Six months after Beethoven contemplated suicide, confessing his despair over his increasing deafness in the 1802 document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, he was carousing in taverns with a charismatic new comrade, George Polgreen Bridgetower. This biracial violinist had recently arrived in Vienna, and inspired one of Beethoven’s most famous and passionate pieces, the “Kreutzer” Sonata.
Beethoven even dedicated the sonata to Bridgetower. But the irritable composer — who would later remove the dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony — eventually took it back.
While Napoleon didn’t need Beethoven to secure his place in history, this snub reduced Bridgetower to near obscurity. Though his name was included in Anton Schindler’s 1840 biography of Beethoven, he was described inaccurately as “an American sea captain.” Like so many Black artists prominent in their lifetimes, he has been largely forgotten by a history that belongs to those who control the narrative.
Bridgetower was born on Aug. 13, 1778, in eastern Poland, and christened Hieronymus Hyppolitus de Augustus. His father, Joanis Fredericus de Augustus, was of African descent; his mother, Maria Schmid, was German-Polish, making Bridgetower what was then known as a mulatto, a person of mixed race. (The poet Rita Dove’s 2008 book “Sonata Mulattica,” an imagined chronicle of Bridgetower’s life, has helped raise his profile a bit in recent years.)
Bridgetower’s father — who took the name Frederick, and sometimes went by others — was the driving force behind his son’s career. Handsome, charming and fluent in multiple languages, Frederick was a natural storyteller with a flair for promotion; he claimed that his father had been an African prince unofficially adopted by a Dutch sea captain, was promised diamonds and gold dust, and then sold into slavery, surviving a shipwreck in the process. The father married an African woman and wound up in Barbados, where Frederick was born; the name Bridgetower was likely derived from the island’s capital, Bridgetown.
It’s unclear how Frederick wound up in Poland, but the historian William Hart wrote in a 2017 article in The Musical Times that young Bridgetowers’s godparents were members of the noble Radziwill family; Frederick, and possibly his wife, may have been in their service. The couple and their son soon moved to Austria, where Frederick, known as “the Moor,” worked as a page to Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. The music-loving prince maintained his own orchestra at his palace in Eisenstadt, where Haydn was court composer. (George Bridgetower was later touted as a pupil of Haydn’s, but it’s unclear if he ever studied with the master.)
Bridgetower’s public debut was long thought to have taken place in Paris in 1789. But Mr. Hart discovered an advertisement in a Frankfurt newspaper promoting a concert by “Hieronymus August Bridgetown,” the “son of a Moor,” in April 1786, when the boy would have been just seven. It noted that he had already played for Emperor Joseph II.
The Bridgetowns, as they were then known, lived for a time in Mainz, an important musical center, where Maria gave birth to another son, who would later become a cellist. Frederick, leaving his wife and younger child behind, took on tour his elder son, who, billed as a “young Negro of the Colonies,” performed a violin concerto by Giornovichi in the prominent Concert Spirituel series in Paris in 1789.
“His talent, as genuine as it is precocious, is one of the best replies one can give to the philosophers who wish to deprive those of his nation and his color the faculty of distinguishing themselves in the arts,” said a review in Le Mercure de France.
After several more concerts in Paris, including one attended by Thomas Jefferson, the Bridgetowers — as they then called themselves — left for England, where the family created a sensation.
With Oriental-inspired clothing in vogue, Frederick played up his presumed exoticism by wearing flowing Turkish robes. Everyone wanted to meet this “African prince” and his prodigy — whose name had now become George. By the fall of 1789, Frederick had arranged for his son to play before King George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as the Prince of Wales, later George IV.
George induced “general astonishment” playing in Bath, according to the Bath Morning Post. At 11, he made his London debut with a Giornovichi concerto between the first two parts of Handel’s “Messiah.” He and his father were often at Carlton House, the town residence of the Prince of Wales, who organized regular chamber concerts. On June 2, 1790, the prince sponsored a benefit concert for Bridgetower and another young artist at the Hanover Square Rooms, the premier concert venue for fashionable society.
Until then, Frederick had skillfully managed his son’s career. But his behavior turned increasingly self-destructive. At a masquerade attended by the prince, Frederick dressed as a caricature of a Black slave, advocating for abolition; this was certainly a worthy cause, but the stunt served to alienate the elites whose favor he had taken pains to cultivate. During a performance of “Messiah,” he shouted for a repeat of the “Hallelujah” chorus, and, after a struggle, was thrown out of the theater. There were reports of excessive drinking and womanizing.
Charlotte Papendiek, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte and a prolific journal keeper, wrote that Frederick gambled away his son’s money and treated him so brutally that George sought refuge with the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. Frederick was committed to an asylum before being sent back to Germany by the prince, who took 12-year old George under his protection.
The prince gave him the opportunity to learn from the finest musicians in London. He studied composition, theory and piano with Thomas Attwood and violin with both François-Hippolyte Barthélémon and Giornovichi. He formed a close relationship with Giovanni Battista Viotti, a violinist and composer whose confident, daring style would influence his own.
Over the next decade, Bridgetower would play in nearly 50 public concerts with leading orchestras and musicians, including Haydn and the double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti. He was the first violinist of the Prince of Wales’s band; the organist and composer Samuel Wesley wrote that Bridgetower was “justly ranked with the very first masters of the violin.”
After visiting his ailing mother in Dresden, Bridgetower arrived in Vienna in early April 1803. He had been invited by Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons, to play that composer’s quartets.
Beethoven and Bridgetower formed an instant bond. The composer, then 32, may have recognized himself in the 24-year-old violinist. Beethoven had been nicknamed the Spaniard for his swarthy complexion, and engravings of the two men show a marked resemblance. They also had in common abusive fathers with vested interests in their careers, as well as the ability to thrill audiences with their astonishing talents.
After hearing Bridgetower play, Beethoven not only agreed to participate in a concert for him at the Augarten, but also decided to write something for them to perform together. He had already started sketching out the first two movements of a violin sonata, to accompany a previously discarded finale. He now began to compose with Bridgetower in mind, as the two men stayed up nights drinking and acting like teenagers. Though Bridgetower was described as melancholic, he could also be high-spirited and ribald. He brought out Beethoven’s freewheeling, bawdy side.
The concert had been planned for May 22, 1803, but since the sonata wasn’t ready, it was postponed until the 24th. At 4:30 that morning, Beethoven instructed his pupil, Ferdinand Ries, to copy out the first two movements for the violinist. Ries managed only the first, and the piano part was still in sketch form. Beethoven and Bridgetower took the stage for the morning concert, having never rehearsed the piece. Bridgetower was sight-reading.
Beethoven had given Bridgetower an opening solo that began with an explosive declaration, moving into a fiery, sensual dialogue. At one point, Bridgetower surprised Beethoven by imitating and then expanding on a short piano cadenza in the first movement. Beethoven, jumping up, hugged him, crying, “My dear boy! Once more!”
After the performance, Beethoven presented Bridgetower his tuning fork and wrote a dedication on the score: “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico” (“Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great lunatic and mulatto composer”).
Tolstoy wrote about the unsettling first movement in his novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” whose protagonist, after hearing his wife play the piece with her violin teacher, stabs her to death in a jealous rage. Beethoven didn’t do anything that extreme, but after Bridgetower made a rude comment about a woman Beethoven admired, the two men quarreled and Beethoven took back the dedication.
When the sonata was published, it instead bore the name of the French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer. Beethoven had been thinking of moving to Paris, and dedicating the piece to Kreutzer was a calculated political move. What Beethoven didn’t know was that Kreutzer disliked his music; Kreutzer described the sonata as “outrageously unintelligible” and never played it.
Bridgetower returned to London and continued to perform, enjoying the patronage of the Prince of Wales. On May 23, 1805, he participated in a concert in the Hanover Rooms, along with his brother, who played a Romberg cello concerto. Their father had also come back to England, where he was arrested and thrown in jail for vagrancy.
In 1811, Bridgetower received a master’s degree in music from Cambridge University and became a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Five years later, he married Mary Leake, the daughter of a prosperous cotton manufacturer; they had two daughters. One died in infancy, and he grew estranged from the other. He and his wife separated in 1824.
Little is known about Bridgetower’s later years; at some point, he seems to have stopped performing, making his living as a piano teacher in Rome and Paris. In an 1847 letter to Madame de Fauché, a fellow musician, he makes a joking but telling reference to his biracial identity: “If the bearer of this letter is fortunate to find you, favor me by having your message conveyed to him who is not fair enough to be ‘my tiger,’ nor ‘dark enough’ to be ‘my Friday,’ but is my long-tried honest Caliban.” The allusion to the half-human, half-beast character in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is a poignant one: When his island is suddenly occupied, Caliban is enslaved.
Bridgetower died on Feb. 29, 1860, in a house on a small back street in south London; he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. The death certificate identifies him as a “gentleman.” By then, Beethoven had been gone for 32 years.
It’s unknown if Bridgetower ever played the “Kreutzer” Sonata again, or if he was in contact with Beethoven after their rift. All we know is that on May 24, 1803, two brilliant performers dazzled a crowd with their high-wire virtuosity. One of them entered history.