Monday, April 20, 2009


Her latest book is called "Sonata Mulattica" and it's a tour-de-force. Written, as only Rita Dove could write it, we learn about the life of George P. Bridgetower, a virtuoso musician who grows up in Poland and becomes the toast of European royalty. His exquisite performances on the violin inspire Beethoven to write a piece dedicated to him, which they perform before a concert audience, only hours after Beethoven completes it.

That she would pick someone to write about who is a virtual unknown to Americans is not as odd as it may appear, for her subject and her have a lot in common. Rita played the cello when she was going to school right here in Akron, Ohio; she's known for being fluent in German, which was a language Bridgetower undoubtedly spoke and they're both descendants of African immigrants.

Much of the story is told in the title of the book. "Sonata Mulattica" is an abbreviation of the title Beethoven gave to what's been called his penultimate violin sonata (opus 47). The full title was "Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e conpositore mulattico," meaning "Sonata composed for the mulatta mulatto Brischdauer, big wild composition and mulatto."

The idea of the "tragic mulatto" came into existence during Bridgetower's lifetime. However, his own story was not quite so ill fated. He actually had quite a bit of success as a musician. The patronage of the young English prince, who continued to support him as the King of England, certainly helped. His affiliation with Beethoven, Haydn and other musical geniuses of his time certainly helped.

But, there was still a cloud of racism hovering over his head, which became even more apparent upon his death, as this book is one of only three full length treatments of his life. Dove's presentation is totally unique, however in that it gives us an entirely new path to Bridgetower. This is the surprise in store for anyone who decides to go on this adventure to discover, just who was this African prince of Poland.

To be continued tomorrow, with a video of Rita reading a selection from her latest work.

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