Haydn almost certainly encountered him as a child in a Hungarian castle, where the boy’s father was a servant and Haydn was the director of music, and Thomas Jefferson saw him performing in Paris in 1789: a 9-year-old biracial violin prodigy with a cascade of dark curls. While the boy would go on to inspire Beethoven and help shape the development of classical music, he ended up relegated to a footnote in Beethoven’s life.
Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former United States poet laureate, has now breathed life into the story of that virtuoso, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, in her new book, “Sonata Mulattica” (W. W. Norton). The narrative, a collection of poems subtitled “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play,” intertwines fact and fiction to flesh out Bridgetower, the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father.
Bridgetower’s story is a corrective to the notion that certain cultural forms are somehow the province of particular groups, said Mike Phillips, a historian, novelist and former museum curator who contributed a series of essays to part of the British Library’s Web site (at www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro) that profiles five 19th-century figures of mixed European and African heritage, including Bridgetower, Alexandre Dumas and Pushkin. He also wrote the libretto for “Bridgetower: A Fable of London in 1807,” an opera in jazz and classical musica performed by the English Touring Opera, which had its premiere in 2007 in London.
“Bridgetower flourished in a time when the world outside Africa was like a huge concentration camp for black people,” Dr. Phillips said…He noted that while Bridgetower got a music degree at Cambridge and managed to earn a living as a musician, for much of his life the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at full throttle.
While little of his work survives today, Bridgetower associated with some of the major musicians of his time, including Giovanni Viotti, the violin virtuoso, and Samuel Wesley, the organist and composer…
Moreover…Bridgetower was crucial to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music. This institution was the central influence on, and regulator of, Britain’s musical history at a time when the forms and structures of modern classical music were being invented, along with new instruments that produce the sounds heard in contemporary concert halls.