Forgotten Rivals of Great Composers
By LORNA GILL
[In Part I the author gives a most interesting description of the efforts of the rivals of Handel and of others to contest genius with mediocrity. This interesting phase of Musical History is well worthy of the attention of the music lover.]
BEETHOVEN, THE UNRIVALED.
When we come to the day of the tempestuous Beethoven, and those years of significant and colossal work in his art, we see him with no opportunity for even a hearing of his efforts, while the Viennese flocked to the operas of the versatile Italian, Rossini. In his indignation, Beethoven would send no more new compositions to the managers of Vienna.
Beethoven, however, had no very serious rival to contend with in the sense that Handel and Gluck had. Probably his most serious rival in the operatic field was Carl Maria von Weber, whose criticisms of Beethoven were not always just. Beethoven also was somewhat suspicious of Hummel, who was famous as a piano composer at the time Beethoven was writing his many piano sonatas. Nevertheless, the trouble appears to have been due to a misunderstanding, for both composers were very good friends during Beethoven’s later days. Beethoven suffered more from the ignorance of the public than from any direct efforts to belittle him on the part of lesser rivals.
Grove’s Dictionary describes Steibelt as “a musician now almost entirely forgotten, but in his own day so celebrated as a pianoforte player and composer that many regarded him as the rival of Beethoven.” He was born in Berlin in 1756. His father was a manufacturer of pianos and his early education is said to have been received from somewhat mediocre sources. In 1789 he journeyed to Paris, where he became the reigning virtuoso. After the production of a comparatively unsuccessful opera, “Romeo and Juliet,” Steibelt was indiscreet enough to sell two of his own compositions which he had previously published as new. The publisher, quite naturally, resented this breach of etiquette, and even went so far as to accuse Steibelt of stealing. Things grew unpleasant for the unscrupulous composer and he removed to England. In London he wrote his Pianoforte Concerto in E (No. 3). This contained a Rondo known as the “Storm Rondo.” Like the “Battle of Prague,” this was attended with such astonishing popularity that it was played “in all the drawing-rooms of England.” The works of Beethoven could make little progress in a country swept by the whirlwind which this now extinct piece produced. In England Steibelt was extremely successful as a teacher. His preference for English pianos and the fact that he married an English woman increased his popularity. His wife was an accomplished performer upon the tambourine, and Steibelt wrote pieces with a tambourine accompaniment, which we are told were actually performed in public in London. It is possible that had Beethoven been willing to write a bass drum obligato to his pianoforte sonatas he might have had a more immediate and favorable reception for his works by the great army of the untutored who demand novelties.
In 1799 Steibelt decided to tour Germany. In Vienna he found that the friends of Beethoven were armed against any possible rival. This led Steibelt to send Beethoven a challenge for an open contest. Beethoven accepted, and, according to the plaudits of the audience and the opinions of musical people, Steibelt’s defeat was final and complete. He never challenged Beethoven again. Failing to arouse the interest he had expected to arouse in Germany, he returned to Paris bearing the manuscript of the Score of Haydn’s “Creation.” He demanded 3600 francs (about $700) for his share in the translation of the ext (sic) of the “Creation.” The “Creation” was produced in Paris, Christmas Eve, 1800, and was so phenomenally successful that all the vaudeville theatres immediately produced parodies upon it. Notwithstanding the success of “The Creation,” Steibelt’s unsavory past made it uncomfortable for him to remain in Paris, and he returned to London in 1805. Here he immediately regained his popularity. The remainder of his life was divided between Paris, London and St. Petersburg. As a man Steibelt was vain and bombastic. As a composer he was superficial and trite. Consequently, the gates of obscurity opened wide to him when he died in St. Petersburg in 1823. No man bore the stigma of plagiarism more openly. His most widely known pianoforte work of merit is his “Etude,” a collection of studies. Steibelt’s life is an excellent illustration of how the public may be deceived by the pretensions of an artificial and insincere composer.
Though the rivalries of opera-writers occupy the most conspicuous place in musical history, storms of less severity have beaten about the heads of all the great composers and virtuosos, whose endeavors or talents have caused them to rise above their contemporaries. When the great Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin arrived in Paris, he consulted a musician who was then considered the foremost piano teacher of the gay metropolis. This man was the now little-known Kalkbrenner. The bitter and taciturn Heine described Kalkbrenner as “a gouty old gentleman, looking very much like a bon-bon that had been in the mud.” Friedrich Kalkbrenner, with the arrogance of his ignorance, assured Chopin that he had no method, that his playing was full of “unconstitutional effects.” Kalkbrenner tried hard to induce Chopin to take a three years’ course under him. In a letter pertaining to his reception by Kalkbrenner, Chopin wrote as follows, “Although I was in a fair way, he regretted that when he ceased to play there would be no disciple of the grand old school of piano playing left.” Chopin, the “Aerial” of pianists decided, fortunately for his future fame, that he did not wish to be an imitation of Kalkbrenner. Some of Chopin’s biographers say that Kalkbrenner’s attitude was prompted by jealousy, that he wished to keep him out of the way, that he feared him as a rival as all Paris was already entranced with the poetry and originality of his playing, and was making comparisons unfavorable to Kalkbrenner, but it is not altogether likely that this was the case.
Kalkbrenner was born in Berlin in 1784. Kalkbrenner was almost as prolific a composer as Steibelt. During his time his position as a piano teacher in Paris was supreme. He was of Hebrew extraction, and his father, who wasa musician of talent, supervised his early education. In 1798 he entered the Paris Conservatoire and aftera four years’ course he succeeded in winning a first prize in pianoforte playing and composition. In 1813 he went to Berlin and made the acquaintance of Haydn, Hummel, Clementi, and Albrechtsberger. In 1814 he went to London and remained in the English metropolis for nearly ten years. In 1824 he settled in Paris and became a member of the celebrated firm of piano manufacturers known as Pleyel and Company. Here Kalkbrenner succeeded in amassing a fortune, as he was a keen business man. Chopin realized that although Kalkbrenner’s compositions were enormously popular they were not to be compared with his own concerto of (sic) his first Ballade. Nevertheless, Kalkbrenner’s influence was so great and his position with the musical public of Paris so strong that Chopin did not dare to ignore him. Consequently Chopin attended some of the class-meetings of Kalkbrenner’s pupils, and even went so far as to dedicate one of his concertos to Kalkbrenner. The concerto is in the repertoires of all the great pianists of the world to-day, but the compositions of Kalkbrenner are rarely seen outside of the libraries.
Kalkbrenner was extremely vain, and used every little act to gain publicity for himself. Once he called upon the editor of a famous Berlin musical journal, and in endeavoring to ingratiate himself he declared that the wonderful art of improvising was upon the wane and that after his (Kalkbrenner’s) death there would be no remaining musician capable of improvising in an approved manner. Kalkbrenner then sat down at the piano and improvised for a quarter of an hour. The editor was amazed and astonished. He was more amazed and even horrified when upon the next day he received a bundle of new music from Paris. The first piece was “Effusio Musica, par Fred. Kalkbrenner,” and was note for note the same as the piece Kalkbrenner had “improvised” upon the previous day. All of Kalkbrenner’s compositions were correctly written but they were dull and ordinary, despite their artificial gloss.
Although Chopin had many rivals, including even John Field, (the originator of the Nocturne form, who declared that Chopin was a talent du chambre) no one envied his success quite as much as the avaricious and talentless Kalkbrenner. Kalkbrenner died in 1849.
Thalberg, the most powerful rival of both Liszt and Chopin, could not endure the latter’s “Pianissimos,” both in his compositions and playing, and always wanted to shout after having heard him play in order to relieve his nerves. On the other hand, the latter epitomized Thalberg’s style in his description, “Thalberg plays piano and forte with the pedals, and not with the hands, takes tenths as easily as I do octaves and wears diamond studs.” Thalberg’s fame, as dazzling as that of Liszt and Chopin during his life time, has left no enduring proof of his gift as a composer because he sacrificed whatever talent he possessed as a composer to the display of his technique as exploited in his paraphrases, no longer heard. On the contrary, Liszt, admitted by all at that time to be a great virtuoso, was scoffed at as a composer, but has left, nevertheless, an original art form in his symphonic poems, and left transcriptions one or other of which appear upon almost every program of a modern piano recital.
G. L. P. SPONTINI.
Many other famous rivalries have existed. Cherubini was intensely jealous of Berlioz, and Berlioz accused Cherubini of conspiring to ruin him. Likewise Spontini resented the great success of Weber and of Mendelssohn. But neither Spontini nor Cherubini can be called forgotten, although their compositions are somewhat rarely performed to-day. Cherubini’s religious compositions retain their prestige, although his other compositions are not now so well known. “La Vestale,” the most celebrated opera of Spontini has recently been given in some European music centres with great success. In fact, Dr. Phillip Spitta, writing in Grove’s Dictionary, devotes sixteen pages to the momentous life of the Italian composer who made notable and separate careers for himself in Italy, France and Germany. Spontini’s life reads like a character novel. He was born at Majoloti, Italy, in 1774 and lived until 1851. His musical education was received in the conservatories of Naples. After his graduation his success was almost immediate, and before 1803, when he went to Paris, he was recognized as one of the foremost Italian composers of his time. In Paris, however, Spontini found it somewhat more difficult to win popular favor. He commenced to model his works after those of the German masters, and the result was that his one act opera, “Milton,” was a pronounced success. Later came “La Vestale,” upon which his chief claim for fame now rests. His next opera “Fernand Cortez” was considered by musicians more finished than “La Vestale.” But Spontini was not satisfied. He aspired to even greater attainments. He wrote another work, entitled “Olympie,” based upon Voltaire’s text. This did not meet with great success in Paris until it had been given at least six times. King Frederick William III, of Prussia, upon one of his visits to Paris, became acquainted with Spontini’s operas, and was so charmed by them that he left nothing undone to attract Spontini to Berlin. This was not accomplished until 1820, when the Italian composer went to the Prussian capital with a salary considered enormous in those days, and with powers and distinctions enough to gratify the vanity of any ordinary mortal. Spontini was naturally despotic, and when given a band of the most competent singers, players and actors obtainable, together with unlimited power, he commenced a musical reign which has seldom been equaled in its severity and comprehensiveness. Nothing short of absolute perfection could satisfy Spontini, and his rule and success were absolute. Suspicious, vain, bad-tempered and jealous, Spontini was not the man to look kindly upon rivalry of any kind. His opera “Olympie” was performed in 1821. Three months had been spent in rehearsals, and the production was so extravagant that even the king objected. The presentation was a huge popular success, but alas! a short lived one, for after only five weeks had passed a new composer with a new opera came before the Berlin public. This newly found genius was von Weber, and the startling innovations and original themes in his “Der Freischütz” were so amazing that Spontini’s ambitions to rule the operatic world were dashed down in a few weeks. The public was soon divided into two parties, one party representing the more cultured people of Berlin supporting von Weber, and the other, representing the nobility, supporting Spontini. At one time the expression of public opinion was so pronouncedly against Spontini that the king was obliged to call upon his censor to suppress views which he feared might induce the super-sensitive Spontini to leave Germany. “Olympia” ceased to be a drawing card, and the opera house at most of the performances was partly filled by the circulation of free admission tickets. Spontini’s other works, composed in Berlin, failed to revive his reputation. His last years were spent in Italy, where he died in 1851, leaving all his property to the poor of his native town. Mendelssohn also thought that Spontini strove to prevent the success of his opera, “The Marriage of Camacho,” but the work of the two composers was so very different that they could not in any way be considered rivals.
The last great struggle in music took place with Wagner’s efforts to gain a hearing and assert his artistic aims and standards. As is well known, he suffered long years of poverty, disappointment and vilification before the final recognition of his genius. In 1840 he sought Meyerbeer and asked for an introduction to Pillet, director of the Paris Opera House, as he wished to talk over his proposed plot of the “Flying Dutchman” with the latter. At the meeting Pillet asked him to prepare his sketches. Wagner set to work and finished them in a few days, left them in Pillet’s hands and regarded them as accepted. What was his astonishment, upon his next meeting with Pillet, to hear him remark that he knew of a good composer to whom he had promised a good plot for a libretto, and that the “Flying Dutchman” seemed to fill all the requirements! The protests of the enraged Wagner were of no avail; all the satisfaction that Pillet would give was that he would allow the matter to remain in abeyance.
The climax was reached some time after when Pillet calmly announced that he had given the sketch of the “Flying Dutchman” to the composer Dietsch. Wagner had no powerful friends to plead his cause. Meyerbeer was out of town. He was so poor that he was finally obliged to take Pillet’s offer of five hundred francs. With undaunted spirit, however, he set to work and finished his own music of the “Flying Dutchman” in seven weeks, though he failed to get any manager to accept it.
This was not the last of Dietsch. In 1860, when the first faint glimmer of success promised the reward of genius, Wagner, through the influence of Princess Metternich, received a command from the Emperor to produce “Tannhaüser” and “Lohengrin.” Preparations were made on a vast scale; the chance of Wagner’s life seemed at hand. Rehearsals, however, did not progress smoothly, for no other than Dietsch was conductor at the Opera House. Wagner did all in his power to get rid of him without success, and their relations ended in open rupture. Dietsch, bent upon Wagner’s ruin, knowing that the Jockey Club was to be present on the opening night, and knowing their disappointment if deprived of their favorite ballet, organized them into an opposition movement. Disgraceful scenes followed; the Jockey Club became so noisy and untractable that Wagner was obliged to discontinue the performance, and retired defeated after three productions.
“Where are the snows of yester-e’en?” Where are the Dietschs, the Buononcinis, the Piccinis? “Not for one generation are masterpieces born.” Handel has gone on triumphing through the centuries. Gluck’s work contained the germ that has inspired generations. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Wagner opened new paths and gave a new voice to music, and so live, while their forgotten rivals content to write the music of a day, an hour, to satisfy the fleeting fancy of the public, and bearing no message of advancement to the future, perish in the graves of oblivion they had fought so fruitlessly to avoid.
The deciding hand of Fate is not always just. Worthy works are often cast into a wrongful oblivion. As the sands of centuries sift down into the ruins of ancient peoples and bury the records of their artistic efforts until the explorers of another age reclaim them for the edification of civilization, so have many worthy musical works been lost for the present generation. In the main, however, real worth triumphs and mediocrity falls.