Prince Joseph František Maximilian von Lobkowitz (left) was ridiculously wealthy—so wealthy that he could afford to have his own orchestra. His palace, situated in Vienna, was the scene of the famous contest that took place between a young ingenue named Beethoven and his competitors, or as he preferred to call them, his “enemies.”
The night of the music battle arrived.
Upstairs in Prince Lobkowitz’s concert hall, Ludwig shook his stockinged leg, crossed his arms, and snorted. Watching this pompous fellow Daniel Steibelt at the keyboard, his fingers purposely quivering out too many tremolos, was unbearable. Edgy, Ludwig shifted left, then right, then glanced everywhere else. How could this courtly audience, devoted to music, watch Steibelt’s lame show? Steibelt flicked his laced wrists in the air and swooned over the keyboard. Golden and silver rings decorated each of his ten digits. His half-closed lids suggested he was either madly in love with his own creativity, or putting himself to sleep. The so-called “Toast of Paris” had no art in him, only artifice.
Ludwig shook his leg hard enough to shake his chair. Prince Lichnowsky leaned over. “Try to enjoy yourself,” he whispered. “It will be over soon.”
“Not soon enough.” His leg pumped faster.
Princess Christiane leaned in from the other side. “You look quite handsome tonight.”
Ludwig glanced at his dark blue suit, made of the finest velvet reserved for nobility. “Only with your help, Your Highness.”
She smiled, opened her fan, and stirred up a little breeze as she returned to watch the performance.
Behind this threesome sat Schuppanzigh, Kraft, Weiss, and Sina, throwing back one goblet of Tokay wine after another and tittering like girls. Surrounding them were more of Ludwig’s admirers, Lichnowsky’s aristocratic friends.
Ludwig snorted again, ready to spring out of his chair and into the ceiling. Schuppanzigh put his chin on Ludwig’s shoulder. “Nervous?” His breath smelled yeasty.
Ludwig twitched Schuppanzigh off of him. “No.” Of course he was. “I only want to be done with this.” He raised his hand to comb through his straightened black hair, but stopped. The moisture waxing his palm would, again, have sprung up curls that Lichnowsky’s barber labored to contain. Frustrated, Ludwig crossed his arms tightly across his chest.
“Not to worry,” said Schuppanzigh. “You’ll conquer everyone. You’ve already outplayed Gelinek. I liked what he said about you.” His high pitch impersonated this Gelinek: “’Beethoven’s not a man but a devil. He will play all of us to death. How he improvises!’”
“Hush,” the Lichnowskys whispered in unison.
Schuppanzigh placed his fingertips to his lips and waited for the couple to face the audience again. He bent to Ludwig and whispered loudly, “You intimidated Tomášek, too. Did you notice him shaking?” His breath blew past Ludwig’s nose. “I admired how Tomášek crept to the pianoforte like a frightened cat, stared at you, then ran away.” He took another goblet from a passing tray. “But they’re nothing, not even Steibelt. Wölffl should be your real concern.”
Ludwig rolled his eyes, but Schuppanzigh knew well enough. He glanced to his left at Joseph Wölffl. Lanky, tall, and fair—The Blond Giant, everyone called him—Wölffl was the son of Salzburg, student of Mozart’s father and Haydn’s brother. By comparison, who were Ludwig’s instructors? A drunken father and a simple music teacher in Bonn. Haydn traveled much, so Ludwig’s lessons with him amounted to nothing. As for Wölffl, he could take over the small keyboard by placing his long fingers side by side. So far, he and Ludwig were tied.
To free his mind of Wölffl, Ludwig studied Prince Lobkowitz’s concert hall. The red-coated and bewigged footmen stationed at closed doors. Premier aristocrats cupped in their gilded chairs around Steibelt. The bewigged ancien regime, their medals of yesterday’s wars pinned to their long coats. Young men with tousled natural locks and their ribaned, rosy-cheeked ladies. Other spectators, perched at wide window seats, or posed importantly at the French doors that led to a stone balcony. Who of these are my admirers and who are not? Ludwig wondered.
The cavernous concert hall could pluck the sounds of wagging tongues and throw them around the room. Gossips and schemers scrutinized themselves, whispering game plans against opponents. Before the contest, Ludwig detected their intent—in their faces, if not their words. Huddled around their own protégés, the nobility would glance over their shoulders, smirk at him like weasels, then chortle, “This Beethoven is the best in the bunch. Punish him.”
Ludwig tugged at his white neck cloth. The room burned with the nervous heat of the determined contestants and their tense patrons. The musicians relied on their patronage for survival; the wealthy depended on these music makers for enhanced reputation and investment.
Watching the performances from their large chairs were the final judges, Papa Haydn and Prince Lobkowitz. A congenial man unaffected by his enormous wealth, young Lobkowitz poured his enthusiasm, and pocket, upon genius. He was accustomed to having his way; then again, because he was deferential, he easily attracted good will—unusual for a pampered man of twenty-four. This evening, he betrayed little expression to the contestants who bowed before him. His hand rested on the head of his cane as he nodded to them, while tucking his club foot under his chair.
Steibelt’s performance droned on as Ludwig gazed at the stucco tray ceiling. In the central field were painted allegories to the arts and sciences, nine beautiful young women in flowing blue and rose Roman robes, seated upon their thrones in temples or among nature. Serving them were courtly putti, cherub figures. Ludwig fixed his gaze upon the bare-breasted Euterpe, goddess of music, holding a small harp. “My Muse,” he reckoned, admiring her feminine charms.
Steibelt transposed into a different chord—a theme that was too familiar. Ludwig sat up as if goosed. This was no longer an improvisation but outright theft.
“Beethoven, isn’t he playing your B-flat Trio?” Lichnowsky whispered, alarmed.
“He’s stealing my music. The bastard is robbing me!”
Ludwig lunged, but Lichnowsky’s arm held him. “Let him finish.” “Oh, I will finish him.” Rage rolled inside. “He was at Count Fries’s salon when I played it.” Ludwig felt his mouth tightening together.
Princess Christiane hid her face behind her lace fan. “Take care, Beethoven. Steibelt may be baiting you. Only his reputation as a musician is lauded. He’s untrustworthy in everything else.”
“I can’t just sit here and let him get away with it,” Ludwig whispered. “Everyone will believe that it’s his.”
Schuppanzigh belched. “Not if you steal from him.”
Lichnowsky whipped his head around. “Hold your tongue, Schuppanzigh. Don’t give Beethoven any bad ideas. How many goblets have you had?”
Schuppanzigh swallowed hard. “Was I supposed to count, My Prince?”
Ludwig’s legs pumped hard as he blew into his cupped fist, fighting off the fuse burning inside. He never stole music from anyone. But Schuppanzigh made sense, pickled as he was. Ludwig glared at the lofty audience, then narrowed on the unscrupulous faces. At the dinner table, the Lichnowskys had entertained the emperor’s peons who could waste a man’s reputation with one nod or lift of the hand—just like the elector did to Ludwig’s father. Linger in their company and you dance with the devil. Such was the ruthless disease of court politics, an arena filled with liars, cuckolds, degenerates.
Ludwig glared at Steibelt. And thieves.
Princess Christiane tilted to her husband. “Steibelt must be stopped.”
Lichnowsky turned up his gloved hands in surrender. “What am I to do? This is Beethoven’s decision alone. No Roman senator ever rushed into the arena to save the gladiator.”
Schuppanzigh again. “You know what I would do?”
“No,” snapped Lichnowsky.
Schuppanzigh ignored him. “Beethoven, see Steibelt’s little quintet score on the pianoforte? If he can pickpocket your music…” He nudged Ludwig’s shoulder with his goblet. “That quintet is waiting for a better musician to improve upon it. Eh, Beethoven?”
“No good comes from playing to another man’s sins,” Christiane reminded him.
“I like your irony, Your Grace, and forgive me, but I disagree. Beethoven should steal it, mash it up, turn it into theater. Now that would make this evening tolerable.” Schuppanzigh threw back the last of his wine and belched. Christiane clicked her tongue in disapproval.
Ludwig’s chest heaved as he passed his palm upon his careful coif. Curls sprang up.
“Go on, maestro,” Schuppanzigh goaded. “Show him up, I dare you. Unless you don’t have the stones for it.”
“Schuppanzigh, please,” Christiane protested.
Ludwig glanced back at glassy-eyed Schuppanzigh. “One word and I’ll do it.”
“One word?” He raised his goblet at Ludwig’s ear. “Destroy!”
Steibelt rounded out his coda, and the audience applauded. As he stood before the piano, bowing with aplomb, Ludwig sprung off his chair before the master of ceremonies could announce him, strode for Steibelt’s score, and snapped it up. “Steibelt! Is this your quintet?” He waved it in Steibelt’s face like a red flag before a bull. “You should not leave your possessions behind. Some rascal might come and lift your genius from it. But you know a bit about theft. Isn’t that so?”
Steibelt glanced about nervously as the audience murmured and twitched. His main patron, a French comtesse, ran from his chair and whispered in Steibelt’s ear, his hand covering his mouth.
The master of ceremonies smiled anxiously. “Monsieur Beethoven, it is now your turn to improvise on a motif Monsieur Steibelt has chosen for you.”
“Why should I? One good theft deserves another, but better executed.”
The master of ceremonies’ jaw dropped. The rumblings of the shocked audience arose. The older patrons clicked their tongues in disapproval. Lichnowsky slinked upon his chair, Princess Christiane fanned herself nervously, and Schuppanzigh reached for his sixth Tokay. A worried Haydn glanced at Prince Lobkowitz, who wagged his forefinger upon his lips, waiting to see how the spectacle would end.
Ludwig curled his fists. Oh, to punch Steibelt and send him flying across the room! As it was, too many men of influence sat in judgment.
He turned to the master of ceremonies. “Monsieur, I choose to improvise on Steibelt’s theme, as he had just finished making nonsense of mine.”
He pulled the violoncello part out of Steibelt’s score and hung it upside down on the backboard, threw the rest of the score onto the floor, and sat before the keyboard. His forefinger plunked the theme of the first few measures, then rolled the music into stunning complexities.
Ludwig’s supporters roared and clapped, Schuppanzigh and his boys hooting the loudest. The young ones from the audience followed suit, many leaving their seats to closely watch him torment his enemy. Ludwig’s hands moved faster than an industrious woodpecker. After a speedy finish and Steibelt-style tremolos, he lifted his right hand, then crashed it upon the keys as if it fell asleep from boredom.
His admirers broke into laughter. The ancien regime frowned deeply and shook their heads. Wölffl was chuckling, his shoulders pumping with glee.
Steibelt went after Ludwig. “How dare you mock me! I am the greatest name in Paris because I earned my fame.”
Pleased with Steibelt’s rage, Ludwig stood and faced him. “Perhaps your admirers should remain as Parisians.”
The audience backed away to let the men have it out.
“I have performed before royalty in Paris and London, including an outrageously successful opera, Romeo et Juliette!” Steibelt’s face burned a blood red. “Have you composed an opera yet? No, you’re just a piano player. I am in the midst of my tour, where audiences gather just to see me.”
Ludwig smirked. “Or perhaps to escape the cold.”
“Bastard!” Steibelt lunged for him, but the comtesse and his entourage held him back. He pointed sharply at Ludwig. “I swear, as long as you breathe in Vienna, I will never play here again!” He stomped out for the hallway.
Prince Lobkowitz hurried after him as fast as his club foot would permit, and returned a few minutes later. “Indeed, Monsieur Steibelt has left us for good.” The footmen closed the doors behind him. He limped to Ludwig, who stood respectfully before him. “Is it true that Monsieur Steibelt passed off your music as his own?”
Containing himself, Ludwig bowed. “It is, Your Highness. I only ask my fellow musicians—” He glanced about the audience. “— that we all live as honestly as our Creator expects.”
“Well, it seems you have frightened away every contestant but Monsieur Wölffl. Beethoven—what can you give us with this?” Lobkowitz went to his pianoforte and played four notes: A-A-A-C. The first three notes were quick, the last held. “That is your theme. Entertain us.”
He hobbled back to his seat. Haydn said loudly enough, “I am sorry you had to witness Beethoven’s unfortunate rashness, Your Highness.”
The prince grinned. “I’m not.” He flicked his hand to the master of ceremonies. “Let’s see what fresh drama Monsieur Beethoven has in store for us.”
© L.A. Hider Jones. All rights reserved.
End of Chapter 20. To read more, you can purchase the book through Amazon.