George Bridgetower, Beethoven's Black Muse
Christened Hieronymous Hyppolitus de Augustus, George Bridgetower was born on August 13, 1778, in eastern Poland. His father, Joanis Fredericus de Augustus a very suave man, was of African descent; his mother, Maria Anna Ursula Schmidt, was from Swabia and was of Polish-German descent. His father served as a page to the Prince of Esterhazy, who employed Joseph Haydn as concertmaster for his full-time orchestra at Eisenstadt. During Haydn's post, he conducted a series of concerts at which the young George was a soloist.
Bridgetower began playing violin at a young age and was a exceptional violinist. By 1785, he was performing publicly, including a small chamber performance for Emperor Joseph II. In the same year, he made his debut in Austria, playing for several elite small audiences and many different performance halls. While his father Fredericus embarked on a European tour with George, his mother Maria gave birth to another son, who would later become a cellist. After witnessing Bridgetower's mistreatment by his father, who was cold, stern, and often aggresive with the young boy, Prince George helped Bridgetower. As Bridgetower’s father was a nuisance to nobility, constantly seen begging for loans and squandering all of Bridgetower's earnings on gambling and young women, the prince offered to assist Fredericus in returning home and requested that Bridgetower remain under his tutelage. Bridgetower, finally free of his burdensome father, flourished under the guidance of Prince George.
In 1789, Bridgetower performed in Paris and Europe, including Bath and Bristol. Among his titles were "Young Negro of the Colonies," "August the Moor," "the African Prince," and even "the Abyssian Prince." One of his most notable performances was at the Concert Spiritual series in Paris, where he played the violin concerto by Giornovichi. His teachers include François-Hippolyte Barthélémon, director of the Royal Opera, Croatian-Italian composer Giovanni Giornovichi, and Thomas Attwood, organist of the Cathedral of St Paul and professor at the Royal Academy of Music. During the 1789-1799 period, Bridgetower gave over 50 concerts in London theaters, including Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket Theatre, and Prince George hired him to run his orchestra in Brighton and London. In 1789, Bridgetower received critical acclaim at the Abbaye de Panthemont in Paris, where Thomas Jefferson and his family attended.
Bridgetower played the first violin in the prince's private orchestra for 14 years, becoming a well-known and respected performer in his time. Bridgetower met Beethoven in 1802 during a concert tour throughout Europe, and Beethoven considered him to be "an absolute master of his instrument." Beethoven was so taken with Bridgetower's abilities that he dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A minor (Op.47) to him, with the amusing dedication "Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" which translates to ("Mixed-race sonata composed for the mixed-race Bridgetower, great fool and mixed-race composer"). Bridgetower had to read the violin portion of Beethoven's copy of the second movement over his shoulder. Bridgetower was also given Beethoven's tuning fork, currently in the British Library. Sadly, Beethoven severed all ties with Bridgetower and renamed the new violin sonata after the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never performed it, claiming that it had already been performed once and was too difficult. The composition is now referred to as the Kreutzer Sonata.
Bridgetower was later elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807. In 1811, he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music at Cambridge University, where he also continued composing. He taught piano and continued to perform and travel. Several of his works are held by the British Library in contemporary editions, including the Diatonica Armonica, 41 piano studies dedicated to his students; Henry, a ballad for voice and piano; variations on 'Rule Britannia' and 'God Save the King' for a quintet of two violins, flute, tenor, and cello; and an arrangement of the overture to Cherubini's opera Lodoiska. This range of styles was typical of composers of the day as vehicles to display their virtuosity. Although Bridgetower is most known for his performing virtuoso, he also allegedly composed at least one symphony and several additional pieces, all of which are speculative and cannot be confirmed.
In 1816, George married Mary Leach Leake of Hampstead, the daughter of Edward Leech, a wealthy cotton merchant in St George's Hanover Square in the social chapel. Mary's mother was a mistress to Edward Leech, and upon his death, Mary received a hefty inheritance worth over the equivalence of $2,000,000 by today's standard. They left England in 1819 for the Continent, where they spent time in Rome and Paris, duringthis trip Bridgetower became friends with the young composer Saint-Saens and interacted with many artists and composers of the day. Sadly, Mary and George divorced legally by 1828. She remained in Rome until she died in 1835. The couple had two daughters named Julia and Felicia.
Bridgetower passed away on March 29, 1860, at the age of 82. His body was put to rest at the Kensal Green Cemetery catacombs. He died alone, and like many composers of his time, he lived the later portion of his life in poverty. Bridgetower's last known address was No. 8 Victory Cottages on Montpelier Rd and Peckham; the home has since been demolished.