An Ode to the Unsung Heroes and Heroines of History

George BridgetowerAndrea here, In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday here in America, I’m going to highlight a wonderful story of a remarkable figure in history, whose contribution to enriching the artistic tapestry of history has long been lost in the shadows.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love that historians are bringing to light so many people who’ve been ignored by the traditional narratives of history. It’s inspiring in so many ways, and makes the past come alive with all its real textures and colors.

The New York Times has been running a series of articles on some of these unsung heroes and heroines, so I’m going summarize one of them that caught my fancy—the story of George Bridgetower by Patricia Morrisoe. Bridgetower was a biracial virtuoso violin prodigy who won Beethoven’s admiration—and in fact, the famous Kreutzer Sonata was dedicated to him. (You can read the full article here.)

Bridgetower2George Bridgetower was born in Poland, and at birth his story was already a colorful one! His father—who went by a number of different names, but Frederick is the most well-known—was of African descent, and apparently a dashingly handsome and charismatic storyteller whose “origin story” included claiming that his father was an African prince who ended up being sold into slavery. Frederick was born in Barbados, and it’s not known how he Violinistcame to Poland. There’s speculation that he became part of the household of the aristocratic Radziwill family, who apparently were George’s godparents.

Frederick—styling himself The Moor— married a Polish-German woman and they moved to Austria to serve in the court of the music-loving Prince Esterhazy, whose court composer was Haydn. The couple had a second son (who went on to be a cellist) but it was George who was quickly recognized as a child prodigy. His father (pushy parents are not a modern phenomenon!) lost no time in taking him on tour, billing his son as “a young negro of the colonies.") George played to acclaim in Paris—Thomas Jefferson attended one of the concert—and then Frederick took his family over the Channel to England.

PrinnyThe flamboyant Frederick wore flowing robes to heighten the family’s exotic allure and George became a sensation, playing for King George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as the future Prince Regent. He made his London debut at age 11, and he and his father were regular visitors at Carlton House, the prince’s residence.

The prince enabled George to study with the best teachers, and he continued to hone his prodigious skills while also performing on numerous occasions over the next ten years. But here was a dark side to the story, as his father was apparently physically abusive to the boy, and squandered his money on gambling and wenching. The mistreatment became so bad that the prince sent Frederick to an asylum and took George under his wing.

BeethovenGeorge came to be recognized as one of the leading violinists in Europe, and in 1803, he was invited to Vienna by Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons, to play some of Beethoven’s compositions. It seems that the high-strung and notorious ill-tempered Beethoven took a liking to the young George. Morrisoe speculates that part of their bond may have been because they both had very manipulative, abusive fathers.

Beethoven soon agreed to appear with George, and decided to compose something new for him to play. Legend has it that two of them began to carouse together while the work was in progress, drinking into the wee hours of the night. It turns out the concert had to be postponed, because the piece wasn’t ready. When at last they took the stage together, George had to sight read the music—they had never had a chance to practice it!

Kreutzer SonataApparently, George improvised some short passages, and Beethoven was ecstatic over them. At the end of the concert, he 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”). However, the two men quarreled soon after that, and when the piece was published, its official dedication was to Frederick Kreutzer, a French violinist—Beethoven was considering moving to Paris and wanted to curry Kreutzer’s favor. (The irony is that Kreutzer hated the sonata.)
Orchestra
Two ladiesGeorge went back to England and earned a degree in Music at Cambridge. He married an English woman and became a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. There isn’t much known about his later life. He died in 1860 and is buried in London.

I find it so important that these stories are being told now. Broadening the narrow lens of achievement and accomplishment in world history to include a far wider picture of all the myriad heroes and heroines who made a difference not only creates a truer picture of the past, but helps inspire schoolchildren to believe they reach for the stars.

Are you enjoying all these new and diverse stories from history as much as I am? And in honor of today’s holiday, is there any marginalized hero or heroine from the past who you particularly admire?

110 thoughts on “An Ode to the Unsung Heroes and Heroines of History”

  1. Thanks so much, Sue. I truly love reading and sharing these stories of extraordinary people whose accomplishments haven’t been given the recognition they deserve.
    As historians keep finding finding so many amazing stories, it’s going to exciting to see what other amazing achievements come to light from people who didn’t fit the traditional hero or heroine mold.

    Reply
  2. Thanks so much, Sue. I truly love reading and sharing these stories of extraordinary people whose accomplishments haven’t been given the recognition they deserve.
    As historians keep finding finding so many amazing stories, it’s going to exciting to see what other amazing achievements come to light from people who didn’t fit the traditional hero or heroine mold.

    Reply
  3. Thanks so much, Sue. I truly love reading and sharing these stories of extraordinary people whose accomplishments haven’t been given the recognition they deserve.
    As historians keep finding finding so many amazing stories, it’s going to exciting to see what other amazing achievements come to light from people who didn’t fit the traditional hero or heroine mold.

    Reply
  4. Thanks so much, Sue. I truly love reading and sharing these stories of extraordinary people whose accomplishments haven’t been given the recognition they deserve.
    As historians keep finding finding so many amazing stories, it’s going to exciting to see what other amazing achievements come to light from people who didn’t fit the traditional hero or heroine mold.

    Reply
  5. Thanks so much, Sue. I truly love reading and sharing these stories of extraordinary people whose accomplishments haven’t been given the recognition they deserve.
    As historians keep finding finding so many amazing stories, it’s going to exciting to see what other amazing achievements come to light from people who didn’t fit the traditional hero or heroine mold.

    Reply
  6. I believe I have read about this before, but I love it when persons who have been overlooked but history are brought to light. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Reply
  7. I believe I have read about this before, but I love it when persons who have been overlooked but history are brought to light. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Reply
  8. I believe I have read about this before, but I love it when persons who have been overlooked but history are brought to light. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Reply
  9. I believe I have read about this before, but I love it when persons who have been overlooked but history are brought to light. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Reply
  10. I believe I have read about this before, but I love it when persons who have been overlooked but history are brought to light. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Reply
  11. Although I have studied classical music, read stories and documentations of many famous composers. This is a story tha I have never heard. Thank you for sharing your research and expanding our horizons. It’s always good to read something new and learn about those lesser known historical figures.

    Reply
  12. Although I have studied classical music, read stories and documentations of many famous composers. This is a story tha I have never heard. Thank you for sharing your research and expanding our horizons. It’s always good to read something new and learn about those lesser known historical figures.

    Reply
  13. Although I have studied classical music, read stories and documentations of many famous composers. This is a story tha I have never heard. Thank you for sharing your research and expanding our horizons. It’s always good to read something new and learn about those lesser known historical figures.

    Reply
  14. Although I have studied classical music, read stories and documentations of many famous composers. This is a story tha I have never heard. Thank you for sharing your research and expanding our horizons. It’s always good to read something new and learn about those lesser known historical figures.

    Reply
  15. Although I have studied classical music, read stories and documentations of many famous composers. This is a story tha I have never heard. Thank you for sharing your research and expanding our horizons. It’s always good to read something new and learn about those lesser known historical figures.

    Reply
  16. Thanks for introducing me to another great musician. I am in awe of all the classical musicians who lived in that period.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying well.

    Reply
  17. Thanks for introducing me to another great musician. I am in awe of all the classical musicians who lived in that period.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying well.

    Reply
  18. Thanks for introducing me to another great musician. I am in awe of all the classical musicians who lived in that period.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying well.

    Reply
  19. Thanks for introducing me to another great musician. I am in awe of all the classical musicians who lived in that period.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying well.

    Reply
  20. Thanks for introducing me to another great musician. I am in awe of all the classical musicians who lived in that period.
    I hope everyone is taking care and staying well.

    Reply
  21. Wonderful to hear about those who had such talent. Sad that recordings were not yet available so that we could enjoy it now. I love Beethoven’s music and other Baroque, Classic and Romantic period music. If Beethoven thought well of him (even for just a time) he must have been good. Composers back then had a tough time as in order to be successful they had to please those in the upper class and royalty.
    Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

    Reply
  22. Wonderful to hear about those who had such talent. Sad that recordings were not yet available so that we could enjoy it now. I love Beethoven’s music and other Baroque, Classic and Romantic period music. If Beethoven thought well of him (even for just a time) he must have been good. Composers back then had a tough time as in order to be successful they had to please those in the upper class and royalty.
    Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

    Reply
  23. Wonderful to hear about those who had such talent. Sad that recordings were not yet available so that we could enjoy it now. I love Beethoven’s music and other Baroque, Classic and Romantic period music. If Beethoven thought well of him (even for just a time) he must have been good. Composers back then had a tough time as in order to be successful they had to please those in the upper class and royalty.
    Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

    Reply
  24. Wonderful to hear about those who had such talent. Sad that recordings were not yet available so that we could enjoy it now. I love Beethoven’s music and other Baroque, Classic and Romantic period music. If Beethoven thought well of him (even for just a time) he must have been good. Composers back then had a tough time as in order to be successful they had to please those in the upper class and royalty.
    Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

    Reply
  25. Wonderful to hear about those who had such talent. Sad that recordings were not yet available so that we could enjoy it now. I love Beethoven’s music and other Baroque, Classic and Romantic period music. If Beethoven thought well of him (even for just a time) he must have been good. Composers back then had a tough time as in order to be successful they had to please those in the upper class and royalty.
    Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

    Reply
  26. I had never heard of George Bridgetower Andrea. You learn something new everyday. I’m actually amazed at all I’ve learned from this blog since I first started reading it. I too love history, all history, but especially the history of my own country and England’s. They are both entwined anyway. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’d like to know more about.

    Reply
  27. I had never heard of George Bridgetower Andrea. You learn something new everyday. I’m actually amazed at all I’ve learned from this blog since I first started reading it. I too love history, all history, but especially the history of my own country and England’s. They are both entwined anyway. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’d like to know more about.

    Reply
  28. I had never heard of George Bridgetower Andrea. You learn something new everyday. I’m actually amazed at all I’ve learned from this blog since I first started reading it. I too love history, all history, but especially the history of my own country and England’s. They are both entwined anyway. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’d like to know more about.

    Reply
  29. I had never heard of George Bridgetower Andrea. You learn something new everyday. I’m actually amazed at all I’ve learned from this blog since I first started reading it. I too love history, all history, but especially the history of my own country and England’s. They are both entwined anyway. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’d like to know more about.

    Reply
  30. I had never heard of George Bridgetower Andrea. You learn something new everyday. I’m actually amazed at all I’ve learned from this blog since I first started reading it. I too love history, all history, but especially the history of my own country and England’s. They are both entwined anyway. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that I’d like to know more about.

    Reply
  31. I really enjoyed reading this article, Andrea. Thank you. Unless you study history for a living, and I’m not just referring to professors or historians writing books, you don’t get exposed to these people worth remembering. I consider authors going down those rabbit holes some of the most important historical figure discoverers. Yes, I really am happy about discovering and bringing out the stories of these people.

    Reply
  32. I really enjoyed reading this article, Andrea. Thank you. Unless you study history for a living, and I’m not just referring to professors or historians writing books, you don’t get exposed to these people worth remembering. I consider authors going down those rabbit holes some of the most important historical figure discoverers. Yes, I really am happy about discovering and bringing out the stories of these people.

    Reply
  33. I really enjoyed reading this article, Andrea. Thank you. Unless you study history for a living, and I’m not just referring to professors or historians writing books, you don’t get exposed to these people worth remembering. I consider authors going down those rabbit holes some of the most important historical figure discoverers. Yes, I really am happy about discovering and bringing out the stories of these people.

    Reply
  34. I really enjoyed reading this article, Andrea. Thank you. Unless you study history for a living, and I’m not just referring to professors or historians writing books, you don’t get exposed to these people worth remembering. I consider authors going down those rabbit holes some of the most important historical figure discoverers. Yes, I really am happy about discovering and bringing out the stories of these people.

    Reply
  35. I really enjoyed reading this article, Andrea. Thank you. Unless you study history for a living, and I’m not just referring to professors or historians writing books, you don’t get exposed to these people worth remembering. I consider authors going down those rabbit holes some of the most important historical figure discoverers. Yes, I really am happy about discovering and bringing out the stories of these people.

    Reply

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