In her preface to Sonata Mulattica, Rita Dove reminds her readers that all the major characters in this work are historical figures, including George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower himself. Actual historical events also form the background for the book. Even Black Billy Waters can claim a real place in history, and the relationship between Bridgetower and his mentor Ludwig van Beethoven was a real one as attested by Beethoven’s original dedication to Bridgetower of what is now known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata. The narrative that joins these historical bits makes the poetry. Dove, herself a musician, has a natural interest in music, and she was intrigued when she saw a black violinist appear briefly on the screen in Immortal Beloved (1994), a film biography of Beethoven. She filed away in her memory the idea of investigating Bridgetower’s life. Years later, Sonata Mulattica is the result.
Readers familiar with Dove’s work will recall that she employed a related strategy in Thomas and Beulah (1986), a biography-in-poems of her grandparents. In that volume, however, she was working with the materials of family history. In Sonata Mullatica, she must invent almost everything but the bare facts. In her invention, she creates a variety of voices and scenes to represent a past world, one in which she speculates on motives that no one recorded. In doing so, she manages to make a coherent and imaginative representation of that world.
A major theme in this volume is the position of Bridgetower himselfthe ultimate outsider in a world where even Joseph Haydn was little more than a servant to the powerful Esterházy family. The elder Bridgetower, evidently a man of great social skills, can scarcely have been more than a graceful curiosity to the family he served, as an African (he may have portrayed himself as a prince) in the white world of northern Europe. His biracial child at first may not even have risen to the level of curiosity, though he too was good looking and acquired polished manners. (As Dove portrays him, the elder Bridgetower found gambling and women more compelling than his son.) Dove’s picture of young Bridgetower suggests that he remained an outsider throughout his life, even during the times of his greatest reputation. Part of that theme, of course, is related to his presence as a black man in a white world, a fact Dove explores in various ways.
That Bridgetower disappeared almost completely from public awareness in his later life gives rise to another of Dove’s themesan examination of the fleeting nature of fame and of what fame means to the celebrity. After death, even Haydn was subject to grave robbers, who stole his head out of an interest in phrenology (his skull was returned to his coffin only in 1954, 145 years after his death). Meanwhile, the beggar Black Billy Waters was celebrated in a Staffordshire figurine.
To accomplish her explorations, Dove uses the musical form of the sonata, as her title suggests, covering the events of Bridgetower’s career in the five movements associated with such compositions. These include an introduction, the exposition of the themes, an elaboration and development of those themes, a recapitulation that resolves them, and a coda. Into this structure, Dove interposes a “Short Play for the Common Man,” in which she dramatizes the crisis of Bridgetower’s relationship with Beethoven.
Two poems in the Prologue set out some of the themes Dove intends to explore. “The Bridgetower” speculates on what might have happened if Bridgetower and Beethoven had not quarreled, if their friendship had prospered and Bridgetower had “sailed his fifteen-minute...
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