Andrea 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.)
George 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 came 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.
The 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.
George 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!
Apparently, 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.)
George 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?