Monday, May 19, 2014

'Sonata Mulattica'—ode to an obscure genius, friend and rival to Beethoven

Handsome, personable, and a child prodigy, violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778–1860) was the son of a Polish-German mother and an Afro-Caribbean father. His life and times are reborn in Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica, a collection of poems subtitled “A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play.” The book careens around the musical capitals of Europe, as composers and musicians of the time were wont (and often forced) to do.
The crux of Bridgetower's posthumous fame comes from his friendship with Beethoven, who dedicated his Opus 47 to him as “Sonata Mulattica.” The two colleagues performed the daunting piece publicly for the first time in Vienna in 1803, with Beethoven on piano and Bridgetower on violin. Beethoven, however, got into a snit about a woman they were both interested in, and there went the dedication, as well as the friendship. By the time it was published, in 1805, it was dubbed the “Kreutzer” Sonata and dedicated to Rudolphe Kreutzer. Ironically, the French violinist pronounced it  unplayable, and never performed it.
The poet speaks of Beethoven's "dismal chunk" of a face, elsewhere likening him to Rumpelstiltskin.
“The dramatic tension of Sonata Mulattica is clearly between Beethoven—his tempestuous nature exacerbated by his deafness—and Bridgetower” wrote Paula Woods in the Los Angeles Times. “Ten years younger than Beethoven, Bridgetower's background includes the childhood trauma of being sold off to the Prince of Wales by his greedy father, virtuoso performances in numerous resort towns and theaters in England and Germany and a young man's lust for the opposite sex. The men's connection through the violin sonata is told with a sensuality that borders on the erotic, uniting them as kindred spirits even as their bond belies the truth about their class differences or Beethoven's ultimate power to undo Bridgetower's promising career with a mere stroke of his pen. Sonata Mulattica brims with passion for the music, the era and its major and minor characters…. Dove's masterful collection illuminates the life of a musical genius who might have been lost forever in the braying cacophony of our celebrity-driven times.”
Besides reading like a novel, the book carries off the coup of evoking the experiences and sensations of listening to music.  As in the following passage (from the young Bridgewater's point of view):
But oh the witchery of orchestral strings—
the full body of sound gathering you in,
as to a mother's bosom
or a haystack at sunset,
to plunge into
that stinging embrace...
Or consider the competing agendas of “Tafelmusik (2)”
Style and flattery will get you the life

you deserve: one table setting after another,

beer sand cards in the park at Raneleigh,

some lame poet enthusing over

the pale moon under the pricking stars

while Lord Petersham glimpses himself

in the sheen of his boots and smiles

as he pulls out the snuffbox for this very day.

At least the unnamed gentleman who

each evening squires a different doll

from his own bisque collection

knows that that’s all he wants.

Does all that powder make them happier?

There’s the Duchess of Devonshire, snooting past

with her lap dog, as big a yawn as ever.

Look at sly little Miss Wilson Lady prattling on;

she’s absolutely smitten with the divertimento!

Smitten: as if this were a love affair

and she needs to be hit between the eyes

to actually feel something. Divertimenti

do not smite: only God does.

Here’s a modest proposal: Shut your eyes

for five minutes and listen. Easy music,

yet it demonstrates respectable employment

of chordal modulation and is utterly

capable of transporting a weary soul

out of this frenzy and onto the plain

of perfect comprehension—and there is

your bliss, flowing beneath all the fretting;

there is your ecstasy & ruin & entitlement,

all the religion you’ll ever need.

“Papa” Haydn pops up here and there; most notably in this rueful poem:
Haydn Leaves London
August 1795
I work too slowly for their appetites.
I am a plow horse, not a steed; and though
the plow horse cultivates the very grain that gilds
their substantial guts, they will thrill to any chase,
lay down a tidy fortune and their good name
on the odds of a new upstart darling.                                               
The first trip, I took up Pleyel's unspoken dare
and promised a new piece every evening
for the length of the concert series. 
Intrigue fuels the coldest ambitions;
the daily newspapers thickened
with judgments on the drummed-up duel
between the maestro and his student of yore. 
What was I thinking?  I am old enough to value,
now and then, an evening spent with starlight—
not one twittering fan or lacy dewlap obscuring
my sidelong glance—yet I came back
to these noisome vapors, this fog-scalded moon,
fat and smoking, in its lonely dominion. 
The black Thames pushes on.  I close my eyes
and feel it, a bass string plucked at intervals,                        
dragging our bilge out to the turgid sea—
a drone that thrums the blood, that agitates
for more and more. …
...............................Well, it is done. 
I bore down for half a dozen occasions,
wrote a four-part canon to a faithful dog,
wheedled a few graceful tunes
from Salomon's orchestra, that bloated fraternity
of whines and whistles—and now I can return
to my drowsy Vienna, wreathed in green
and ever turning, turning just slowly enough
to keep the sun soft on her face.
[Hear Rita Dove read this poem here.]
The truly great cities are never self-conscious: 

They have their own music; they go about business.

London surges, Rome bubbles, Paris promenades; 

Dresden stands rigid, gazes skyward, afraid.

Vienna canters in a slowly tightening spiral.  

Golden facades line the avenues, ring after ring 

tracing a curve as tender and maddening

as a smile on the face of a beautiful rival.
You can't escape it; everywhere's a circle.

Feel your knees bend and straighten

as you focus each step.  Hum along with it;

succumb to the sway, enter the trance.

Ah, sweet scandal:  No one admits it, 

but we all know this dance.

Dove reads this poem here. She reads another poem from the book ("Ludwig van Beethoven Returns to Vienna") here.

Bridgetower spent much time in England, taking a music degree at Cambridge. Dove makes special use of the diaries of Charlotte Papendiek, a servant in the court of George III of Britain and the wife of musician, Christopher Papendiek, who took an great interest in Bridgetower, helping arrange concerts for him.
Dove's poetic recreation of Bridgetower's life was so inspiring to others that a feature-length documentary about him is nearing completion. Also called "Sonata Mulattica," it brings in the contemporary story of African-American violin virtuoso and composer Joshua Coyne.

Here is Dove at the 2009 Virginia Festival of the Book talking about the process of creating Sonata Mulattica. (At 4:20 she starts reading from it.)


  1. Very interesting! I had never heard about this "lover's quarrel" (since it certainly sounds like something more than a friendship). I guess we do never hear much about Beethoven's personal life. I also find it humorous that Bridgetower found the work "unplayable" after it was no longer named after him.

    1. Also, there were no glossy tabloids in the 1800s, so stories like this don't always come to surface. But imagine if there were a 19th century US Weekly! "Beethoven & Bridgetower no longer playing the same tune after mysterious lady comes between them! Is it jealousy over her or each other?"

    2. It was the second dedicatee (Kreutzer) who snubbed it as unplayable. Bridgetower was well up to it, more's the pity for his moment of fame being eclipsed all too son.

  2. There's a nice painting by Prinet, and a strange novella by Tolstoy, on the very subject of jealousy and unraveling love. Both are named after this work.
    Personally, I prefer Beethoven's piano work and symphonies to this technically difficult but hard-to-love sonata.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, o heroine of Beethoven's only opera!!