Sonata Mulattica

Sonata Mulattica

A Life in Five Movements and A Short Play

Book - 2009
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The son of a white woman and an "African Prince," George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860) travels to Vienna to meet "bad-boy" genius Ludwig van Beethoven. The great composer's subsequent sonata is originally dedicated to the young mulatto, but George, exuberant with acclaim, offends Beethoven over a woman. From this crucial encounter evolves a grandiose yet melancholy poetic tale.
Publisher: New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2009
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780393070088
Characteristics: 231 p. 24 cm


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louislopardi Sep 13, 2013

Beethoven's sketchbooks refer to a big "Violin Concerto-like" piece composed for the "big, wild Mulatto Bridgetower." This became his Opus 47 Sonata #9 - the most famous of all his violin works: of symphonic length (43 minutes) and fiendish difficulty, for the piano as well as the violin. Within a year of Beethoven and George Polgreen Bridgetower performing its debut, they had a falling out over a barmaid and Beethoven tore up the dedication page. Rita Dove's "Sonata Mulattica" is essential reading for every actor who must understand the poetics of speech, and every person, musician or not, who would dare understand the workings of creative inspiration.

It is a tempting yet infernal trap to write words describing music. Romain Rolland, Thomas Mann, and many other greats have tried. While words can sometimes capture the effects of the plastic arts, the evanescent vagaries of music are far more challenging in that we simply don't know surely how they work (How can a bright Major key sound sad, or a dark Minor key suddenly become uplifting?). Rita Dove escapes the trap, keeping such personification to a minimum, and dwelling more on the effect of the physical virtuosity upon the performer - perhaps an even more arcane subject.

After finishing this great volume, it is an agony to go back and read Dove's prologue poem, and be reminded that what could have been known as "The Bridgetower" - giving inspiration to would-be black virtuosi throughout history - was re-dedicated by Beethoven to the famous violinist Kreutzer - whose name it bears still. In fact, Kreutzer deemed it "unplayable" and never, ever performed it.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.


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louislopardi Sep 13, 2013

Rita Dove tells the incredible but true story of the genesis of one of the masterworks of classical music - Beethoven's "Kreutzer" violin & piano Sonata, and how it very nearly became known to our world as the "Bridgetower" - after the young Black violinist who premiered it.

This novel in the form of a collection of poems covers epic times in music history - the swirling interactions between Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all while the French revolution broils and the eventual Napoleonic wars engulf Europe. Her poetic narrative carries us from the birth of Bridgetower in 1780, through the death of Haydn in 1809 and the incredible theft of Haydn's skull (She completes her nearly 200 page journey with its recovery, and eventual re-interment in 1954), then a capsule of Bridgetower's later years as a wandering scholar but fading celebrity. Her extensive notes on the poems sets their period and her sources well, while an appended chronology of historical events helps us put it all into perspective. Students of performance will want to read this hand in hand with Charles Rosen's "The Classical Style."


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