Beethoven’s Sonata Number 9 for Violin and Piano is a phenomenal work – both instruments are highlighted, the piece captivates from its opening notes, and it’s a full concert-length work. The Sonata’s official nickname is the Kreutzer Sonata.
But the piece debuted on my birthday – May 24 – in 1803 at the deft hands of the violinist for whom Beethoven wrote it – George Bridgetower, with Beethoven himself handling the piano. Bridgetower is an alluring figure – he was of African or west-Indian descent, and Wikipedia notes his father claimed to be an African prince. His mother was German, and he spent much of his time in England and Germany and Paris. Of course a black man operating at the height of the classical musical scene in Europe was not an everyday occurrence in the early 19th century.
Beethoven and Bridgetower had met the year before, and enjoyed a brief friendship. Apparently it was with as much affection as possible that Beethoven originally subtitled Sonata 9, “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico,” meaning “Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, big wild mulatto composer.” During the debut of the piece, Bridgetower was sight reading the second movement and made some bold, improvisational changes that were met with the fast approval of the composer.
About a year after the debut performance, the composer and the virtuoso had a falling out over a woman. Bridgetower apparently insulted a lovely female friend of Beethoven, and the two never reconciled. As a consequence, Beethoven re-named his sonata, giving it the nickname that holds to this day, The Kreutzer Sonata, after a man who never played the work.
Here are Anne Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis performing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9, the Bridgetower/Kreutzer Sonata:
Thanks for reading.