Black History Month: The Trinity Hall virtuoso who played with Beethoven

George Bridgetower was born in October 1778. To mark Black History Month we look at his remarkable life.

George Bridgetower credit British Museum

George Bridgetower (1778–1860) was an Afro-European virtuoso violinist born in Poland to an African father and German mother. His name is well known to Beethoven scholars as the original dedicatee of the Kreuzer Sonata, and relatively well known to historians of musical life in London in the early 19th century.

Facts about Bridgetower’s early life are somewhat sketchy. He may have been born in October or February 1778 and is reputed to have grown up at the court of the Esterházy family, where he may have studied with Haydn. His early life as a touring violin prodigy is well documented. Following his debut in Paris at the concerts spirituel in 1789, he moved with his father to England, where he appeared regularly at fashionable venues and at court, frequently advertised as ‘The son of the African Prince’. Later, he came to the attention of the Prince Regent, and was able to pursue further composition study under his patronage with English composer William Attwood, eventually becoming a respected member of London’s musical community as violinist, piano teacher and composer.

Following successful performances in Dresden, Bridgetower had been introduced to Viennese society, and it was through one of his aristocratic patrons there that he met Beethoven in spring 1803. Evidently, there was great professional and personal sympathy between the two musicians, and the pair gave a celebrated concert on 24 May 1803 which included the premiere of an incomplete sonata by Beethoven for violin and piano. The original dedication read: ‘Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [sic], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico’. However, the dedication was swiftly withdrawn following a quarrel and the complete sonata was published in 1805 as Op.47, with a dedication to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreuzer.

Bridgetower continued his performing and teaching career in England, and was awarded the degree of MusB by the University in 1811. The examination took the form of a composition ‘exercise’, on this occasion a setting for chorus and orchestra of an anthem text by FA Rawdon entitled By faith sublime fair Passiflora steers her pilgrimage along this vale of tears. The first performance took place on 30 June 1811 in Great St Mary’s Church. Sadly, the manuscript of this work is lost, but there are a few extant compositions by Bridgetower.

Bridgetower featured in Cambridge University Library’s Black Cantabs: History Makers exhibition in 2018 and has a room in Trinity Hall named after him.

Original words by Richard Baker, former Director of Music

Image: British Museum

The Bridgetower Trio

Since publishing this article, we were contacted by a chamber music ensemble in the Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Collegium Program in Canada, who told us they would be taking Bridgetower’s name as the name of the group.

One of the members of the Trio, Camilo Aybar, explained why they chose to call themselves the Bridgetower Trio: “Although he was a highly celebrated prodigy who made large contributions to classical music, performing at a young age often as a soloist and in large orchestras, George Bridgetower’s name was lost to history, especially after Beethoven changed the dedicatee of his ninth violin sonata from the “Bridgetower Sonata” to the “Kreutzer Sonata”, simply due to an argument. Almost all of Bridgetower’s own compositions seem to be lost as well, and he died unheard-of in poverty. We hope to help his name live on. “

The George Bridgetower Trio, consisting of piano, violoncello, and clarinet, was established this year for the Victoria Conservatory’s Young Artist Collegium Program. Its purpose is to bring talented young musicians together to perform chamber music with the guidance of the city’s top professional musicians, and to nourish the youths’ talent, challenging and nurturing them musically with masterclasses, competitions, and performance classes.

Nicole Hepting, piano; Camilo Aybar, clarinet; Nicole Teachman, violoncello