contributed to Beethoven’s genealogy. But as University of Michigan musicologist Kira Thurman points out in that Twitter thread, people pose the wrong question. They ask whether the best-known classical composer in history might be Black. Instead, they should ask whether Black composers overlooked by history should be better known.

Why wrangle over Beethoven’s heritage while you can explore the symphonies of William Grant Still, the tone poems of Duke Ellington, the piano music of Florence Price – the first Black woman to have a symphony played by a major U.S. orchestra, the Chicago Symphony – or William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony?” Why not give Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” a unique folk opera, a listen?

France sent us the catchy violin concertos of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a 19th-century fencer and soldier who ended up conducting one of the finest orchestras in Paris. England’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who died at 37 just before World War I, turned the most popular American poem of his youth – Henry Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” – into a stirring cantata.

All these recommendations come from my own music library and can readily be found online. Some of these people are in Sony’s Black Composers Series, issued on LPs between 1974 and 1978 and recently boxed as a CD set.

Orchestras that cling to conservative audiences, mostly made up of old white folks such as myself, seldom play this music for fear of empty halls. Maybe, as Americans broaden their racial awareness, we’ll hear more of this repertoire in person. In the meantime, recordings reward open ears of every color.

The greatest opera with no good tunes

By Lawrence Toppman

I was not listening to “Fidelio” again this week and wondering why. I’d been thinking about it since late May, when it premiered 206 years ago in its final form, but I never took it from the CD rack of operas in my front room.

Beethoven would have been disappointed. He worked harder on this project than any other in his career, writing the first bits in 1804 and revising it for a decade. The longer, earliest version still exists as “Leonore;” my complete Beethoven set contains a copy of that opera, which also beckons to me futilely for a tryout.

I’ve now seen “Fidelio” twice in person and heard five recordings, some multiple times, without altering my view: It’s the greatest opera ever written without a single memorable melody.

Excitement abounds, from the heroine’s determination to rescue her imprisoned husband to the saved-at-the-last-minute conclusion. It has spiritual uplift, political commentary, mild humor arising from mistaken identity and moments of musical radiance, from the final section of Florestan’s lament in the dungeon to a chorus of prisoners allowed to step into the sun after long days in darkness. But great tunes? Nope.

Beethoven knew he wasn’t Mozart, the highest genius of comic opera at that time, so he never attempted a comedy. He accepted an 1803 commission from Emanuel Schikaneder, who had commissioned and written the libretto for Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” but quickly lost interest in the romantic intrigue of “The Vestal Flame.” (Two arias survive in “Fidelio.”)

He premiered his lone opera in 1805 in a three-act version, cut it to two the following year, tightened and rewrote and re-released it in 1814. Along the way, he wrote four overtures: Three called “Leonore,” including a 13-minute piece occasionally used as an entr’acte, and the “Fidelio” overture we hear today. “Leonore No. 3” remains his most thrilling short orchestral work.

And he broke completely with tradition. His German operatic predecessors, Handel and Haydn and Mozart, wrote clearly defined recitatives and arias. So did his contemporaries, Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Schubert.

But “Fidelio,” though it contains solos and duets and quartets – including numbers with repeated choruses – depends on drama rather than songfulness. Verdi and Wagner found ways to combine both elements 40 years later in their visionary works, but Beethoven couldn’t do so in “Fidelio” – and he never tried again.


Pictured: Act 1, prison yard (Halle, 1920). By Paul Thiersch – Werner Freitag, Katrin Minner, Andreas Ranft (Hg.): Geschichte der Stadt Halle, Band 2: Halle im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle 2006, ISBN 3-89812-383-9, Tafel IX., Public Domain.

A pitcher of cool water in a musical desert

By Lawrence Toppman

The Internet has been crammed for three months with well-intentioned, often makeshift performances designed to relieve the cultural drought. Now the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has found a satisfying way to bridge the gap between the virtual world and the real one: Its six-concert Al Fresco series kicks off with principal cellist Alan Black and principal harpist Andrea Mumm.

They play on the stage Black erected behind his Woodberry Forest home, a locale so inviting I felt like tracking it down and hiding in the bushes for the next taping. (Suitably masked, of course.) He built it to carry on the 400-year tradition of intimate musical gatherings for small audiences at private homes. But the debut concert had no audience beyond a video crew.

The format, roughly 40 minutes of music and conversation, flows easily. The first program, dedicated to the healing of a nation battered by COVID-19 and racial unrest, consisted of brief, uniformly soothing pieces. Only the last of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Six Studies in English Folk Song” briefly moved along faster than an andante tempo. Arvo Pärt’s mesmerizing “Spiegel im Spiegel,” the most serene music I know, seemed especially apt in this context.

Three things will make these concerts more satisfying than most of what I’ve found online. First, the consistently high level of artistry. Second, the naturalness of the performances: Musicians play and converse as they would in a concert hall, set farther apart for social distancing but not in a way that seems odd or affects acoustics.

Third, the camerawork and editing let us see players clearly from various angles. Closeups give us a chance to watch bowing and fingering, and this “you are there” feeling really matters. In the video, Black thanks the Rydel family for these results: father Robert, a French horn player you’ll hear in the third concert, wife Chris and son Sean.

Future videos range from duos to a quintet and encompass a more adventurous range of composers — Ernő von Dohnányi, Rebecca Clarke, Ignaz Pleyel – alongside Haydn, Mozart and Shostakovich. CSO cellist Jeremy Lamb will perform in works he wrote and adapted.

We’re not to meant to take these as a substitute for in-person performances, which are scheduled to resume August 7 with an all-Beethoven concert at Queens University. But as a stopgap until we can hear the CSO live again, they’re a joy.

“Knock out his front teeth!”

By Lawrence Toppman

That’s what Count Joseph Johann van Thun instructed the soldiers he sent after horn virtuoso Jan Václav Stich, who fled the count’s employ at 20 after playing for four years in the Bohemian nobleman’s orchestra. Stich had studied in Prague, Munich and Dresden at his employer’s expense, so perhaps his boss deserves a bit of sympathy.

That order was meant to keep Stich from ever playing the horn again. Luckily for himself, Ludwig van Beethoven and us, the soldiers couldn’t find him. He crossed into Italy, changed his name to Giovanni Punto and became perhaps the top horn player of the late 18th century. (He also composed. As far as I know, Australian virtuoso Barry Tuckwell made the only recording of four of his concertos, along with many other pieces on a terrific double CD.)

Punto developed new techniques for hand-stopping, the process of producing notes outside the normal harmonic series by placing the hand in the bell of the horn. Mozart, who had no love for horn players, called Punto’s playing “magnifique” in Paris, where they met in 1778. He later moved to Vienna, impressing Beethoven so much that the 29-year-old composer wrote a horn sonata – his only sonata or concerto for a wind or brass instrument – in 1800, highlighting the chromatic sounds in which Punto specialized.

Other composers had written for hornists, whether because they felt inspired (Weber), were commissioned (Haydn) or both (Mozart). But none seems to have been transformed by such an encounter like Beethoven, who saw how the instrument could go beyond its traditional limits.

Horns hadn’t been important to his orchestral work, but now they assumed huge significance. He added a third horn to the customary two for the Eroica Symphony in 1802, underlining tragic drama in some places and nobility in others. The horn represents heroic Leonora in the 1805 overture to “Fidelio,” his only opera, and striding horns in the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony signal victory over oppression by Fate. For the Ninth Symphony, he added a fourth horn to let those instruments ring out above the massive orchestration.

By then, Punto was long gone: He’d died in 1803 of pleurisy, a common ailment for wind players. But his legacy lives on in Beethoven’s magnificent horn lines. Without Giovanni Punto, we might never have had Beethoven’s symphonies as we know them today.

Ludwig and Wolfgang

By Lawrence Toppman

For nearly half his life, Beethoven had to hear comparisons between himself and Wolfgang Mozart. Some came from well-wishers, but one warped his personality forever.

Supporters in his birthplace of Bonn urged him to go to Vienna to study with Mozart, but the older man died the year before Beethoven arrived in 1792. As he departed, Count Waldstein (dedicatee of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21) told him, “You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”

Beethoven made Mozart’s Concerto No. 25 his calling card as a piano soloist. He copied Mozart’s style in early violin sonatas, used it as a jumping-off point in the first two symphonies and rebelled against it in string quartets. Sometimes Mozart simply daunted him: The idea of following the 18th century’s greatest composer of comic operas kept Beethoven from finishing one.

The saddest link between them lay in manipulative, sometimes tyrannical fathers. Leopold Mozart trotted his prodigy around Europe, gathering fame and money at royal courts, and ever after tried to keep his son dependent on him emotionally and supporting him (at least in part) financially.

Johann van Beethoven, a musician and teacher in Bonn, took Leopold as a role model while raising his first surviving son. (Another Ludwig lived for four days in 1769, the year before the composer’s birth.) But where Leopold used psychology to try to control Wolfgang, Johann used the rod.

He put his son on display as a prodigy, lying about the boy’s age to exaggerate his prowess. He forced Ludwig to practice, beating him when he would not and once locking him in a cellar for abandoning the piano bench. Meanwhile, Johann drank profusely, especially after Ludwig’s mother died when the boy was 16.

After that, the family depended more and more on the gifted young pianist and organist to support them. Finally, 18-year-old Ludwig obtained a court order requiring that half of Johann’s pay be turned over to him to maintain himself and two younger brothers. Johann died months after Ludwig moved to Vienna at 21.

The strange saga of Beethoven’s skull

By Lawrence Toppman

Metaphorically speaking, contemporaries seldom knew where Beethoven’s head was at when he composed. Physically speaking, that was true after he decomposed. Most of his skull remains in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, along with the rest of him — but not all.

After his funeral in 1827, the body went to a cemetery in Währing northwest of Vienna. On a bizarre note, a grave-digger was allegedly offered money to remove the head, so Beethoven’s friends kept watch over the grave.

In 1863, scientists dug up Beethoven and Schubert (who lay nearby) to study the bodies and re-inter them. Phrenology became popular in the first half of the 19th century, so they may have wanted to “read” skeletal bumps. Romeo Seligmann, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Vienna, reportedly acquired fragments of Beethoven’s skull. (More of him in a minute.) Some of Beethoven’s ear bones also went missing, probably in an attempt to see what caused his deafness.

The Viennese dug him up again in 1888 to move him to Central Cemetery. Historians say elderly composer Anton Bruckner, himself eight years away from the grave, attended the ceremony; by one account, he cradled Beethoven’s skull in his hands and may have dropped a lens from his pince-nez into the coffin, so a piece of him would lodge with Beethoven forever. (He also did his skull-seizing act on Schubert and had to be removed from both proceedings.)

Meanwhile, the skull fragments from Seligmann’s collection made their way through generations of family members and landed at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University. Alas, the Californians discovered in 2015 that these pieces could not have come from Beethoven’s skull, after all.

Why does all this matter? Why did Bruckner, a devout Roman Catholic, treat the skull like a holy relic? Aside from medical questions – would ear fragments really tell us anything? – what difference does it make where the bones lie?

Maybe we’re so awestruck by his genius that we keep searching for a physical explanation. How did this overweight, hard-drinking, frequently ill man produce such an array of masterpieces? Was it simply cerebral hardwiring? A creative spark from God? Or can we find a clue among the remnants of his broken body? The question can never be answered, but we ask it anyway.

Taking Ludwig van Beethoven a part

By Lawrence Toppman

The last half-century has brought endless discussions about how to hear Beethoven’s music the way he heard it. But I don’t know of anyone making us hear his music the way he thought of it until now.

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians have come together (separately, while sequestered) to perform the final movement of his Sixth Symphony. Instead of sitting among each other swapping germs, 29 soloists and a duo recorded their parts separately at the same time on the same day.

You’ll find the fascinating results in “A Symphony A Part” on the CSO website. The musicians played their own parts in the fifth movement – the one depicting rejoicing after the storm – wherever they happened to be. Most tried to get outside, befitting a symphony called the Pastoral, and music sometimes mingles interestingly with ambient noise.

We’re so used to hearing Beethoven’s joyful sounds together that it was a shock to see how they break down. A clarinet tootles lonely notes, then falls silent. A trombone waits two minutes to enter, plays a gentle pattern, then repeats that pattern minutes later. A familiar violin melody skips by, then turns suddenly to chirping birdsong. (The chronically ill composer thought walks in fresh air brought good health, and they always cheered him.)

The musicians’ statement on the website says the project “is meant to show our gratitude for music, one another, the Charlotte Symphony, and the communities to which we belong. As we shelter in place, we remain present. We are tuning into Beethoven’s symphony, the sounds of our respective neighborhoods, and each other.”

We’re reminded that musicians remain as frustrated by their inability to congregate as much as any of us, and of how much we miss by not hearing them perform. (I immediately put on my favorite Sixth, Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony.) And it shows, if we needed reminding, how much a glorious whole depends on the sum of small parts.

“A Symphony A Part” also serves as a metaphor for our times. We’ll beat COVID-19 through cooperation, playing small roles in the big human orchestra, not by insisting we be heard above everybody else in obtrusive, self-indulgent solos. Respect for other people has never mattered more in America since the Civil Rights Era. If we don’t stay committed to it, there may not be much rejoicing after this pandemic storm.

What the deaf man heard

By Lawrence Toppman

Most of us probably think Beethoven went deaf relatively early, then churned out masterpieces for decades without hearing a note. The 1994 film “Immortal Beloved” popularized that idea, and it seems as astonishing as a blind person climbing Mount Everest. (Two have done so, though the Nepalese government has now banned solo climbers and blind or severely disabled people to cut down on fatalities.)

But new evidence suggests Beethoven might have retained partial hearing up to a year before his death. A recent BBC Music Magazine article reports that Kent State University professor Theodore Albrecht has been translating 12 volumes of Beethoven’s conversation books, written notes passed to him when conversation became too difficult. Sometimes he spoke to visitors; sometimes he wrote back and kept his jottings after they left.

Scholars have long debated the cause of his deafness. “Immortal Beloved” attributes the first symptoms to a clout on the ear by his drunken father; that’s far-fetched, though Johann did beat his son when the boy disobeyed him. Lead in Beethoven’s blood seems likelier; merchants illegally added leaded sugar to sweeten cheap wines in the 18th century. Possibly diabetes and hepatitis contributed to it, or a recurrence of childhood smallpox. (He suffered ill health all his life.)

He tried many useless cures: medicines, bleeding, leeching, cold baths and lukewarm baths, even painful applications of tree bark to his body to absorb “healing” chemicals. His hearing started to fail at 27 and declined over his last three decades. Some writers believe he heard almost nothing as early as the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in 1808.

Yet he reportedly listened through an ear trumpet to his nephew playing a piano in 1820, when Beethoven was almost 50. Three years later, says Albrecht, he advised a man going deaf, “Do not use mechanical devices too early; by abstaining from them, I have fairly preserved my left ear.”

Albrecht thinks the composer could hear at least some of his Ninth Symphony at its premiere in May 1824 and may faintly have heard the last premiere he supervised, his String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat, in March 1826.

I’d like to think so. Beethoven’s life contained so much unhappiness – physical, romantic, familial, financial – that it cheers me to believe he could appreciate on some level the extraordinary music he gave us.

Pictured: Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved; © by Columbia Pictures.