Rita Dove’s gorgeously engaging ‘Sonata Mulattica’ weaves the narrative of a black virtuoso all but erased from musical history.
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.
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.”
A blank slate onto which she poured all her imagination and musings about race and class and sexual competition. Bridgetower, the son of a self-proclaimed “African prince” and a Polish-German woman, was born in Poland in 1780. As it happened, his father, who was a bit of an operator, was working in the castle of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, where Joseph Haydn worked as a musical director.
Even as a very young child, Bridgetower dazzled on the violin; Haydn took him under his wing. Later, Bridgetower traveled from Vienna to London, where he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who would later become King George IV. His was a life of comfort, adulation and high achievement. (He eventually received a degree from Cambridge University.)
At the time, there were a good number of free blacks living in London, says Dove, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Some were Africans who’d never been enslaved; some were slaves who’d been freed. Class, rather than race, circumscribed one’s lot. So for a black boy with a knack for playing the violin, a child prodigy with a powerful patron, life was considerably sweeter than that of, say, Black Pearl, the young black servant in Dove’s book.
Pathological hit of the day: nigger on a golden chain.
Metaphorically, that is. The African
valet, the maidservant black
as aces in a hole….
Sonata Mulattica is a gorgeously engaging read, utilizing a mix of poetic styles, from nursery rhymes to free verse, until the narrative arc sweeps into the big confrontation between Bridgetower and Beethoven. At that point, the action shifts from poem to play, a play with a distinctly vaudevillian sensibility, complete with baudy references to Othello. Bridgetower becomes a rapping, preening braggadocio:
But I’m a natural man, born under a magical caul,
I’m that last plump raisin in the cereal bowl;
I’m the gravy you lick from your mashed potatoes,
I’m creamier than chocolate, juicier than ripe tomatoes!
But Beethoven soon brings him down to size:
Now you will taste the high price
Of my affection—“Mulatto Sonata,” indeed!
I would sooner dedicate my music
To a barnyard mule
If the two men had not quarreled, two egos run amok, would musical history have been different? Would, we find, as Dove writes, “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”?
We will, of course, never know. Still, it’s nice to imagine the possibilities of what could have and should have been.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.