black polish virtuoso

Rita Dove has done us a great service by painstakingly digging up this forgotten history.  Like most people, I had never heard of Bridgetower before Sonata Mulattica popped up in a random google search.  What a fascinating story!  I imagine it was not only challenging, but exciting to imaginatively fill in the blanks of this discarded musicians unique experience.  I would like to know more about his parents.  How they met, how an interracial relationship was received in Poland circa 1780, if he considered himself a mulatto or if there was a one-drop kind of mentality.  I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out what insight Dove’s years of research led her to deduce about those race issues.

More than her standing as former US Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Possibility Poet it is Dove’s own family that (in my opinion) makes her a perfect and trustworthy candidate to bring us this story:

Rita Dove and her husband Fred Viebahn, with their newborn daughter, Aviva, in Tempe, Arizona, January, 1983.

Rita Dove and her husband Fred Viebahn, with their newborn daughter, Aviva, in Tempe, Arizona, January, 1983.(© Fred Viebahn)

Rita Dove’s gorgeously engaging ‘Sonata Mulattica’ weaves the narrative of a black virtuoso all but erased from musical history.

By: Teresa Wiltz

Via: The Root

Way, way back in the day, there was an Afro-Polish violinist, a biracial child prodigy of such virtuosity that even Beethoven felt compelled to dedicate a sonata to him. There were honors and accolades and patronage from a prince.

But fortunes changed, as poet laureate Rita Dove describes in her novel-sized book of poems, Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. The violinist, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, and his composer, Ludwig van Beethoven,  performed the sonata together to thunderous acclaim.

The goodwill between them evaporated as the two quarreled over a woman. Beethoven furiously erased Bridgetower’s name and scribbled the name of another violinist when he dedicated the sonata.

That is how the “Sonata Mulattica” became the “Kreutzer Sonata,” one of Beethoven’s most famous works. Through that one fit of jealous retribution, Beethoven wrote Bridgetower out of history.

The Polish black virtuoso, once famous, now forgotten.

This bright-skinned papa’s boy

could have sailed his 15-minute fame

straight into the record books.

Dove first heard about Bridgetower years ago, when she was a musician studying the cello, and later, opera. It wasn’t until she saw Immortal Beloved, a film about Beethoven, that it triggered her memory. Fascinated with the thought of a mixed- race musician in 19th century Europe—“I thought there was more to it than this exotic creature who played the violin”—Dove set out to find out more about him. For five years, she researched and wrote, digging up little nuggets along the way, tucked in letters and diaries, like that of court lady Charlotte Papendiek, and in what little historical accounts she could find.

“It was like tracking the coordinates of some meteor,” Dove says. “ ‘Oh, he went there; he appeared here,’ mapping the trajectory of his life. Other than that, he was a blank slate.”

A blank slate onto which she poured all her imagination and musings about race and class and sexual competition. Bridgetower, the son of a self-proclaimed “African prince” and a Polish-German woman, was born in Poland in 1780. As it happened, his father, who was a bit of an operator, was working in the castle of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, where Joseph Haydn worked as a musical director.

Even as a very young child, Bridgetower dazzled on the violin; Haydn took him under his wing. Later, Bridgetower traveled from Vienna to London, where he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, who would later become Kind George IV.  His was a life of comfort, adulation and high achievement. (He eventually received a degree from Cambridge University.)

Bridgetower, George Augustus Polgreen, 1780-1860.  His passport, obtained in Dresden, 27 July 1803, portrayed him as being of average height, beardless with dark brown hair and eyes, with a broad nose and swarthy complexion. Friends added that he was melancholic and discontent.

At the time, there were a good number of free blacks living in London, says Dove, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Some were Africans who’d never been enslaved; some were slaves who’d been freed. Class, rather than race, circumscribed one’s lot. So for a black boy with a knack for playing the violin, a child prodigy with a powerful patron, life was considerably sweeter than that of, say, Black Pearl, the young black servant in Dove’s book.

Pathological hit of the day: n****r on a golden chain.

Metaphorically, that is. The African

valet, the maidservant black

as aces in a hole….

Sonata Mulattica is a gorgeously engaging read, utilizing a mix of poetic styles, from nursery rhymes to free verse, until the narrative arc sweeps into the big confrontation between Bridgetower and Beethoven. At that point, the action shifts from poem to play, a play with a distinctly vaudevillian sensibility, complete with baudy references to Othello. Bridgetower becomes a rapping, preening braggadocio:

But I’m a natural man, born under a magical caul,

I’m that last plump raisin in the cereal bowl;

I’m the gravy you lick from your mashed potatoes,

I’m creamier than chocolate, juicier than ripe tomatoes!

But Beethoven soon brings him down to size:

Now you will taste the high price

Of my affection—“Mulatto Sonata,” indeed!

I would sooner dedicate my music

To a barnyard mule

If the two men had not quarreled, two egos run amok, would musical history have been different? Would, we find, as Dove writes, “rafts of black kids scratching out scales on their matchbox violins so that some day/they might play the impossible:/ Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47/Also known as The Bridgetower”?

We will, of course, never know.  Still, it’s nice to imagine the possibilities of what could have and should have been.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.

the gains to be realized from black-white intermarriage

What a life! From the seemingly extreme “Take that eugenics!”attitude of her parents, to the prodiginous achievements of her childhood, on to the “passing” years Philippa Schuyler’s story encompasses so many fascinating facets of the “biracial” experience of old.

Philippa Schuyler


Classical pianist, writer

One of the most unusual and perhaps most tragic figures in American cultural history, Philippa Schuyler gained national acclaim as a child prodigy on the piano. Her picture graced the covers of weekly news magazines, and she was hailed as a young American Mozart. Schuyler’s life during adulthood, however, was a difficult one. She struggled with racial discrimination and with issues related to her mixed-race background, traveling the world in an attempt to find not only musical success but also an identity and a place in the world. She turned to writing in the early 1960s, visiting war zones as a newspaper correspondent, and she was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1967. After her death she was mostly forgotten for several decades, but her life story was told in a 1995 biography.

Philippa Duke Schuyler was born on August 2, 1931, in New York and brought up in Harlem at the height of the area’s cultural flowering. The complexities of her life began with her background, for she had two singular parents. Her father George Schuyler was a journalist who wrote for one of the leading black newspapers of the day, the Pittsburgh Courier, and he was well acquainted with numerous writers in both black and white journalistic circles. He was not a civil rights crusader like many of his Harlem contemporaries, but rather a conservative satirist who rejected the idea of a distinctive black culture and later in life joined the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society. Philippa Schuyler’s mother, Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, was a white Southern belle from a Texas ranch who had married George Schuyler after coming to New York to escape a wealthy family of unreconstructed racists. They all refused to attend concerts Philippa Schuyler gave in Texas at the height of her fame.

Schuyler’s parents were in the grip of several novel theories and fads, some of which they devised themselves. They fed Philippa raw vegetables, brains, and liver, believing that cooking leached vital nutrients out of food. And, in contrast to the now-discredited but at the time widely held belief in eugenics, which formed the basis for Nazi ideas of racial purity, they claimed that racial mixing could produce a superior “hybrid” sort of human. That notion had strong effects on Philippa Schuyler’s life, for the Schuylers planned to make their daughter into Exhibit A for the gains that could be realized from black-white intermarriage.

And, indeed, the plan seemed to work. Schuyler walked before she was a year old, was said to be reading the Rubaiyat poems of Omar Khayyam at two and a half, and playing the piano and writing stories at three. When she was five, Schuyler underwent an IQ test at Columbia University; it yielded the genius-level figure of 185. She made rapid progress on the piano, and due to Mr. Schuyler’s connections it wasn’t long before stories about Philippa began to appear in New York newspapers.

Schuyler’s mother, described by the New York Times as “the stage mother from hell, blending a frustrated artist’s ambition with an activist’s self-righteousness,” started to enter her in musical competitions. Schuyler did spectacularly well and was a regular concert attraction by the time she was eight. Just short of her ninth birthday, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named a day after her at the New York World’s Fair. But her childhood was an isolated one; she was taught mostly by private tutors and had no friends her own age. Her mother, who fired her piano teachers whenever she began to get close to one emotionally, beat her regularly.

For a period of time during World War II, Schuyler was a national child star. She wrote a symphony at age 13, and leading composer and critic Virgil Thomson pronounced it the equal of works that Mozart had written at that age after the New York Philharmonic performed it in 1945. A concert Schuyler performed with the Philharmonic soon after that was attended by a crowd of 12,000, and profiles of the attractive teen appeared in Time, Look, and The New Yorker. Schuyler was promoted by the black press in general, not just in her father’s Pittsburgh Courier, as a role model, and she certainly inspired a generation of black parents to sign their kids up for piano lessons.

But there were pitfalls ahead for the talented youngster. When she was 13, she discovered a scrapbook her mother had kept of her accomplishments, and more and more she began to feel like an exotic flower on display. On tour, especially in the South, she began to experience racial prejudice, something of which she had been mostly unaware during her sheltered upbringing. Bookings began to dry up, except in black-organized concert series. Observers have offered various explanations as to why. Schuyler herself and many others pointed to discrimination; the world of classical music has never been a nurturing one for African-American performers, and in the 1940s very few blacks indeed had access to major concert stages. Some felt that Schuyler’s playing, although technically flawless, suffered from an emotionless quality brought on by the strictures of her demanding life. And Schuyler faced a problem she had in common with other teenage sensations—the tendency of the spotlight to seek out the next young phenomenon.

Though Schuyler briefly fascinated the nation as a mulatto child prodigy, white America lost interest in her as she aged.

Schuyler and her mother reacted by once again calling in George Schuyler’s connections; he had friends in Latin American countries, and Schuyler began to give concerts there. In 1952 she visited Europe for the first time. Schuyler enjoyed travel, and, like other black performers, found a measure of unprejudiced acceptance among European audiences. Over the next 15 years she would appear in 80 countries and would master four new languages, becoming proficient enough in French, Portuguese, and Italian that she could write for periodicals published in those languages. She traveled to Africa as well as Europe, performing for independence leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Haile Selassie in Ethiopia—but also passing for white in apartheid-era South Africa. Schuyler began to resist the pressure that still came from her parents, but she remained close to them, writing to her mother almost daily and becoming their chief means of financial support.

Her income came not only from music but also from lectures she gave to groups such as the virulently anti-internationalist John Birch Society, for Schuyler had come to share her father’s conservative politics. Despite her performances in newly independent African capitals, she came to adopt a positive outlook on European colonialism.

Confused and fearful about the future, Schuyler took steps in two new directions. First, since her ethnic identity seemed uncertain to those who had never encountered her, she began in 1962 to bill herself as Felipa Monterro or Felipa Monterro y Schuyler. She even obtained a new passport in that name. Her motivation seems to have been split between a desire to have audiences judge her without knowing of her African-American background, and a broader renunciation of her black identity. The ruse convinced audiences for a time, but the reviews of her concerts were mixed, and she soon abandoned the effort.

Second, Schuyler began to write. Traveling the globe, she filed stories from political hot spots for United Press International and later for the ultraconservative Manchester Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire.  She wrote several books and magazine articles as well, and at her death she left several unpublished novels in various stages of completion. One of them evolved into an autobiography, Adventures in Black and White, which was published in 1960.

She traveled to Vietnam to do lay missionary work, supporting U.S. military action there and writing a posthumously published book about American soldiers, Good Men Die. She founded an organization devoted to the aid of children fathered by U.S. servicemen, and on several occasions she assisted Catholic organizations in evacuating children and convent residents from areas of what was then the nation of South Vietnam as pro-North Vietnamese guerrillas advanced. It was on one of those evacuation missions, on May 9, 1967, that Schuyler’s helicopter crashed into Da Nang Bay. She drowned, for she was unable to swim. Shortly before her death, she had written a letter that seemed to suggest a political change of heart, expressing sympathy with black activist leader Stokely Carmichael.

Schuyler’s funeral was held at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and in death she was once again in the headlines. Two years after her death, Schuyler’s mother hanged herself in her Harlem apartment. A New York City school was named after Schuyler, but her name dropped into temporary obscurity. She became better known with the publication in 1995 of Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler, a biography by Kathryn Talalay. In 2004, star vocalist Alicia Keys was signed to portray Schuyler in a film co-produced by actress Halle Berry. “This story is so much about finding your place in the world,” Keys told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. “Where do we really fit in, in a world so full of boxes and categories?”