W.W. Norton: 232 pp., $24.95
There was once a time when celebration of black achievement in the humanities, arts and sciences was limited to Black History Month and recitations at black churches. But given the widely respected scholarship of the late John Hope Franklin, the accomplishments of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and the political ascendancy of President Obama, among many others, black achievement has irrevocably moved beyond cameos in someone else's drama to leading roles.
But if one has ever identified with those in heretofore supporting roles, their presence on the stage, however brief, can lead to intense curiosity and sometimes creative expression. And while exploring the lives of those marginalized in history and fiction is not the exclusive preoccupation of black writers ( Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" comes to mind), Obama inauguration poet Elizabeth Alexander's re-imagining of the life of the tragic Saartjie Baartman in the poem "The Venus Hottentot" stands out as does Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone," an alternative version of "Gone With the Wind" told from the perspective of Scarlett O'Hara's half-sister, Cynara, a slave.
For Rita Dove, the creative spark ignited while watching a video of 1994's "Immortal Beloved," a film biography about Ludwig van Beethoven in which a black violinist appeared briefly in a scene. Was the character's presence an instance of colorblind casting or a historical fact? That tantalizing question led Dove, herself a classically trained cellist, to George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, son of "a self-styled 'African prince' " and a European woman, who achieved his "fifteen minutes of fame" when he debuted Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Opus 47, considered virtually impossible to perform, and just as quickly became little more than marginalia in the composer's larger story after the two men argued over their mutual attraction to a young woman.
The black man's perceived affront so angered Beethoven that he destroyed the sonata's dedication to Bridgetower and renamed it the "Kreutzer Sonata," thereby consigning the violinist to a life of fading obscurity. That is, until Dove places the rise and fall of this little-known virtuoso at the heart of "Sonata Mulattica," a book-length narrative poem and Dove's 12th collection.
This is not the first time that Dove has forged poetry into book-length narrative; her collection "Thomas and Beulah," based loosely on the lives of her grandparents, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Yet "Sonata Mulattica" is a much more ambitious effort, using multiple distinctive voices and perspectives to chronicle the complex tale "of light and shadow, / what we hear and the silence that follows."
Dove suggests that Bridgetower's story is not exclusively about race. Yet she makes a bold connection in the prologue between music "and what it does to those / who make it, whom it enslaves." Among those caught in music's beguiling web are Bridgetower's preening but shrewd father, a personal page to Prince Esterházy who wins favor at court and among other Europeans drawn to his exoticism. He clearly understands how to use this attraction in furthering his sexual conquests and as a means of insinuating himself and his son into concert halls in France -- and, eventually, into the court of England's "Mad" King George III.
Also ensnared is composer Franz Josef Haydn, who, for all his musical genius, is little more than an indentured servant while working as musical director at the Esterházy estate in what is now Hungary. Haydn's tenderness verges on kinship upon meeting young George: "Master Haydn / reaches down to cup / the rough head, murmurs: / 'There's music in here.' "
But the dramatic tension of "Sonata Mulattica" is clearly between Beethoven -- his tempestuous nature exacerbated by his deafness -- and Bridgetower, born on Leap Year Day in 1780, "smitten with tiny sounds," as a child, his maturation mocked by the vicissitudes of the calendar and the rarefied environment of concert halls and royal performances. The parallels Dove imagines in their lives are striking -- musical prodigies at a young age, exploited by fathers who saw their sons' gifts as a way to achieve fortune, both seeking passionate release in music and women. By the time their paths cross in Vienna in April 1803 and Bridgetower premieres Beethoven's dauntingly complex sonata a month later, Beethoven is 33, successful but at least partially deaf and thwarted in love. Ten years younger than Beethoven, Bridgetower's background includes the childhood trauma of being sold off to the Prince of Wales by his greedy father, virtuoso performances in numerous resort towns and theaters in England and Germany and a young man's lust for the opposite sex.
The men's connection through the violin sonata is told with a sensuality that borders on the erotic, uniting them as kindred spirits even as their bond belies the truth about their class differences or Beethoven's ultimate power to undo Bridgetower's promising career with a mere stroke of his pen.
"Sonata Mulattica" brims with passion for the music, the era and its major and minor characters, resulting in a complete portrait of Beethoven, Bridgetower and their milieu. But more important, Dove's masterful collection illuminates the life of a musical genius who might have been lost forever in the braying cacophony of our celebrity-driven times.
Woods is a writer and frequent contributor to The Times' book reviews. Her crime novels include "Strange Bedfellows" and "Inner City Blues."