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Sonata Mulattica

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  • Posted June 20, 2009

    If you read only one new poetry book this year, this one should be it!

    Dove, already known as one of our greatest contemporary poets, has surpassed herself with this amazing feat. In a series of carefully crafted poems, she recreates the life of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, son of a black father and a white German-Polish mother, who grew up in the late 18th century on the Esterhazy estate in Hungary, where the estate's resident composer and "bandleader", Franz Joseph Haydn, recognized the child's talent on the violin; Bridgetower was just 5 years old at the time. At the age of 9 his father took him to Paris (mere months before the Revolution), where he became an instant sensation; even Thomas Jefferson attended one of his concerts (fact), and Dove, in her moving poem "What Doesn't Happen", imagines Jefferson being accompanied by the teenage Sally Hemings (fiction, most likely). Bridgetower Sr., who bills himself as an "African prince" (he descended probably from black Caribbean slaves), then tries his and his son's luck in England, where little George comes under the tutelage of the fun- and arts-loving Prince of Wales (later King George IV.). In Dove's poems London (and Bath and the seaside resort town of Brighton) of the late 18th century really come alive, and I bet many of the poems, like the villanelle (kind of) "Black Billy Waters at His Pitch", would also be appreciated by readers who are not terribly versed in reading verse (excuse the pun). In 1802/1803, George Bridgetower -- now by all accounts an extremely good-looking young adult of mixed race -- takes leave from the English court to first visit his mother and brother in Dresden (!), and then to continue his travels on the Continent by looking up Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna. Beethoven, who is about to go deaf, is taken with Bridgetower's talent on the violin. He interrupts his work on the "Eroica" and, in red-hot inspiration, writes one of his greatest shorter masterpieces for his new friend: the Sonata No. 9 in A major, op. 47. Bridgetower premieres it in a morning outdoor concert, with Beethoven at the piano, to great acclaim on May 24, 1803; Beethoven, at one point, even jumps up from the piano to embrace his "lunatic mulatto". What happens then -- the falling out between the two -- has only been recorded as a "saucy remark" George, apparently a success with the ladies, makes over a girl. Ludwig, infamously unlucky in love, takes offense, severs his friendship with the young man he had just called his "dear fellow", tears up the sonata's original dedication and rededicates it to the violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, who actually despises and never plays it. Dove, in an ingenious stroke, treats the end of the relationship with a verse play in the middle of the book, which gives the tragic moment a farcical twist that works remarkably well. Bridgetower, his "tail tucked", returns to England, where gets a degree in music from Cambridge and plays the violin in the royal orchestra while living to the ripe age of 80. (He dies in poverty, though.) Amazingly, even after her hero's great moment in Vienna, Dove manages to tell the rest of his life and times in gripping, beautiful poems, followed by 7 (seven!) stunning epilogues, the last one ("The End, with MapQuest") her own contemporary reflection, in which she addresses both Bridgetower and Beethoven and asks the latter: "Ah, Master B, little great man, tell me: How does a shadow shine?&

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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