Recovering the story of classical music’s forgotten Black virtuoso
From The Prince of Wales to Thomas Jefferson
Ludwig van Beethoven to John Williams
From Marvin Hamlisch to Barack Obama
Poet laureates to slam poets. A bold cast of characters from three centuries
Link contemporary poetry to classical virtuosity
In a tale of two prodigies.George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower did not go down in history. But he was rescued from obscurity by Pulitzer Prize winning Poet Laureate Rita Dove in her acclaimed book, Sonata Mulattica.
At 17, African-American Joshua Coyne, has the talent to share center stage in the new documentary, Sonata Mulattica. Born to a Polish-German woman and an Afro-Caribbean man who claimed to be an African prince, George Bridgetower was a child prodigy violinist. He electrified late 18th century Europe, riveting royal audiences, his innate gift transcending boundaries of class, race and culture. His debut in Paris garnered this review: “His talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and his colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts.” He was 9 years old.
At age two, Joshua Coyne was in a body cast, his foster mother having broken his legs in 18 places, dislocating his hips and knees. Adopted by a single mother, the night she brought him home, she played a Puccini aria to soothe him. He hummed it back note for note. He had yet to speak, but his career had begun. Formal violin training started at 4; his first paid performance was at age 6. He has played for Itzhak Perlman and is mentored by the Pulitzer Prize winning composer of Chorus Line, Marvin Hamlisch. In February, 2008, he played in Baltimore for Senator Barack Obama at a rally of more than 13,000. He was 14.
In 1803, Bridgetower met luminary, Ludwig van Beethoven, and struck up a fast friendship. Beethoven was so inspired by the young master, he named one of his greatest violin sonatas, #9, “sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico.” When they played it together, Bridgetower’s performance was so astonishing Beethoven abruptly stopped playing, dashed across the stage to embrace the violinist, then returned to the piano to finish the recital. Regrettably, their bond would rupture over a woman, and an enraged Beethoven re-titled his work to “The Kreutzer Sonata,” after French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the piece and thought it was unplayable when he saw the sheet music.
Bridgetower left Vienna for England. Despite his mixed heritage and a thriving trans-Atlantic slave trade, he got his degree at Cambridge and continued to perform, compose and teach. But unlike Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, this consummate artist would die a pauper in 1860, his virtuosity unknown.
A century and a half later, his time has come. His dramatic biography will provide a springboard to explore issues of class and race in classical music, shedding light on how a minority could embrace a cultural heritage and defy expectations to thrive. His life is in stark contrast to Coyne’s, whose future seems limitless. At present, in addition to violin, he plays piano, saxophone, mandolin, viola, and guitar, is focused on composing, arranging and conducting, all while attending high school in Maryland. He is 17.
To capture the spirit of Rita Dove’s lyrical work, the film will adopt an innovative structure, weaving history with contemporary artistic performances. Stylistically reminiscent of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Possession, which connects characters in the present to those in the past, our narrative will use parallel threads to explore the lives of these two prodigies. In her eloquent poem, Dove re-writes history to erase the rift between Bridgetower and Beethoven:
“Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books-where
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47
also known as The Bridgetower.” (from sonata mulattica: “the bridgetower”)
The film will be informed and enriched by commentary from an eclectic group of authorities including Mike Phillips, OBE, author, curator and historian, Robbie Q. Telfer, Production Manager for Young Chicago Authors and one of the country’s leading slam poets, and renowned composer John Williams, a collaborator and an admirer of Rita Dove and a fan of Joshua Coyne. Sonata Mulattica is a journey to reclaim a lost virtuoso, the revelation of a new one, and a celebration of the enduring power of art.