Beethoven and Bridgetower: The Story Behind the Famous ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata

Aside from his musical genius, composer Ludwig van Beethoven was known by his contemporaries to possess an irascible nature. Hardly surprising when you consider the circumstances of his life, but underneath his passionate exterior beat a kind and loyal heart.

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Williboard Mahler c. 1804-5 (oil on canvas)

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Williboard Mahler c. 1804-5 (oil on canvas)

As certain people found to their detriment, if you got on the wrong side of him it was virtually impossible to get back into his good graces!

Just ask Napoleon Bonaparte, who he originally dedicated his third symphony the ‘Eroica’ to.  After Napoleon’s egalitarian ideals developed into warmongering and a rapacious appetite for control over Europe, the composer violently crossed out his dedication from the top of the score.

Beethoven Eroica _title

Beethoven branded his nephew’s mother, Johanna, a ‘queen of the night’ and the two were locked in years of battle over custody of her son Carl. It’s debatable if he was in a lucid moment or not, but Beethoven asked for her forgiveness on his deathbed. (You can read the incredibly moving text in Conversations with Beethoven).

Another unfortunate recipient of Beethoven’s wrath was virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower.

As it’s Black History Month I thought George deserved some recognition!

George Bridgetower by Henry Edridge c. 1790

George Bridgetower by Henry Edridge c. 1790

Unfortunately, his falling out with Beethoven meant that his achievements were rather side-lined in history. This is a very great shame, as Beethoven had been impressed enough by his talent and character when they met to compose the bulk of his ninth violin sonata in A major, opus 47 in his honour, along with the original dedication.

Here’s a fabulous vintage recording of the sonata in full by Leonid Kogan and Grigory Ginzburg:

Beethoven’s penultimate violin sonata contains three movements and is pretty much as difficult to play as a violin concerto.  I love that it’s just as demanding for the piano. Rather than being an accompaniment the two instruments are having the most fascinating conversation.

Heaven only knows what swell of emotions were raging inside Beethoven when he wrote it.  It seems entirely plausible that it could it have been inspired by one of his ill-fated, passionate love affairs.

The sonata takes around 40 minutes to perform in its entirety and is a full-on physical workout! I’m still trying to master the double-stopping at the beginning…

My score of the Kreutzer by Edition Peters.

My score of the Kreutzer by Edition Peters.

Beethoven and Bridgetower premiered the work together on 24th May 1803 at the Augarten Palace Park Pavilion in Vienna at the rather unusual time of 8 am.

The final movement was already written as an unused movement from a previous violin sonata No. 6 Op. 30/1 (also in A major), so Beethoven hurriedly composed the first and second movements which were only completed at 4.30 am on the day of the concert!

The copyist had his work cut out, but hadn’t managed to do the violin part for the Andante and so Bridgetower had to read over Beethoven’s shoulder at the piano. In fact he sight-read the majority of the sonata to rapturous applause.

The second variation of the Andante which was sight-read by George Bridgetower.

The second variation of the Andante which was sight-read by George Bridgetower.

Obviously it wouldn’t have been perfect, but to have the confidence to play a work of such difficulty from sight in public speaks volumes.

The following text was taken from Beethoven’s sketchbook in 1803:

“Sonata per il Pianoforte ed uno violino obligato in uno stile molto concertante come d’un concerto”

His affectionate dedication read:

“Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer (Bridgetower), gran pazzo e compositore mulattico” (Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great fool mulatto composer).

Sadly, their relationship turned sour after Bridgetower insulted a woman that Beethoven held dear. No-one knows who she was, or what was said, and perhaps Beethoven felt more than friendship for her, but true to form, in his anger Beethoven withdrew the dedication and later granted it to another famous violinist of the time, Rodolphe Kreutzer.

The irony is Kreutzer never performed his eponymous sonata, claiming it was unplayable! He considered it “outrageously unintelligible” and was not a fan of Beethoven’s music in general.

A most undeserved dedication, but the moniker was put into print and has been in use ever since.

Beethoven - Kreutzer front page

I love this clip from one of my favourite films, Immortal Beloved. Although not accurate in many aspects I love so much about this film, including the scene when Beethoven and Anton Schindler are discussing his ‘agitation’ and how music is like hypnotism, as George practices the sonata:

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (11 October 1778 – 29 February 1860)

Born an Afro-European in Poland, he lived most of his life in England and became a celebrated virtuoso violinist. His father was probably from the West Indies and his mother was German, it’s thought that they served in the household of Joseph Haydn’s patron, the Hungarian Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy.

Watercolour dated from 1800. Artist unknown.

Watercolour dated from 1800. Artist unknown.

George took to the violin at a young age becoming a celebrated virtuoso; he performed mainly in London and around Europe. He left London for Dresden in 1802 to visit his mother and brother who was a cellist there and later travelled to Vienna where he met Beethoven in 1803. He was also the recipient of Beethoven’s tuning fork which is now kept in the British Library.

In London Bridgtower was known as the ‘African Prince’ and the Prince Regent (eventually George IV) was one of his patrons. Despite the falling out with Beethoven he continued to have a successful musical career and in 1807 he was elected into the Royal Society of Musicians and in 1811 he attained his Bachelor of Music from Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

He was also a composer, two of his known works include: Diatonica armonica for piano, published in London in 1812 and Henry: A ballad, for medium voice and piano, also published in London.

This video was taken from an exhibition commissioned by the City of London Corporation in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first parliamentary bill to abolish slavery. George’s achievements are duly recognised:

The Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former United States Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, wrote an imagined narrative work about Bridgetower titled: Sonata Mulattica

Here she talks about her inspiration for the poem, alongside contemporary violinist Joshua Coyne, in a documentary film trailer:

I’m glad to say George hasn’t been forgotten!

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