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A Lost Chord of Reason on Beethoven

Washington Times  2.18.97
Balint Vazsonyi



During my early years as a touring pianist, I received a phone call from my manager. This regional orchestra in Holland, she reported, was looking for a soloist to travel with them for several weeks. Someone had recommended me. The only condition was that I play a piano concerto by a Dutch composer since the program they were taking on tour had to be all Dutch.

Given our finances at the time, it was with a deep sigh that I explained my inability to oblige. Far from having a Dutch concerto on my repertoire, I had not even been aware such a thing existed in the first place. My manager, too, sighed as she contemplated the loss of her commission, but promised to convey my regrets to the orchestra.

Next morning the phone rang. The polite voice at the other end indicated that he was calling from Holland and introduced himself as the director of Stichting Overijssels Philharmonisch Orkest, the Dutch orchestra in question. "Mr. Vazsonyi," he said, "I just want to make sure we have understood your response accurately. Are we to assume that you do not play any of the piano concertos by Beethoven?"

Beethoven, Dutch?!

Then there is what many consider the award-winning double-whammy of the century: Austria has persuaded the rest of the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. (It was, of course, the other way around.)

All these memories were floating through my mind as I stumbled upon a lengthy essay on the Internet, entitled "Beethoven Proof." In it, the writer presents detailed evidence that Beethoven was "AT LEAST of African descent," if not altogether black. Having spent much of my life studying Beethoven, having devoted years to learning and performing the complete cycle of his 32 piano sonatas, and having made a television film about him, I was naturally curious.

The evidence presented is far too involved to reproduce here. In any event, I was more interested in motivation and purpose. The author seemed to be better-informed and more serious than most afro-centrists, which is why his points deserve attention. "Whether you're a lover of classical music or not," the writer contends, "the significance here is that our black youth have yet one more role model to look up to. Beethoven can be included among the ranks of people of African descent in which the whole world holds dear, but tried to claim as 'pure' white. He and others like Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Dumas...are among the few people...a black student in a history class can proudly proclaim as being 'black,' with a sense of pride."

I am not aware that anyone has "tried to claim Beethoven as pure white," or pure anything, but that's beside the point. The essay reveals the convolutions created by stripping black people of their American identity and America of her European roots - a process so-called Liberals of every shade have perpetrated. Look at where it gets us.

A black student claims kinship with Beethoven because three centuries ago the student's great-great-great-great grandfather came from a village in, say, Central Africa (later Belgian Congo, now Zaire.) Switch to the provinces of Flanders (now Holland or Belgium) which used to be under Spanish rule in the 16th century. There might have been soldiers from North Africa in the Spanish armies suppressing the fight for independence in those provinces. Since Beethoven's ancestry can be traced back to that region, the connection becomes clear. Or does it? A simple statement that Americans are heir to Western Civilization used to suffice.

But anything will do for now that will make young people listen to Beethoven. If the assumption of African descent will result in the symphonies being heard, Pushkin's dramas and poetry, or the novels of Dumas being read by black students, the reasons will soon lose importance. In fact, we might welcome a variety of incentives to encourage white, green, purple, and all other students to hear first-rate music and read first-rate literature.

There again, a simple statement that it was great used to suffice.

Here is how the legacy of the 1960s turns reason against itself. On the one hand, as Beethoven Proof exemplifies, the only way a claim may be asserted on behalf of "previously disenfranchised" groups is by taking possession of one or more accomplishments of Western Civilization. On the other hand, Western Civilization is portrayed as the source of all evil, the instrument of oppression, the scrap heap of dead white males.

Sympathy and offers of assistance are owed to those of our fellow citizens who have no way of knowing better, and who are being duped daily by cold and calculating political activists. Contempt and condemnation to them who cheat our youth of their inheritance.