Before there were dance battles, there were piano battles. At the end of March 1800, German composer and pianist Daniel Steibelt arrived in Vienna. Shortly after that, he would challenge Beethoven, yes, the Beethoven, to a piano duel at the house of Count von Fries.

What’s a piano duel?

Piano duels are improvisation contests. They were a popular form of entertainment among Vienna’s aristocracy. One man challenges another, each supported by a nobleman.

The pianists would take turns setting a tune. The playing would go back and forth like a game of tennis, gradually increasing in intensity until one was left in the dust. When Steibelt and Beethoven went to musical war, it was a sound clash of epic proportions.

I smell a challenge!

At the time of duel, Beethoven was the premier pianist of Vienna. Steibelt must have known it wasn’t going to be easy, but he probably had no idea what was about to happen. Prince Lichnowsky sponsored Beethoven, and Prince Lobkowitz sponsored Steibelt.

The duel took place at Lobkowitz’s palace. Steibelt played first. He set a piece of his music on the piano and began to improvise. Steibelt was known for his thunderous style and growling bass. He received equally thunderous applause, but would it be enough to defeat the reigning king of Vienna?

Beethoven brings the pain

Once the crowd calmed down, Beethoven slowly made his way to the piano bench. He picked up Steinbelt’s piece of music from the piano and turned it upside down. He began to play the four core notes of the piece. Then embellished them, flipped them, and played with them like toys.

Beethoven picked Steinbelt’s freestyle to pieces and tossed it out the window, mocking it all the while. When Beethoven finished, Steibelt stormed out of the room, vowing never to return to Vienna so long as Beethoven lived there.