Stories from the past: George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower
In 1865 the northern boundary of St John’s parish ran from Champion Hill, along Cut Through Lane and Choumert Road to Rye Lane, Peckham. Just south of this in Bedford Street (now Sandison Road) stood Victory Cottages. Though modest dwellings, they were described as "genteel cottages" and "pleasantly situate". Their tenants were clerks, printers, a governess.
On 29 February 1860 the death of an elderly resident in number 8 was recorded. He had not lived there long. Neighbours were aware he was a musician – there were several instruments in the cottage. There were rumours that he had been famous, had even known King George IV, Haydn and Beethoven, but no-one could remember hearing anything recent. He was a foreigner, and made frequent trips abroad.
Friends came to arrange his funeral, not locally but in distant Kensal Green Cemetery. Life in Peckham returned to routine.
The neighbours were correct: George Bridgetower was a foreigner, born in Poland on 13 August 1778 and baptised Hieronymus Hyppolitus de Augustus. His father, John Frederick, probably came from Barbados; his mother, Maria Ursula was German. They had realised for some time that their eldest son was extraordinary. His first public appearance was in Frankfurt in 1786:
Hieronymus August Bridgetown, son of a Moor and former valet to his Most Serene Prince Esterházy, 7 years old, a pupil of the worthy Haydn*, who had the favour of playing before his Majesty the Kaiser, as well as in various Princely courts to universal applause, will have the honour, on Wednesday 5 April here in the Concert Room of the great Red House, to give a grand instrumental concert, in which he will perform on the violin.
(Frankfurter Frag- und Anzeigungs-Nachrichten, 4 April 1786)
*The composer Franz Joseph Haydn had been director of music to the Esterházy family since 1761. The child first picked up the violin under his guidance.
Father and son embarked on a Mozart-style tour in 1788 leaving the family in Mainz. George performed in Germany, Liege, Brussels and The Hague and then crossed the Channel to England and the winter season at Bath:
The amateurs of music in this city received on Saturday last at the New Rooms the highest treat imaginable from the exquisite performance of Master Bridgetower, whose taste and execution on the violin is equal, perhaps superior, to the best professor of the present or any former day. Those who had that happiness were enraptured with the astonishing abilities of this wonderful child – for he is but ten years old. He is a mulatto, the grandson, it is said, of an African Prince. The greatest attention and respect was paid by the nobility and gentry present to his elegant Father, who is one of the most accomplished men in Europe, conversing with fluency and charming address in its several languages.
(The Bath Journal, 7 December 1789)
Back in London George had come to the notice of the Prince of Wales, a leading patron of the arts. It was no coincidence that he had adopted the names "George Frederick Augustus" whilst on the European tour. The Prince of Wales enabled George’s father to return to his family in Germany, took the 12-year old under his personal Royal protection, and oversaw his general schooling and musical education. George became established as a professional musician and a leading member of London’s artistic community. He held the post of first violinist in the Prince’s private orchestra for 14 years and took a variety of freelance jobs in London theatres.
In 1803, after visiting his mother in Dresden, George travelled to Vienna. He was introduced to Beethoven, who was completing his Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin in A
(Op.47), and invited to play the solo part. It was premiered on 24 May after limited rehearsals and Beethoven was so impressed by the performance that he dedicated the work to his friend. Unfortunately, no-one has heard of the Bridgetower Sonata: following an argument about a woman, Beethoven rededicated it to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer who never performed it in public.
After returning to England George was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in London and gained a Bachelor of Music degree from Cambridge University in 1811. On 9 March 1816 he married Mary Leech Leake at St George’s, Hanover Square. They had two daughters, Julia and Felicia. Sadly the marriage hit problems and by 1824 Mary and Felicia were living in Rome.
On 6 November 1819 the Secretary of the Philharmonic Society wrote in praise:
George Bridgetower is one of our greatest musical assets. He is approaching 40 now, and is adored by his pupils, highly respected amongst other musicians and continues to play the violin and piano beautifully. We recommend that he is allowed permanent membership of the Philharmonic Society.
In about 1820 George ceased performing in public. Apart from brief visits to England he mostly lived abroad. There is no suggestion that he had become a recluse: he continued to teach, write to, and visit his musical acquaintances. He was fluent in English, German, French, Italian and Polish, and numbered Camille Saint-Saëns, Thomas Attwood, Johann Cramer, Vincent Novello and Samuel Wesley amongst his friends.
But the public forgot George Bridgetower. His tombstone simply, and inaccurately, reads:
GEORGE POLEGREEN BRIDGETOWER ESQre
DIED 29th FEB 1860 AGED 78 YEARS.
Did he deserve to be forgotten? Was he a child prodigy who never fulfilled his promise?
He was an outstanding musician, both as a child and in adulthood. He came from humble beginnings to consort with princes and the leading musicians of the day, and was clearly held in high esteem by his peers in the musical community. It’s time to recognise him properly for his achievements.
By Christine Camplin