Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beethoven, Kreutzer and Bridgetower
Oh, What a Sonata!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins

If you're a violinist or a Beethoven fan, you probably know of Rodolphe Kreutzer. Today, November 16 marks the birthday in 1766 of Rodolphe Kreutzer. Probably the finest violinist of his time, Beethoven's "Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major" is dedicated to Kreutzer and is known as the "Kreutzer Sonata". If you're a string player, you have probably worked your way through Kreutzer's "Etudes" at some point in your playing career.

Violinist George Bridgetower
How about George Bridgetower? Know about him? Ever heard of him? Probably not. But you should! George Bridgetower was one of the first African-European violinists of prominence.

Born in 1778, Bridgetower grew up in the households of Hungarian Prince Esterhazy, Haydn's patron. George Bridgetower learned violin at an early age and showed considerable talent. By the late 1780's, Bridgetower was concertizing in some of Europe's largest cities.

In 1803, Bridgetower was in Vienna. He met and played music with Beethoven. Beethoven was so impressed that he dedicated his "Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major" to Bridgetower. Full of friendship and admiration, scholars think the original dedication was "Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" (Mullato Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, big wild mulatto composer)". While the dedication doesn't seem to read well in terms of twenty-first century sensibilities, the dedication implies we might have known the Sonata No. 9 as the "Bridgetower Sonata". 

George Bridgetower was also the first performer of Sonata No. 9, performing it at 8 AM on May 24, 1803 at the Augarten Theater in Vienna with Beethoven on pianoforte. How good a violinist was George Bridgetower? He sight read the piece as it was performed! No rehearsal, no nothing! And it went mah-vell-luhsleeee!

Performing at 8 AM left time for Ludwig and George to go out drinking after the performance. Probably not such a good idea. In the course of this drinkathon, Bridgetower said something that Beethoven took as an insult to a woman that was his (Beethoven's) friend. Out comes the eraser! The dedication to George Bridgetower is taken off and a new dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer is written in. 
Beethoven's dedication of  Sonata No. 9 to R. Kreutzer
                                                      Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Beethoven's 'Kreutzer" Violin sonata

Kreutzer and Beethoven had met in 1798 when Kreutzer traveled to Vienna with the French ambassador. Beethoven was impressed enough with Kreutzer's playing to dedicate the Sonata to him. Thus, we now know Beethoven's "Sonata No. 9 in A Major" as the "Kreutzer Sonata" and not the "Bridgetower Sonata"

How did Rodolphe Kreutzer like the Sonata. Not so much. He called it "unplayable and incomprehensible". Kreutzer never performed the piece and legend has it he never even PLAYED the Sonata. Yes, the Sonata that bears his name. Luckily, the Sonata had already been published with the dedication to Kreutzer. Otherwise, Ludwig might have pulled the eraser out once again.
Rodolphe Kreutzer

George Bridgetower is a fascinating violinist. Read more about him in a great article on There was also a New York Times article on April 2009 by Felicia R. Lee, "Poet's Muse: A Footnote to Beethoven".
The City of London Festival has an online reading and listening resource about George Bridgetower

Tolstoy, the Russian author, was inspired by Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata to write a novella titled 'The Kreutzer Sonata'.
Leos Janacek, the Czech composer, was inspired to write his 'Quartet #1' after reading Tolstoy's novella. The subtitle of the quartet is "The Kreutzer Sonata". Follow that? Beethoven to Tolstoy to Janacek. What a tangled web we weave!

The Australian Chamber Orchestra playing an orchestration of Janacek's 'Quartet #1, The Kreutzer Sonata'.

Oh, and remember, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. It might cost you a sonata dedication. 

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1 comment:

  1. AfriClassical is pleased to excerpt portions of this post which references the essay on the George Bridgetower page at, written by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma.