The mulatto from Biała Podlaska

Rita Dove

  • George Bridgetower
  • Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł

In 2009 U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove published her opus vitae called Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play. This book consisted of a collection of poems about the life of George Bridgetower. He was a biracial musician who befriended Ludwig van Beethoven. His Kreutzer Sonata was initially dedicated to Bridgetower and was originally entitled Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico (Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, the big wild mulatto composer). The New York Times described Dove’s work as having done “a wonderful job of humanizing the story”. The Los Angeles Times said the book was a “masterful collection”. The New Yorker also said that the work is “[…] stuffed with historical and musical arcana. Yet the book remains highly accessible, reading much like a historical novel.” Dove is fascinated by Bridgetower’s life as a black musician and occasionally implies parallels with the world of jazz and rap, but the issue of race does not predominate. She is concerned equally with the status of musicians in a world of precarious patronage”.

Rita Dove is the second African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She is also the first African-American to have been appointed to this position. Since 1989, she has taught at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she lives with her German husband. The University of Virginia was founded in 1819 by President Thomas Jefferson, who was the author of the United States Declaration of Independence. It is home to the ‘Academical Village’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since the city’s formation, it has been home to many notable individuals, including President James Monroe.

Radzwiłł’s Palace in Biała Podlaska, Source: Shutterstock

George Bridgetower (1778–1860) was born in Biała Podlaska (Biała means white in Polish), present-day eastern Poland. His Black father was probably from the Caribbean and worked in the city at the court of Prince Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł, a representative of a powerful Polish aristocrat family of Lithuanian background. The family owned many towns in the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where it built impressive castles and palaces. Biała Podlaska was one of their main strongholds. George was baptized after Prince as Hieronimo Hyppolito de Augusto. George’s mother was a domestic worker from Germany in the household of Sophie von Thurn und Taxis, who married Prince Hieronim. George moved to London at an early age, where the British prince regent, the future King George IV, oversaw his musical education. In the spring of 1789, Bridgetower performed to great acclaim in Paris, with Thomas Jefferson and his family in attendance.