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Daniel Steibelt

born: 22 October 1765
died: 2 October 1823
country: Germany

Two centuries and more ago the Viennese elite loved nothing more than a gladiatorial contest between keyboard virtuosi. A famous piano duel between Mozart and Clementi in December 1781 had ended without obvious victor or vanquished, even if Emperor Joseph II later declared that Mozart had displayed superior taste and refinement. In May 1800 things turned out rather differently when another visiting virtuoso, Daniel Steibelt, pitted himself against Beethoven at a music gathering at the home of Count Moritz von Fries. As reported by Beethoven’s one-time pupil Ferdinand Ries, Steibelt unwisely played a pre-prepared ‘improvisation’ on the theme Beethoven had used for variations in the finale of his Clarinet Trio, Op 11. Beethoven and his many admirers in Fries’s salon (this was hardly a level playing field!) were duly insulted, whereupon Beethoven improvised on a theme from the piano quintet Steibelt had just played, having derisively placed the quintet’s cello part upside down on the music rack. Humiliated, Steibelt left the room before Beethoven had even finished and, as Ries put it, ‘made it a condition that Beethoven not be invited when his own company was desired’.

While it is Steibelt’s fate to be remembered above all as the man who dared to challenge Beethoven and paid the price, for a quarter of a century he was fêted throughout northern Europe as one of the newly fashionable breed of keyboard lions. Born in Berlin of mixed parentage (his mother was French, his German father a keyboard manufacturer), he studied with the famous composer–theorist Johann Kirnberger, who had once been taught by J S Bach in Leipzig. He then joined the Prussian army, at his father’s insistence, and within a year had deserted to pursue an itinerant career as a pianist, taking care to keep well clear of Berlin. Settling in revolutionary Paris in 1790, Steibelt forged a reputation as a composer–pianist, promoting himself via a prodigious output of keyboard sonatas, potboilers—waltzes, bacchanals, divertissements and the like—and, from 1796, a series of eight keyboard concertos. Steibelt seems to have been a difficult man to like, at least in his younger days. Contemporary reports suggest he was vain, arrogant and ostentatiously extravagant, with a habit of disingenuously passing off old works as new. Yet at his peak he carried all before him with the vote-catching brilliance of his playing.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2016


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