Poet laureate Dove to speak on forgotten prodigy

Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer

On a morning in May of 1803, Ludwig van Beethoven sat behind his piano on the stage of Augarten Theatre in Vienna and premiered his now-famous Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. Reading the score over his shoulder was George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, the up-and-coming, biracial, African-Polish prodigy.

The sonata had just been finished the night before, and there was no time for a rehearsal. The violinist took a chance at improvising, mimicking a difficult piano run, and Beethoven beamed.

“Once more, my dear fellow!” he jumped up and shouted, and the two played the movement again.

Rita Dove

Rita Dove

Bridgetower was on the rise after that performance, and Beethoven initially christened his piece “Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico” (“Sonata for a crazy mulatto”). Yet their friendship was short-lived — cut short by a squabble over a girl — and Beethoven stripped away the dedication to Bridgetower and named it instead for the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer.

The poet Rita Dove eulogizes the rise and falling-apart of the two virtuosos and the forgotten life of Bridgetower in her newest book of poetry, Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. It is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Four, and Dove will speak at 3:30 p.m. today at the Hall of Philosophy.

Dove, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has had a prolific career in letters. She earned her master’s degree in 1977 at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, the German writer Fred Viebahn. She was the second African-American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, and in 1993, she was the first African-American woman ever appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate.

Dove has nine collections of poetry, a novel, a play, a book of essays and one of short stories. Her newest, Sonata Mulattica, is divided into five sections, with a short play placed in the middle. She switches from sonnets to free verse to nursery rhymes to raps. Through Dove’s musical verse and ornate imagery, the world of gilded parlors and concert halls of 19th-century Europe come to life, as does the forgotten musician.

Dove is no stranger to classical music — she played cello through college before switching to the viola da gamba, a similar instrument but with frets — so she was a little embarrassed she had never heard of Bridgetower before a few years ago, she said. One night, she and her husband were watching the Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved” when she spotted something out of the ordinary.

“One of the musicians was a black man playing the violin,” Dove said. “I looked at my husband, and my husband and I thought, Colorblind casting? Yes. But not really in a movie like this. I couldn’t believe that he was there. I had to find out if this was true.”

She began her research online, discovering Bridgetower’s connection to the Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, known through music history as the Kreutzer Sonata, even though Kreutzer denounced it as “outrageously unintelligible.”

The fact that Beethoven and Bridgetower were friends was known, but the details of their fight were never recorded. Regardless, she was drawn to the mysterious career of Bridgetower and began saturating herself in classical music, to her family’s dismay — all the sonatas and concertos that Bridgetower would have heard, she said.

Eventually, Dove came across the diary of Charlotte Papendiek, wardrobe keeper to Queen Charlotte, whose voice appears throughout Sonata Mulattica. Her diary chronicles bits of the young Bridgetower at 10 years old, already a budding musician. It was then, Dove said, that he came alive.

“I really was so intrigued that I thought I would write the poems to find out more about him,” she said.

Early on, she writes of his young life as the son of a servant of the Hungarian prince Nikolaus Esterházy. This prince was the demanding employer of Joseph Haydn, who the young Bridgetower was able to hear “out composing in the shed / by the horse stables: dread work.”

Bridgetower must have been affected by the close proximity to Haydn, as he was early recognized as a musical prodigy. Papendiek’s husband arranged for some of his earliest concerts. It wasn’t long before he toured through London, attracted attention from the Prince and played in his orchestra.

What was most surprising to Dove was the acceptance Bridgetower received, despite his mixed-race heritage. She assumed, because of the racist sentiments at the time in the U.S., that he would be treated as an outsider. Yet English society was much more of a class system than a racial system, and Bridgetower moved easily within aristocratic circles, Dove said.

Then, in Vienna, he met and performed with Beethoven.

“One of the first complete poems was one of Beethoven’s,” Dove said. “Once I wrote that — ‘Vienna Spring’ — once that happened, I realized that what had been keeping me back was the fear of Beethoven. It was the fear of tackling someone who is so iconic, who is that marble bust on the piano that you practice under every day. Once I got through that fear and his voice came out, nothing could hold me back.”

During the Sonata performance, the two struck up a friendship. Bridgetower was known as a lively and flamboyant musician onstage. For Beethoven, who was more or less deaf, having such a visual accompanist would have been a great benefit, Dove said.

“I went in Beethoven’s notes and letters, and in one of those, there was a note in May of 1803 to Bridgetower that simply said, basically, ‘Let’s go get a beer,’” she said.

The details of their night at the Prater, a Viennese amusement park and biergarten, are the subject of the verse play of Sonata Mulattica. Bridgetower made a few lewd jokes to a barmaid, winning a date, and the hotheaded Beethoven stormed away, forsaking their friendship and the Sonata dedication.

After that, Bridgetower went on to play in the Royal Philharmonic Society, but his fame never reached the same heights as in Vienna. Dove said she wonders what he might have gone on to do if the two musicians continued to play together.

“With an African-named player attached to a Beethoven sonata, I imagine there would have been quite a lot of interest in him,” Dove said. “Who knows? … I do think that the example of him, just having him in history as one of the first, could have inspired a lot more kids of any color to say, ‘Oh, this is a field where we can do it, too.’”