Last month, we wrote about feuds between famous musicians. Now, we would like to share with you a somewhat similar story, just because we think it is both interesting and funky At he heart of the tale is a musical “duel” that took place in Vienna between two distinguished 19th century composers: Daniel Steibelt, one of Europe’s most renowned piano virtuosos of that era, and Ludwig van Beethoven, who, of course, needs no introduction. It was Steilbelt who challenged Beethoven to the play-off.
The background for this anecdote is this: one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment among Vienna’s aristocracy in the beginning of the 19th century was an improvisation contest. One nobleman would offer support to one pianist, while another would back the opponent. The two pianists would compete with each other, each setting the other a tune to improvise on. The musicians would go back and forth, until a winner was declared. The contest between Steibelt and Beethoven occurred in the summer of 1800 in the opulent palace of Prince Lobkowitz, who was backing Beethoven. Another aristocrat, Prince Lichnowsky, was rooting for Steilbelt. And, by the way, don’t think these were just childish pranks. At the time, Steibelt was 35 years old, and Beethoven 30.
This is how one article described the stand-off between the two composers: “As the challenger, Steibelt was to play first. He walked to the piano, tossing a piece of his own music on the side, and played. Steibelt was renowned for conjuring up a ‘storm’ on the piano, and this he did to great effect, the ‘thunder’ growling in the bass.” It was then Beethoven’s turn to perform. In a display of true showmanship, “he picked up the piece of music Steibelt had tossed on the side, looked at it, showed it the audience ….. and turned it upside down!” He then sat at the piano and played the four notes in the opening bar of Steibelt’s music. “He began to vary them, embellish them ….. improvise on them. He played on, imitated a Steibelt ‘storm,’ unpicked Steibelt’s playing and put it together again, parodied it and mocked it.” Humiliated, Steibelt quickly realized that Beethoven would be declared the winner, and he walked out of the room in a huff. He had said he would never again set foot in Vienna as long as Beethoven was there. Beethoven continued to live in Vienna for the rest of his life, and Steibelt never returned. There is an interesting postscript to this tale: the four notes of Steibelt’s music that Beethoven had played during the contest, later incited him to compose the “Eroica Symphony.”
Now, just because we find this historical tidbit interesting (and hope you do too), doesn’t mean we approve of or encourage unfair competition. After all, music is all about spreading joy, not showing off to the detriment of another player. That’s why when a teacher of ours comes to your Manhattan, Brooklyn of Riverdale home or office to give you a music lesson, he or she will make sure harmony prevails – literally and figuratively!