Poet’s Muse: A Footnote to Beethoven

New York Times
April 2, 2009
By Felicia R. Lee
Photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times

Rita Dove-New York Times, 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.

“The story being told is not just the story of his life but about the nature of fame, the nature of memory, public memory,” Ms. Dove said during a recent interview in New York about the book, due in stores this week. “Into the mix we pour the story of this mulatto boy. It’s also a story about youth. Youth is exotic, as well as race.”

“I’ve always been intrigued by the way history works, the way we decide what is mentioned,” continued Ms. Dove, a relaxed conversationalist who says she switches into an obsessive mode while writing. “Here was the case of a man who made it into the history books, but barely. And who would have been, if not a household word, a household word in the musical world. That flame was snuffed out.”

Ms. Dove played cello while growing up in Akron, Ohio, and had vaguely known about Bridgetower for years. She tucked him away in her memory and pulled him out around 2003, she recalled, prodded by viewing the film “Immortal Beloved,” a fictionalized Beethoven biography. A black violinist is on screen for several seconds in one scene, sending Ms. Dove to the Internet to research Bridgetower’s story. Her quest left her half in love with a man who won wide critical acclaim in his time.

“I knew I didn’t want it to be a kind of historical tourism,” said Ms. Dove, who at 56 is the author of 11 other books, including a novel, a drama and a short-story collection. “I wanted to create a sense of this man, so I had to use my imagination for this prodigy who flew up the ranks of society.”

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 AfriClassical.com and its companion, africlassical.blogspot.com, which document black contributions to classical music.

Ms. Dove’s research also relied on documents like the diaries of Charlotte Papendiek, a servant in the court of George III of Britain and the wife of an accomplished musician, Christopher Papendiek, who took an active interest in Bridgetower, arranging his first concerts.

In the free-verse “Volkstheater: A Short Play for the Common Man,” contained in the 200-plus pages of “Sonata Mulattica,” Ms. Dove imagines the dust-up between Bridgetower and Beethoven. They are in Vienna. Bridgetower is a smooth-tongued flirt who tells a barmaid that “a black man’s kiss is a dangerous item/and must be handled prudently.”

Beethoven calls those who snicker “at honest emotion” “philistines” and proceeds to rip the dedication page of the sonata to shreds.

“I had fun,” Ms. Dove said of letting her imagination run to writing poems that appear to be the ruminations of a sprawling cast of characters that include Bridgetower Sr., Haydn and Beethoven, among others. The poem “Self-Eulogy” reads:

Finally, the verdict’s
Come through.
All the pots licked
For their stew
Lie empty, cold;
Soon the last copper coin will arrive. ...
But, dear Papa — I’ve
Tasted the gold.

Ms. Dove, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, said she found her subject both intriguing and sad.

“His home was music, his home was his violin,” Ms. Dove said. “He was exotic, he was good-looking, he was well spoken, but I think somewhere inside he was very alone.” As a child, Bridgetower traveled from city to city, his father acting as his manager, sometimes dressing himself and his son in exotic outfits to attract publicity.

“Rita Dove does a wonderful job of humanizing the story,” William J. Zwick, the creator of AfriClassical.com, 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 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.

While little of his work survives today, Bridgetower associated with some of the major musicians of his time, including Giovanni Viotti, the violin virtuoso, and Samuel Wesley, the organist and composer, Dr. Phillips said.

Moreover, his e-mail note continued, Bridgetower was crucial to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music. This institution was the central influence on, and regulator of, Britain’s musical history at a time when the forms and structures of modern classical music were being invented, along with new instruments that produce the sounds heard in contemporary concert halls.

Who knows what would have been different, but for that dedication?

In the conclusion of her poem “The Bridgetower” Ms. Dove writes:

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 some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.