Beethoven's Forgotten Rival

Beethoven's Forgotten Rival

Beethoven, during his lifetime, was hailed as the Greatest of All Time—the GOAT. This reputation was put to the test in 1800 when pianist Daniel Steibelt, known for his dramatic and virtuosic style, dared to challenge Beethoven to a duel. Steibelt kicked off with one of his signature stormy compositions, wowing the audience with his unique flair. But then Beethoven took Steibelt’s sheet music, flipped it upside down, and improvised a performance that was even more dramatic, stormy, and infused with humor. Steibelt, humiliated, stormed out and vowed never to return to Vienna as long as Beethoven was there.

This amusing anecdote highlights Beethoven's unparalleled prowess as a pianist. Yet, amidst Beethoven's towering shadow stood Joseph Woelfl, a now-forgotten figure who once rivaled the great master. Who was Joseph Woelfl? Born on December 24, 1773, in Salzburg, Austria, Woelfl's prodigious musical talent was evident from a young age. He studied under renowned musicians like Michael Haydn, Leopold Mozart, and Nannerl Mozart. Early performances with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart quickly established his reputation and secured him a position at the Polish court. Woelfl eventually returned to Vienna, coinciding with Beethoven’s rise.

Both men were celebrated for their virtuosity and innovative approaches to piano music. Despite their differing styles, they shared a deep mutual respect, exemplified when Woelfl dedicated his Three Sonatas, Opus 6, to Beethoven—a gesture reflecting his admiration. Their rivalry fueled mutual inspiration, pushing each other to new heights.

A legendary duel between them took place in 1799 at Baron Raimund Wetzlar's residence. The two virtuosos improvised on themes they presented to each other, captivating the elite audience. The evening ended with a split decision: some declared Beethoven the winner, while others favored Woelfl.

The differing styles of Beethoven and Woelfl contributed to this divided opinion. Beethoven's improvisations were known for their dramatic and complete compositions from single themes or motifs. His playing was powerful and emotionally charged, continually mesmerizing audiences with his innovative interpretations. Woelfl, however, was more technically adept, known for his incredible hand span and precise double-stop playing. His style was lively, fast-paced, and full of energy, akin to Mozart on a caffeine high, making him a formidable opponent.

Woelfl's style shines in his three virtuosic sonatas, Opus 33. Each sonata varies in tone: the first is cheerful, the second dramatic, and the third a blend of military and melancholic elements. All share a characteristic clarity and melodic purity reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn but devoid of sentimentality. What stands out is their infectious virtuosity, showcasing Woelfl's technical mastery and his ability to captivate and surprise.

Unlike much virtuosic music associated with low quality, sentimentality, and showmanship, Woelfl's compositions are marked by their high quality. He clearly wrote these sonatas for himself rather than students with limited technical abilities. While history gave us Hummel, Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg, Alkan, Henselt, and later virtuosos like Clara Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Woelfl's sonatas may not stand out for their technical difficulty anymore. However, they do highlight the sheer joy of piano playing, reminding us of the immense pleasure music can bring.

More information about the duel can be found on the Popular Beethoven website.

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