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U.Va. Poetry Professor Rita Dove’s ‘Sonata Mulattica’ to be Adapted for Film

Little did poet Rita Dove know when she published her book, “Sonata Mulattica,” that it would go beyond rescuing from obscurity a 19th-century, Afro-European violin virtuoso named George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.

Now that book of poems and a play-in-verse penned by Dove, Commonwealth Professor of English in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, is becoming the subject of a documentary not only about Dove writing about Bridgetower, but also featuring the contemporary story of African-American violin virtuoso and composer Joshua Coyne.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently awarded nonprofit Stone Soup Productions an Art Works grant to help the film company, Spark Media, produce the feature-length documentary, also to be named “Sonata Mulattica.”

Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, former U.S. poet laureate and a member of U.Va.’s Creative Writing Program faculty, published “Sonata Mulattica” in 2009 to wide critical acclaim.

Bridgetower, born to a Polish-German woman and an Afro-Caribbean man who claimed to be an African prince, was a child prodigy violinist and later a friend and then enemy of Ludwig van Beethoven. He electrified late-18th century Europe, riveting royal audiences, his innate gift transcending boundaries of class, race and culture. Beethoven wrote a famously difficult sonata for Bridgetower, Sonata No. 9 in A Major, but after their falling-out – apparently over a woman – Beethoven removed the violinist’s name from the dedication.

Flash forward to 1995: at age 2, Joshua Coyne was in a body cast, his foster mother having broken his legs. Adopted by a single mother, she brought him home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and played a Giacomo Puccini aria to soothe him. He hummed it back note for note.

He had yet to speak, but little Coyne’s career had begun. Formal violin training started at 4; his first paid performance was at age 6. Since then, he has played for Itzhak Perlman and was mentored by the late composer Marvin Hamlisch. In February 2008, at age 14, he played in Baltimore for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama at a presidential campaign rally of more than 13,000.

“[Bridgetower’s] dramatic biography will provide a springboard to explore issues of class and race in classical music, shedding light on how a minority could embrace a cultural heritage and defy expectations to thrive,” Andrea Kalin, Spark Media’s founder and senior producer, said. “His life is in stark contrast to Coyne’s, whose future seems limitless.”

In the film’s trailer, Dove talks about playing classical cello and people still assuming she played jazz because she was black. She was asked why she wanted to learn German – as if an African-American wasn’t supposed to partake of European culture, she said.

At present, in addition to violin, Coyne plays piano, saxophone, mandolin, viola and guitar, is focused on composing, arranging and conducting, all while attending college in New York. In the film, he struggles to master Beethoven’s sonata originally written for Bridgetower.

To capture the spirit of Dove’s lyrical work, the film will adopt the framework of weaving history with contemporary artistic performances, Kalin said, connecting characters in the present to those in the past. “Our narrative will use parallel threads to explore the lives of these two prodigies,” she said.

Since Kalin founded Spark Media in 1989, the Washington, D.C.-based company has specialized in making meaningful documentary films that build bridges between diverse cultures and perspectives. 

“Sonata Mulattica,” the film, is scheduled for release in 2014.

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