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.|
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.
Haydn pops up here and there; most notably in this rueful poem:
Haydn Leaves London
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.
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.)