Musical feuds were common in the classical music golden age.
There are many instances of immortal musicians being insulted by other famous musicians.
Johann Sebastian Bach, like most musicians of the day, worked as a church musician.
He was anything but docile, and was known to rankle easily.
He was once reproved for playing “strange harmonies” during a church service.
Bach’s answer was to play even stranger harmonies the next Sunday, and this from the greatest composer of religious music the world has ever seen, the composer of the St. Matthew Passion.
Still steaming, the elders complained again to Bach and added the insult that the music was at some points “too long.”
The next Sunday, of course, the music was much too short, consisting of two short chords.
Beethoven also had his feuds, especially in the early years when he was establishing himself as a great pianist.
A worthless popinjay named Steibelt had made it known that he thought Beethoven a terrible pianist, and in essence challenged Beethoven to a musical duel, a common occurrence in those days. Beethoven despised Steibelt, for he was in truth a talentless oaf that foolishly dared to challenge a great master.
At a party the next week, Beethoven heard Steibelt playing one of his own puerile compositions, an insipid Trio for piano, violin and cello. It was the type of horrid, elaborately ornamented fluff that Beethoven reviled, but he watched calmly as Steibelt finished the piece and took his bows.
A hush fell over the crowd as Beethoven appeared out of the shadows and walked toward the piano. Everyone was aware of the grudge between Steibelt and Beethoven and the air was thick with apprehension.
Steibelt, startled by the angry look on the master’s face, stepped away from the piano.
As Beethoven walked past the cello’s music stand, he snidely grabbed the cello’s sheet music.
Carefully showing the astounded crowd the page of sheet music, Beethoven sat at the piano and then put the music, upside down, onto the piano music stand.
As Steibelt and the hushed crowd watched, Beethoven plunked out the notes of the upside down cello part, forcefully jabbing with his pointed and angry index finger, not taking his eyes off Steibelt.
Then Ludwig began to improvise like a madman on Steibelt’s upside down cello part theme. The crowd was carried away with Beethoven’s angered showmanship.
And it was magnificent, one of those legendary Beethoven improvisations that have gone down in history, a passionate outpouring of ideas and bravura, until at last the piece was over with a furious ending and crash.
Curiously, Steibelt was never heard from again.
Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press