It was about a month ago that Sergio profiled an upcoming new documentary on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the most famous classical music composers, who also happens to be of African descent, and a name that many are likely not familiar with.
In addition to the Coleridge-Taylor project, you should know that there’s another documentary in production on another black classical musician of yesteryear, who has gone mostly unrecognized – George Polgreen Bridgetower.
Classical music’s power as a catalyst for love and forgiveness plays a starring role in the upcoming documentary film Sonata Mulattica, produced by Spark Media with support from the Fetzer Institute. The film weaves the stories and contrasting fortunes of two gifted musicians of African descent – Bridgetower and young Joshua Coyne, a contemporary violinist severely abused as a toddler, later adopted by a loving mother, and soon discovers his gift for classical music.
The film examines the obscure legacy of George Polgreen Bridgetower, the 19th century violin prodigy revived for history by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who rose from obscurity to a brief run of European fame in the 18th century.
A little about Bridgetower:
Born to a Polish-German woman and an Afro-Caribbean man who claimed to be an African prince, George Bridgetower was a child prodigy violinist. He electrified late 18th century Europe, riveting royal audiences, his innate gift transcending boundaries of class, race and culture. In 1803, Bridgetower met luminary, Ludwig van Beethoven, and struck up a fast friendship. Beethoven was so inspired by the young master, he named one of his greatest violin sonatas, #9, “sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico.” When they played it together, Bridgetower’s performance was so astonishing Beethoven abruptly stopped playing, dashed across the stage to embrace the violinist, then returned to the piano to finish the recital. Regrettably, their bond would rupture over a woman, and an enraged Beethoven re-titled his work to “The Kreutzer Sonata,” after French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the piece and thought it was unplayable when he saw the sheet music. Bridgetower left Vienna for England. Despite his mixed heritage and a thriving trans-Atlantic slave trade, he got his degree at Cambridge and continued to perform, compose and teach. But unlike Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, this consummate artist would die a pauper in 1860, his virtuosity unknown.
A fascinating story that I’d like to see a scripted feature film made out of. But I won’t hold my breath.
And now, thanks to Rita Dove, his time has come.
The film’s backers (Stone Soup Productions) state that Bridgetower’s dramatic biography will provide a springboard to explore issues of class and race in classical music, shedding light on how a minority could embrace a cultural heritage and defy expectations to thrive.
His life is in stark contrast to Coyne’s, today, whose future seems limitless. At present, in addition to violin, he plays piano, saxophone, mandolin, viola, and guitar, is focused on composing, arranging and conducting, all while attending high school in Maryland. He is 17.
To capture the spirit of Rita Dove’s lyrical work, the film will adopt an innovative structure, weaving history with contemporary artistic performances, connecting characters in the present to those in the past, using parallel threads to explore the lives of these two prodigies.
No word on when we can expect to see the completed work, but an enticing 9-minute preview of the film was released online, and is embedded below. It gives you a nice background behind the project, and the subjects it focuses on, the impetus for the work, its intent, etc.