The first Black woman poet laureate and Pulitzer prize-winning poet and author, Rita Dove will be reading passages from her book, “Sonata Mulattica” in collaboration with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to celebrate the life of the 19th-century Black violinist George Bridgetower, who performed with Beethoven before becoming completely erased from history after the two had an unfortunate falling out.
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s will perform classical pieces from Bridgetower’s era while Dove, whose book is a fictional biography of the Black musician and historical figure, will meld her passion for Bridgetower’s story with film and music as a part of a concert series entitled OSLive Wednesday Night Series ‘Sights and Sounds’ which will take place virtually on May 5.
Dove took time out of her busy schedule to speak to the Amsterdam News about this intriguing and unique collaboration. This is part 2 of her conversation about her work and interest in the life of George Bridgetower.
AmNews: How did your collaboration with the St. Luke’s Orchestra and the ‘Sights and Sounds’ series become a reality?
Rita Dove: Last fall, I got an email from the artistic director explaining what they had been doing during the pandemic. They had been planning a few concerts that were wedded to spoken word, something a little different. As a former musician, I was sympathetic to the plight of musicians [during the pandemic], and how to make the experience of a concert feel immediate while over the internet.
I liked their idea of doing a biographical concert for George Bridgetower in relation to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” and dispersing the poems with other music of that era. I was intrigued because I love collaborations across genres. I believe the boundaries between genres are artificial. The idea of wedding my first love, music, and my constant love of poetry along with adding film for a visual [effect] was so interesting.
So, we began to talk and had a series of wonderful and intense Zoom sessions where we hashed out what was going to happen.
AmNews: As a world-renowned writer, how do you choose the projects and collaborations you engage in? Do they have to be multi-dimensional performances like ‘Sights and Sounds’ or do you choose from your intuition?
Dove: I don’t choose my projects, they choose me. It sounds kind of mystical but I find that when something begins to haunt me too much, I need to explore and figure out why. In this case, I feel like Bridgetower almost ambushed me. I was not intending to write this book. I started trying to find out more about him, and I began to write a poem about a certain moment [in his life], then I needed another poem to gauge the feeling of how he got to that moment. He had a whole life before he got to Vienna.
And as I began to write one poem after another, he started taking shape to be a book and a pretty big one at that. I felt like I had to do this book. In the end, one of the things I discovered while I was writing was that one of the initial attractions that made me feel akin to Bridgetower was not only the fact that he had been erased from history but also the curious thing that happens when one attains fame and is only seen as what other people imagine you to be.
People would stand right in front of him and think, “Oh, look at the little Black boy playing the violin, how novel.” The perception and racial implications that were put upon him were exactly the ones that we have, but they were there. They were real, but they were complicated in different ways. And I realized I was lost in my perception because I thought, “This happened to him because he was Black.” But it was more than that, it was because Beethoven was not particularly attractive and Bridgetower was very good-looking. That was an aspect that I had overlooked. But the complicity of skin color and what that meant was something that united the two [Bridgetower and Beethoven] and later, divided the two.
For more information about this upcoming concert visit: