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Beethoven’s “Bridgetower” Sonata in All Its Mad Glory

December 8, 2020

Valley of the Moon Music Festival

I’ve been avoiding Beethoven. The firehose has been on full blast all year and yet I don’t feel as though I’ve missed much. But if you really want to “reconsider” Beethoven’s legacy, it’s best to start with historically informed performance, and right now in the Bay Area that means Valley of the Moon Music Festival, Eric Zivian and Tanya Tomkins’s HIP group. They’ve done the near-impossible and put a fresh face on some of the big B’s most played music.

Back on Nov. 22, Valley of the Moon scored a coup by inviting Rita Dove, a poet laureate of the United States, to read the opening poem from her book Sonata Mulattica (2008), as an introduction to a performance of the Violin Sonata in A Major by Zivian and violinist Rachell Ellen Wong. That sonata, ironically, bears a dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a musician who didn’t much like Beethoven’s work and probably never played the sonata. The original dedicatee, as is widely known, was George Bridgetower, a brilliant violinist of mixed race who Beethoven formed a short-lived but very close attachment to. The original dedication to what is now known as the “Kreutzer” sonata reads: “Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great madman and mulatto composer.”

Dove’s poem celebrates the friendship memorialized by this inscription but is also clear-eyed about the fact that, when Beethoven took it back, possibly because Bridgetower insulted the reputation of a woman that Beethoven admired, the great violinist slides from historical view, as if he didn’t matter.

Oh, if only Ludwig had been better looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
“von” instead of the unexceptional “van”
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803,
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anne Sovinki of Biala in Poland
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the great master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?

Who knows, indeed? And yet, it helps to have the picture of Bridgetower in mind when approaching this mad violin sonata: the musician’s mix of high spirits and melancholy, his technical daring and improvisational skill and extravagant body language while playing are attested in Beethoven’s writing. The composer was inspired in the way any artist would be after meeting a creative genius and a fellow spirit. If their friendship had lasted, there might have been more sonatas like this one.

Rachell Ellen Wong, the first Avery Fisher Career Grant winner to specialize in Baroque performance practice, was another great catch by Valley of the Moon. She and Zivian, on fortepiano, give a performance that, while not overindulgent, exploits the sonata’s contrasts to the fullest degree. When the music plunges into a Presto tempo, they are hell bent for leather, and when it suddenly calms for the exposition’s second theme, they pull all the way back in smooth unity. When the violin rises, in the first movement coda, in a series of agonized leaps, Wong doesn’t hide behind technical security, she lets the pain tumble out.

In all this, they are aided by the period-specific piano (usually distinguished from its modern descendent by the term “fortepiano), whose registers are very distinct and different. Beethoven exploits this distinction quite deliberately: in this performance you notice all the two-note phraselets, that wind and drizzle through the registers in sequences, sometimes extending phrases, as they do in Baroque music.

Wong’s job is not just to display virtuosity but to blend with the fortepiano’s colors at times, and to push Zivian to the edge. He can’t just use power for effect; the older instrument doesn’t have enough, and so variety of phrasing is key. Fortissimos are never sustained in this performance: they are reached and then withdrawn. You watch Wong’s body coil and extend as she reaches the next height, and at the same time Zivian’s back is straight and his hands flying as though he’s being pushed, and that seems to capture some of the intensity that the original performance, with the violinist sight-reading, must have had.

Zivian, on his own, has been recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and Valley of the Moon Festival has been video streaming them once a week on YouTube. The project is one that numerous pianists have accomplished, but again, the fortepiano has the advantage, and Zivian’s clear, highly musical renditions benefit from the instrument. Attacks are highly percussive, and the quick sound decay means that close positioned chords in the bass don’t sound muddy. The most recent release in this series is Op. 27, No. 1 and Op. 79. Come next week and the actual anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Valley of the Moon plans to stream a performance of the mighty “Hammerklavier” sonata, plus a discussion with Zivian, Tomkins, and Nicholas McGegan, the conductor laureate of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.