The Bridgetower Sonata

by Emmanuel Dongala

translated by William Rodarmor



Paris, 1789





Chapter 1

Borne aloft by the last arpeggios of the final rondo, the bow hung for a moment – for half a sigh – poised above the violin, then attacked the last movement’s coda allegro spiritoso in a dazzling display of fingering and variegated cadences whose soaring trills merged with the orchestra’s tutti and the applause of the audience which, having held its breath up to now, could no longer restrain itself.

People jumped to their feet, an increasingly common breach of decorum by the elegant minor aristocrats and rich bourgeois in the stalls. More disconcerting still, some clapped while shouting bravo and bravissimo, in the latest Italian fashion. But these noisy, inappropriate displays didn’t rattle the young violinist, who’d been prepared for them.

Long before they left Eisenstadt Castle for their perilous and exhausting voyage across Europe, the boy’s father had repeatedly warned him that people behaved differently where they were going: in France, and especially Paris. In Prince Esterházy’s palace, where the boy had grown up and learned his manners, people kept quiet when listening to music. Whether it was by Kapellmeister Joseph Haydn or an unknown visiting musician, and whether they felt cheerful or glum, transported or bored, people didn’t express their feelings until the final note had been played and heard.

That wasn’t the case in Paris. Music lovers here -- and especially the Concert Spirituel regulars -- came as much to show themselves off as to enjoy the music. Garbed in their finery, they would chatter away while a piece was being played, even loudly expressing their opinion of it. This was why the young violinist was happy that, aside from a few shouts when he began the solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement, he’d managed to keep this audience of dilettantes in suspense right to the end.


Having played the last note, he shifted the violin to his right hand, which held the bow. From the dais on which he’d been set on so that people in the farthest seats could see him despite his small size, he bowed very low, in the showy way his father had made him practice so many times. He repeated this under the constellation of chandeliers whose gleaming crystal pendants cast patterns across his honey-colored face. Straightening, he looked out at the vast concert hall with its slightly domed ceiling. The three levels were full: the orchestra with its chairs and benches, the rows of boxes circling the hall, and the balcony crowning them all. How many people were in this great Tuileries Palace concert hall, the Salle Des Cent Suisses? Four hundred, five hundred, six hundred? Feeling a little intimidated, he turned to the conductor, who gestured to the musicians to stand. They rose to their feet and began to applaud in turn. At that point, the boy forgot everything.

He forgot the impossible hours at which his father dragged him out of bed to make him practice scales, the endless days spent playing exercises from the Études or Capriccios for violin by Rodolphe Kreutzer, the paralyzing shyness that gripped him each time he went for his lessons with Kapellmeister Haydn. He forgot it all. Nothing remained but this stage on which he stood, with its gilded railing and lyre-shaped banisters, these lights, these musicians, some of whom played in embroidered suits with a sword at their side and a plumed tricorn hat on a nearby bench, these aristocrats and bourgeois vying in elegance, these ladies with their strange, sophisticated coiffures and chapeaux, their flowing dresses with furbelows and flounces -- all in a whirlwind of applause, bravo, bravissimo.

Everything became magical. Dazzled and deafened by the colors and sounds, he reverted to being a nine-year-old boy and looked around for his father. He wasn’t hard to spot. He was standing in one of the boxes reserved for ambassadors, diplomatic envoys, and other distinguished foreigners, a tall Negro from the Caribbean, specifically Barbados, wearing a sumptuously embroidered wool caftan and a turban shot with gold thread. A tear ran down his cheek and an affectionate smile played on his face.




Chapter 2


Followed by the conductor, the soloist disappeared into the wings. When he failed to reappear in spite of the cries of encore! ringing through the hall, the audience finally realized that the concert was over. The applause didn’t stop, however, but went on diminuendo and only died away completely when the musicians started putting away their scores and instruments. Only then did the spectators begin to leave their seats.

People filed out of the hall this way and that, jostling chaotically toward the various exits. Adding to the confusion, some gentlemen abruptly stopped to greet a friend or compliment a pretty woman whose presence they pretended to have just noticed, whereas in fact they had been ogling her throughout the concert. The vast hall, which shortly before rang with harmonious sounds, was now a brouhaha of voices amplified by its excellent acoustics.

Moving with the crowd, Augustus decided to go join his son in the wings. He had rented a horse-hair armchair in the first row of a balcony box with a half-height railing, one of the most expensive seats in the theater. He could hardly do otherwise, given the way he had introduced himself to Joseph Legros, the director of the Concert Spirituel series, during the tough negotiations to persuade him to feature his son in one of Legros’ prestigious concerts. “I am Frederick of Augustus Bridgetower of Bridgetown, Prince of Abyssinia,” he proclaimed in irritation when he felt Legros was condescending to him. Probably the only Negroes the man saw were slaves from the colonies of Martinique and Santo Domingo or Île Bourbon, who had been free only since setting foot on French soil – “No one is a slave in France,” it was said -- though most remained house servants or laborers. That was hardly the case with Augustus. In order to speak as equals, he had to immediately dispel any ambiguity. Nor did he stop with simply reciting his titles and qualities: “Envoy plenipotentiary of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy of Eisenstadt Castle in Austria” and “personal friend of Maestro Joseph Haydn, whose symphonies are celebrated in Paris.” To a now wide-eyed Legros, he paused before grandly adding, “And my son was his student!”

Naturally, after such a display, it would have been unthinkable to buy a three livres orchestra seat stuffed with hay.


Augustus opened the door to his box, went down a few steps lined by little marble columns, and found himself in the stalls. He made his way toward the wings, weaving through the crowd and careful not to bump into anyone. Unfamiliar with their manners, he was baffled by these Parisians, who could be perfectly civil or downright rude. His dark skin glowed in the sea of pale faces and powdered wigs as he walked with ears and eyes open, catching everything around him while seeming not to. He tipped his turbaned head to those who courteously stood aside for him, glared at the louts who blocked his way, and haughtily ignored those who were curious but too polite to stare, instead looking at him from the corner of their eyes as he passed. All of this amused him. He had the feeling of watching a big play with actors playing their parts under the command of an invisible director. As he advanced, a woman walking in front of him abruptly turned around. Instead of facing her companion, whom she thought was following her, she found herself nose to nose with a tall Negro. Eyes wide, she raised her hands to her face in surprise and gave a little cry, like a startled guinea hen. Surprised as well, Augustus stepped backward, bumping the bottom of a scented dandy bent double to kiss the hand of a simpering actress cooling her décolleté with a lace ivory fan. Feeling contrite, Augustus politely apologized to the gallant and his damsel before continuing on his way, straining to restore his adopted princely manners, which the incident had perturbed. He had achieved his look after years as Prince Esterházy’s personal page, present at all court receptions and ceremonies and boon companion during their long walks in the castle gardens, during which he regaled the prince with ever-new descriptions of his home country, which he populated with two-horned rhinoceroses and giraffes whose necks were so long they towered above the tree tops.


Augustus finally reached the musicians’ gallery. Off to one side, a screen with two painted wooden doors led to the wings and the boxes. He stepped through it, but immediately stopped upon hearing some raised voices. Curious, he peered through the crack between the double doors to see two somewhat agitated men talking about the concert. He immediately recognized the type: the kind of dandies who claimed to set the tone for Parisian high society. The older of the two seemed the most exercised. He was wearing an old-fashioned patterned coat with embroidered cuffs and matching pocket flaps, and a shirt with a ruff. A three-cornered hat rested on a wig whose curls spilled down over the man’s shoulders. He gesticulated as he spoke, waving a silver-headed cane.

“What a misfortune for a French musician to be born in his own country!” he cried. “Any music that doesn’t come from afar is bad, condemned even before it’s heard. That’s shameful!” He punctuated these last words by tapping his cane on the floor.

“Let’s not exaggerate, Monsieur Deshayes,” said the man’s companion, who was wearing a frock coat and vest. “You’re a composer, and you know that in music what counts is beauty. Didn’t you yourself say, ‘Real beauty always triumphs’? So whether that beauty comes from beyond the hills or beyond the Rhine--”          

He spoke with a slight Italian accent that pleasingly lengthened his words and slowed his speech. It gave what he said an almost precious elegance that contrasted with Deshayes’ hurried, jerky output.

“But that’s no reason to so Italianize France! Take this young Negro we heard this evening, for example. Why have him play an Italian concerto for his debut on a French stage? Wouldn’t some French composer had served as well?”

“But it was a Viotti concerto! The sublime Viotti, whom everyone in Paris loves,” came the slightly sarcastic reply.

“So what? Just because French artists have begun to forgive him for not being born in France is no reason to believe that there aren’t other talented musicians in this country.”

“With all due respect, Monsieur Deshayes, let me point out that the French public has felt trapped in Lully’s monotony and weary of motets for too long, and is hungry for something new. And as it happens, novelty comes from abroad. This young man is a violinist. How could he show off his skill and talent without playing the sonatas of the great masters of that instrument? Geminiani, Corelli, Vivaldi, Cherubini--”

Interrupting, Deshayes suddenly pointed his cane at the man, though taking care not to touch him. From where he stood, Augustus briefly thought the argument could become a confrontation. In Paris, a duel can arise very quickly. He now paid even closer attention because he realized that the subject of the argument was his son.

“You’re one of those half-educated savants who blindly worship everything other than our national practice. Do you really think there are no master violinists in France? What impertinence!”

“Being a talented violinist doesn’t necessarily mean being a talented composer.”

“Young man, I would have called you insolent if I hadn’t known you for so long.”

Deshayes reinforced these words with a sharp tap on the floor before continuing in a voice that shook with indignation:

“And this vogue of the violin! An instrument with a piercing, screechy sound that has neither delicacy nor harmony and, unlike the viola, the flute, or the harpsichord, is exhausting both for the player and the listener.”

“I’m sorry to say that the preeminence of the violin is here to stay,” responded the younger man. “Do you know why? Because only it can be the lead instrument in an orchestra. It’s no accident that every Concert Spirituel program includes a violin sonata or concerto. Besides, do you know that a school of French violinists is being born under your very eyes, Monsieur Deshayes? It may not have any great composers but it already has brilliant instrumentalists. And those same Italian masters are the ones that allow them to shine. I could cite---“

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“In any case this isn’t the point of our discussion, so let’s not get excited. I simply asked what you thought of the concert we just heard, and you launched into a defense of the viola da gamba, the spinet, and who knows what other instruments. I feel this boy’s playing was sublime. Airy and fluid bowing, prodigious dexterity, proud, bold, and accurate execution. And that beautiful ending, which was surprising from such a young musician! Did you notice the unusual hush during the soloist’s cadenza? Did you see how the hall was so enraptured that it stood and kept trying to call him back, even when it knew that he wasn’t returning to the stage?”

“No, I didn’t. I saw more extravagance and bizarre antics than grace. And certainly no delicacy! I can’t help it if some of you have the ears of an ignoramus. This conversation is at end. Good day, sir.”

Breathing hard, the man seemed on the verge of apoplexy. He banged the floor one last time with his cane, touched his tricorn hat, and scurried out through one of the theater’s side doors. His younger companion, who surely hadn’t expected such an abrupt ending, stood frozen in place for a moment looking in the direction Deshayes had taken. At last he shrugged and headed out of the near-empty hall, his back to Augustus, who was still standing behind the screen.

The soloist’s father hesitated: should he approach this man and express his gratitude for having so ably defended his son? Was he some important person in the Parisian scene who might be useful and able to help him? Augustus didn’t hesitate for long. It was no accident that he had come to Paris. He had decided to follow the example of Leopold, the father of that composer praised by all the musicians he knew and whose fame nearly matched that of Kapellmeister Haydn: Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart. He was now calling himself Wolfgang Amadeus, having traded the very Germanic Gottlieb for its Latin equivalent, which he found more practical and elegant. He was about thirty and had been living in Vienna for some time. They said that at age three Mozart was already picking out tunes on his sister’s harpsichord. At four he could remember a piece he had played only once. At five he was playing his own compositions. At six, he amazed the emperor of Austria by playing the harpsichord blindfolded. Immediately realizing that his son was a musical prodigy, Leopold dragged him around the great courts of Europe to show him off and make money from his talent. Augustus was sure that with his own son was sure to earn more than the 200 florins a year that Prince Esterházy was paying him after five years of good and loyal service. Following in Leopold Mozart’s footsteps, he too had embarked on a grand tour, starting with Paris. It wasn’t a world he knew very well -- they had been here less than two weeks -- so he had to carefully avoid any blunders that might look like bumptiousness. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, Augustus thought, striding after the man.