Daniel Steibelt was born in Berlin, and studied music with Johann Kirnberger before being forced by his father to join the Prussian army. Deserting, he began a nomadic career as a pianist before settling in 1790 in Paris, where he attained great popularity as a virtuoso by means of a piano sonata called La Coquette, which he composed for Marie Antoinette. Also in Paris, his dramatic opera entitled Romeo et Juliette, which was later highly regarded by Hector Berlioz, was produced at the Théâtre Feydeau in 1793. This is held by many to be his most original and artistically successful composition.
Steibelt began to share his time between Paris and London, where his piano-playing attracted great attention. In 1797 he played in a concert of J. P. Salamon. In 1798 he produced his Concerto No. 3 in E flat containing a Storm Rondo characterised by extensive tremolos, which became very popular. In the following year Steibelt started on a professional tour in Germany; and, after playing with some success in Hamburg, Dresden, Prague and Berlin, he arrived in May 1800 at Vienna, where he challenged Beethovento a trial of skill at the house of Count von Fries. Accounts of the contest record it was a disaster for Steibelt; Beethoven reportedly carried the day by improvising at length on a theme taken from the cello part of a new Steibelt piece, placed upside down on the music rack.
Following this public humiliation Steibelt quit his tour. He went again to Paris, where he organised the first performance of Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation, which took place on 24 Dec 1800 at the Opera House. On his way to it, the First Consul Bonaparte narrowly escaped a bomb attack. Steibelt had just published one of his most accomplished sonatas, which he had dedicated to Bonaparte's wife, Josephine. After a second stay in England (Summer 1802-Autumn 1805), Steibelt came back to Paris. He celebrated Napoleon's triumph at Austerlitz with a Musical Interlude named La Fête de Mars, whose première was attended by Napoleon in person (4 Feb 1806).
In 1808 he was invited by Tsar Alexander I to Saint Petersburg, succeeding François-Adrien Boieldieu as director of the Royal Opera in 1811. He remained there for the rest of his life. In 1812, he composed The Destruction of Moscow, a grand fantasy for piano dedicated to the Russian nation.
He generally ceased performing in 1814, but returned to the platform for his Concerto No. 8, which was premiered on March 16, 1820, in Saint Petersburg, and is notable for its choral finale. This was four years before Beethoven's unconventional Symphony No. 9, and was the only piano concerto ever written (excluding Beethoven's Choral Fantasy) with a part for a chorus until Henri Herz's 6th concerto, Op 192 (1858) and Ferruccio Busoni's Piano Concerto (1904).
Besides his dramatic music, Steibelt left behind him an enormous number of compositions, mostly for the piano. His playing was said to be brilliant, though lacking the higher qualities which characterized that of such contemporaries as Cramer and Muzio Clementi. Despite this, his playing and compositional skills enabled him to build a career across Europe. Grove describes him as "extraordinarily vain, arrogant, discourteous, recklessly extravagant and even dishonest." Such harsh moral judgements are justified by some of the facts of Steibelt's life as they have come down to us. These and similar attacks on his character must be viewed with caution if a correct image of Steibelt's personality is to be reconstructed.
At his best Steibelt is an imaginative composer with strong individuality. His operas Cendrillon (1810) and Romeo et Juliette (1793), all his piano concerti, his chamber music, a selection of his numerous sonatas (e.g. Op. 45 in E flat - 1800 - and Op. 64 in G - 1809) and some piano pieces (caprices and preludes, studies Op. 78) are of a sufficient musical worth to be performed and enjoyed today.
4) Methode de Pianoforte (1805)
A native of Berlin, Daniel Steibelt was one of Europe's most renowned piano virtuosos who was driven from Vienna after being roundly humiliated by Beethoven in a piano contest
A native of Berlin, Daniel Steibelt was one of Europe's most renownedpiano virtuosos. He was a typical Prussian - formal, correct, proper. In 1800 he came to Vienna, no doubt with the aim of advancing his musical reputation.
It was quickly agreed among the city's musical patrons that Steibelt should compete against Beethoven in an improvisation contest.
These improvisation contests were a popular form of entertainment among Vienna's aristocracy. One nobleman would support one virtuoso pianist, another would support the other. In the salon of one of the noblemen, the two pianists would compete with each other, each setting the other a tune to improvise on.
The playing would go back and forth, increasing in intensity, until a winner was declared. In his early years in Vienna, Beethoven was made to take on the city's best talent and he quickly saw them off.
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.
He rose to great applause, and all eyes turned to Beethoven, who took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and reluctantly - to the collective relief of everyone present - trudged to the piano.
When he got there 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 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.
Steibelt, realising he was not only being comprehensively outplayed but humiliated, strode out of the room. Prince Lobkowitz hurried after him, returning a few moments later to say Steibelt had said he would never again set foot in Vienna as long as Beethoven lived there.
Beethoven lived in Vienna for the rest of his life, and Steibelt kept his promise - he never returned.
Beethoven was never again asked to take on any piano virtuoso - his position as Vienna's supreme piano virtuoso was established. And those four notes - the first bar of Steibelt's music? They became, in time, the impetus that drives the Eroica Symphony.
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