Somehow, George Augustus Bridgetower did not go down in history.
After a spectacular, early 19th-century rise – tied to a rocky creative relationship with Ludwig van Beethoven – the Afro-European violin prodigy who electrified Europe was promptly forgotten. Now, in the 21st century, he has been rescued from obscurity by Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate Rita Dove in her acclaimed book, Sonata Mulattica.
Bridgetower, born to servants of Prince Nikolai Esterházy in Biala, Poland, showed extraordinary musical talent at a very young age. After debuting in Paris at age nine before an enthralled audience that included Thomas Jefferson, the local music journal declared, “His talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and his color of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts.”
In 1803, the young Bridgetower met classical music’s latest master, Ludwig van Beethoven, and the two struck up a fast friendship. Inspired by the violinist, Beethoven composed one of his greatest sonatas, Violin Sonata #9, which the two performed together before an audience that included Austrian royalty. Bridgetower’s performance of the sonata was so astonishing that Beethoven stopped playing and ran across the stage to embrace the violinist before returning to the piano and continuing the recital. At the time, the German master had titled his composition with teasing affection for his friend, calling it "Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico". Unfortunately, their friendship crumbled over a woman, and Sonata #9 has since been known as the "Kreutzer Sonata," named after French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer - a man who, unlike the Afro-European marvel who had stunned Vienna’s Augarten Theatre, never performed the piece himself and even declared it unplayable when he saw the sheet music.
Sonata Mulattica offers a new perspective on the artistry of Beethoven, George Bridgetower, and (not incidentally) Rita Dove, combining historical reconstruction with an imaginative exploration of how history is relived and reanimated in the rituals of musical performance. With this film, Stone Soup is proud to help bring one of the great, yet rarely told stories of music history out of obscurity and into full view before a wide audience.
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