Monday, November 15, 2010

11/15 Among the Great Pianists of his Time

Daniel Steibelt
When Beethoven arrived in Vienna he first made a name for himself as a piano improvisor.  In those days it was customary for the royalty to be entertained by "duels" between competing pianists.  In a previous post I mentioned that Muzio Clementi duelled Mozart to a draw.  Beethoven was also subjected to this kind of expectation, and in the early days before he established his reputation, he was no stranger to public displays of piano mastery.  Here's the famous story of a rivalry with pianist virtuoso Daniel Steibelt.  From Ferdinand Ries:
When Steibelt (1765-1823), the famous piano virtuoso, came from Paris to Vienna, in all the glory of his fame, several of Beethoven's friends were afraid the latter's reputation would be injured by the newcomer.
Steibelt did not visit Beethoven; they met for the first time in the home of Count Fries, where Beethoven gave his new Trio in B-Hat major, Op. 11, for piano, clarinet and violoncello, its initial performance. It does not give the pianist much of an opportunity. Steibelt listened to it with a certain condescension, paid Beethoven a few compliments, and felt assured of his own victory. He played a quintet he had composed, and improvised; and his tremulandos, at that time an absolute novelty, made a great impression. Beethoven could not be induced to play again.
Eight days later there was another concert at Count Fries' home. Steibelt again played a quintet with much success, and played a brilliant fantasy based on a theme developed in the variations of Beethoven's trio. This roused the indignation of Beethoven and his admirers; he had to seat himself at the piano to improvise, which he did in his usual, I might say unmannerly fashion, flinging himself down at the instrument as though half-pushed. As he moved toward it he took up the violoncello part of Steibelt’s quintet, purposely put it on the piano-rack upside-down, and drummed out a theme from its first measures with his fingers. Then, now that he had been definitely insulted and enraged, Beethoven improvised in such a way that Steibelt left the room before he had concluded, refused ever to meet him again, and even made it a condition that Beethoven was not to be invited where his own company was desired.

In all fairness Steibelt's compositions are not half-bad.  He does sound like an ass though.  Then again...there's this story where Beethoven is being a bit obnoxious himself... Ries again, on Beethoven and Friedrich Heinrich Himmel, a famous pianist that Beethoven met in Berlin:
"One day when they were together, Himmel begged Beethoven to improvise; which Beethoven did. Afterwards Beethoven insisted that Himmel do the same. The latter was foolish enough to let himself be persuaded. After he had played for quite a long time Beethoven remarked: 'Well, when are you going to begin in earnest?' Himmel had flattered himself that he had already performed wonders; he jumped up and they both became offensive. Beethoven said to me: "I thought that Himmel had been only preluding a bit."
Friedrich Heinrich Himmel
"Afterwards they were reconciled, indeed, but Himnmel could only forgive, not forget. For awhile they exchanged letters until Himmel played Beethoven a shabby trick. The latter always wanted to know the news from Berlin. This bored Himmel, who at last wrote that the greatest news from Berlin was that a lamp for the blind had been invented. Beethoven ran about with the news and all the world wanted to know how this was possible. Thereupon he wrote to Himmel that he had blundered in not giving more explicit information. The answer which Beethoven received not only put an end to the correspondence but brought ridicule upon Beethoven, who was foolish enough to show it then and there."

Other great piano virtuosi of the day who knew Beethoven included Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Joseph Wölfl and Johann Baptist Cramer. What an exciting time it must have been...

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