Monday, February 2, 2009

Rita Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Writes of George Bridgetower, Beethoven's Black Violinist

[Rita Dove; George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860), Copyright: The British Museum]

AfriClassical first posted this stunning poem in November 2008; we repost it in observance of Black History Month:
The Bridgetower
By Rita Dove November 24, 2008

If was at the Beginning. If

he had been older, if he hadn’t been

dark, brown eyes ablaze

in that remarkable face;

if he had not been so gifted, so young

a genius with no time to grow up;

if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,

to an obscure old age.

If the piece had actually been,

as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after

our man had played it, and for years,

no one else was able to follow––

so that the composer’s fury would have raged

for naught, and wagging tongues

could keep alive the original dedication

from the title page he shredded.

Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,

or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,

von instead of the unexceptional van

from some Dutch farmer; if his ears

had not already begun to squeal and whistle;

if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,

if he could have found True Love. Then

the story would have held: In 1803

George Polgreen Bridgetower,

son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince

and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,

travelled from London to Vienna,

where he met the Great Master,

who would stop work on his Third Symphony

to write a sonata for his new friend

to première triumphantly on May 24th,

whereupon the composer himself

leapt up from the piano to embrace

his “lunatic mulatto.”

Who knows what would have followed?

They might have palled around some,

just a couple of wild and crazy guys

strutting the town like rock stars,

hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .

instead of falling out over a girl

nobody remembers, nobody knows.

Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy

could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame

straight into the record books––where,

instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley

sprinkled here and there, we would find

rafts of black kids scratching out scales

on their matchbox violins so that someday

they might play the impossible:

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,

also known as the “Bridgetower.”

The Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A Minor, Op. 47, now called the Kreutzer Sonata, was originally dedicated to the Black violin virtuoso George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). Ludwig van Beethoven accompanied him on piano at the work's premiere in Vienna in 1803. Before the sonata could be published, a personal disagreement with Bridgetower led Beethoven to substitute the name of another violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer called the work unplayable, and never performed it. Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma gives a detailed account at the George Bridgetower page of

Rita Dove served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995 and as Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. She has received numerous literary and academic honors, among them the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and, more recently, the 2003 Emily Couric Leadership Award, the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1997 Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, the 1997 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, the 1996 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities and the 1996 National Humanities Medal.

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