+ Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata Started as “Sonata Mulattica”

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From an article by Felicia R Lee

Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and former poet laureate of the United States) has written a book called  “Sonata Mulattica.”

Built out of the life of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a biracial violin prodigy who played for Haydn, Thomas Jefferson, and Beethoven, the narrative is a collection of poems subtitled  “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play.”

He was the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father.

Bridgetower’s father was a servant in a Hungarian castle where Haydn was music director.  The nine-year-old genius with a cascade of dark curls went on to inspire Beethoven and help shape the development of classical music. 

But he ended up relegated to a footnote in Beethoven’s life.

When he died in South London in 1860, his death certificate noted simply he was a “gentleman.” 

In the poem “The Bridgetower,” Ms Dove writes

This bright-skinned papa’s boy/ could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame/ straight into the record books.

Years earlier, apparently in a fit of pique after a quarrel over a woman, Beethoven removed Bridgetower’s name from a sonata dedicated to him — Bridgetower was 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, said it was “unplayable,” and never played it.

Says Ms Dove,

The story being told is not just the story of his life but about the nature of fame, the nature of memory, public memory.  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.  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.

While she was growing up in Akron Ohio, Rita Dove played the cello.  She had vaguely known about Bridgetower for years.  She tucked him away in memory and pulled him out around 2003.

She was prodded by viewing the film “Immortal Beloved,” a fictionalized Beethoven biography.  For several seconds, a black violinist is on the screen, and that sent Ms Dove to the Internet to research Bridgetower’s story.

She became entranced by this man, who had won wide critical acclaim in his lifetime.

I knew I didn’t want it to be a kind of historical tourism.  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.

Although Bridgetower failed to find a prominent place in the musical canon, major musical histories do record his achievements.  He is found in “The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,” as well as on Internet sites like www.AfriClassical.com and its companion www.affriclassical.blogspot.com , which document black contributions to classical music.

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

The free-verse section  of  “Sonata Mulattica,” titled “Volkstheater: A Short Play for the Common Man,”  imagines the dust-up between Beethoven and Bridgewater.

Dove places them in Vienna; Bridgewater 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, in this version, calls those who snicker “at honest emotion” “philistines,” and rips the dedication page of the sonata to shreds.

Dove says she had fun, letting her imagination run to writing poems which are the ruminations of a vast cast of characters who include Bridgewater’s father, Haydn, and Beethoven.

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.

 She found Bridgetower both intriguing and sad.

His home was music, his home was his violin.  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, with his father acting as his manager, sometimes dressing himself and his son in exotic outfits to attract publicity.

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

The Kreutzer Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most well-known works, and shows that a piece that has been valuable for centuries was done to show the genius of a black composer.

The story of Bridgetower is a corrective to the notion that certain cultural forms are somehow the province of particular groups, says Mike Phillips, a historian, novelist and former museum curator. 

Phillips has 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 “Bridgewater: A Fable of London in 1807,” an opera in jazz and classical music performed by the English Touring Opera which premiered in London in 2007.

Says Phillips, “Bridgetower flourished in a time when the world outside Africa was like a huge concentration camp for black people.”  He notes 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.

Although little of Bridgetower’s work survives today, he associated with some of the major musicians of his time, for example, Giovanni Viotti, the violin virtuoso, and Samuel Wesley, the organist and composer.

Bridgetower was also crucial to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music.  The Royal Academy 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 might have happened, had that dedication survived.  Writes Dove:

instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley/ sprinkled here and there, we would fine/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.  

Rita Dove is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.  At the age of 56, she has written 11 other books, including a novel, a drama and a short-story collection.

sole source: Felicia R Lee’s article in the NY Times on 4/3/09.  www.nytimes.com   Sonata Mulattica: Poems by Rita Dove, is published by WW Norton, 2009, 224 pages.  ISBN 13-9780393070088.  It was $12.47 at the Strand Bookstore online.  www.strandbooks.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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