Thursday, April 2, 2009

New York Times: 'Poet’s Muse: A Footnote to Beethoven'

Sonata Mullattica; Rita Dove; W.W. Norton Co. (2009)]
Published: April 2, 2009
Haydn almost certainly encountered him as a child in a Hungarian castle, where the boy’s father was a servant and Haydn was the director of music, and Thomas Jefferson saw him performing in Paris in 1789: a 9-year-old biracial violin prodigy with a cascade of dark curls. While the boy would go on to inspire Beethoven and help shape the development of classical music, he ended up relegated to a footnote in Beethoven’s life. Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former United States poet laureate, has now breathed life into the story of that virtuoso, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, in her new book, 'Sonata Mulattica' (W. W. Norton). The narrative, a collection of poems subtitled 'A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play,' intertwines fact and fiction to flesh out Bridgetower, the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father.

When he died in South London in 1860, his death certificate simply noted that he was a 'gentleman.' Ms. Dove imagines, as she writes in her poem 'The Bridgetower,' that 'this bright-skinned papa’s boy/could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame/straight into the record books.' 

It did not help that years earlier, apparently in a fit of pique after a quarrel over a woman, Beethoven removed Bridgetower’s name from a sonata the composer had dedicated to him, Bridgetower being the mulatto of 'Sonata Mulattica.' The two men had performed it publicly for the first time in Vienna in 1803, with Beethoven on piano and Bridgetower on violin. By the time it was published, in 1805, it had morphed into the 'Kreutzer' Sonata, dedicated to the French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who disliked it, however, saying it was unplayable, and never performed it.” “While Bridgetower failed to find a prominent place in the musical canon, his story is nevertheless recorded in the major musical histories, like The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, as well as on Internet sites like and its companion,, which document black contributions to classical music.” “'Rita Dove does a wonderful job of humanizing the story,' William J. Zwick, the creator of, said of 'Sonata Mulattica.' The 'Kreutzer' Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most well known, he said, and shows that a work that has been valuable for centuries 'was done to show the genius of a black composer.'

Bridgetower’s story is a corrective to the notion that certain cultural forms are somehow the province of particular groups, said Mike Phillips, a historian, novelist and former museum curator who contributed a series of essays to part of the British Library’s Web site (at that profiles five 19th-century figures of mixed European and African heritage, including Bridgetower, Alexandre Dumas and Pushkin. He also wrote the libretto for 'Bridgetower: A Fable of London in 1807,' an opera in jazz and classical musica performed by the English Touring Opera, which had its premiere in 2007 in London.” [Full Post]  [The thoroughly documented biographical essay on George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower at is the work of Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin]

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