Beethoven's Christmas Sonata
by Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
(formerly Hakeem Muhammad)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote 32 piano sonatas. The one I call his "Christmas Sonata" is the next to last, the 31st. I noticed one day that a certain passage near the end of the last movement had a "Christmas carol" sound. At first I thought this was insignificant, but then I found out that Beethoven had dated this piece "December 25, 1821". That discovery is the origin of this presentation.
As an African-American, I am fascinated by how Beethoven's appearance is represented. In the definitive biography of Beethoven, by Thayer, Beethoven is described as "dark brown" with protruding lips, a "decidedly flattened" nose, and shaggy hair. Thayer also wrote that Beethoven was called a "Moor" -- that is to say, an African -- by his contemporaries. I have seen many pictures of Beethoven, and not one of them depicts the man as he is described. According to Schindler (in "Beethoven as I Knew Him"), none of the pictures of Beethoven looks like him.
Beethoven was only one of many notable Europeans of African descent. Among them are: three generations of men named Alexander Dumas, a general in the French revolutionary army, his son (author of "The Three Musketeers), and his grandson (author of "Camille"); Alexander Pushkin, the "father of Russian literature", and his great-grandfather Ibrahim Hannibal, commander of the Russian army under Czar Peter the Great; St Maurice, the patron saint of Germany; St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order.
In addition, the Moors both in Moorish Spain (711-1492) and throughout Europe laid the foundation for Europe's rise out of the Dark Ages. And it was from the Moors and from Africans displaced to the New World in the slave trade that the basic elements of European classical music were derived.
There is no reason for African-Americans to feel that Beethoven is alien to them.
As a Muslim, I identify with Beethoven's love for the son of Mary. I do not call him by a Greek name (“Christ Jesus”), because he was neither Greek nor European, but rather Black (a person of color), Muslim (who fell on his face to pray, according to Matthew), Palestinian and Jew, on a mission of compassion and mercy to a world in distress. Compare his attitude towards lepers and sinners to the attitudes of today’s Christians towards homosexuals.
According to Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Beethoven had syphilis. This was the cause of his deafness early in life and of his eventual death. He lived at a time and place where such a disease carried a shameful stigma. In such a situation, the story of the son of Mary and his compassion for the sinner and for the leper must have resonated strongly.
Today, we are plagued with the paired controversies of homsexuality and AIDS. The compassion of the son of Mary is just as resonant today.
The sonata itself seems to reflect on the varying reponses of sedate reflection, boisterous partying, painful sadness, spiritual journey, and final rejoicing associated with the season in which those who love the son of Mary celebrate his birth.
See quotations from the Qur'an and the Bible on the birth of the son of Mary.
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