Daniel Steibelt and the failure of compassion

This article about Daniel Steibelt is a companion piece to my post about the composer Anton Fils. While it can be read on its own, I would suggest reading the Fils article first.

Daniel Steibelt
Daniel Steibelt 1765-1823

Look for information about Daniel Steibelt, born five years after the death of Anton Fils, and you will quickly discover that he is widely described as ‘arrogant, vain, affected’ and even ‘dishonest’ and a ‘charlatan’. The libel extends to criticism of Steibelt’s music, with much attention brought to his inability to write lengthy slow movements, his obsession with tremolo and his lack of depth. Virtually all the criticism one can find of Steibelt is entirely negative, yet in his day he enjoyed considerable success. But here is Grove Music Online, writing about Steibelt’s opera Romeo et Juliette:

Roméo et Juliette (i) (‘Romeo and Juliet’)

Opéra comique in three acts by Daniel Steibelt to a libretto by Pierre de Sé gur after William Shakespeare ’s play; Paris, Théâtre Feydeau, 9 October 1793.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play but with a happy ending, the principal characters are Romeo (tenor), Juliet (soprano), Alberti (tenor), Antonio (baritone) and Cécile (soprano), with extensive writing for mixed, women’s and men’s choruses.

The opera enjoyed a great success; it was revived for more than 30 years after its première and translated into at least four languages. Steibelt’s bold orchestration, innovative harmony and recitative-like choral writing appealed to Berlioz, who considered it the best musical setting of the story he knew (the others were by Bellini, Dalayrac, Zingarelli and Vaccai). Winton Dean (1964) called the work ‘the best Shakespeare opera of the eighteenth century’.


I couldn’t find anything more than a couple of scratchy excerpts of Roméo et Juliette online. Is it the ‘happy ending’ that has reduced this work to a historical footnote? That does not explain the same fate befalling his other operas, his ballets, most of his piano concerti, and much of his other music. The real culprit is more likely to be Ferdinand Ries, friend and amanuensis to Beethoven, who first told the story that Steibelt had taken on Beethoven in a musical duel and lost. According to Ries (writing many years after the supposed event and not present himself), Beethoven picked up the cello part of a Steibelt work, turned it upside down, and extemporised to great acclaim. There are an unpleasant few minutes to be spent listening to the self-congratulatory John Suchet and Michael Tilson Thomas discussing this here. There has even been an awful dramatisation of the contest, in which the traducement is amplified by having ‘Steibelt’ playing one movement of a sonatina, only to be comprehensively humiliated as ‘Beethoven’ takes the piece apart in a grand show of pianistic pyrotechnics. Steibelt was a virtuoso pianist himself and would certainly not have played something as facile as the sonatina in competition.

It is further suggested that Beethoven went on to use this upside down cello part as the basis of his Eroica Variations (which later became the main subject of the Finale of the Eroica Symphony). During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was common practice for composers to borrow and steal from each other. Sometimes the borrowing was overt, as in a set of variations after a theme by another composer (for example Beethoven’s own Variations on a theme of Diabelli Op. 120). But in other cases, the origin of a piece was driven by greed: publishers in the early nineteenth century frequently attached the name of a famous composer to the work of minor composers. Anton Eberl had much of his music passed off as the work of Mozart. Joseph Haydn even passed off as his own pieces by his pupil Ignaz Pleyel. Add to this the problems of attribution: Johann Wilhelm Hässler wrote a sonata attributed to W.F.Bach (it still is in some places). Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver, had his Variationen über eine Romanze von Méhul, Op.23 attributed to Liszt. There are many other examples of the work of minor composers assigned to someone greater, making the minor composer even fainter in history.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven: detail of an 1804–05 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

Then there are issues of completion. Mozart’s famous Requiem in D minor, K. 626 was orchestrated in part by Joseph von Eybler and completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Parts of the work were influenced by (or lifted from) works by Bach, Handel, Joseph Haydn and Michael Haydn. The whole work was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, who liked to pay composers for work he then passed off as his own. These are muddy waters: documentary evidence is suspect.1 Over at Forgotten Records (who sell a couple of Steibelt CDs) Olivier Feignier has written a more detailed biography and has challenged the accepted account of Steibelt’s life.

My own ability with the musical keyboard is sadly limited, so it’s no surprise that I tend to look for fairly easy pieces to play. The search for such pieces reveals two truths. The first is that most composers don’t like to write easy pieces. Partly this is historical: until the late eighteenth century, there was not much market for them. The burgeoning middle classes changed all that: composers began to lose their aristocratic sponsors and were compelled to make money in different ways. The second truth is that most ‘easy’ pieces are anything but. The arrogance of some composers is born out in their offerings – which are often quite demanding – and if they are genuinely easy they also have a tendency to be rather dull, and such work has become fodder for examination boards. Conversely, some composers wrote work that offers the beginner a challenge, but which is also musically satisfying. Such music understands the needs of the beginner but demonstrates wit and intelligence: I see this as a practical test of genius.2

Steibelt passes my test for writing ‘easy’ pieces with flying colours. I am very happy to channel the spirit of a young woman in Paris at the time of Napoleon, trying out one of Steibelt’s sonatinas in the drawing-room while an admiring and elaborately uniformed hussar leans on the fortepiano pulling on his clay pipe. Yes, the melodies are mostly simple evocations of a music box or pastoral fantasies, and variations on popular tunes, but Steibelt composes them with care, offering sections in the minor key, curious harmonies and miniature cadenzas, such that the performance of one of these minor works feels quite satisfying in a way that playing equivalent pieces by Ignaz Pleyel or Maria Hester Park does not.

These easier pieces often have movements with a ground bass to sound like the hurdy-gurdy, a peasant instrument that had become wildly popular with the French aristocracy in their elaborate fantasy picnics, the fêtes champêtre of the Rococo period. Turkish martial music was also in great demand. Mozart wrote a whole opera on a Turkish theme (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), and titled the last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 ‘Alla Turca’. Beethoven wrote a Turkish March, and there were ‘Turkish’ offerings from Joseph and Michael Haydn, Gluck, Rossini, Spohr and many others. Steibelt was no exception, and his little Turkish Rondo is delightful. This performance is from an abbreviated score (not always a bad thing): note the unusual passage starting at 2:24. 3

Steibelt’s first successful composition was a piano sonata dedicated to Marie Antoinette, who met her death at the guillotine three years later in 1793. Like other composers of the period, he had to rapidly change his tune, as it were, and in 1800 he dedicated another sonata to Josephine Bonaparte. Steibelt also wrote more difficult studies, which he called Pots-Pourris, and it doesn’t take exhaustive research to discover that some of Steibelt’s more developed work was really rather good.

As is the case with Anton Fils, most of Steibelt’s work is hidden in libraries, and there are few performances available. Moreover, very little keyboard music of the period is played with any understanding of the instruments available. The Viennese fortepianos that Steibelt and Beethoven would have used had a significantly different sound to the modern concert grand. In the lower registers, the sound is similar to the lower register of a harpsichord, growling and resonant. In the upper register, the notes are more chime or bell-like. There is evidence too that the sustain pedal was sometimes kept depressed for far longer than would be done in modern times so that passages to be performed lightly and playfully would have no pedal, but slower and more sonorous pieces would create an enharmonic wall of sound. Moreover, pianos were made with other pedals and stops. Moderator pedals introduced parchment or leather between hammer and string. True una corda pedals could be altered to play one, two, or all three strings. Janissary pedals gave ‘Turkish’ music a special chime and drum effect. Then there were the ‘lute’ pedal and the quite nasty and grating ‘bassoon’ pedal. This recording, although of poor quality, gives an idea of what these special effects sounded like – a far cry from the concert grand!

Many of the modern instruments used in recordings resemble honky-tonk pianos retrieved from months sitting in damp cow sheds, then overmiked and hideous to hear. The ludicrous ‘expert’ conclusion is that Beethoven wrote for some future instrument that would sound different.4. Thus (un)informed we now think classical piano music must be played with great virtuosic speed on thundering Steinways, or on grating facsimiles, also at great speed. Luckily brave scholars such as the indefatigable Wim Winters are slowly disabusing us of these notions.5

Steibelt’s work, particularly the little sonatinas, need both delicacy of touch and instrument. It is common to criticise this kind of simple, immediate and elegant work as ‘galant’, and therefore immediately without value. I would strongly suggest that a sympathetic performance on a good instrument reveals rather more emotional content (it is a source of frustration to me that my own musicianship is inadequate to demonstrate this). Moreover, there is nothing wrong with charm, it is at the heart of the erotic. The absence of charm gives us pious moralising.

As a boy, Steibelt studied with Johann Kirnberger, a pupil of J.S.Bach. Kirnberger was an expert in fugues and musical theory. Perhaps this experience turned Steibelt turned away from the solid complexity of German music, and towards the flighty fancies of the French. But most interpreters seem to miss the yearning that is central to Steibelt’s work. As much as he tried (perhaps) to be superficial, the yearning comes out. One of Aphrodite’s winged retinue the erotes, brother to Eros, was Pothos, whose name itself means ‘yearning’.

Johann Philipp Kirnberger
Johann Philipp Kirnberger. Portrait by Friedrich Wilhelm Bollinger / Public domain

Whatever the truth behind the meeting of Beethoven and Steibelt, and whatever the accuracy of the remarks critical of Steibelt’s character, the consequence has been that he has been largely deleted from classical music, and while he was not a great composer, he had (like Anton Fils) moments of greatness. Just as the entire body of classical music needs revisioning, so Steibelt needs to be rescued from oblivion and appreciated for his unique charms. Charles Burney wrote this in a letter to a pupil:

The best pieces for the pianoforte that have been lately published in London, are those of Haydn and Steibelt. Haydn Op. 75 printed by Longman and Broderip, Haymarket – Steibelt Op 1. by the same. Haydn’s Symphonies composed for Salomon’s concerts, adapted for the Pianoforte, make admirable lessons for that Instrument with one Violin accompaniment. These have been published by Salomon only, at the Hanover Square Music Room. There are 12.  The first six are £1.4.0 – the second six, to non-subscribers, are a Guinea and ½ – they are dear, long and difficult; but deserve all the trouble they give the performer. A great many sets of sonatas for the P.F. with accompaniment have been printed by Steibelt since the author’s arrival in this country, that are excellent. I am not sure, however, whether 3 printed by Preston No. 97 Strand, are not the most pleasing. This composer is a young man, with a great hand on his Instrument and possessed of knowledge and real Genius. He was a scholar of our old great favourite Emanuel Bach. But he is no imitator of Haydn, or even his Master. His melodies are always elegantly natural, and his rage for half notes is much tempered by better resources.

Burney, Charles, and Robert Müller-Hartmann. “Two Unknown Letters of Charles Burney.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1939, pp. 161–164. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/750208. Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.

Anton Fils was not possessed of the genius of Mozart, and Daniel Steibelt’s muse was a fainter shade than Beethoven’s – but when the spirit shone in Steibelt it did so with beauty and great charm. I can hardly say how much pleasure playing his music has given me. In the two page Andante affettuoso of his Sonate Martiale, titled ‘Romance’, Steibelt combines the tragic with the joyful, the playful with the anguished, to extraordinary effect. Dissonance is met with harmony, the sentimental with the visionary. I play it every day now, it is a prayer. An ‘authority’ would probably be critical, but after more than two centuries this man – perhaps vain, perhaps troubled – has reached and touched my soul. It is a fine gift.

I hope by now it is clear that this piece (and my previous post on Anton Fils) are not entirely about two unsung eighteenth-century composers, it is also about me, and you, and anyone who has aspired to anything and then shrunk from it after being told they are not good enough, or who has done something well only to have that work disparaged. Failures in compassion and understanding, and failures of imagination and curiosity, have robbed us of significant beauty – but that loss, and others like it, can be remedied.

Two pieces by Steibelt to close. First, the really lovely Etude in the obscure key of E-Flat Minor performed by Anna Petrova-Foster. She plays on a modern piano but with sensitivity to the material. It is a pity that the recordings are not the best, or perhaps that is the penalty of encoding for YouTube:

I mentioned the Grand Sonate Martiale in D Major Op. 82 earlier. I cannot link to the Romance (if I can ever make a recording myself that I think is good enough I will add it later), so instead I am taking a risk and posting this performance by Anna Petrova-Foster of the last movement of the sonata, marked ‘Cosaque’. We have to expect an amusing ‘Russian’ dance and we are not disappointed. After listening to the beautiful and lyrical Romance, this Cosaque, with its comic leaps, seems abrupt and disjointed. Nor will Steibelt’s scales and arpeggios up and down the keyboard satisfy logos thinking – but I find a wanton playfulness in it that becomes quite infectious. Steibelt has proven his lyricism, his love, and his deep yearning in the Romance. Here, while Beethoven looks on and scowls, Steibelt the travelling virtuoso has a smile on his face as he upends expectations, borrows and steals like Hermes, turns the drama into vaudeville, sets off on a breathless chase – and laughs.

Further listening

Hyperion Records publishes three piano concertos performed by Howard Shelley and Ulster Orchestra. I particularly like the Piano Concerto No 7 in E minor ‘Grand concerto Militaire’ – it would make a great concert piece, full of fun and life.

Forgotten Records publish two CDs, one being another performance from Anna Petrova-Foster.

I would like to hear recordings of the Elegie pour la mort du Prince Soltykoff and even Steibelt’s programme music such as the Allegorical Overture, or his Conflagration of Moscow. The two latter pieces may not represent particularly good music, but they are interesting and evocative of the period.

  1. Constanze Mozart needed to get von Walsegg’s final payment, and to profit from performances of the Requiem, so she went to great lengths to conceal the fact that it was incomplete. Out of this web of lies and half-truths came the myth that Salieri poisoned Mozart or otherwise hastened his death, and although Mozart was certainly critical of Salieri, they also collaborated. Moreover, Salieri taught Mozart’s son Franz Xaver, not to mention Beethoven, Czerny, Hummel, Liszt, Moscheles, Sussmayr and Schubert, mostly free of charge out of a sense of gratitude for his own musical education.
  2. Two such offerings are the Sonatinas of Jan Ladislav Dussek, and the extraordinary 360 Preludes in all the Major and Minor keys, Op. 47 of Johann Wilhelm Hässler. The latter is rooted in tradition (Hässler trained with a pupil of Bach), yet remarkably prescient of the Romantics. It is available in an excellent recording by Vitlaus von Horn.
  3. The inclusion of this as a piece for an examination board is a good one. I speak from bitter experience when I say that most examination pieces are either very dull or shorn of context.
  4. Discussion of Beethoven’s aversion to the pianos he was given by manufacturers, desperate for his endorsement, never seems to pay much attention to his deafness
  5. I do not know if Winters is correct in all of his theories, but the level of abuse that he has to contend with in dismantling accepted practise is strongly suggestive of the need for radical change.

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