Everyone knows about Ludwig van Beethoven. He is a towering figure in Classical music, renowned for his contributions to the symphony, the string quartet, the piano sonata, and much more. No one but musicologists know much about Daniel Steibelt. They mostly remember him for using the tambourine in so many of his piano sonatas (his wife played tambourine), for introducing the Chinese gong into his opera Romeo et Juliette (although later musicologists have determined it was some kind of tuned bell instead), and for coming out the loser in a brash challenge to Beethoven.
Steibelt was born in Berlin. He had already started his musical studies when his father forced him to join the Prussian army. He deserted and drifted around Europe supporting himself as a pianist. In 1790 he settled in Paris, where wrote many large-scale compositions. Late in the decade, he visited London, where his brilliant technique as a pianist attracted considerable attention. He became especially known for imitating the effect of a storm with rapid tremolos in the left hand.
He set out on a tour of German-speaking cities in 1799. In general, he met with a good reception everywhere he went–including a pardon for his desertion–until he arrived in Vienna in 1800. One favorite pastime of the Viennese nobility was to host improvisation contests between two pianists. Beethoven had already bested every other pianist in Vienna. Whether on his own initiative or with the urging of a Viennese patron, Steibelt issued a challenge to Beethoven.
It might have been just another contest, quickly forgotten, had Steibelt not deliberately offended Beethoven. Shortly before the date of the contest, Steibelt attended a concert where Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat for clarinet, cello, and piano, op. 11, was performed. The trio ends with a set of variations on a theme from the opera L’amor marinaro by Joseph Weigl. Steibelt greeted the piece with rather public condescension and then began the contest with a flashy set of variations on the same theme, including plenty of his storm effects.
Beethoven was in a foul mood when it was his turn to play. Steibelt had brought a new quintet with him, so Beethoven picked up the cello part, turned it upside down on the music rack, plunked out a few notes with one finger, and proceeded to improvise for a long time on this new theme. Beethoven’s improvisation not only demonstrated his own brilliant technique and musical imagination, but ridiculed Steibelt’s mannerisms. Deeply offended and humiliated, Steibelt walked out of the room before Beethoven had finished, refused any social invitations if Beethoven would be present, and returned to Paris vowing never to return to Vienna as long as Beethoven lived there.
Years later, Rossini made Vienna forget all about Beethoven just by showing up, and he was properly upset about it. Steibelt’s main claim to our attention is that he tried deliberately to make Vienna forget all about Beethoven and failed miserably.