18th century classical violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower is now best remembered for his association with Ludwig von Beethoven, who originally dedicated his Violin Sonata Op. 47 to the young Afro-European musician, and first performed the sonata with Bridgetower. A copy of the sonata autographed by Beethoven is inscribed: “Sonata mulattica composta per il mullato.”
Sources differ on details of Bridgetower’s life. His birth date is between 1778-1780. His mother was Polish European, his father was of African ancestry, and he was born in Poland. During Bridgetower’s early childhood, his father was said to have worked in the household of Prince Esterhazy, patron of Beethoven and Haydn, whose castle which maintained an opera house and a private orchestra.
He exhibited considerable musical talent in his childhood, giving successful concerts in England and France in 1789. In 1791, George IV took an interest in him, and undertook his musical education, with tutelage with François-Hippolyte Barthélémon (leader of the Royal Opera), Croatian-Italian composer Giovanni Giornovichi (Ivan Jarnovic), and with Thomas Attwood (organist at St Paul's Cathedral and professor at the Royal Academy of Music). Bridgetower performed in around 50 concerts in London theatres, including Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket Theatre, between 1789 and 1799, and was employed by the Prince to perform in his orchestra in Brighton and London. In the spring of 1789 Bridgetower performed to great acclaim in Paris, with Thomas Jefferson and his family in attendance.
In 1803 he went to Vienna, where he performed with Beethoven. Beethoven was impressed, and as he was finishing up his ninth violin sonata in A major (Op.47) dedicated it to Bridgetower, with the dedication described above. The piece received its first public performance at a concert in May 1803, with Beethoven on pianoforte and Bridgetower on violin. Bridgetower had to read the violin part of the second movement from Beethoven's copy, over his shoulder. He made a slight amendment to his part, which Beethoven gratefully accepted, jumping up to say "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once more, my dear fellow!"). Beethoven also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork, now held by the British Library. The friendship disintegrated when Bridgetower insulted a woman who turned out to be Beethoven's friend. Beethoven broke off all relations with Bridgetower and changed the dedication of the new violin sonata to the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never played it, saying that it had already been performed once and was too difficult . Yet the piece is now known as the Kreutzer Sonata.
Bridgetower returned to England, where he had a career teaching and performing. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on 4 October 1807, and performed with the Royal Philharmonic Society orchestra. He later travelled abroad, particularly to Italy, where his daughter lived. He died in Peckham in south London, leaving his estate of £1,000 to his deceased wife's sister. The house was demolished in 1970. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
There are not many recordings of his music, although a dissertation on Bridgetower was written by Dr. Nicole Cherry, violinist, and we hope to hear some recordings from that project soon.