George Bridgetower

George Bridgetower was born in Biala, Poland on 29th February, 1780. His father, Frederich Bridgetower came from Africa and his mother, Ann Bridgetower, from Germany.

As a young man Bridgetower showed extraordinary musical talent and made his professional debut in Paris at the age of nine when he played a violin concerto by the Italian composer Giovanni Giornovichi. The following year he moved to London.

The Prince of Wales (the future George IV) was very impressed with Bridgewater and paid his father £25 to become his guardian. The Prince of Wales employed leading musicians to teach Bridgewater musical theory. He also arranged for him to give concerts as a solo violinist at the Convent Garden, Drury Lane and Haymarket theatres. For the next 14 years Bridgewater held the post of first violinist in the Prince of Wales's private orchestra that performed at his home in London and at the Royal Pavilion.

In 1802 Bridgewater went on a concert tour of Germany and Austria. In May 1803 he met Ludwig von Beethoven who was immensely impressed by his abilities and described him as "a very able virtuoso and an absolute master of the instrument."

Bridgewater obtained a degree of Bachelor of Music at Cambridge University in June 1811. He composed very little work but continued to perform in Europe for many years.

George Bridgetower died in Peckham, London, on 20th February, 1860.

Brighton & Hove Black History

The talented 9 year old African violin prodigy George Polgreen Bridgetower was born in 1778, and died in London on February 29 1860. His father was an African prince who married a white European woman, named in English documents as Mary Ann Bridgetower. They had two sons who both became fine musicians – George’s younger brother Fredrick was a cellist.

George played in the Prince’s band at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton for 14 years. He is best remembered today for his association with Ludwig van Beethoven, who met the 23 year old Bridgetower and the two got along famously. The composer praised him as “a very capable virtuoso who has a complete command of his instrument”. Beethoven wrote a new piece – the Kreutzer Sonata – for the Afro-European violinist. Beethoven’s autographed copy of the Sonata for violin and piano bears the inscription ‘Sonata mulattica composta per il mullato’.

Young George appeared at a concert in Bath in the presence of King George III and 550 guests. The Bath Morning Post of December 8, 1789 gave this report:

“The young African Prince, whose musical talents have been so much celebrated, had a more crowded and splendid concert on Sunday morning than has ever been known in this place. There were upwards of 550 persons present, and they were gratified by such skills on the violin as created general astonishment, as well as pleasure from the boy wonder. The father was in the gallery, and so affected by the applause bestowed on his son, that tears of pleasure and gratitude flowed in profusion”.

The Bath Chronicle of December 3, 1789 reported: “The amateurs of music in this city received on Saturday last at the New Rooms the highest treat imaginable from the exquisite performance of Master Bridgetower, whose taste and execution on the violin is equal, perhaps superior, to the best professor of the present or any former day. Those who had that happiness were enraptured with the astonishing abilities of this wonderful child – for he is but ten years old. He is a mulatto, the grandson, it is said, of in African Prince”.

A letter from Beethoven to Bridgetower and a miniature of Bridgetower fetched $3,600 at Christie’s, London 1973.

Who was George Bridgetower? The violin virtuoso who fell out with Beethoven

Have you heard of the Afro-European violin virtuoso, by whom Beethoven was so impressed that he composed a sonata just for him? Here’s the story of George Bridgetower.

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was born in 1778 (or 1780, no one quite knows which) in Poland, to an Eastern European mother and West Indian father.

His father was a servant in Prince Esterházy’s Hungarian castle, a spectacular building which boasted an opera house, a puppet theatre and the established composer, Joseph Haydn, as Kappelmeister.

By the time young Bridgetower and his family moved to London, music was in his veins. Aged 10, George became a professional violinist and gave performances with the Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra. The young prodigy began composing and teaching, and later attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree.

By 1789, Bridgetower was taking his music to Paris, London, Bristol and Bath.

After his Paris concert, French journal Le Mercure de France wrote: “His talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts.”

Violinist George Bridgetower (1791-1860). The son of an Afro-Caribbean servant and a Polish mother at the Esterhazy palace, he was a student of composer Joseph Haydn and a friend of Beethoven. Beethoven dedicated a violin sonata to him, which was so hard to play many gave up.

&mdash Dr. Kira Thurman (@kira_thurman) June 18, 2020

In April 1803, Bridgetower arrived in Vienna from England. He was already an established violinist, having being employed by the Prince of Wales (later George IV), and polyglot, being fluent in English, German, French, Italian and Polish.

During an episode of Beethoven: The Man Revealed on Classic FM, Beethoven expert John Suchet said of the brilliant young violinist’s arrival in the musical capital: “With such credentials he was swiftly introduced into aristocratic circles in Vienna.

“And such was his skill on the violin, he was taken to meet Beethoven.”

Beethoven was deeply impressed by Bridgetower’s virtuosity and composed a sonata just for him – his Violin Sonata No. 9, of which Suchet says: “Violinists today regard it as the Mount Everest of violin sonatas. If you can play that, you can play anything.”

Bridgetower and Beethoven played the sonata together, on violin and piano. A glittering assembly gathered to watch the pair, and the performance was a triumph. Beethoven dedicated the sonata to the young violinist, calling it the ‘Sonata per un Mulattico Lunatico’.

“And then, Bridgetower made a mistake. A mistake he would regret for the rest of his life,” Suchet says. “He made an off-colour remark about a lady that Beethoven knew. And Beethoven was furious.”

The composer withdrew his dedication, and the sonata would come to be known as the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata instead, after the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer.

After the fall-out, Suchet says, “Beethoven and Bridgetower never met again. Bridgetower left Vienna soon afterwards to visit relatives of his mother in Poland.

“There are two sad codas to this story. Many years later, at around the age of 80, Bridgetower was living in a home for the destitute in Peckham, in South London. His hands had long since succumbed to arthritis. He could no longer move his fingers in the way he once had. The residents and staff of the care home had no idea this resident had once been a famous violinist who played for royalty.”

Poor George Bridgetower. He’d be known to music lovers everywhere if he hadn’t made a lewd joke that upset Beethoven. As for Kreutzer he never performed the violin sonata dedicated to him. Beethoven - The Man Revealed 9pm tonight @ClassicFM

&mdash John Suchet (@johnsuchet1) July 18, 2020

The second tragedy, Suchet says, was that Kreutzer received the manuscript in Paris, took one look at it and declared it unplayable. Despite it bearing his name, he never once performed the sonata in public.

George Bridgetower died penniless on 29 February 1860, all but forgotten by the classical music world.

“There were no relatives to be with him,” Suchet says. “The woman who signed his death certificate was illiterate and signed her name with a cross.”

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bridgetower, George Augustus Polgreen

BRIDGETOWER, GEORGE AUGUSTUS POLGREEN (1779–1840?), violinist, was probably born at Biala in Poland in 1779. His father was a mysterious individual, who was known in London society as the 'Abyssinian Prince,' and according to some accounts was half-witted. The mother was a Pole, but nothing is known as to how the negro father (for such he seems to have been) came to be in Poland, and there is considerable doubt as to whether the name he bore was not an assumed one. Bridgetower and his father were in London before the year 1790. His principal master was Barthelemon, though he is said also to have studied the violin under Giornovichi and composition with Attwood. His first appearance took place at an oratorio concert at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 Feb. 1790, when he played a concerto between the parts of the 'Messiah,' attended by his father habited in the costume of his country.' It has been surmised that this performance attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, for on 2 June following, Bridgetower and Franz Clement, a clever Viennese violinist of about his own age, gave a concert at Hanover Square under the prince's patronage. At this concert the two boys played a duet by Deveaux, and (with Ware and F. Attwood) a quartet by Pleyel. The celebrated Abt Vogler was among the audience. In April 1791 Bridgetower played at one of Salomon's concerts, and at the Handel commemoration at Westminster Abbey in the same year (May-June) he and Hummel, dressed in scarlet coats, sat on each side of Joah Bates at the organ, pulling out the stops. In 1792 he played at the oratorios at the King's Theatre, under Linley's management (24 Feb.-30 March), and on 28 May he played a concerto by Viotti at a concert given by Barthelemon. His name also occurs amongst those of the performers at a concert given by the Prince of Wales for the benefit of the distressed Spitalfields weavers in 1794. Bridgetower was a member of the Prince of Wales's private band at Brighton, but in 1802 he obtained leave to visit his mother, who lived with another son (a violoncellist) at Dresden, and to go to the baths of Karlsbad and Teplitz. At Dresden he gave concerts on 24 July 1802 and 18 March 1803, which were so successful that, having obtained an extension of leave, he went to Vienna, where he arrived in April 1803. Here he was received with great cordiality, and was introduced by Prince Lichnowsky to Beethoven, who wrote for him the great Kreutzer Sonata. This work was first performed at a concert given by Bridgetower at the Augarten-Halle on either 17 or 24 May 1803, Beethoven himself playing the pianoforte part. The sonata was barely finished in time for the performance indeed, the pianoforte part of the first movement was only sketched. Czerny said that Bridgetower's playing on this occasion was so extravagant that the audience laughed, but this is probably an exaggeration. There exists a copy of the sonata, formerly belonging to Bridgetower, on which he has made a memorandum of an alteration he introduced in the violin part, which so pleased Beethoven that he jumped up and embraced the violinist, exclaiming, 'Noch einmal, mein lieber ​ Bursch!' In later years Bridgetower alleged that the Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated to him, but that before he left Vienna he had a quarrel with Beethoven about some love affair which caused the latter to alter the inscription. After his visit to Vienna, Bridgetower returned to England, and in June 1811 took the degree of Mus. Bac. at Cambridge, where his name was entered at Trinity Hall. The graduates' list gives his name as George Bridgtower, but a contemporary paragraph in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' leaves but little doubt that this was the mulatto violinist. His exercise on this occasion was an anthem, the words of which were written by F. A. Rawdon it was performed with full orchestra and chorus at Great St. Mary's on 30 June 1811. In the following year was published a small work entitled 'Diatonica Armonica for the Pianoforte,' by 'Bridgtower, M.B.,' who was probably the subject of this article. After this, Bridgetower seems totally to disappear he is believed to have lived in England for many years, and to have died there between the years 1840 and 1850, but no proof of this is forthcoming. It is also said that a married daughter of his is still living in Italy. He was an excellent musician, but his playing was spoilt by too great a striving after effect. In person he was remarkably handsome, but of a melancholy and discontented disposition.

[Grove's Dict. of Musicians, i. 275 b Thayer's Beethoven's Leben, ii. 227, 385 Gent. Mag. for 1811, ii. 37, 158 Pohl's Haydn in London, pp. 18, 28, 38, 43, 128, 137, 199 Parke's Musical Memoirs, i. 129 Luard's Graduati Cantabrigienses.]

George Polgreen Bridgetower

George Polgreen Bridgetower was a talented African violin Prodigy. Bridgetower was born in Biala, Poland on February 29, 1780. He was one of the most celebrated black musicians in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth Century.

His father, the African Prince, was married to a German woman who is named in English documents as Mary Ann Bridgetown. They had two sons, who both became fine musicians. The younger brother, “Fredrick ” was a cellist.

In 1789 An African Prince of the name Bridgetower came to Windsor with a view of introducing his son, a most possessing lad of ten years old, and a fine violin player.

“He was commanded by their Majesties to perform at the Lodge, where he played a concerto of Viotti’s and a quartet of Haydn’s, whose pupil he was both father and son pleased greatly. Noted for his talent and modest bearing, the other for his fascinating manner, elegance, expertness in all languages, beauty of person, and taste in dress. He seemed to win the good opinion of every one, and was courted by all.”

From: – Court and Private Life in the Times of Queen Charlotte,
Being the Journals of Mrs. Papendiek assistant keeper of the wardrobe and reader to Her Majesty ( vol.4)

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetown. prodigy of the violin, patronized and into the musical establishment of the Prince of Wales at Brighton when he was just ten.In 1802 Bridgetower went to Europe where he was introduced to Beethoven in Vienna, by Prince Lichnowsky (the same Lichnowsky for whom the Pathetique Sonata for Piano is dedicated.)

George played in the Prince’s band at the Royal Pavilion Brighton for 14 years.He is best remembered today for his association with Ludwig van Beethoven who wrote Violin Sonata number 9 for the Afro-European violinist in 1803.

The title folio of Beethoven’s autographed copy of the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op.47, bears the inscription, “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer” reproduction in Joseph Schmidt-Gorg and Hans Schmidt. eds., Ludwig van Beethoven [New York, 1970] p. 140).

Beethoven and George Bridgetower first performed this work in Vienna at the Augarten on May 24, 1803. (The Musical Quarterly vol.,LXVI)Ludwig van Beethoven, played in the houses of the nobility, in rivalry with other pianists, and performed in public with such visiting virtuosos as violinist George Bridgetower.

Bridgetower married Mary Leech (Leeke) in 1816. He continued his musical career, including teaching and performing. on 4 October 1807, he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music in June 1811.

He performed with the Royal Philharmonic Society orchestra. He later travelled abroad, particularly to Italy, often visiting his daughter, who live there. He died in Peckham in south London, leaving his estate of £1,000 to his deceased wife’s sister. His remains are deposited in Kensal Green Cemetery.

George Bridgetower (1779 - 1860) and Beethoven: a troubled relationship

George Bridgetower, the celebrated English violin virtuoso, came to Vienna in 1803 and met Beethoven. They played together and Beethoven was impressed.

At Bridgetower's urging, Beethoven agreed to compose a new Violin Sonata, to be performed by the two of them at one of the celebrated morning concerts in the Augarten pavilion , run by Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Bridgetower was tall and good-looking, with an eye for the ladies. He was a mulatto - his mother Polish, his father West Indian.

Recognised as being of exceptional talent, he had performed for King George III at Windsor Castle, the Prince Regent at the newly built Brighton Pavilion, the Pump Rooms at Bath and across southern England.

For the new sonata, Beethoven took the final movement from an earlier sonata (which he replaced) and composed a new first and second movement. The first movement was huge, opening with solo double-stopping across all four strings for the violinist. He delivered the new movements to Bridgetower only the day before the performance!

A glittering audience assembled for the premiere of the new piece - including the British ambassador, Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz , and other patrons of the arts.

The performance began. In bar 35 of the first movement Beethoven had written a huge run just for piano, spanning several octaves. It comes in a passage marked 'to be repeated'. In the repeat, after Beethoven executed the run, Bridgetower imitated it on the violin.

Beethoven looked up from the piano in astonishment, ran across the stage, embraced Bridgetower, ran back to the piano and continued playing.

The performance was a triumph. At celebrations afterwards, Beethoven announced he was dedicating the new Violin Sonata to Bridgetower. He wrote on the top of the title page of the manuscript: Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico.

Later, the two men were drinking, when Bridgetower made an off-colour remark about a lady Beethoven knew. Beethoven was outraged. He demanded that Bridgetower return the manuscript of the sonata, and informed him he was withdrawing the dedication. He would dedicate it instead, he told Bridgetower, to Europe's greatest violin virtuoso, who was resident in Paris.

Bridgetower pleaded with Beethoven to change his mind, but Beethoven was adamant. The rift between the two men was not healed, before Bridgetower left Vienna a week later to visit relatives of his mother in Poland.

Beethoven and Bridgetower never met again. Long after Beethoven's death, Bridgetower - an old man - was living in poverty in a home for the destitute in Peckham, south London. A Beethoven researcher went to see him and asked him if it was true he had once met Beethoven.

Bridgetower related the story of the first performance of the Violin Sonata, how he had copied the piano run, and how Beethoven had dedicated the sonata to him. And how one stupid remark about a lady had made Beethoven withdraw the dedication.

It should be the Bridgetower Sonata, he told the young researcher, his name that should be known across Europe, his name that would live for ever.

Instead he was unknown to history, and destined to remain that way. Bridgetower died in poverty, the woman who witnessed his death signing her name on his death certificate with a cross. He is buried today in Kensal Green cemetery, just off the A40 flyover west of London - his name forgotten.

And the violin virtuoso in Paris to whom Beethoven sent the sonata? Rudolphe Kreutzer, whose name adorns the greatest Violin Sonata Beethoven ever composed: the Kreutzer Sonata.

So next time you hear a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata, spare a thought for the man who gave it its first performance and after whom it should really be named. George Bridgetower.

One final point. When Kreutzer received the manuscript in Paris, he looked at it and declared it impossible to play. Beethoven does not understand the violin, he said, and he never once performed it in public - the sonata that today bears his name.

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)

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 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

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.

Beethoven and Bridgetower premiered the work together on 24 th 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.

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.

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.

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 200 th 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:

Katherine Murley's Music Studio Blog

We’re back in Europe for this week’s History Hunt, visiting someone who had a lot of friends in high places!

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was born in Poland on February 29, 1780. Or possibly October 11, 1778. Or maybe sometime in 1779. Similar to the confusion surrounding John Blanke, historians aren’t completely sure, though they do think the February 29 birthday is the most likely. It doesn’t help that Bridgetower’s father, who worked in the Hungarian castle Esterháza, enjoyed telling stories. He gave quite a few different backgrounds for himself over the years. His favourite was that he was an African prince, and some of his friends thought he might be the son of an Indian princess.

Birthplace of George Bridgetower

What is true, though, is Bridgetower’s genius with the violin. Like Nannerl Mozart and Joseph Boulogne, Bridgetower was a child prodigy. He was a student of famous composer Joseph Haydn, who was the Kappellmeister (or master of music) at Esterháza, and he performed to high praise in France and England when he was either nine or ten years old. He soon caught the attention of the Prince of Wales, who began sponsoring him so he could give more concerts and continue his violin studies. But Bridgetower didn’t want to coast on the Prince’s goodwill, and he made sure to give himself a lot of opportunities to perform. Soon, he had built himself a very successful career.

In 1803, another prince, Prince Lichnowsky of Poland, introduced Bridgetower to one of his own sponsored composers: Ludwig van Beethoven! The two became great friends, and Beethoven was very enthusiastic about Bridgetower’s incredible skill with the violin. He dedicated his Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A, Op. 47 to Bridgetower, who played the extremely difficult violin part during its debut. Sadly, Bridgetower and Beethoven had a falling-out when Bridgetower–usually known for being friendly and a good person to work with–insulted someone Beethoven cared about. Beethoven was so upset that re-dedicated his sonata to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a famous violinist that Beethoven had met exactly once.

Bridgetower continued to perform throughout his life. He earned a Bachelor of Music at the University of Cambridge in 1811 and married sometime before 1817. Like John Blanke, almost nothing is known about his wife, except that her maiden name was “probably” Drake.

In addition to being a performer, George Bridgetower was also a composer of several works, including a book called Diatonica armonica for his students. Unfortunately, his works aren’t easily available. If anyone has any recordings of his compositions, I would greatly appreciate it if you could share them!

In the meantime, you can listen to the first part of the sonata Beethoven had once dedicated to Bridgetower below, with the rest being on Youtube:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

Professor O'Connell's Music History Blog: Class Assignments, Readings, Listening Examples, and Random Stuff

Nadine Gordimer laying a wreath in the black township of Alexandra, South Africa, where protesters were killed by police in 1986.

The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The title story is about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:

Is the Blackness of Beethoven a thing?

In 1934, the Jamaican-born journalist Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) published a book called 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof (a title borrowed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a recent book of his own). As Gates notes about the author of the first 100 Amazing Facts:

Poster from the 1960s.

Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors), originally from North Africa, off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.

Spain in the 11th century.

If Beethoven did in fact have even this very small claim to African ancestry through his Flemish mother, it would have been enough to make him subject to the laws of segregation in the Jim Crow South..

The belief that Beethoven was Black became popular in the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael mentioned it in his speeches to students, as did Malcolm X in a famous interview he gave to Alex Haley in Playboy in 1963.

Although claims of Beethoven’s Black ancestry has been refuted by scholars, the idea has never stopped cropping up in unexpected places.

Illustrations from Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Eric Velazquez. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was indeed part Black, is on the left Beethoven is on the right.

A project called “Beethoven Was African” aims to show that the polyrhythms Beethoven used in his piano sonatas bear a resemblance to the polyrhythms of West African drumming. Listen here:

Reviewing the Beethoven Was African project, the music critic Tom Service writes:

My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.

This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.”

In the past few months, classical music institutions have begun to recognize their need to reconceive the widespread impression of classical music as a strictly white and European art form. The #TakeTwoKnees hashtag in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an effort by Black classical musicians to address this.

The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:

  • Arguments for Beethoven’s “Blackness” are based on hearsay, speculation, and the reading of visual images. Are these reliable sources of evidence? If not, what sources of information would be more reliable?
  • Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Or is it something defined by affinity, that is, by what one loves, desires, or wishes to be?
  • Who gets to decide the racial identity of another?
  • Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it Black?

Which leads to even thornier philosophical questions:

The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.

Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.

Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.

Incidentally, Beethoven had a Black friend and colleague, George Polgreen Bridgetower, who was a famous Afro-European violinist and for whom Beethoven wrote a fiendishly difficult violin sonata. The original dedication to his friend reads, with fond humor:

Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico

(Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, great madman and mulatto composer)

However, the two fell out while drinking together one evening, after Bridgetower suggested that the woman Beethoven was in love with had loose morals. As was his habit when his friends and idols displeased him, Beethoven scratched out the dedication to Bridgetower on the Violin Sonata no. 9 in A Major and replaced it with a dedication to another violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer, after which it became commonly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”

Tag: George Bridgetower

An article published in the New York Times on 4 August, 2020, highlighted the meticulous in-depth research done by William A. Hart about virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. In the last few years there has been considerable interest in George Bridgetower resulting in several published articles and even a book, but no-one has dug up significant new information about him in the way Bill Hart has done. You can read his article in the Musical Times, September 2017, and download it free of charge on this link:

George Bridgetower c1800

In his article, Bill Hart tells the story of how a talented and accomplished African (known as John Frederick de Augustus and later as Bridgetower) who was fluent in half a dozen European languages, handsome and charming, brought his 10 year old son George, a virtuoso violinist, to London to seek their fortunes. Like many showmen and performers (Ira Aldridge, Pablo Fanque, etc.) Bridgetower senior invented a royal ancestry for himself and his son.

George had a brilliant career, becoming a protégé of the Prince of Wales and a friend of Beethoven, who composed a sonata especially for him. Accompanied by Beethoven on the piano, Bridgetower’s masterly performance at the premiere of this work created a sensation. Shortly afterwards, as the result of a quarrel between them, Beethoven re-dedicated this most difficult of all violin sonatas to another famous violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed it and said it was unplayable!

My interest in George Bridgetower goes back to 1980 when Ziggi Alexander and I included his portrait and basic details about him in the exhibition Roots in Britain. I have kept an eye out for information about him ever since and had managed to discover quite a number of the facts in Bill’s article, and a few odd snippets besides – for example that Mrs. and Mr. Bridgtower attended a lecture of the Outinian Society on 25 June 1819. This was three years after their marriage and a month before the birth of their second daughter, Felicia. Given that they were having marital problems this is interesting, as the Outinian lectures focused on how to have a happy marriage.

George’s brother Frederick (1), a cellist, joined him in London in 1805. Using family history sources, I discovered, like Bill Hart, that he went to live in Ireland in May 1807. Frederick (1) continued to perform, taught piano and cello and also composed and published a number of works. He married Elizabeth Guy in Newry, County Down in 1808 and fathered three children – George who died aged six months in February 1810, another son Frederick Joseph (2) born in 1812, and a daughter. Sadly, Frederick senior died in August 1813.

One of Frederick’s compositions (National Library of Ireland)

The next record I found of Frederick (2) is in 1833 when he was imprisoned for sixteen months along with seven other men, as a result of a riot following an election in Newry. A protestant house had been attacked by catholics and the protestants responded. Frederick (2) survived his incarceration and on 3 June, 1836 he married Catherine Richardson, the daughter of a printer, at St. Mary’s Church, Newry.

In 1838, when his mother appeared as a witness in a court case following a robbery from St. Mary’s Church, the newspaper reported that Mrs. Elizabeth Bridgetower held the office of Sextoness of the church.

By 1840, when a son, also named Frederick Joseph (3), was born to Frederick (2) and Catherine, the family had moved to Liverpool. A daughter, Jane Guy Bridgetower, was born in 1843 followed by Anna Maria in 1848, another son, John Henry c.1850, then Catherine in 1855.

In 1856 tragedy struck. The newspaper report still upsets me, years after I first read it.

“Catherine Bridgetower, a child of one year and four months old, daughter of Frederick Bridgetower, shoemaker, residing in Albert-court, Saltney-street, was so severely burnt by sitting down on a smoothing iron on the 8 th of May last, that she died from the injuries received, on Sunday last.” (Liverpool Mercury, 11 June, 1856.)

More sadness followed. Another son, James, born in 1857, died the following year. A second Catherine was born early in 1859 but, within a few months of her birth, her father died of cancer aged 46.

One by one, Frederick Joseph (2) and Catherine’s daughters eventually married. Jane Guy to Thomas Bainbridge in 1868 Anna (Annie) Maria to William Thomas Wood in 1870 Catherine to James Gurney (Manager of the George Inn, Garston) in 1872. It seems John Henry didn’t marry. He was admitted to the Whittingham Lunatic Asylum on 24 February 1874 and remained there until his death, aged 49, on 26 November 1899.

It is reasonable to suppose that the descendants of the brothers George and Frederick (1) Bridgetower lost touch with each other, given that George’s surviving daughter Felicia lived in Italy with her two sons and wealthy husband, while Frederick’s son, Frederick Joseph (2) and family lived in Liverpool in much less affluent circumstances.

It appears that Felicia either really believed her grandfather’s claims that he was an African prince or that she used the story to elevate her status in Italy. As Bill Hart points out, she had a pamphlet published in 1864 in which she traced her lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and somehow “proved” that she and her sons, Alessandro and Carlo Mazarra, were descendants of Abyssinian royalty.

Meanwhile, in 1863 King Tewodros of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), in an effort to get a reply to his request to buy arms from Britain, had imprisoned a number of British missionaries. Various diplomatic efforts were made to get them released and, when these failed, the British government decided in July 1867 to mount a huge expedition to rescue them.

As usual, this “British” army was not composed only of white men. It was drawn from the Bengal and Bombay Armies and was therefore made up of both British regiments serving in India and locally-recruited Indian soldiers. The force consisted of 13,000 soldiers, 26,000 camp followers, and over 40,000 animals including horses, mules, camels, and 44 elephants specially trained to haul the heavy guns.

Troops and elephants crossing the Chetta Ravine en route to Magdala. Watercolour by Lieutenant Frank James, Bombay Staff Corps, 1868.
(National Army Museum)

Meticulous plans were made beforehand in order to be certain that this force would be able to cross the difficult mountainous terrain and be well-maintained with supplies throughout its mission. It eventually set sail from Bombay on 27 December. Tewodros had thought that it was impossible for the army to reach him in his mountain fortress at Magdala, but he was wrong. On 10 April 1868, the British army attacked and triumphed. After the battle, Tewodros committed suicide before the British could capture him. Huge numbers of Ethiopian treasures were looted and brought back to Britain, along with Tewodros’s seven-year-old son, Prince Alemayehu – but that’s another story.

Prior to this, in September 1867, Lord Stanley, the British Foreign Secretary had received an extraordinary letter from Felicia’s elder son, Alessandro Mazzara, putting forward his claim to the throne of Abyssinia. His claim was backed by the Italian authorities because they wanted to have influence in Abyssinia, as did the Roman Catholic Church. The receipt of this letter was widely reported in the British press.

Can you imagine the effect this must have had on Frederick Joseph (3) in Liverpool? If Alessandro had a valid claim to the throne, he knew he had a better one through male primogeniture, as he was descended through the male line via Frederick Joseph (2), and Alessandro only through the female line via Felicia. In February 1868, he wrote a letter to the Liverpool Mercury outlining his superior claim to the throne. The paper printed what it termed the “extraordinary epistle” without further comment, but in a reply to a correspondent later in the year opined, “If Frederick Joseph Bridgetower is, as our correspondent asserts, entitled to the throne of Abyssinia, he had better go and take it. We are sure that the British Government will never be so foolish as to support his pretensions.”

Frederick (3) didn’t give up. If a notice in the Cheshire Observer of 26 September 1868 is to be believed, he went to Ethiopia to pursue his claim. A notice in the paper reported:

“DEATHS: In Abyssinia, aged 28 years, Frederick Joseph Bridgetower, nephew of Sir George Bridgetower, formerly of Carlton House, London.”

However, that wasn’t the end of him! On 4 May 1870, in Southampton Magistrates’ Court, proceedings were taken against one Frederick Joseph Bridgetower, a printer of Simnel Street. He had been wandering around town, wearing a gilt crown and shouting in the street that he was the King of Abyssinia. He was imprisoned for one week with hard labour for being drunk and disorderly. Was this the real Frederick Joseph (3), or an imposter pretending to be him?

He must have been terribly disappointed, having had his hopes raised so unexpectedly and then dashed to pieces. Seven years later, aged 37, Frederick Joseph Bridgetower (3), occupation Musician, emigrated to the United States. He arrived in New York on 15 August, 1877, aboard the very aptly named SS Ethiopia.

Annie Maria Bridgetower and William Thomas Wood celebrated their Silver Wedding in May, 1895. Their son, Joseph Bridgetower Wood emigrated to Canada where he married Anna Louisa Wachholz in British Columbia in 1913. He returned to Britain to fight in the First World War and survived, dying in Vancouver in 1953.

At some point, many years ago, a family tree was available online which included a tiny photo of “Great Grandma Wood” [Annie Maria Bridgetower (born 1848)]. The photo has now disappeared, but I managed to copy it when I saw it.

As Bill Hart says, there must be a large number of Frederick Joseph (1)’s descendants still living today, as all his granddaughters had children. Whether George has any descendants through his daughter Felicia and her two sons is another question. If he does, I imagine they are still in Italy.

I often wondered if present-day Bridgetower descendants were aware of their illustrious and colourful forbears, and it is evident from recent tweets by Hyder Gareth Jawád that at least some of them are. No doubt further information about this fascinating family will be forthcoming in the future.

Hyder Gareth Jawad is indeed aware of Bridgetower family history. He has posted a recently colourised photo of his great-great-great grandmother and four of her daughters on his Twitter account. Hyder has kindly given Historycal Roots permission to include the full photograph in our article.

The New York Times article about George Bridgetower, which includes another image of him:

Watch the video: George Bridgetower (December 2021).