George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (11 October 1778–29 February 1860) was an Afro-Polish-born virtuoso violinist, who lived in England for much of his life. He was born in Biała in Galicia, where his father worked for Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł, in 1778. He was baptised Hieronimo Hyppolito de Augusto on 11 October 1778.
His father, John Frederick Bridgetower, was probably a West Indian (possibly Barbadian) servant of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy (Joseph Haydn's patron), although he also claimed to be an African prince. His mother was from Germany, and was probably a domestic servant in the household of Sophie von Turn und Taxis. He exhibited considerable talent in his childhood, giving successful violin concerts in Paris, London, Bath and Bristol in 1789. In 1791, the British Prince Regent (later George IV) took an interest in him, and oversaw his continuing musical education. At the Prince's direction, he studied under François-Hippolyte Barthélémon (leader of the Royal Opera), with 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 at the Abbaye de Panthemont in Paris, with Thomas Jefferson and his family in attendance.
Meeting with Beethoven
He was given leave to visit his mother and brother (a cellist) in Dresden in 1802, giving concerts there. He visited Vienna later in 1803, where he performed with Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was impressed, and dedicated his great Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to Bridgetower, with the goodheartedly mocking dedication Sonata per un mulattico lunatico. Barely finished, the piece received its first public performance at the Augarten Theatre on 24 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 pair fell out soon afterwards, Bridgetower having 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 — the piece is now known as the Kreutzer Sonata. The Pulitzer-prize winning poet Rita Dove dramatized the relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower in the book-length lyric narrative Sonata Mulattica.
Return to England
Bridgetower returned to England, where he married Mary Leech Leeke in 1816 and continued his musical career, teaching and performing. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on 4 October 1807, and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music in June 1811. He 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. His remains are deposited in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Bridgetower's own compositions include Diatonica armonica for piano, published in London in 1812 and Henry: A ballad, for medium voice and piano, also published in London. A list of his compositions may be found in Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 1990, in an article by Dominique-Rene de Lerma.
Bridgetower appears as a character in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved, and is shown playing the Kreutzer Sonata while Beethoven watches.
A British film, A Mulatto Song, directed by Topher Campbell, was released in 1996. The cast included Colin McFarlane as Frederick DeAugust (Bridgetower’s father), Cole Mejias as the young Bridgetower, and Everton Nelson as the adult Bridgetower.
A short animation, Bridgetower, directed by Jason Young features Chris Rochester as George Bridgetower and Stefano Leonardi as Beethoven.
A new jazz opera entitled Bridgetower - A Fable of 1807, by Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips, was commissioned by the City of London Corporation for the 2007 City of London Festival to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first parliamentary bill to abolish slavery. The role of Bridgetower was played by Cleveland Watkiss.
- George Grove and Simon McVeigh. "Bridgetower, George Polgreen." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/03981.
- Bridgetower’s early years
- His name is not found, however, in Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses
- A Mulatto Song (1996).
- Felicia R. Lee Poet’s Muse: A Footnote to Beethoven, 2 April 2009.
- "Bridgetower - A Fable of 1807. A new jazz opera by Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips".
- Bridgetower - A Fable of 1807, Cast list.
- George Polgreen Bridgetower from the British Library
- George Bridgtower - 100 Great Black Britons
- George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860) - African Heritage in Classical Music
- "Bridgetower - Black Musicians and British Culture", lecture by Dr Mike Phillips at Gresham College on the 2nd July 2007 (available for download in video and audio formats as well as a text transcript).
- "Poet's Muse: A Footnote To Beethoven", short account of the relationship between Bridgetower and Beethoven by Felecia R. Lee.
- Sonata Mulattica. A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. Poems by Rita Dove. 230 pages. W.W. Norton, spring 2009. The story of George Polgreen Bridgetower reimagined in the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, who was inspired to write her lyrical narrative by Bridgetower's short but intense relationship to Beethoven, especially Bridgetower's premiere performance of Violin Sonata No. 9.