Beethoven + Bridgetower: Redeeming History by Reclaiming Footnoted Black Lives

by The Rev’d Craig Lemming

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. – Ezekiel 34:11-16

My father read Ezekiel’s words so beautifully in the Chancel of St. John’s on June 29, 2017 – the Feast of Saint Peter & Saint Paul – when I celebrated my first Solemn High Eucharist as a newly ordained Priest. The verbs Prophet Ezekiel proclaims in this passage – search, seek, rescue, bring out, feed, shepherd, bind up, strengthen – reminded me of my favorite “Black Sheep” in history.

The following scene from “Immortal Beloved” introduced Rita Dove to the Afro-European virtuoso George Bridgetower – the Black violinist to whom Ludwig van Beethoven initially dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 in A Major as the “Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], great madman mulatto composer.”  

This revelation inspired Rita Dove’s masterpiece, Sonata Mulattica – a stunning collection of poetry that celebrates and reimagines the untold story of an exquisite Black Life that interacted with Haydn, the Esterházy Princes, Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemmings, Muzio Clementi, and the Prince of Wales. On May 24, 1803 Bridgetower premiered Beethoven’s ninth violin sonata with the composer at the piano, and “had not young George, still exuberant from having premiered the difficult piece to great acclaim, become fresh with a woman Ludwig also fancied,” that Sonata would have been named the “Bridgetower” instead of the “Kreutzer.” The sad irony of Beethoven’s spiteful re-dedication is that Rodolphe Kreutzer pronounced the mulatto sonata “outrageously unintelligible” and refused to play it.

As the world begins to retrieve and celebrate the stories of astonishing Black Lives that history has footnoted, I invite you to look for the Black Lives that the western canon lost. Share those sacred stories. Those “living human documents” may help to search, seek, rescue, bring out, feed, shepherd, bind up, and strengthen another person’s life today; just as Rita Dove’s poetic account of the Black Life behind Beethoven’s “Mulatto Sonata” revived mine back in 2009.


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