How Beethoven Killed Black Classical Music

Rita Dove’s gorgeously engaging ‘Sonata Mulattica’ weaves the narrative of a black virtuoso all but erased from musical history.

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Way, way back in the day, there was an Afro-Polish violinist, a biracial child prodigy of such virtuosity that even Beethoven felt compelled to dedicate a sonata to him. There were honors and accolades and patronage from a prince.

But fortunes changed, as poet laureate Rita Dove describes in her novel-sized book of poems, Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. The violinist, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, and his composer, Ludwig van Beethoven,  performed the sonata together to thunderous acclaim.

The goodwill between them evaporated as the two quarreled over a woman. Beethoven furiously erased Bridgetower’s name and scribbled the name of another violinist when he dedicated the sonata.

That is how the “Sonata Mulattica” became the “Kreutzer Sonata,” one of Beethoven’s most famous works. Through that one fit of jealous retribution, Beethoven wrote Bridgetower out of history.

The Polish black virtuoso, once famous, now forgotten.

This bright-skinned papa’s boy

could have sailed his 15-minute fame

straight into the record books.

Dove first heard about Bridgetower years ago, when she was a musician studying the cello, and later, opera. It wasn’t until she saw Immortal Beloved, a film about Beethoven, that it triggered her memory. Fascinated with the thought of a mixed- race musician in 19th century Europe—“I thought there was more to it than this exotic creature who played the violin”—Dove set out to find out more about him. For five years, she researched and wrote, digging up little nuggets along the way, tucked in letters and diaries, like that of court lady Charlotte Papendiek, and in what little historical accounts she could find.

“It was like tracking the coordinates of some meteor,” Dove says. “ ‘Oh, he went there; he appeared here,’ mapping the trajectory of his life. Other than that, he was a blank slate.”