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Sonata Mulattica: Poems by Rita Dove
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Sonata Mulattica: Poems

by Rita Dove

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This was a SantaThing book from 2012, and represents what I like about SantaThing; I would never have bought this book on my own, and yet it was a very good reading experience. A historical novel in poetry! And it works.

Beethoven wrote the 'Kreutzer' violin sonata in 1803 for a mulatto violinist by the name of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Born of an African/Caribbean father and a Polish/German mother, he learned the violin, apparently, at the hands of Papa Haydn himself in Esterházy. A child prodigy, he toured England and when his father left him became the future George IV's first violinist. He met Beethoven in Vienna in 1803, and B. immediately stopped writing his 3rd symphony to compose a sonata expressly for him and they premiered it (B. at the piano) soon after the meeting. Unfortunately, it appears that Bridgetower then made the mistake of making advances towards a women of no particular consequence, but in doing so he greatly offended the stickly Beethoven who immediately 'unfriended' him and re-dedicated the sonata to Kreutzer. Bridgetower fell into obscurity.

The story is told more or less as a novel, but in a series of 1-3 page poems written from different vantage points: Bridgetower, Beethoven, Haydn, spectators, even George IV. And it works. There's not enough information about this story (I don't think) for Dove to have written an honest-to-god biography, nor would it necessarily have been a great historical novel. But as a series of short vignettes in verse it works very nicely. The poems are all very different from each other.

I'm not a great reader of poetry so I probably am not judging this as well I others could, but I thought that for the most part this was varied, mellifluous, and quite easy to read; even if only read as prose it works well. So if you're interested in the intersection between music, history, fiction, biography, and verse, then this would be great book for you. ( )
1 vote scvlad | Apr 10, 2013 |
In this narrative series of poems, Rita Dove chronicles the life of violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). The son of a self-styled African Prince and a Polish mother, Bridgetower was a child prodigy, taught by Haydn and taken on tour by his father at the age of nine. He created a sensation in Paris and London, and was eventually made the ward of the Prince Regent ("Prinny") when it became obvious that his womanizing father was neglecting him. As a young man, he returned to Saxony to visit his mother and made his way to Vienna, where he met Beethoven. The centerpiece of his story is the brief collaboration of Beethoven and Bridgetower in the first performance of Sonata No. 9. Beethoven was inspired by Bridgetower's playing to compose the Sonata, dedicated it to him, and they performed it together. But in a drunken spree after the concert, Bridgetower insulted a woman (in the poem a barmaid) Beethoven had idealized, and in a fit of rage, Beethoven tore up the dedication. He later dedicated the Sonata to Rodolphe Kreutzer -- who considered the piece unplayable and never performed it. Bridgetower returned to London, having missed his chance at immortality, served as the principal violinist in the Prince's orchestra, toured Europe, and died in London in relative obscurity.

If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn't been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn't grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.

So begins Dove's collection of varied and evocative poems. Each has a lyrical musicality presenting a moment in time. Some of the poems evoke the familiar music of the time --

Little monkey, little cow
Can you hear me listening? Now
Ticking clock, piano plink --
Watch me hear you, feel me think.

Others describe the playing of the music --

This is what it is like

to be a flame; furious
but without weight, breeze
sharpening into wind, a bright gust
that will blind, flatten all of you --
yet tender,
somewhere inside
tender.

The reader is brought into the life of the courts of the Esterhazy in Vienna, the Hanovers in London; salons and taverns and theatres and streets. Sonata Mulattica is a tour de force. ( )
6 vote janeajones | Apr 3, 2010 |
Mainly using free narrative verse, but also including sonnets, villanelles and an imagined Eighteenth Century rap, Rita Dove’s lively and often moving poems pay homage to Afro-Caribbean/Polish-German violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778 or 1780 – 1860), A child prodigy, who with Ludwig van Beethoven premièred his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major (Opus 47), while the ink was still wet, in Vienna in 1803. The volatile composer was set to dedicate the work to him (“The Sonata Mulattica”). However, disagreements over a woman lead to Bridgetower’s name being stricken from the work, which Beethoven dedicated to French violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who famously disliked it, saying it was unplayable, and never performed it). With these poems a major artist has finally given Bridgetower the kind of dedication he deserves.
  rmharris | Aug 13, 2009 |
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"Begin at the beginning," the King said very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop." -Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

--Samuel Johnson
Are all people who come to Vienna bewitched so that they have to stay here? It rather looks like it.

--Leopold Mozart
I believe that so long as the Austrian has his brown beer and sausage he will not revolt.

--Ludwig van Beethoven
This Kreutzer is a good dear fellow who gave me much enjoyment when he was here--his modesty and his natural ways appeal to me much more than all the exterieur or inferieur of most virtuosos. Since the Sonata was written for a competent violinist, the dedication to his is all the more appropriate.

--Beethoven to Nikolaus Simrock, Bonn, October 14, 1804

--Beethoven does not understand the violin.

--Rudolphe Kreutzer
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For Fred & Aviva...always
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It was at the Beginning.
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This 12th collection from the former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient is her third book-length narrative poem: it follows the real career of the violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780{u2013}1860), a former pupil of Haydn, as well as the grandson/ of an African prince, or so his promoters and teachers in England said. Moving to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars, the violinist met and befriended the famously moody Beethoven, who was prepared to dedicate his famously difficult Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower until a rivalry for the same woman drove them apart. Dove tells Bridgetower's story, and some of Beethoven's and Haydn's, in a heterogenous profusion of short poems, some almost prosy, some glittering in their technique. In quatrains, a double villanelle, what looks like found text, short lines splayed all over a page and attractive description, Dove renders Bridgetower's frustrated genius: Music played for the soul is sheer pleasure;/ to play merely for pleasure is nothing/ but work. Dove does not always achieve such subtleties{u2014}those who loved her early work may think this book too long: few, though, will doubt the seriousness of her effort, her interest at once in the history of classical music and the changing meanings of race--Publishers Weekly.… (more)

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393070085, 0393338932

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