Rita Dove, Beethoven, and Bridgetower

This is another story I would have missed except for reading the print edition of the New York Times.

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.

Beethoven wrote what we now know as the Kreutzer Sonata for Bridgetower.  Originally titled Sonata Mullatica, Beetoven changed the name

…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.

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 www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro) 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.

“Bridgetower flourished in a time when the world outside Africa was like a huge concentration camp for black people,” Dr. Phillips said in an e-mail message. He noted that while Bridgetower got a music degree at Cambridge and managed to earn a living as a musician, for much of his life the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at full throttle.

 I find it fascinating that Bridgetower, a mulatto, and Beethoven also presumed to be mulatto performed together.  Add to the mix Thomas Jefferson who was in Paris with Sally Hemmings and it becomes even more interesting.  It seems that we have long been able to hold contradictory ideas about race.  The “all [insert race or ethnicity] are scum except you and you aren’t because you are [my friend, superior, different, etc.] syndrome at work.  Is that, I wonder, how many feel about our President?  That he is an exception.

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