Of West Indian and German parentage (his father Frederick was an ex-slave from Barbados), but born in Poland, this violinist, dubbed ‘The Abyssinian Prince’, was a child prodigy. After coming to the attention of the Prince Regent in 1791, he lived in England for most of his life. Under the patronage of the Prince, who paid Bridgetower’s father £25 to become his guardian, he studied under François-Hippolyte Barthélémon, leader of the Royal Opera; Croatian-Italian composer Giovanni Giornovichi, Thomas Attwood, organist at St Paul’s and professor at the Royal Academy of Music and, most significantly, Haydn.
In December 1789, he performed at a concert in Bath, in the presence of King George III and guests; the Bath Morning Post reported ‘There were upwards of 550 persons present, and they were gratified by such skills on the violin as created general astonishment, as well as pleasure from the boy wonder. The father was in the gallery, and so affected by the applause bestowed on his son, that tears of pleasure and gratitude flowed in profusion’.
For 14 years, Bridgetower was employed by the Prince as first violinist with his personal orchestra at his homes in Brighton and London; he also performed regularly with the Royal Philharmonic Society orchestra. In 1803, while on a tour of Germany and Austria, he performed in Vienna with Beethoven, who subsequently dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to Bridgetower — ‘Sonata per uno mulaticco lunattico’. Beethoven described Bridgetower as ‘a very able virtuoso and an absolute master of the instrument’. However, the pair fell out over a perceived slight made by Bridgetower to a woman friend of Beethoven’s, and he changed the dedication of this work to violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer. A letter from Beethoven to Bridgetower and a miniature of Bridgetower fetched over £2,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1973.
He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807, and became a Bachelor of Music at Cambridge University in 1811. Bridgewater died in Peckham and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery. In 2009, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet Rita Dove dramatised the relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower in her Sonata Mulattica. In the same year, Bridgetower – A Fable of 1807, a new jazz opera about him, starring Cleveland Watkiss, and composed by Julian Joseph, was produced at the Hackney Empire Theatre, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.