Saturday, July 3, 2021 Reclaiming the Bridgetower Sonata

Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower

2nd July 2021

CHI-CHI Nwanoku OBE is on a mission to bring light and deeper understanding of Black musicians contribution to the classical musical landscape and that takes the shape of a special BBC Radio 3 feature on George Bridgetower, the virtuoso violinist who inspired the best in the industry.

Bridgetower was a mixed-race virtuoso, admired by royalty, a pupil of Haydn and friend of Beethoven – who was so inspired by the artist that he wrote one of his greatest pieces for him – the Sonata Op.47.

But the work is known today as the Kreutzer Sonata, because of a subsequent dedication to a French aristocrat.

Nwanoku, world renowned double-bassist, founder of Chineke! Orchestra and tireless campaigner for racial equality in the music world, goes on a journey to find out more about Bridgetower’s life and why – or whether – he fell out with Beethoven.

“One of the most seminal works for violin in the whole classical canon – Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op.47 – has become universally known as the Kreutzer Sonata, but that title honours someone who never even played the work at the expense of the man who inspired and premiered it – the mixed race musician George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower,” Nwanoku explains.

She adds: “The commonly known story – as far as anything about Bridgetower is commonly known – is that he and Beethoven fell out.

“But this is based on a single, second-hand source from over 50 years after the event: the violinist J.W. Thirlwell writes in a newspaper in 1858 that – ‘In respect to the Kreutzer Sonata, Bridgetower told me that when it was written, Beethoven and he were constant companions, and on the first copy was a dedication to his friend Bridgetower, but when it was first published, they had some silly quarrel about a girl, and in consequence Beethoven scratched out the name of Bridgetower and inserted that of Kreutzer, a man whom he had never met.'”

Presented and curated by Nwanoku the programme explores the musician’s life and connections, and discusses the facts behind the change in Beethoven’s dedication.

Nwanoku said: “When I first heard about the story surrounding Beethoven’s piece and its dedication, I was astonished to discover that in his day George Polgreen Bridgetower was a celebrated virtuoso, a star who was patronized by royalty and rubbed shoulders with great composers.

“I decided that Bridgetower’s name needed to be restored to history, so I set about contacting the movers and shakers of the music world who could help make it happen – today’s great violin soloists, Beethoven scholars, concert hall managers, and music publishers.

“One of the main keys to restoring this overlooked virtuoso’s name to Beethoven’s sonata is music publishers. Over the past months, I have spoken to the major publishers.

“The most positive response came from Edition Peters and its president Kathryn Knight. And what seemed like a distant possibility has now turned into reality: soon there will be  a new edition of Beethoven’s work: the Bridgetower Sonata!”

Contributors to the programme include American poet Rita Dove, jazz pianist Julian Joseph, acclaimed violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, celebrated violinist/conductor Richard Tognetti and rising-star American violinist Randall Goosby. [44]

Ahead of the programme Knight told the Voice Online: “The extraordinary relationship between Beethoven and the phenomenally talented musician George Bridgetower is very little known and comes as a revelation that speaks urgently to our time.

“There is no doubt that Bridgetower was the catalyst for Beethoven’s composition of his virtuosic Sonata No.9 in A Op.47. Originally dedicated to Bridgetower, the work was clearly created in close collaboration with the 24-year-old violinist, who was also admired by Beethoven as a composer, and it was first performed by them both in May 1803.”

She added: “However, Beethoven’s tendency to use formal dedications as currency to attract patrons and support meant that he ended up re-dedicating the work to the already world-famous violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer – who disliked the work and never played it – and Bridgetower’s name faded into obscurity. 

“One can only wonder how things would have been different, had Beethoven kept the original dedication: generations of black musicians from that time would have instead felt much greater ownership of this great classical canon and tradition, and a creative part of its performance practice.

“This hugely important project is about ‘reclaiming history’ and restoring a major black presence into the music narrative of the last 200 years. The white-washing of classical music’s history resonated particularly with us at Edition Peters.”

Speaking to the way in which Bridgetower helped to define the musical landscape and the value that it brings to this day Goosby enthused: “Were it not for the prolific skills and musicianship he possessed, we would not be able to enjoy this masterpiece, and one might even say that Beethoven’s music as we know it may not have been the same.

“For a violinist, having a sense of Bridgetower’s life and experiences could totally change one’s interpretation of this piece. It is crucial that we dig deeper into the lives and works of figures like Bridgetower, because until we do, the true breadth of experience encapsulated in this music cannot be known.”

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