Wesley, Bach, Bridgetower

Posted on December 7th, 2009 by

George August Polgren Bridgetower and Bach

 On reading The Letters of Samuel Wesley/Professional and Social Correspondence 1797-1837. Philip Olleson. Oxford University Press. 2001.


Samuel Wesley to George Bridgetower             29th March 1810

 ‘Dear Sir/I much regret having been unable to fix a Moment hitherto for our meeting: I now offer you a tempting Evening, no other than next Sunday, when a few of the orthodox harmonists will meet at Mr Stephenson’s, Queen Sq N.29 (think) for the purpose of celebrating the Natal Day of Sebastian Bach. –I am commissioned to invite all thorough Enthusiasts in such a Cause to be present-among whom I think I am not much mistaken in enumerating you.’


I was handed this book by the pianist Roy Howat a few weeks ago. It was a fleeting meeting, two musician-enthusiasts in the street just north of the site of the old Marylebone Cemetery. As ever, we had no time. He was off to give a lecture recital on Fauré, I to rehearse Bartok. But he grabbed me and said: “…look at these-I know your interest in Bridgetower.” Now I was pretty impressed, as I am not working on Bridgetower at the moment. Most research into this fascinating violinist seems to lead to a dead end, and it does not seem clear what his activities as a violinist consisted of after his return from Vienna. Roy explained to me that these papers were letters between Samuel Wesley and the great violinist. I immediately launched into my habitual chitchat about the Concertante  Wesley Sonata, which, I suspected, Bridgetower had shown Beethoven when he met him in Vienna, and which may have been one of the stimuli for the composition of the now-called Kreutzer Sonata Op 47. So we rushed off, and after a long day with scores on the following Saturday, I settled down with a coffee and began to read.

 To be honest, the first few letters did not interest me. They seemed concerned mainly with non-violinistic issues and as a violinist, I was and remain, frustrated that the only piece by Bridgetower which I had managed to find in the British Library was a book of (not terribly interesting) pedagogical keyboard pieces, his Diatonica Armonica. However, this letter made me take note. But, luckily, I did not read on fast, but sat there musing on another of my undeveloped pet-theories, which I guess, would be pipe-dreams, had I ever smoked.

 I have come up with many rationalisations for the extraordinary opening of Beethoven’s Brischdauer (sic) Sonata. The most obvious of these was an undeveloped notion of two improvising musicians competing their way towards an A minor sonata form. This I still hold to. However, it had not escaped me that the opening felt like something else. If this was not Beethoven’s, but Bridgetower’s way of beginning the piece, it had seemed that this felt very much (under the hand, especially) like the violin writing of a player/composer who knew, and more to the point, had played Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Of course, these were not part of concert programmes until much later, but contrary to today’s urban myth, they were finding their way into the lingua franca of a certain breed of musicians. The first edition, which I have not seen, was published by Simrock in Bonn in 1803, and a number of musicians in post-revolutionary France, chief among them Antoine Reicha and Pierre Francois le sales Baillot, alluded to them in pedagogical works. I had often mused on the idea that Paganini himself played them, but in his case the only evidence seemed to be an un-catalogued A Major Fugue fragment, and a couple of the 24 Capricci, particularly no. 16, which, like the opening of Beethoven’s Op 47, bore the imprint of having been written by one who had had the Bach ‘under the hand’.

 With this in mind, I read on; nothing struck me until 1814, when I came across a letter from Samuel Wesley to Vincent Novello. It seemed that he was writing Novello asking why he had failed to appear at a musical evening organised by ‘Bridgtower’ at ‘N.20 Chapel Street Grosvenor Place’, the night before. This, it struck me instantly, was the address of the Chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, where French Émigrés could take mass and meet. Wesley reported that ‘Bridgtower was apprehensive that [Novello] required a more explicit invitation’, but that he (Wesley) had been expecting his arrival at every moment from ‘from 7 o’clock till 10.’ Clearly Novello had not shown up so Wesley reported on the ‘luxurious Treat of Harmony’ which the (presumably) ‘orthodox harmonists’ had enjoyed. All the ‘Pieces were admirably given by our Host’: clearly Bridgetower himself took part in the performances of all the pieces, which, if the Wesley remembered correctly, would have meant that the violinist would have been very busy all evening.

 Wesley reported on the evening’s entertainment: 

‘Among the tunes played were a Trio of Mozart, two of Purcell, one of S. Bach, another arranged from the 1st Prelude and Fugue of the 2d Book (or my 3d)-the Ciacone [sic], & the Fugue in C from the Solos…& so on.’ As if to emphasise the most impressive part of the evening, Wesley had written out the opening 6 bars of the ‘Fugue in C’, being the second movement of the Second Sonata from the 6 Sonatas and Partitas, or as ‘S. Bach’ put it with such charming ambiguity on the MS., ‘Sei Solo’. Clearly the emphasis of the evening was on classical counterpoint. As Wesley put it, ‘…indeed the whole was the most classical Affair in the Crotchet and Quaver Line that I have witnessed for a long Period.’

 I was, I confess, quite over excited. Not only did this refer to the great C major Fuga, which is the only solo Bach which Pierre Baillot actually quoted in his 1834 L’Art du Violon. More excitingly, Wesley was describing what seemed to be the earliest performance that I could remember, anyway, of what he called the ‘Ciacone’. The ‘Ciaccona’! This was perhaps the earliest account that I could think of this most influential piece. Clearly, even in the context of a concert that included a broad range of chamber music from Purcell onwards, it had been the Bach ‘Solos’ that had made the impression, and which Wesley had saw fit to immortalise. As if to emphasise their power, he signed of: ‘If any thing could be termed a Desideratum it was either Beethoven’s pastoral Symphony or Webbe’s ‘Cantatatibus Organis’.’ Clearly this had been no unambitious salon affair, but a performance of heft and ambition. I read on in mounting excitement.

 In July of the same year, Wesley was writing about Bach, again, this time to Bridgetower:

‘I beg leave to inform you that I shall be happy to know, when & where I am to make good my Promise to my brother of hearing you execute the exquisite Solos of Bach.-If you will name any evening within a Week hence, I (for myself) will make it convenient to attend your appointments, & upon hearing your Answer will immediately acquaint my Brother.’


 Clearly the reputation of Bridgetower’s Bach playing was spreading, and Novello himself was still feeling hard-done-by at not having been at the Bridgetower’s performance on the 27th January. However, Wesley was big enough to own that this had been his mistake, and that Bridgetower’s lack of confidence in Wesley’s ability to give Novello the correct information had been well-founded:

 ‘Novello sorely regretted his Loss, originating in an idle mistake of mine in the first former instance, but I trust you will suffer him to be of the party, as you cannot have an Auditor more capable of highly relishing the Exertion of your uncommon Talent upon the most expressive of all musical Instruments.’


This last line caught my eye. Perhaps here I was seeing the beginnings of our tradition and reference for Bach’s ‘unaccompanied’ works. It would be over a decade before the young Mendelssohn started to reveal new vistas in Bach, but I could not forget that it had been in the performance of Bach that the young Beethoven had first made his mark. In 1783 the Magazin der Musik wrote about the young Beethoven, who of course, was twelve, and not eleven:

 ‘Ludwig van Beethoven… is an eleven year old Boy and of very promising Talent. He plays on the piano in a very finished manner and powerfully, reads at sight, and to put it briefly, he plays the greater part of the Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach which Herr Neefe gave him. Those who are familiar with this collection of Preludes and Fugues in every tonality (which one could practically term the non plus ultra) will know what this means.’


Whilst reading the Wesley’s description of the concert on the 27th January, I had also noted that one ‘tune’ on the programme had consisted of ‘another arranged from the 1st Prelude and Fugue of the 2d Book…’ Beethoven, like Mozart before him, arranged at least one Fugue from the 48, as a chamber work, most likely for one of the Graf von Fries’s Liebhaber evenings. Was Bach one of the points of discussion and debate between Beethoven and Bridgetower? It seemed as if the opening of the ‘BrischdauerSonata was making more sense with every word that I read.

 The next letter from Wesley to Bridgetower, raising the issue of the Bach ‘Solos’ raised another question. It dates from 22nd September of the following year. Wesley asked:

 “…whether I had not the Pleasure of lending you Bach’s Violin Solos some time since? I have been searching diligently, though hitherto in Vain, but I shall be delighted to know that they are in your safe keeping.’ My immediate thought was that this MS was the copy from which Bridgetower had learnt his Bach, but the last line of the letter gave the lie to this idea: ‘ [Salomon] has a printed Copy, which I have seen, & which I fancy is the same Edition as your own.’


Of course, here we are dealing with the all-but forgotten time before photo-copies and scanners. When I first studied the C Major Fugue mentioned above, it was with the late Manoug Parikian. At roughly the same time, we worked on Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, a work which he treated with as much seriousness as Bach. However, one thing sticks in my memory. There was a troublesome page turn in one of the movements. Manoug had written out the extra page, to avoid the turn. This was a reminder that even owning a printed copy of a piece of music in the 19th Century did not necessarily mean that it was easy or quick to have an extra copy to hand. Clearly Wesley was concerned that he could not remember to whom he had leant his handwritten copy, and was not surprised that, despite owning a copy of Simrock’s 1802 Tre Sonate per il violino per il Violino senza Basso, Bridgetower might have needed another. There are two reasons that I can imagine Bridgetower needing a second copy. One is practical, the other pedagogical.

 Wesley was most concerned that ‘In the Event of the Worst’, (that Bridgetower had not borrowed the MS) his samizdat copy ‘must have been stolen out of my House’. If this was the case, he wished to copy the Bach ‘propriâ Manu, from the first Edition I could obtain the Loan of.’ His problem was the only other edition that he knew that was immediately available was owned by the violinist/impresario, and, ‘As Salomon gave me the Copy in MS to which I allude, I cannot very decorously acquaint him with my present Tribulation.’

 Wesley’s ‘Tribulation’ aside, this letter tells us some fascinating and startling facts. The simplest and perhaps most exciting, is that in the second decade of the 19th Century, there were at least three copies of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas at large, and in use, in London. Secondly it tells us that Johann Peter Salomon, who had been born in the same house in Bonn as Beethoven (515 Bonngasse), and had been personally responsible for bringing ‘Papa’ Haydn to London in 1791, not only had obtained a copy of the first edition of the Bach, published in his home town, but, thought highly enough of it to make a copy for his friend Samuel Wesley. Judging by Wesley’s discomfiture, it would seem that this had been made, at some expense, by a professional copyist, and would not only be embarrassing, but costly, to replace.