The Extraordinary Life of George Polgreen Bridgetower
George Polgreen Bridgetower was a successful violinist and composer, who gave the first performance of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata.
*This photo is not a true likeness of George Bridgetower*
Bridgetower was born in Poland in 1778. His father was from the Caribbean and his mother was from Germany. They served in the court of Prince Radziwill and then moved to the household of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, patron of composer Joseph Haydn.
The Bridgetower children had evident musical talent: George’s brother Friedrich Joseph became a cellist in Dresden, Germany, while George took up the violin.
He made his performing début as a violinist, aged nine or 10, in Paris in April 1789. The journal Le Mercure de France raved about his performance, concluding that
“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 sometimes advertised as an ‘African Prince’. At a concert in Bath in 1789, he was said to have been dressed in ‘Turkish attire’, perhaps to play up his seemingly exotic heritage.
The Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, arranged for Bridgetower to receive tuition from leading musicians of the day and employed him to play in his orchestra; later Bridgetower studied music at the University of Cambridge. London became Bridgetower’s home, and he enjoyed a long career as an established violinist, teacher, and composer. In 1803, he gave the first performance of Beethoven’s violin sonata in A major op. 47 (‘Kreutzer’) in Vienna, with the composer at the piano.
A number of his works are held in the British Library in contemporary editions, including the Diatonica Armonica, 41 studies dedicated to his piano students; a ballad for voice and piano, ‘Henry’; variations on ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the King’ for a quintet of two violins, flute, tenor, and cello; and an arrangement of the overture to Cherubini’s opera Lodoiska.
Bridgetower was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in London on 4 October 1807, and in June 1811 he took the degree of B.Mus. at Cambridge. His exercise on the occasion was an anthem which was performed with full orchestra and chorus at Great St Mary’s Church on 30 June 1811. The Times on 2 July commented that “the composition was elaborate – and rich and highly accredited to the talents of the Graduate”.
Subsequently, Bridgetower taught the piano, and in 1812 published a small piano work, Diatonica Armonica, dedicated to his pupils
Bridgetower’s life was extraordinary in its talent, determination, and faithfulness to his art. Like his great contemporary the violinist Viotti, music was the medium that transformed his circumstances and sustained him. Like his father, Bridgetower learned everything there was to learn from his environment and turned it into a gem of performance which he shared with his colleagues, his audiences, and his pupils.
To the generations that succeeded him, George Polgreen Bridgetower’s legacy was not only about music, it was also about the possibility of transforming and transcending one’s circumstances, and about the contribution it was possible to make in shaping one’s environment, even under the most difficult circumstances.