Sonata Mulattica

by Rita Dove

Start Free Trial

Sonata Mulattica

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1515

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 fame/ straight into the record books.” The second poem, “Prologue of the Rambling Sort,” introduces the other characters in the narrative and promises, playfully, to “leave out the boring parts.” (Dove’s poetic forms and tones vary widely in this volume and include playfulness.)

The first movement of the collection focuses on Bridgetower’s life as a child in the Esterházy court. Haydn suggests that he has musical talent, and his father gladly turns the child over to the composer instead of returning him to his mother as he had intended. A poem in the boy’s voice, “Recollection, Preempted,” recalls his time there and indicates his passion for the music he learned. The poems trace Bridgetower’s growing ability, dramatizing his initial concert in Paris and following him on to England, where Mrs. Papendiek’s diary offers two entries about the boy’s impressive musical performance. In “The Wardrobe Lesson,” the voice of Bridgetower’s father discusses the social value of living up to English assumptions about Africans’ love of color; he recommends a cape for impressing women.

The second movement, “Bread & Butter, Turbans & Chinoiserie,” begins with a poem exploring London’s fondness for the exotic (“Hear Ye!”) and follows that with “The Lesson: Adagio,” the form of which suggests the slow bowing of a violin (“To bow/ is to breathe”). “Black Pearl” examines the presence of Africans in London in 1790. Poems that suggest that black faces are cultivated as a sort of social decoration alternate with poems dealing with music. In “Pulling the Organ Stops,” for instance, the voices of Bridgetower, Haydn, and Franz Clement (another prodigy) alternately describe the effects of the organ in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Next is a pantoum, “Black Billy Waters, at His Pitch,” in which the peg-legged black street musician proclaims “All men are beggars, black or white;/ Some worship gold, some peddle brass,” suggesting a sort of identity between him and Bridgetower. This section records Bridgetower’s abandonment by his father and his life as a refugee at court. Dove provides useful notes to many of her poems and an even more useful chronology for tracing the events they depict.

“Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) makes the sonata’s third movement, the one in which Bridgetower meets Beethoven at a time when the famous composer is experiencing increasing deafness. In “Vienna Spring,” Beethoven praises Bridgetower, who has renewed his faith in the violin, which he had previously renounced as “a tiny querulous beast” fit only for peg-legged street musicians. In “Augarten, 7 a.m.” and “The Performer,” Dove records first the various responses (ranging from vacuous to irrelevant to thoughtful) to a concert given by Beethoven and Bridgetower and then the voice of Bridgetower himself. Bridgetower in the latter poem declares that music is “what it is like/ to be a flame.”

At this point, Dove offers a bit of “Volkstheater,” the play called “Georgie Porgie, or A Moor in Vienna.” She heads it with a “Cast of Characters (& I mean characters!)” that includes Bridgetower and Beethoven, his copyist, a barmaid, and “a chorus of bad girls.” In the first scenes, Dove suggests a rivalry between the copyist and the director of the Augarten concerts against Bridgetower, whom they see as an interloper who has displaced them in Beethoven’s attention. The tone is satiric as Bridgetower responds to their stereotypes by doing some fraternity stepping. In a later scene at the Prater, an amusement park, Bridgetower flirts with a barmaid whom Beethoven has admired. When she agrees to meet Bridgetower later that night, Beethoven explodes, calling him an abomination and implying that he has insulted her. At the end, Beethoven strikes him with the score of his current violin concerto, quoting the dedication: “Mulatto Sonata, composed/ for the mulatto Bridgetower,/ great lunatic and mulatto composer.” This is the sonata that he rededicates to violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer, whom Dove quotes as saying that Beethoven did not “understand the violin.”

In the fourth movement, Dove explores the aftermath of the falling-out between Bridgetower and Beethoven. “Tail Tucked” gives voice to Bridgetower’s philosophical resignation to what has happened. “Esterháza, Prodigal” records his return to the court where Haydn gave him his first lessons. “Andante con Variazioni” is Bridgewater’s meditation on music and love in London. The fifth section, “Nomadia,” chronicles the end of Bridgetower’s career. The section’s first poem, “Half-Life” sets the tone: “Dull/ the days before me,/ slack the reins, my horse run off.” The section contains another poem in Black Billy Waters’s voice, claiming that the “world’s jig” demands that one “Fall in step/ or be left behind.” This section includes a poem on the sad fate of Haydn’s head and one that maps Bridgetower’s aimless travels through Europe’s capitols. In “#8 Victory Cottages, Peckham, 1860,” Bridgetower faces his own death: “I loved only/ what my fingers could do.”

The last poem in the book, “The End, with MapQuest” records Dove’s effort to find Bridgetower’s house in Peckham. After a frustrating search, she is cheered by the gaudy sign of a kebab shop. She confesses her inability to know such an elusive figure. She mulls whether his music was really miraculous or whether people were simply drawn to the spectacle “of all/ that darkness swaying close enough to touch,/ palm tree and Sambo and glistening tiger. . . .” Her final poignant question, “How does a shadow shine?” is answered by the poems of this book.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12

Booklist 105, no. 13 (March 1, 2009): 15.

The New Yorker 85, no. 11 (April 27, 2009): 71.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 11 (March 16, 2009): 40.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access