George Bridgetower: Afro-Polish-born virtuoso violinist

Lecture about George Bridgetower starts at 18 minutes into this video.
Bridgetower: Black musicians and British culture, 1807-2007 – Dr Mike Phillips from Gresham College on Vimeo.


George Bridgetower, unsigned watercolor, 1800.

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (11 October 1778–29 February 1860) was an Afro-Polish-born virtuoso violinist, who lived in England for much of his life. He was born in Biała in Galicia, where his father worked for Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł, in 1778. He was baptised Hieronimo Hyppolito de Augusto on 11 October 1778.

Early career

His father, John Frederick Bridgetower, was probably a West Indian (possibly Barbadian) servant of theHungarian Prince Esterházy (Joseph Haydn’s patron), although he also claimed to be an African prince. His mother was from Schwabia, probably a domestic servant in the household of Sophie von Turn und Taxis. He exhibited considerable talent in his childhood, giving successful violin concerts in Paris, London, Bath andBristol in 1789. In 1791, the British Prince Regent (later George IV) took an interest in him, and oversaw his continuing musical education. At the Prince’s direction, he studied under François-Hippolyte Barthélémon(leader of the Royal Opera), with Croatian-Italian composer Giovanni Giornovichi (Ivan Jarnovic), and withThomas Attwood (organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and professor at the Royal Academy of Music). He performed in around 50 concerts in London theatres, such as Covent Garden, Drury Lane and the Haymarket Theatre, between 1789 and 1799, and was employed by the Prince to perform in his orchestra in Brighton and London. In the spring of 1789 Bridgetower performed to great acclaim at the Abbaye de Panthemont in Paris, with Thomas Jefferson and his family in attendance.

Meeting with Beethoven

He was given leave to visit his mother and brother (a cellist) in Dresden in 1802, giving concerts there. He visited Vienna later in 1803, where he performed with Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was impressed, and dedicated his great Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to Bridgetower, with the goodheartedly mocking dedication Sonata per un mulattico lunatico. Barely finished, the piece received its first public performance at the Augarten Theatre on 24 May 1803, with Beethoven on pianoforte and Bridgetower on violin. Bridgetower had to read the violin part of the second movement from Beethoven’s copy, over his shoulder. He made a slight amendment to his part, which Beethoven gratefully accepted, jumping up to say “Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!” (“Once more, my dear fellow!”). Beethoven also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork, now held by the British Library. The pair fell out soon afterwards, Bridgetower having insulted a woman who turned out to be Beethoven’s friend; Beethoven broke off all relations with Bridgetower and changed the dedication of the new violin sonata to the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never played it, saying that it had already been performed once and was too difficult — the piece is now known as the Kreutzer Sonata. The Pulitzer-prize winning poet Rita Dove dramatized the relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower in the book-length lyric narrative Sonata Mulattica.

Return to England

Bridgetower returned to England, where he married Mary Leech Leeke in 1816 and continued his musical career, teaching and performing. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on 4 October 1807, and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music in June 1811. He performed with the Royal Philharmonic Society orchestra. He later travelled abroad, particularly to Italy, where his daughter lived. He died in Peckham in south London, leaving his estate of £1,000 to his deceased wife’s sister. The house was demolished in 1970. His remains are deposited in Kensal Green Cemetery.


Bridgetower’s own compositions include Diatonica armonica for piano, published in London in 1812 andHenry: A ballad, for medium voice and piano, also published in London. A list of his compositions may be found in Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 1990, in an article by Dominique-Rene de Lerma.


Bridgetower appears as a character in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved, and is shown playing the Kreutzer Sonata while Beethoven watches.
A British film, A mulatto song, directed by Topher Campbell, was released in 1996. The cast included Colin McFarlane as Frederick DeAugust, (i.e. Bridgetower’s father) Cole Mejias as the young Bridgetower, and Everton Nelson as the adult Bridgetower.
A book, Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former United States poet laureate, was published in 2009.
A short animation, ‘Bridgetower’, directed by Jason Young features Chris Rochester as George Bridgetower and Stefano Leonardi as Beethoven.

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