When Rita Dove comes to Howard Community College next Wednesday, the former U.S. Poet Laureate will be joined on stage by violinist Joshua Coyne. After she has read a few poems from her latest book, “Sonata Mulattica,” he will play a classical piece, and they will alternate for the rest of the evening.
That’s because the book tells the story of George Bridgetower, the biracial violin prodigy who befriended Beethoven and performed with him in 1803 before sinking back into obscurity. Dove will read the poems that imagine the inner thoughts of both men, and Coyne will recreate the music they shared. This back-and-forth is appropriate, for the book similarly swings between Bridgetower’s enraptured music-making and his stumbling efforts to advance his career and woo women in the face of racial prejudice and ruthless competition.
In the poem ‘Concert at Hanover Square,’ for example, Dove writes that Bridgetower and his rivals,
because we could smell it
all around us, it sang in the cool glasses
tinkling over our heads,
the carefully tended laughter
the curious glint
of a widow’s appraisal.
But later in the same poem, she writes,
Music set my body a-roil
I was nothing if not everything
when the music was in me
I could be fierce, I could shred
the heads off flowers for breakfast
with my bare teeth, simply because
I deserved such loveliness.
“All of us live with this tension every day, even if in a milder way,” Dove says by phone from her faculty office at the University of Virginia. “People ask how you are, and you say, ‘I’m fine,’ when there’s actually all these complicated things going on inside you. When you’re walking through life, even when you have meltdowns, you can sense there’s a part of you that you want to keep intact in the bubble around you. Poetry gives us that inner life that’s so often hidden from view. Once someone steps out onto the stage, they add another layer of self, and we forget the pressure that adds to the inner life. I wanted to bring that into the story.”
To capture that give-and-take between the public self and the private self, Dove had to adopt an unusual strategy: She had to create a narrative in verse without using the techniques of narrative poetry. Instead of the continuous storytelling we know from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” or Byron’s “Don Juan,” we get a series of short, discrete lyric poems, each one providing a snapshot of one character’s internal musing.
It’s up to us the readers to make the connections between these frozen moments. ‘Concert at Hanover Square,’ for example, is followed by poems from the perspectives of fellow prodigy Franz Clement, street musician Black Billy Waters, aging composer Franz Josef Haydn, the queen’s wardrobe mistress Charlotte Papendiek, and Bridgetower’s father Friedrich. From this chain of private musings, Dove creates a common sphere. It’s a technique that she has employed previously, most obviously in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah,” a double portrait of her grandparents.
“‘Sonata Mulattica’ is similar to ‘Thomas and Beulah’ in that it tells a story through lyric poems,” Dove says, “like pearls on a necklace. There are gaps between them that we have to jump over. But to evoke the inner life in contrast to the public life and the performing life, you need lyric poetry. The inner life is without words; it’s before language, so that’s the challenge of poetry—that’s why people think we’re crazy. But the poet is saying, ‘I’m going to use this language to make the reader feel that inner life in such a way that the words seem to disappear.’”
Dove first discovered Bridgetower when she was watching the Beethoven bio-pic, “Immortal Beloved,” on TV with her husband, the German novelist Fred Viebahn. In one scene, the composer is walking through a group of musicians, including a black violinist. Dove was so intrigued that she went upstairs and Googled “black violinist Beethoven” and Bridgetower’s name popped up. That tickled a curiosity that wouldn’t quit, and she followed every one of the few threads she could find. She learned, for example, that Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 was originally dedicated to Bridgetower and first performed with him. But after a fight over a woman, Beethoven broke with his new friend and published the composition with a dedication to Rudolphe Kreutzer.
At first Dove had no intention of turning this research into poetry, but that changed when a poem called ‘Vienna Spring’ forced its way out. It was from Beethoven’s perspective, and she realized she could only tell the story from the viewpoint of many different characters. Because she herself is a black artist, a classical cellist, a former German resident, and the mother of a mixed-race child, she felt compelled to pursue the project.
“I was wary of the reader’s temptation to relax and say, ‘Oh, this happened in the 19th century,” she explains; “‘that was then and this is now.’ But that’s not why I wrote the poems, not because it involved Beethoven in a bygone age but because these same issues—race, celebrity, marketing, the struggle of the artist—are still happening today. That’s why I worked hard to not make the story quaint, but to make George a full-blooded young man, who came to Vienna to meet Beethoven and make his career. I tried hard not to slip into any dated language. When I come to Maryland next week, having Joshua in the flesh will remind people that this is a very contemporary tale.”
Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne perform at Howard Community College’s Horowitz Center Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m.