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28 October 2016

Son of an African Prince

As Black History Month draws to a close, we’re showcasing the achievements of virtuoso violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860). The son of a West Indian father and a European mother, he was born in Biala, Poland. At the tender age of ten, he made his debut as a violinist at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Then followed a move to England, where the young prodigy was marketed as the “son of an African Prince”.

Bridge_bmportraitlgePencil and watercolour portrait of Bridgetower. Copyright © The British Museum 1876-7-8-2379

In December 1789, Bridgetower performed at the Assembly Rooms in Bath to much acclaim. 550 guests, among them King George III, attended his first concert. During the next decade, he went on to play at many prestigious London venues, appearing alongside Haydn at Salomon’s series and elsewhere.

From 1795 to 1809, Bridgetower was first violinist in George III’s private orchestra. However, in 1802, he obtained leave to visit his mother in Dresden where he gave concerts on 24 July 1802 and 18 March 1803. Then followed a trip to Vienna in April 1803. Here he was introduced to Beethoven, who had already begun sketching the first two movements of what was to become the Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A, opus 47, otherwise known as the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata.

KreutzerlgeFirst edition of the Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, opus 47. British Library Hirsch IV.287

The work was first performed at a concert given by Bridgetower at the Augarten-Halle in Vienna on 24 May 1803. Beethoven himself played the piano part, and he was evidently pleased with the performance, going on to present Bridgetower with his tuning fork, which now forms part of our extensive music collections.

TuningforklgeBeethoven’s tuning fork, which was presented to Bridgetower following the premiere of the Kreutzer sonata. British Library Add. MS 71148A and B 

Back in London, Bridgetower was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in London on 4 October 1807, and in June 1811 took the degree of B.Mus. at Cambridge. He played in the Philharmonic Society’s first season in 1813, leading the performance of Beethoven’s ‘Quintett’. He was also recommended for membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1817.

Bridgerps1817Recommendation for membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1817). British Library RPS MS 315, f.4

The end of Bridgetower’s life is rather mysterious. He was rumoured to have died in 1850, but his death certificate shows that “George Polegreen Bridgetower, Gentleman” died at 8 Victory Cottages, a small back street in Peckham, on 29 February 1860.

Bridgetower’s legacy was remarkable. He clearly transcended his childhood celebrity to become a respected member of London’s musical community. However, his achievements extended beyond the purely musical, illustrating both the possibility to transform and transcend personal circumstances.

An extended article on Bridgetower by Dr Mike Phillips can be found here.