The world has been offered an interesting and unique opportunity to hear world-renowned writers reading their work alongside performances from New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s through the OSLive Wednesday Night Series “Sounds and Stories.” On May 5, the series offers the chance to hear the music of Beethoven while paying tribute to the 19th century Afro-European violin prodigy George Bridgetower and will feature the words of Pulitzer Prize winner and the first Black US poet laureate, Rita Dove.
There was very little information about the Black violinist until Dove became immersed in his story. In her research, she was able to write a book-length poem entitled “Sonata Mulattica,” which melds historical information and ornamentations from her imagination to create an important and poetic piece of writing on Bridgetower.
Born on October 11, 1778, Bridgetower befriended the powerful composer, Ludwig van Beethoven and performed a sonata Beethoven dedicated to him. Unfortunately, Bridgetower and Beethoven had a falling out and their broken friendship caused the sonata’s dedication to be renamed and Bridgetower became lost in history.
Dove spoke to the AmNews about her work and the exciting event where she will get to revisit her wealth of knowledge on George Bridgetower.
AmNews: How did you first learn about the historic musical figure, George Bridgetower?
Rita Dove: I knew that people like him existed. I’d heard of cases where there were mixed-race prodigies in the 19th century, but I didn’t know particularly about George Bridgetower. In 2005, I was watching the movie “Immortal Beloved” which was a biopic about Beethoven, and there was a scene in the movie where Beethoven was going back to Vienna and all of these musicians wanted to play for him, and among the players, there was a Black violinist. I thought, “This is a little bizarre.” I was so curious about it that I researched him. I Googled “Black violinist Beethoven” and a single entry came up. The article at least gave me his name and said that Beethoven had dedicated a sonata to him and that George Bridgtower premiered it. But that’s all I had.
I was just very curious and began looking for as much information as I could. I scoured libraries to find out who Bridgetower was and that curiosity led me to write the book. It was amazing to me that he had dropped completely out of history. First, I thought it was simply racism but found that it was more complicated than that. I found a journal in an archive that was written at the end of Bridgetower’s life where he said the dedication was destroyed because he made a [rude] comment about a girl. That sent me further into my research and information began to emerge that there was a pretty complex society and a complex relationship between him and Beethoven. Then the poems began to come [to me]. I realized I had to let him speak in his own voice.
AmNews: Did you have to use your imagination to fill out the story of Bridgetower for your book or was “Sonata Mulattica” most historically based?
Rita Dove: It was both. I did have to use my imagination to fill out the story. But I based it all on as much historical data as I could find. I had discovered that in his early life when he was about 10, he went to England, and one of his first concerts was sponsored by a man named Papendiek. Through that, I discovered that Papendiek’s wife had kept a diary. She had been the wardrobe keeper of the queen, and when she retired her children told her that she would write down what she did during her time with the queen. In fact, there are two volumes of her diaries and there were four mentions of Bridgetower. She saw the young Bridgetower and how polite and shy he was, she saw his over-the-top father. That gave me clues about what he was like when he first came to England. So there was a historical matter there. I speak German so I was able to go into the Beethoven archives to find when they met in 1803 if he ever mentioned Bridgetower. I found a note from Beethoven to Bridgetower asking him if he wanted to grab a beer before they had their falling out. Beethoven’s voice helped give me a clue about how casual their friendship was.
Without even trying to think about it, I could hear [Bridgetower] talking to me. So then my imagination came in.
For more information about Rita Dove’s virtual collaboration with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s “Sounds and Stories” event May 5, visit oslmusic.org/event/sounds-stories-rita-dove/.