By: Rita Dove
Reviewed by: Lewis Robert Colon Jr.
W.W. Norton, 2009
Across 182 years of Beethoven biographies, the name George Bridgetower has survived mostly as a grace note, a fleeting hiccup in the life of a master composer. The young Bridgetower, son of a Polish mother and an African father, had earned a reputation throughout Europe as a dashing violin virtuoso. He met and subsequently befriended Beethoven in April, 1803. By 1805 there had been a falling out. The short span of their friendship did, however, see the famous “Kreutzer Sonata” completed and dedicated, originally, to Bridgetower. Details behind the split are scarce, according to Edmund Morris’ short 2005 biography of Beethoven, though Bridgetower later said he and the great composer “had a quarrel about a girl.” (1) Thus Beethoven’s “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer” became the “Kreutzer Sonata” (honoring instead Rodolphe Kreutzer). Bridgetower had been erased, the faint traces of his name brushed to the periphery of historical trivia.
It’s this erasure that inspires Rita Dove’s new book Sonata Mulattica, a kind of speculative elegy that appends to the biographies an extended and playfully conjectured footnote. Dove recognizes in Bridgetower a familiar historical archetype: The black or brown artist whose genius and importance, the authors of history seem to have agreed, are negligible. It’s a syndrome that treats some of history’s marquee stars like background scenery, props in the lives of their white counterparts. While Bridgetower is not completely obscure, it’s likely that a white violinist of his brilliance would have been known more widely today, especially considering the conspicuous company he kept. By shaking loose the paradigm, Sonata Mulattica gives George Bridgetower his due, filling in all three dimensions of his character—his humanity—a consideration afforded unfailingly to white geniuses (like, say, Beethoven).
Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, addresses herself to the subject matter not as a social critic or critical theorist, but as a consummate poet. Most of Sonata Mulattica’s big ideas are aesthetic ones. Dove elegizes Bridgetower the man while simultaneously inventing Bridgetower the legend. Her Bridgetower inhabits our imagination as vividly as Beethoven, about whom tall tales abound. This poet relishes melding historical fact with the supreme fiction of poetry, happily filling in the dialogue of an encounter rumored to have taken place, or imagining a character’s stream of consciousness as a center-stage soliloquy. Some of Dove’s previous books, such as Thomas and Beulah and On the Bus with Rosa Parks, also tap poetry’s profoundest abilities to animate the past, polish out the imperfections of memory, and exorcise the prejudices of history. To these ends, Dove deploys her skill for voice and persona writing, as in “The Wardrobe Lesson”:
Everyone in this brine-soused village
believes an African loves color—so let it be
red for our promenade along the Steyne,
with a splash of yellow
to inflame their watery sensibilities
[...] we are props of a sort, let’s not forget it;
yet what an aspect we’ll project
unleashed among the masses!
Against our darker palette any color thrills.
Here, in the resonance of Dove’s telling, are echoes of Du Boisian double consciousness. The book’s empathic power relies on such quieter moments in which the glories of performance are upstaged by the poet’s desire to access her subject’s paradoxical inner-life as a non-white musician, a genius, in early nineteenth century Europe.
The speaker in “The Wardrobe Lesson,” in being resigned to, even thankful for, his existence as a manufactured spectacle, arouses in the mind of the American reader silver images of minstrel shows and similar exploitations of black artistry. Sonata Mulattica sets out to invert the line “we are props of a sort, let’s not forget it.” A prop in the grand drama of Beethoven’s life is, indeed, something to which Bridgetower has been reduced. The most satisfying (even if predictable) moments are those that play out this inversion, casting Beethoven as a supporting player to Bridgetower’s protagonist. The unstated conclusion is that despite everything, Bridgetower is the more interesting, and in several respects the more impressive figure.
At over 200 pages, Sonata Mulattica takes a kitchen sink approach to fleshing-out the legend of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Between the third and fourth sections (five total, plus a seven-poem epilogue, plus copious endnotes) we’re met with a verse play, “Volkstheater: A Short Play for the Common Man.” The play’s surface function is to break the repetitiveness of poem-after-poem-after-poem with witty comic relief (Dove’s work is singular for the way it blends cerebral seriousness with the giddiness of a gifted child browsing an encyclopedia). The play’s scenes whisk the narrative along in a way most of the poems, though expertly made, do not. The book’s unusual heft might reflect the poet’s zeal for this story, which serendipitously combines some of her favorite topics—the German language, music, racial identities, the myopic handing down of history. That these subject headings all coexist in the life story of a single figure was lucky, triggering an avalanche of creativity. The result is an intricate symphony of a book, with numerous soaring highlights, and only a few restroom-break lulls. July 2009
Lewis Robert Colon Jr. lives in Tuscaloosa.
1) Edmund Morris, Beethoven: the Universal Composer (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 102.