Thursday, March 20, 2014

Who in the World Is George Bridgetower?


As a violin teacher, I want to teach and inspire children of all different races. Diversity is essential to the future of our art form; without diverse audiences and fresh, innovative composers and performers, classical music will stagnate and decline! Yet violin (and classical music in general) is too often seen as predominantly white. This stereotype discourages black or Latino students who might otherwise be interested in studying classical music and instruments like violin, viola, or cello.
It doesn't have to be that way.
The good news is that there are plenty of examples of musicians of color around the world, including the talented Venezuelan musicians in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The most famous alumni from the orchestra, of course is, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and violinists like Aaron Dworkin, who's also a MacArthur fellow who founded the Sphinx Organization – just to name two. Celebrating the accomplishments of musicians of color encourages children who don't often see people like themselves represented in classical music to take lessons, attend concerts, and maybe someday become the next great virtuoso or composer.
Children of color who are interested in violin might find inspiration in the story of George Bridgetower, a black violinist from the time of Beethoven. Bridgetower was a musical prodigy and a virtuoso violinist who lived from 1778-1860. He was of Afro-Caribbean descent; his father came from Barbados where he may have escaped from slavery. His father also claimed be an African prince. Bridgetower was born in Poland, but he travelled to Paris for his professional debut at the age of nine. The next year, he moved to England, where his immense talent so impressed the future King George IV that he became the young violinist's guardian and patron. Bridgetower spent the next fourteen years as the concertmaster of George IV's private orchestra.Thus, Bridgetower became a famous violinist in Europe in a time when many black people in the United States still lived in slavery. He and Beethoven met in 1803, while Bridgetower was performing on tour in Vienna.
At first, Beethoven greatly admired him, so when he wrote his beloved "Kreutzer" Sonata, he originally dedicated it to George Bridgetower. They had a short but intense relationship, and Bridgetower premiered the famous Violin Sonata No. 9. He even added some changes to the violin part that Beethoven liked so much that the great composer kept them in the music, saying "Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!" ("Once more, my dear fellow!").
Despite their affection for each other, Beethoven and Bridgetower had a falling out shortly after the premier for personal reasons. Beethoven was so enraged he had his sonata dedicated to Rudolphe Kreutzer, despite the fact that Kreutzer didn't care for Beethoven's music and never performed the work. Thus, music that should have been know as the Bridgetower sonata has gone down in history named for a man who refused to play it. Unfortunately, that also meant that George Bridgetower, the violinist who premiered the music so brilliantly, remains more obscure than he should be. 
Regardless, after his encounter with Beethoven, Bridgetower returned to his home in England, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians and helped establish the Royal Academy of Music. He also received his Bachelor of Music degree from Cambridge. His fascinating life story and career has plenty of inspiration for young students, and is a reminder to us all that there is great musical talent just waiting to be found.

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