Sonata Mulattica: Poems Hardcover – Mar 24 2009
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“A virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso's life . . . stuffed with historical and musical arcana.”
“Dove's richly imagined book has the sweep and vivid characters of a novel, but it's written with a poet's economy, an eye for the exact detail.”
About the Author
Rita Dove is the recipient of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia and lives in Charlottesville.
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So we have a real-life story, or at least some outlines for the writer to fill in. George's father was a self-styled African Prince brought to the Austro-Hungarian court as part, frankly, of a human menagerie; gifted in many languages, he seems to have had an instinctive nose for that touch of exotic wildness that would secure his place in European society. George's mother was a German woman of Polish descent. George himself, as a boy on the Esterhazy estate, comes to the notice of Joseph Haydn, who develops his musical talents to the point where he creates a sensation at his Paris debut at the age of 9, and thereafter gets adopted by the English court. He is 23 when he visits Vienna, enthralls Beethoven then maddens him, and returns in defeat to England; there, he will serve for 20 years as leader of the Prince Regent's orchestra, wander abroad, and return to die in a London suburb at the end of his eighth decade.
It is a rocket of a story with a long dying fall. Poetry doesn't narrate the upward trajectory -- for that you need the chronology and racy notes at the back -- so much as punctuate the ascent with starbursts of wonder: "I was nothing if not everything | when the music was in me. | I could be fierce, I could shred | the heads off flowers for breakfast | with my bare teeth, simply because | I deserved such loveliness." But poetry excels prose in its ability to meditate on those plotless later years. Some poems cry out in anger, as here in RAIN when George takes leave of the cultural cacophony of Vienna: "Because we're wading through wreckage, we're | not even listening to all the crash and clatter -- | chords wrenched from their moorings, smashed | etudes, arpeggios glistening as they heave and sink. | Ciphers, the lot of them. Their money, their perfumed stink." Others are almost unbearably poignant, as in HALF LIFE: I'm a shadow in sunlight, | unable to blush | or whiten in winter. | Beautiful monster, | where to next -- | when you can hear | the wind howl | behind you, the gate | creaking shut?"
This reference to George Bridgetower's race is of course of interest to Dove, who is of African descent herself. But despite the title, SONATA MULATTICA is about many sorts of ways of reducing a person's individuality, even while feting him for some extraordinary success. There is little difference between the prodigy George, his African showman of a father, or the real life negro busker Black Billy Waters, who makes several ribald appearances. Even the great Haydn chafes at being treated like a chattel. Here is George at 9, in recital with another child prodigy: "Two rag dolls set out for tea | in our smart red waistcoats, | we suffered their delight, | we did not fail our parts -- | not as boys nor rivals even | but men: broken, then improperly | mended; abandoned | far beyond the province | of the innocent."
I would mention three other things that poetry does extremely well. One is to play with form and style. Dove's range is extremely wide, taking in sonnet and rondeau, popular nursery rhymes and street songs, many types of free verse, some concrete poetry, and even a short verse play. The effect, as she skips from the 18th century to the 21st and back, is rather like what Peter Maxwell Davies does with popular music in his brilliant EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING, simultaneously capturing the period and anatomizing it. But poetry and music are indeed close; that is my second point. Poems like POLGREEN SIGHT-READING, in which the violinist, half by sheer intuition, struggles with Beethoven's manuscript are amazing evocations of the extraordinary in music: "I've been destined to travel these impossible | switchbacks, but it's as if I'm skating | on his heart, blood tracks | looping everywhere...". Finally, poetry can be intensely personal. One of the most moving poems of all is the last, THE END, WITH MAPQUEST, where Dove comes back to visit the very ordinary suburb where Bridgetower died, ending with a confession: "Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower, | to miss you? I don't even know if I really like you. | I don't know if your playing was truly gorgeous | or if it was just you, the sheer miracle of all | that darkness swaying close enough to touch, | palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger | running circles into golden oil. Ah, | Master B, little great man, tell me: | How does a shadow shine?"
In 1803 while in Vienna, Bridgetower was introduced to Beethoven (1770- 1827) who at the age of 33 was ten years Bridgetower's senior and already possessed of a large reputation as a composer. Beethoven was taken with the young man's virtuosity and passion on the violin. He briefly interrupted work on his monumental third symphony to compose a sonata for violin and piano in which Bridgetower would play the violin and Beethoven the piano. The sonata in A major, opus. 47 Beethoven's ninth for violin and piano, was performed to great acclaim on May 24, 1803. Beethoven intended to dedicate the sonata to Bridgetower, for whom he had written the work. But the two men had a falling-out over a woman, the precise details of which remain obscure. In a fit of anger, Beethoven withdrew the dedication to Bridgetower and dedicated his sonata instead to Rudolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer was probably the most famous violinist of his day, and Beethoven knew him slightly. Kreutzer disliked the sonata Beethoven dedicated to him and never played it. But the work is one of Beethoven's grandest, and the dedication made Kreutzer's name immortal. George Bridgetower, although he would live a long life, became relegated to obscurity, known only passingly to those who study Beethoven and his music, when Beethoven withdrew his dedication.
Dove's poem tells the story of George Augustus Pegeen Bridgetower, from his flamboyant early life of promise to his obscure latter years in "Sonata Mulattica", a long narrative poem which consists of about 80 short poems in varying forms and styles. The work is divided into five sections of "movements" together with a short, climactic play called "Georgie Porgie: A Moor in Vienna" which offers a dramatised version of the rift between Bridgetower and Beethoven. The work begins with a meditative prologue of two poems and concludes with an epilogue.
Dove's poem captures the near-religious passion that music inspires in composers, performers, and those who love the art. Besides portrayals of Beethoven and Bridgetower, Dove's musical characters include Haydn, who recognized Bridgetower's prodigous talent, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven's copyist and a composer in his own right, Johann Peter Salomon, a promoter who organized Haydn's trips to London, Franz Clement, the violinist to whom Beethoven dedicated his only violin concerto, and Black Billy Waters, a London Street musician. Dove also includes a poem in the words of Guilletta Guicciardi, one of Beethoven's many hopeless loves. Beethoven dedicated his "Moonlight" piano sonata to Guicciardi. In her poem in the book, "The Countess Shares Confidences over Karneval Chocolate" Dove captures well Beethoven's manner of playing the piano and his stormy, wild character. The Countess, now a married woman, recollects:
"He insisted on a light touch. He himself
was a wild man, ripping the music
from my stumbling fingers
and stomping about as the pages
fluttered sadly earthwards,
like the poor pheasants dropped over
the hunting fields of the Prater.
Rest assured I soon learned to play
Besides focusing on music, Bridgetower and Beethoven, Dove's poem describes well life in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, as Thomas Jefferson makes a cameo appearance at an early Bridgetower concert, and Dove devotes several poems to the young libertine Prince of Wales who becomes Bridgetower's guardian when his father wanders away. The poetic voice ranges from serious and reflective to irony and sarcasm. Some of the poems are in the form of dramatic monologues while others are narrated. Of the many different poetic styles and meters used in the work, I was most struck by "Black Billy Waters, At his Pitch" which is composed in the highly structured form of a vilanelle. The play, in which Bridgetower loses his dedication and Beethoven's friendship, is swiftly performed and features a chorus of "Bad Girls" who sing a caustic song to the tune of the much later classic, "My Boyfriend's Back".
Dove reflects on Bridgetower's loss of the dedication and its possible significance. In her opening poem, "The Bridgetower" she things on the possible consequences of a work by this name rather than Kreutzer's.
"Then this bright-skinned papa's boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books -- where
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
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."
And in her concluding poem, "The End with MapQuest", Dove, visiting the site of Bridgetower's death, reflects upon the violinist's life:
"Do I care enough George Augustus Bridgetower,
to miss you? I don't even know if I really like you.
I don't know if your playing was truly gorgeous
or if it was just you, the sheer miracle of all
that darkness swaying close enough to touch,
*** *** ***
Master B, little great man, tell me:
How does a shadow shine?"
Lovers of music and of the "Kreutzer" sonata and readers interested in the forgotten story of an early Black violinist will be fascinated by Dove's narrative poem: Sonata Mulattica".
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Monica B. Morris