Playlist: The Rewriting of George Polgreen Bridgetower

George Polgreen Bridgetower was a black virtuoso violinist, alive in the late 18th and early 19th century. This was the peak of the Classical period, and Bridgetower was a close contemporary of Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart.[1] He contributed significantly to London musical life, and even had a hand in influencing Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata.

Despite this, he has been almost completely forgotten in the Western classical music canon.

There are many reasons why we may forget a man who lived 200 years ago. Perhaps it’s because he was a performer, and not a composer. He did not produce reams of scores, like Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart did. This, and the fact there was no recording technology, means there is no tangible way to connect with Bridgetower today. He has become a purely theoretical figure.

Perhaps Bridgetower has been forgotten because he was alive a relatively long time ago, and no one has researched him since. There are only two significant pieces of writing on him, but in every other mention, Bridgetower is never the focus. Maybe this is because he was overshadowed by his contemporaries. For example, he was playing at the same time as Viotti, who has been described as “the most influential violinist between Tartini and Paganini.”[5] However, his links to influential musicians at the time, most notably Beethoven and Haydn, elevate him above the average orchestral musician. So why, then, has there been so little research about him?

I contest that a large contributing factor in Bridgetower’s anonymity is his race. A clear distinguishing feature between him and contemporary violinists, such Salomon and Viotti, is that he was a black man. At the time he was operating in London the slave trade was in full force, and the British Empire was rapidly expanding.[6] The pervading societal idea of blackness at the time was one of “brutishness”, “beastiality” and “ugliness.”[7]  Bridgetower was constantly competing against these racist stereotypes, and society was structured so that he would not succeed.

It is vitally important to examine Bridgetower’s story because he is a microcosm of how black talent has been ostracised and forgotten repeatedly in the Western musical canon. The First Viennese School* is present in every A Level and GCSE Music syllabus, yet Bridgetower is never mentioned despite his connections and contributions to these composers.

* The First Viennese School is a name used to refer to the three composers, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Below, I have created a playlist that shares some key moments in Bridgetower’s life, as well as the classical music that may have accompanied them. With this playlist, I hope to show how the commentary on Western classical music has been whitewashed, and skewed. I will explore why Bridgetower has been forgotten, and why he should have been remembered. Ultimately, putting Bridgetower, and the many other black musicians who have been written out, back into the narrative is a key element in decolonising British music history.

Part I: Early Life

Noble beginnings: The Esterházy

Doric String Quartet, “Haydn: String Quartet in B minor, Op.33 No.1, Hob. III: 37, 1. Allegro moderato”, Haydn: String Quartets, Op.33, Chandos (CHAN 20129) 2020.

George Bridgetower made strong connections at an early age. He met Haydn when his father was a page for the Esterházy family, where Haydn was Kapellmeister.[8] The Op.33 quartets were one of Haydn’s first publications outside of the Esterháza, and signified the beginning of his freer professional life.[9] This facilitated his move to London to play in Salomon’s concerts, where Haydn and Bridgetower met again.[10]

From early childhood, Bridgetower operated on the fringes of high-brow society and this continued throughout his life. We can trace him to several influential European institutions, including the Esterházy and British royal families, and to Haydn himself. Despite this, his career has not been explored by musicologists.

The prodigal son

Starling Chamber Orchestra, Paul Yeager and Kurt Sassmannshaus “Giornovichi: Violin Concerto No.9 in G major, I. Allegro”, Giornovichi, Arte Nova Classics (Arte Nova Classics 74321 34019 2.) 1996

Bridgetower’s talent was apparent from an early age. He made his professional debut at the Concert Spirituel in Paris at 10 years old, where he played a concerto by Giornovichi.[11] We can build an early picture of Bridgetower’s style and personality by listening to this concerto. It is light, cheeky, precocious and full of humour.

Bridgetower’s early career was not unlike Mozart’s; they were both European child prodigies who debuted early and moved to London. However, the discrepancies between their fame is stark. This could be because Mozart was a composer and Bridgetower was a performer. Mozart’s musical voice is very recognisable in the 21st century as we have scores of his music. By contrast, we have no way of imagining what Bridgetower truly sounded like.

Moving to England

Rachel Podger and Gary Cooper, “Mozart: Sonata No.1 in C major for Keyboard and Violin, KV. 6”, Mozart: Sonatas For Keyboard And Violin – Volume 1, Channel (CCSSA21804) 2004.

We can see the first real impacts of Bridgetower’s race on his career when he moves to London.

Firstly, the reception of his father is indicative of a prejudiced society. John Frederick’s parental style was very similar to Leopold Mozart’s.[12] However, despite their similarities, societal reception of the two was very different. Where Leopold has been remembered as a devoted, if a little overbearing, father, Frederick is seen as a conniving, borderline abusive, social climber.[13]

Furthermore, as McVeigh argues, Bridgetower was appealing because he was ‘exotic’.[14] Despite being raised at a European court, and playing pieces by European composers, he was “marketed as the son of an African prince.”[15] I argue that this narrative played a part in his disappearance. The reason for his fame was arguably his ‘exoticism’, and once the exploitation of black talent became more mainstream, he was no longer outstanding or worthy of attention.

Part II: Rise to Fame

The Prince of Wales

Gary Karr, Harmon Lewis and Elmira Darvarova, “Barthélémon: Duetto I in C Major”, European Baroque Masters in London: Handel and Barthélemon, Urlicht AudioVisual (UAV-5993), 2013.  

After his London debut, Bridgetower attracted the patronage of the Prince of Wales.[16] The Prince Regent took Bridgetower in, and fully funded his academic and musical education. He was taught violin by Barthélémon, a highly successful violinist who was close friends with Haydn.[17] These connections established Bridgetower in the upper echelons of British musical society. This intensifies the question of why he is unknown today.

One potential reason is because he was under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, and not extensively touring. Although his connections were strong, they were limited to London for the majority of his career. This is not a significant factor, as he was very active in the “vibrant, exciting” London music scene.[18] However, this may go some way to explain his lack of legacy.   

Bridgetower’s developing sound

Itzhak Perlman, Lawrence Foster and The Julliard Orchestra, “Viotti: Violin Concerto No. 22 in A minor, III. Agitato assai, Concertos From My Childhood, EMI Classics (7243 5 56750 2 6) 1998.

It is important to discount the argument that Bridgetower has been forgotten because he was a mediocre violinist. Through looking at some of the pieces he played, we can clearly establish that he was a skilled and virtuosic performer.

In every appearance Bridgetower made at Salomon’s London concerts, he played a Viotti concerto.[19] Through this 22nd concerto, we can imagine how Bridgetower’s sound developed in London. It is bolder and more exciting than previous works he played. It showcased his technical and dramatic skill in a way that feels reminiscent of the “Kreutzer” sonata, with which he was closely involved. Listen from 4’16 to the end for an idea of Bridgetower’s virtuosity.

Concert life in Georgian London

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and André Previn, “Haydn: Symphony No.94 in G major, Hob 1: 94, “The Surprise”, I. Adagio – Vivace assai, Haydn: Symphonies Nos 94 “Surprise” & 104 “London”, Warner Classics (9029542609) 1980.

It is also important to place Bridgetower in the wider context of London musical life. Haydn and Salomon were prominent figures, and held regular concerts featuring famous performers.[20] Bridgetower sometimes played in the orchestra for new Haydn symphonies at these concerts, and also played solo concertos.[21] These concerts were of great benefit to Bridgetower, as he was exposed to many leading virtuoso violinists, including Viotti and Giornovichi.

However, arguably they also played a part in his disappearance from the canon. The turnover of music and musicians was so large that Bridgetower gets lost in the masses. Over time, the legacy of these concerts has become Haydn’s compositions, and not the musicians who played them.  

Part III: Bridgetower and Beethoven

‘The “Bridgetower” Sonata’

Vadim Repin and Martha Argerich, “Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No.9 in A major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer”, I. Adagio sostenuto – Presto,” Beethoven: Violin Concerto; “Kreutzer” Sonata, Deutsche Grammophon (DG 00028947765967) 2007.

Bridgetower’s London connections were strong and vast, but I argue that his decline can be linked to his friendship with Beethoven. They met in 1802 and played an impromptu concert of Beethoven’s 9th violin sonata together.[22] Bridgetower’s talent impressed Beethoven and the sonata was dedicated to him, but Beethoven later changed the dedication after the two men fell out.[23]

In this context, the “Kreutzer” sonata is a symbol of the power imbalance between Beethoven and Bridgetower. Beethoven had the power to erase any semblance of Bridgetower’s influence from the piece, and therefore effectively from history.

Whether or not Beethoven had underlying racist beliefs is not clear. However, I argue this event is further shadowed by the power imbalance created by race. The two men allegedly fell out because Bridgetower was rude to a woman.[24] Beethoven did not lose any credit from this event, but Bridgetower did. Even though the piece was once dedicated to him, he is still largely excluded from writing about it. Perhaps it feels convenient to exclude Bridgetower from Beethoven-focused musicology on the basis of him fitting the stereotype of black “brutishness“.[25]

Part IV: Social Capital and Social Decline

The First Black Cambridge Graduate

Wakefield Cathedral Choir, Simon Earl and Thomas Moore, “Cooke: Psalm 95 “O Come, Let Us Sing unto the Lord””, The Complete Psalms of David, Series 2 Vol. 7, Priory Records (PRCD1120) 2011.

Bridgetower returned to England, and received the BMus from Cambridge in 1811 after composing an anthem for choir and orchestra.[26] Bridgetower’s friend Charles Hague was also awarded the BMus, and went on to be a Professor at Cambridge.[27] Although neither Bridgetower’s nor Hague’s exercises survived, we can imagine how they may have sounded through this anthem by Cooke, who was Hague’s composition tutor.

Bridgetower did not have to study at Cambridge for this degree, and therefore is not named ‘the first black Cantab’. However, he precedes Alexander Crummell, the first official black graduate, by nearly 40 years.[28] This is yet another instance in which Bridgetower should have made history, but did not.

Bridgetower’s disappearance could be put down to a series of near misses. Had he been known for the “Bridgetower” sonata, and been named the first black Cantab, perhaps he would have had a longer lasting impact on music history.

The Philharmonic Society

London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Leopold Stokowski, “Beethoven: Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral”, I: Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso”, Beethoven: Symphony No.9 – “Choral, Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series, London Records (SPC 21043)

Alongside his BMus, Bridgetower built social capital as a member of the Philharmonic Society. We can speculate what Bridgetower’s motive for joining the society was. He was almost certainly professionally and financially motivated, as this was a time where patronage was moving away from upper class individuals and into societies.[29] However, it is hard to believe that he was motivated by leaving a legacy. After his involvement with the Philharmonic Society, he largely disappeared from the London music scene, and even his date of death is ambiguous.[30]

His lack of preoccupation with legacy is potentially why we have forgotten him. However, arguably a legacy was never an option for him, due to his race. The majority of black people in London at this time were enslaved servants.[31] It is plausible that Bridgetower saw himself as lucky to be free and working, and did not seek any glory beyond that.  

Fading into obscurity

Maxim Vengerov, “Wieniawski: Légende in G minor, Op. 17”, Virtuoso Vengerov, Teldec (9031773516) 1993.

Légende was written in the year that Bridgetower died. In this piece the violin is pushed much further than in those we heard earlier in the playlist, and we can hear the burgeoning Romantic era in its virtuosity. I argue that Bridgetower’s skill, showcased clearly in the “Kreutzer”sonata, played a significant part in elevating violin playing to this new level.

However, by his death he had already faded into obscurity. Perhaps that is because he was a performer and not a composer; perhaps it is because he was black. This playlist ends on a piece Bridgetower never played, because that is indicative of how history remembered him. He silently slots into the gaps between the biggest composers in the Western musical canon.


Burton, Anouchka and Stuart Roberts. “Black Cantabs: History Makers”. University of Cambridge.,Alexander%20Crummell,%2C%20studying%20at%20Queens’%20College. [Accessed 21 Nov 2020]

Carse, Adam. “The Prince Regent’s Band.” Music and Letters 27, no. 3 (July 1946): 147-155. [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

Cullingford, Martin. “Music Past: A degree of harmony.” Cambridge Alumni Magazine: 14-17. [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

Edwards, F. G. “George P. Bridgetower and the Kreutzer Sonata.” The Musical Times 49, no. 783 (May 1908): 302 – 308. [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

English Heritage. “Black People in Late 18th-Century Britain”. [Accessed 26 Nov 2020]

Feder, Georg and James Webster. “Haydn, (Franz) Joseph.” Grove Music Online (2001). [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

Grove, George, and Simon McVeigh. “Bridgetower [Bridgtower], George (Augustus) Polgreen.” Grove Music Online (2001). [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

Jenkins, J. S. “Leopold Mozart: a patient in eighteenth-century London.” Journal of Medical Biography 5, no.1 (February 1997): 30-32. [Accessed 24 Nov 2020]

McVeigh, Simon. Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Mohamud, Abdul and Robin Whitburn. “Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade”. British Library.  [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

Morrisroe, Patricia. “The Black Violinist Who Inspired Beethoven”. New York Times, September 4th, 2020. [Accessed 26 Nov 2020]

Phillips, Mike. “Black Europeans: George Polgreen Bridgetower: Life as a professional musician.” British Library Online Gallery. [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

Phillips, Mike. “Black Europeans: George Polgreen Bridgetower: The final years.” British Library Online Gallery. [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

Rattansi, Ali. Racism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Robbins Landon, H.C. Haydn: Chronicle and Works: Haydn in London 1791 – 1795. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976.

Simon McVeigh. “Concert Life” in London. Grove Music Online (2001). [Accessed 15 Nov 2020]

White, Chappell. “Viotti, Giovanni Battista”. Grove Music Online (2001). [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

Worsley, Lucy. “A prodigy in England: Lucy Worsley on Mozart’s London odyssey.” Interview by Jonathan Wright. History Extra. [Accessed 25 Nov 2020]

Wright, Josephine R. B. “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99”. The Musical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (1980): 65-82. [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

Zaslaw, Neal and Simon McVeigh. “Barthélémon, François-Hippolyte.” Grove Music Online (2001). [Accessed 25 Nov 2020]

[1] George Grove and Simon McVeigh, “Bridgetower [Bridgtower], George (Augustus) Polgreen”, Grove Music Online (2001) [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

[2] F.G Edwards, “George P. Bridgetower and the Kreutzer Sonata”, The Musical Times 49, no. 783 (May 1908) 302 – 308, [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

[3] Josephine R. B. Wright, “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99”, The Musical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (1980) 65-82. [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

[4] Simon McVeigh, Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 84-85, 188-189.

[5] Chappell White, “Viotti, Giovanni Battista”, Grove Music Online (2001) [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

[6] Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn, “Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade”, British Library,  [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

[7] Ali Rattansi, Racism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 14-15.

[8] Wright, “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99”, 73-74.

[9] Georg Feder and James Webster, “Haydn, (Franz) Joseph”, Grove Music Online (2001) [Accessed 12 Nov 2020]

[10] H.C Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works: Haydn in London 1791 – 1795 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976), 65 – 169.

[11] Wright, “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99”, 70.

[12] Wright, “George Polgreen Bridgetower: An African Prodigy in England 1789-99”, 73-74.

[13] Ibid.

[14] McVeigh, Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn, 84.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Adam Carse, “The Prince Regent’s Band”, Music and Letters 27, no. 3 (July 1946) 147-155, [Accessed 14 Nov 2020]

[17] Neal Zaslaw and Simon McVeigh, “Barthélémon, François-Hippolyte”, Grove Music Online (2001), [Accessed 25 Nov 2020]

[18] Lucy Worsley, “A prodigy in England: Lucy Worsley on Mozart’s London odyssey,” interview by Jonathan Wright, History Extra, [Accessed 25 Nov 2020]

[19] Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, 65 – 169

[20] Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, 65 – 169

[21] Ibid.

[22] Grove and McVeigh, “Bridgetower [Bridgtower], George (Augustus) Polgreen”.

[23] Edwards, “George P. Bridgetower and the Kreutzer Sonata”, 306.  

[24] Patricia Morrisroe, “The Black Violinist Who Inspired Beethoven”, New York Times, September 4th, 2020, [Accessed 26 Nov 2020]

[25] Rattansi, Racism: A Very Short Introduction, 14-15.

[26]Mike Phillips, “Black Europeans: George Polgreen Bridgetower: Life as a professional musician”, British Library Online Gallery, [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

[27]Anouchka Burton and Stuart Roberts, “Black Cantabs: History Makers”, University of Cambridge,,Alexander%20Crummell,%2C%20studying%20at%20Queens’%20College. [Accessed 21 Nov 2020]

[28] Burton and Roberts, “Black Cantabs: History Makers”.

[29] Simon McVeigh, “Concert Life” in London, Grove Music Online (2001), [Accessed 15 Nov 2020]

[30]Mike Phillips, “Black Europeans: George Polgreen Bridgetower: The final years,” British Library Online Gallery, [Accessed 11 Nov 2020]

[31] “Black People in Late 18th-Century Britain”, English Heritage, [Accessed 26 Nov 2020]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: