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Exploring the life of an Afro-European Virtuoso through Verse and Violin

G.P Bridgetower
G P Bridgetower

Listen to Beethoven’s famed Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, commonly called the Kreutzer Sonata after the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. It is sometimes assumed that Beethoven originally dedicated the sonata to Kreutzer. In reality, Kreutzer never could perform the sonata.

Instead, he reportedly told Beethoven the piece was “impossible to play” — a notable complaint, given that Kreutzer was considered one of Europe’s top violinists at the time.

But it was not impossible. By this time, Afro-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower had already played the sonata, said Creative Writing Prof. Rita Dove, who recently wrote a book about the musician.

Bridgetower was a Mulatto violin virtuoso. His musical talent was so impressive that Beethoven originally wrote the piece for him, not Kreutzer, Dove said. Why, then, did Beethoven rededicate the sonata to Kreutzer, a violinist who refused to play it? Also, why did history subsequently forget George Polgreen Bridgetower?

Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, said she aims to recover Bridgetower’s lost significance in her latest book of poetry. “Sonata Mulattica” dramatizes in lyric verse the life of the violinist and the different factors that led him to historical obscurity rather than fame.
“I wanted to discover [Bridgetower], Dove said, “and poetry was the way I wanted to discover him.”

In a joint concert with Dave Matthews Band violinist Boyd Tinsley, Dove will celebrate the release of “Sonata Mulattica”  Friday evening as part of the 15th Annual Virginia Festival of the Book. The blending of poetry, music and conversation will begin at 8 p.m. in the Paramount Theater.

“[When] Dove mentioned that Boyd Tinsley was cited in one of her poems … we all agreed that it would be fantastic if there could be a joint program,” said Nancy Damon, program director of the Virginia Festival of the Book. Kevin McFadden, the festival’s associate director and a former University student, said he felt that there would be “large interest” in the program, and eventually the festival invited Dove and Tinsley to perform together at the Paramount. Dove used Tinsley’s name in her poem, “The Bridgetower,” describing him as one of today’s gifted people forgotten by time. She said she contacted him after finishing writing “Sonata Mulattica” to let him know he was featured in it.

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