Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove

My fondness for verse-novels persists. Sonata Mulattica, subtitled A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play, is a collection of poems that narrate the life and times of mulatto violinist George Augustus Polgreen Hightower, the son of an African/Caribbean father and Polish/German mother. George, something of a child prodigy, played for royalty in London, Paris and Vienna. At one time, he met Ludwig van Beethoven, who originally intended to dedicate his Kreutzer Sonata to Hightower, but the two musicians had a falling-out, which Dove imagines involved rivalry over a woman. The short play dramatizes the conflict between Hightower and Beethoven. Rita Dove does a fine job of embellishing on what details exist about the life of the musician who lived from 1790 to 1860.

Dove follows a chronological order in Hightower’s story, some times recounting events through the voices of other characters such as Beethoven, black Billy Waters, a London street fiddler or Mrs. Papendieck, the queen’s wardrobe keeper. The poems are written in different styles and rhythms, presenting a panoply of the musical climate in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.  Dove is equally comfortable with free or formal verse. One of my particular favorites is the villanelle, “Black Billy Waters, at His Pitch, Adelphi Theatre, 1790s,” which begins:

All men are beggars, white or black;

some worship gold, some peddle brass.

My only house is on my back.

But I appreciated all the poems in this collection, so it does an injustice to her accomplishment to isolate one poem.  Dove has written the type of rich thematic tapestry that transcends the personal that I hold as the gold standard of the art. The effect produces a narrative of a little-known mulatto musician in the courts of Europe overshadowed in his day by the likes of Haydn and Beethoven. In the poem that ends the book, “The End, with MapQuest,” Dove does add a personal note–her response to visiting Peckham, South London, where Hightower died.

Do I care enough, George Augustus Bridgetower,

to miss you? I don’t even know if I really like you.

I don’t know if your playing was truly gorgeous

or if it was just you, the sheer miracle . . .

I do know that I really like Dove’s poetry and that her writing is truly gorgeous.  Sonata Mulattica satisfies several of my loves: for poetry, for history,  and for an unusual, engrossing narrative line. I care enough to tell others about this outstanding book.


One response to this post.

  1. Plus you care enough that his mother was Polish!


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