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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Frank Lloyd Wright chose spirited, intelligent women to share his larger-than-life life but he dominated and used his wives relentlessly as seen in The Women. It is Rita Dove's poetic imagination and imagery that makes Sonata Mulattica such a rewarding read. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is so dense that it is good for several days' reading; boring it is not.


by Rita Dove, © 2009

W.W. Norton & Co., NY

Hardcover, 209 pp (plus 14 pp notes and chronology)

I have noted (above) the pages of notes and chronology that come at the end of this book because they are, I believe, integral to understanding the context of what you are reading. If you aren’t concerned about the exact historical details, however, you can do what I did: start at the beginning and read for the pure pleasure of poetry written by a master poet. Having done that, read the notes and then go back to re-read the poems, an experience that only will be doubled by having the context of each.

Rita Dove, born in 1952, is a remarkable woman. Her first books of poetry came out in the ‘80’s, and her third volume won the Pulitzer Prize. In the ‘90’s, she served a two-year appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States, the youngest person and first African American to hold that post. She is currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Sonata Mulattica is, as the jacket flap describes it, “A footnote in musical history ... a book-length ... narrative” in verse. The poems and a playlet describe moments in the life of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860), a violin prodigy described as the son of “a black African Prince” (apparently self-styled) and a Polish/German woman.

Bridgetower, who served as a personal page to Prince Esterhazy in what is now Hungary (and was then Poland/Saxony), was discovered by Haydn while Haydn was musical director of the Esterhazy estate. At the age of 9, young George was brought to Paris, where he made his debut at the Concert Spirituel in Paris (just two months before the storming of the Bastille). Just a few weeks later, he made his debut in London at a private concert arranged by the Papendieks, both of whom were members of the royal court, he as head page (and an excellent amateur musician) and she as Reader to Her Majesty Queen Charlotte.

The attention brought Bridgetower to the notice of the Prince of Wales, who soon became his official guardian. George’s brother, Ferdinand, (a cellist) often performed with him. In 1803, they gave concerts in Dresden, Teplitz, and Carlsbad, and that spring, Bridgetower met (and played for) Beethoven. Soon after, he premiered Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Number 9 in A Major, Opus 47, with the composer at the piano. The performance was a triumph, but afterwards, when the composer and his copyist and young Bridgetower went out to celebrate at a tavern, Bridgetower put the moves on a waitress whom Beethoven had noticed and proclaimed as being a cut above the other serving wenches. Bridgetower made a silly bet that he could get her “to lift her skirt,” and succeeded in arranging an assignation later in the evening. This so infuriated Beethoven that he severed his connection to Bridgetower. Later, the sonata that had been written for and performed by Bridgetower was published and dedicated to another violinist, his good friend Kreutzer. It remains “the Kreutzer Sonata” to this day.

Rita Dove’s erudition shows itself in her scholarly research, but it is her poetic imagination and imagery that make this book such a rewarding read. Remarkably, her poems are differ widely from one to another in both style and pacing, but all are linked by her precise use of the English language.

Sonata Mulattica is an eye-opening book for anyone who loves good poetry and a challenging read.


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Rita Dove is a remarkable woman.

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