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Sonata Mulattica [Hardcover]

Rita Dove
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 24 2009

In a book-length lyric narrative inspired by history and imagination, a much-celebrated poet re-creates the life of a nineteenth-century virtuoso violinist.

The son of a white woman and an "African Prince," George Polgreen Bridgetower (1780--1860) travels to Vienna to meet "bad-boy" genius Ludwig van Beethoven. The great composer's subsequent sonata is originally dedicated to the young mulatto, but George, exuberant with acclaim, offends Beethoven over a woman. From this crucial encounter evolves a grandiose yet melancholy poetic tale.


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Review

"A virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso's life... stuffed with historical and musical arcana." The New Yorker "masterful collection" Los Angeles Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Rita Dove former U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and herself a musician, lives in Charlottesville, where she is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.


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5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Dec 19 2012
Format:Hardcover
A divine read. I was enchanted throughout. This makes a wonderful purchase for one's self or as a gift. Highly recommend.
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How does a shadow shine? May 23 2009
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having read so many novels recently written with the sensibility of a poet, I was curious to see what former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove would make of this cycle of 85 poems that together take the form of a novel. A biographical novel about a footnote to musical history: the mulatto violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower. Beethoven (who ought to know) called him a crazy genius ("gran pazzo") and was inspired to write him his most difficult violin sonata. But the two quarreled over a girl and, in a fit of pique, Beethoven rededicated the work now known as the KREUTZER SONATA.

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?"
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bridgetower Sonata Feb. 28 2011
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This long narrative poem by the former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove tells the story of the brief relationship between George Bridgetower a virtuoso violinist and Ludwig van Beethoven. Bridgetower (1780 -- 1860) was the son of an African/Carribean father known as the "African Prince" and a German/Polish mother. Bridgetower thus was a mulatto. He was a child prodigy on the violin and gave his first concert in Paris, just before the French Revolution, at the age of nine.

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
more lightly!"

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".

Robin Friedman
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An elegant and charming set of poems Dec 12 2009
By Monica B. Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Having seen Rita Dove recently at the Downtown library in Los Angeles, I was determined to purchase her latest volume, Sonata Mulattica. This is a most unusual set of poems, including a small play! There is nothing forbidding about Dove's poems. She reaches her reader with every word.It is not surprising that she has been a Poet Laureate This is a most appealing work, even for those not familiar with poetry. I appreciated receiving a used copy through Amazon. It was in "as new" condition, pristine - and about half the price of buying it at the bookstore. As a writer, myself, I sometimes feel a bit guilty about buying at such a discount. The writer gets so little from books, anyway, and when books are sold at deep discounts, the writer often gets nothing at all.

Still, for those of us who love books, Amazon offers additions to our personal libraries that we could not otherwise afford, would not otherwise buy.

Monica B. Morris
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful symphony of poetry May 28 2009
By Dan Barclay - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I love this book. I played symphony violin for 9 years and I truly appreciate the extensive research Rita Dove has done to make the book musically oriented. The book also employs preics terminiology to paint the picture of that time period. While some parts are a bit dense, the overall flow from poem to poem is beautiful music, plain and simple.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique & fascinating! Nov. 18 2012
By Virginia Musician - Published on Amazon.com
After hearing Rita Dove read some of these poems in person, in Williamsburg, Virginia, I could not wait to read the whole book! however, each poem is so intriguing--by turns beautiful, thought-provoking, and funny--that you need to take time; read one or two, then re-read, then go away & listen to music, then come back & enjoy!
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