But what we know of Beethoven’s world complicates that picture, even beyond theories around his ethnic heritage that I won’t get into here. The fact is that all of Europe participated in the economies of imperialism and enslavement, and the continent was home to many individuals who were born of those violent histories. Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, more commonly known as the “Kreutzer” sonata, was initially composed not for violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, but for the composer’s friend, the Afro-European violinist and composer George Bridgetower. In 1803, Bridgetower performed a dazzling premiere of the piece, with the delighted Beethoven at the piano; but the two musicians quarreled after the concert, and the composer decided to revoke his original dedication.
In recent years Bridgetower has been the subject of considerable research and speculation, notably in poet Rita Dove’s book “Sonata Mulattica.” In 2015 the violinist Jennifer Koh asked me to write a companion piece to the “Kreutzer” sonata. My response was “Bridgetower Fantasy,” a collection of musical imaginings about George Bridgetower.
From our 21st-century vantage, considering Bridgetower’s unique circumstance, we can only see him as an ambiguous figure who, in embodying difference, provoked inspiration, fantasy, desire, anger, and finally, erasure. When reflecting on the greatness of a figure like Beethoven, I find it helpful to remind myself how much of music’s history lies deep beneath its surface — and particularly how many great music-makers barely left a trace in the archive.
Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music