Stealth Isolation: ‘Was Beethoven Black?’ Five Black composers we never knew

JORDANNAH ELIZABETH | 6/25/2020, midnight
When thinking on what to write this week I came across a couple of Twitter threads commenting on how “Beethoven ...
Black composers

Restaurants are beginning to slowly open up, and President Trump felt so comfortable with the “containment” of COVID-19 that he decided to have a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Juneteenth (yes, he pushed the date, but only in response to public outcry). As time moves forward and people begin to go back to their routines of shopping, group gatherings and eating out, it’s still important to keep the momentum of what we are learning during our time of quarantine. Did you read more books or spend time with your family? Did you begin to study things you’ve long been interested in? Do you think you’ll continue to do these things once the threat of COVID-19 is completely gone? This is something to contemplate.

When thinking on what to write this week I came across a couple of Twitter threads commenting on how “Beethoven is Black” has been trending online. Two scholars, Uchenna Ngwe and Dr. Kira Thurman, in no uncertain terms expressed that Beethoven was not Black and suggested, rather than asking questions that pivot our attention to whiteness, we should be lifting up composers who were, in fact, Black.

I’d like to raise up two Black women scholars who offered their deep knowledge of Black classical music to their Twitter followers and the world at large, highlighting Black composers we were never taught in school. Let’s support Black brilliance because voices in music history are essential.

Violinist George Bridgetower (1791-1860) “The son of an Afro-Caribbean servant and a Polish mother at the Esterhazy palace, he was a student of composer Joseph Haydn and a friend of Beethoven. Beethoven dedicated a violin sonata to him, which was so hard to play many gave up. The African American musicologist Maud Cuney Hare first championed George Bridgetower in 1927, the centenary of Beethoven’s death. She noticed that white musicologists only talked about Beethoven—not Bridgetower.

“So instead of asking the question, ‘Was Beethoven Black?’ ask, ‘Why don’t I know anything about George Bridgetower?’ I, frankly, don’t need any more debates about Beethoven’s Blackness. But I do need people to play the music of Bridgetower. And others like him.” —Dr. Kira Thurman (@kira_thurman)

Amanda Aldridge (1856-1956) “Singer and composer. Daughter of the New York-born Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge, as well as sister to opera singer Luranah Aldridge and composer/pianist Frederick Ira Aldridge.” —Uchenna Ngwe (@uchennangwe)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) “Born in Holborn to become Britain’s most famous Black composer. Father was a Sierra Leonean doctor and mother was a white English woman.”

—Uchenna Ngwe

Fela Sowande (1905-1987) “One of the many composers of African Art Music, which developed as a hybrid of West African traditional and European classical musical styles. During the 1940s, his many BBC Radio performances included accompanying Adelaide Hall and Dame Vera Lynn.” —Uchenna Ngwe

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) “is known for his many letters and being the first known Black person to vote in a British parliamentary election. He also wrote and published music.” —Uchenna Ngwe