Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Black History Month à la Britannia (pt. 1)

Are you bored with Black History Month because you know all you wanna know about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and the same old short list of African-American luminaries?

I’m about to spice your shit up, friend, by casting my gaze across the pond. England has its own Black History Month – in October. But I shan’t wait till then to showcase a few intriguing cultural figures from Britain’s past.

We begin with George Bridgetower, a virtuoso violinist who rocked the stage with Beethoven two centuries ago.

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was born in Poland circa 1780. Black father, white mother. As a child prodigy on violin, Bridgetower was taken under wing by England’s future King George IV, and received an elite education in music.

In his twenties, he was introduced to Beethoven. They jammed in Vienna. Beethoven was so impressed, he dedicated his new Violin Sonata No. 9 to “the mulatto Brischdauer.”

Beethoven and Bridgetower debuted the sonata together on May 24, 1803. It was a triumphant performance.

But then, so goes the story, Bridgetower made an insulting remark about a woman Beethoven happened to know. Pissed off, Beethoven re-dedicated the piece to another violinist... named Kreutzer.

To this day, the composition is known as the “Kreutzer Sonata,” while Bridgetower is said to have died in obscurity.

(Click here to hear the sonata’s third movement, as performed by Itzhak Perlman.)

George Bridgetower’s name and story have been resuscitated in recent years. Afro-British pianist Julian Joseph has composed a “jazz opera” about Bridgetower’s life. And American poet Rita Dove last year published “Sonata Mulattica,” a poetry collection inspired by Bridgetower’s relationship with Beethoven.

Check the two vidclips below:


Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I teach Black History, as a UK version of an undercover black man, there is a lack of black educators in the UK but anyway...a dude whose story I tell is the legend that is Olaudah Equiano, his story and his book is heavy trip.

Get into him if not already.


Undercover Black Man said...

^ Yeah, Equiano is gonna be part of this little series. Never heard of the cat until I stumbled upon him on the Internet.

junebug said...

Legend has it the Beethoven HIMSELF was mulatto: black mother and white father. I read that years ago. Looking at pictures of the dude, I can believe it (he looks like Fredrick Douglass, or is that just me?)

eeaster said...

Even then you couldn't talk shit about another man's woman. Damn!

Geneva Girl said...

Junebug, I learned that too. Scanning an online bio, I didn't see any mention of it. I wonder what's true.

UBM, are you going to touch on Mary Seacole? Don't forget the ladies.

Undercover Black Man said...

That Beethoven-was-black business always struck me as a rather lame Afrocentric urban legend.

Bay Radical said...

I love when you get historical UBM!

Invisible Woman said...

wow, so many undercurrents in Black culture...proud of you on this one--i actually watched the youtubes for once...bravo, ubm ;-)

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks, IW.

bklyn6 said...

a virtuoso violinist who rocked the stage".... They jammed in Vienna.

I like how you make it sound like the first Lollapalooza. :-)

I've got some W. Grant Still and S. Coleridge Taylor on my player, but I'm not familiar with Bridgetower.

Thanks for the history lesson!

Sergio said...

I agree with UBM that that "Beethoven was black" myth is just that..a myth. I've heard it ever since I was a kid and there's no proof for it.

But as for naming the sonata "Kreutzer" Beethoven actually did it as a joke. Kreutzer was known for being not a very good violinist and couldn't play the work well especially the second movment which is techivcally very difficult in spots. So beethoven, as a prank, named it for him knowing that he could never play the work.