220 Years Ago

Wrestling of the Virtuosi
Joseph Woelfl
Joseph Woelfl
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

at the House of Wetzlar , Vienna

Seyfried, Beethoven-Wölfl-Duell

“ There the most interesting competition of both athlets quite often provided the numerous though selected gathering an artistic treat beyond description; both presented their newest inventions; now the one or the other let his instantanious ideas of his glowing fantasy running freely; then both took place at two pianos. Improvised mutually on themes given each other, and thus produced a lot of four-handed cappricci that, if written down in the moment of birth, would have resisted transitoriness. —

“ It would have been difficult if not impossible to present one of the fighters the palm for his technical skills … Even then Beethoven revealed in improvising his character inclining more to the sinister dark; when revelling in the immeasurable realm of the tones, then he was also wrenched from earthly things; his spirit had broken all fetters, shaken off the yoke of slavery, and flew triumphantly jubilating up into the light ether; now his play roared like a wild foaming cataract, and sometimes the conjuror forced the instrument to an effort that even the strongest construction was almost unable to obey; then he sank back, exhausted, exhaling faint complaints, melting in melancholy, – again the scale raised, triumphing over passing earthly misery, turned up in devotional sounds … But, who can fathom the ocean’s deepness? It talks in a mysterious language whose cryptic hieroglyphs only the initiated is allowed to solve! —

“ Wölfl, on the other hand, bred in Mozart’s school was always the same; never shallow, but always clear, and just by this more accessible for the majority … always he knew to exite interest, and to capture this unwaveringly to the flow of his well-ordered ideas. — & Whoever has heard Hummel will also understand what shall be said by this. —

Seyfried, Beethoven-Wölfl-Duell

“ Still a quite unique pleasure grew to the unprejudiced and impartial observer in quietly reflecting both the Maecenas (Prince Lichnowsky on Beethoven’s, Baron von Wetzlar on Woelfl’s side). As they followed in close attentiveness the performance of their protégés, giving each other applauding looks, and with old-chivalric comity ultimately did full justice to the mutual merits ”

Thus the 3-page ear and eye witness report by

Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried

Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried
1776 Vienna 1841

as one in such a way blessed one present at the piano wrestling between the virtuosi Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Wölfl in the winter of 1798/99 at the House of Baron Raymund von Wetzlar within his autograph manuscript

Biographical Notes
Character Traits and Anecdotes on Ludwig van Beethoven

Autograph manuscripts in German. (1831.) 12 pp. on 3 double leaves & ½ leaf and 13 pp. on 9 (4 blue) individual leaves resp. Dark brown kid showcase portfolio with blind tooled facsimilated title Biographische Notitzen / über / Ludwig van Beethoven on the front cover (14⅝ × 9¼ in [37 × 23.5 cm]) & 13-line gilt stamped in German in the inside cover

Seyfried, Biographical Notes on Beethoven

“ The ‘Biographical Notes’ / of Ignaz von Seyfried / (1776 Vienna 1841) / as the second earliest comprehensive source / of the Beethoven literature / in the 1831 autograph manuscript / deviating from the 1832 print / regarding one of the / most moving moments in Beethoven’s life / Including i. a. also / his fascinating report of the event / of the / ‘1798. Piano contest with the virtuoso Wölffl’ ”

with the sheets of the Biographic Notes as original filling, into which the manuscript sheets of the Character Traits and Anecdotes in their different sizes, papers & colors have been exactly incorporated per own laid portfolio in such a manner that their nine themes lie upon seven gilt stamped numbered sheets with flaps to stick in. Gilt stamped then also the frontcover of the portfolio in German with

“ Ludwig van Beethoven / (Character Traits and Anecdotes / communicated / by / Ignaz von Seyfried / Autograph Manuscript) / 1831 ”.


Ludwig van Beethoven. Studien im Generalbasse … Aus dessen hs. Nachlasse gesammelt u. hrsg. von … Seyfried. (Nebst einem Anhange biographischer Notizen [“Early contribution to the Beethoven literature”, Wolffheim Catalog II/1929, 423, in spaced type] etc.) Vienna, Haslinger, (1832, prescripted by 1214 subscribers!). Appendix pp. 3-13;


Nohl, Beethoven nach den Schilderungen seiner Zeitgenossen, 1877, pp. 25, 38-43, 182 f.; Kerst, Die Erinnerungen an Beethoven, 1913, per 15 passages according to the index; Thayer, The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven, 1921; Bettina von Seyfried, Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried, 1983/90; Honegger-Massenkeil VII (1982, revised 1987), 346; Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart XII, 603 f.; Sadie, New Grave Dict. of Music and Musicians, 1980, XVII, 208 f.; Tia DeNora, The Beethoven-Wölfl piano duel, in David Wyn Jones, Music in eighteenth-century Austria (1996); ADB XXXIV, 113 ff., and, Beethoven, II, 251 ff.; Wurzbach XXXIV, 176 ff.; Prietznigg, Mitteilungen aus Wien – Zeitgemälde, 1835 (more comprehensive presentation of Seyfried together with catalog of works); Bauer, Ignaz Ritter v. Seyfried. Kurze Lebensgeschichte. C. 1950 (typoscript in Institute for Musicology, Vienna, according to B. v. Seyfried, as Prietznigg, too); Rolland, L. v. Beethoven, 1918, & Beethoven the Creator, 1929.


The autograph manuscript of the Notitzen has been laid before the musicologist Bettina von Seyfried (see literature). She has no doubt on the authenticity, though the quality of the writing were not as careful as accustomed of other autographs by Seyfried. The opinion here is, that this may be an expression of his deep emotion corresponding with the content as comparatively known from Grillparzer who already worked on the funeral oration when the master’s death became certain to him. “At this moment it did a strong fall in my inside … and like it happened to me at other works if real emotion overcame me: I could not complete the oration in the same pithiness in which it was started” (Kerst, op. cit., vol. II, p. 249; from the view of today just this unpithy ending of greatest beauty). But surely conditionally on his health and economical difficulties, too, overshadowing his last fifteen years.

Ignaz von Seyfried’s

“ … Notes …

afford of Beethoven, then …

in the most wonderful period of his creativity,

such a distinct and vivid picture

as we have of no other

of our great composers. ”

Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Ludwig van Beethovens Leben

2nd ed. (1910), pp. 569 f.

Joseph Woelfl (Salzburg 1772 – Mary-le-bone [London] 1812, “pianist of most extraordinary kind” (ADB), had dedicated his Trois Sonates pour le Piano-Forte, op. 6, to Beethoven in 1798. Yet if – more likely – before or only during their contest at the House of Wetzlar must be left undecided just as the actual date of it. Kerst lists “1798. Piano contest with the virtuoso Wölffl”, while DeNora (see below) dates it as March 1799. Thayer refers in this connection to the high commendation of the former in the Leipsic Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of January 1799 and for the latter to a letter published ibid. under the date of April 22, 1799. Seyfried’s eye and ear witness report indeed suggests repeated – “quite often” – such soirées with the two virtuosi, who, contrary to reports of other such contests, apparently respected each other as Seyfried continues:

“ The protégés themselves, however, cared very little about this. They respected each other for they knew best how to appreciate each other, and as straightforward, honest Germans followed the commendable principle: that the road of art were broad enough for many without deterring each other on the path to the goal of fame in envy. ”

If – as DeNora says – in consequence Wölfl’s popularity in Vienna waned or, as said elsewhere, troubles in his marriage of the previous year were the motivation for a yearlong tour, shall be left undecided. Anyhow, shortly after his return in summer 1800 he turned his back on Vienna for good, ultimately moving through Paris to London.

However, the music-historical consequence of this wrestling between Beethoven and Wölfl beyond the day attracted scholarly interest only recently:

“ This contest has not yet been considered extensively by Beethoven scholars as a topic in its own right …

“ At the point of the Beethoven-Wölfl duel, Beethoven’s style, as depicted by his contemporaries, emerged for the first time as something distinctive, a way of proceeding in opposition to other approaches and, in particular … to a more dilettante ideology … Simultaneously, the Beethoven-Wölfl comparison helped to clarify further Beethoven’s artistic identity within the Viennese musical world ”

(Tia DeNora, op. cit., pp. 259 f.).

The thrilling 3-page experience report
by the ear and eye witness of this contest
Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried
within his 12-page autograph manuscript
“Biographische Notitzen” on Ludwig van Beethoven

— see the comprehensive illustrated full description

Offer no. 15,767 / price on application

„ mein Besuch gestern in Padingbüttel hat mir Freude bereitet. Die bei dieser Gelegenheit erworbenen (Ridinger-)Blätter sind eine Bereicherung meiner Sammlung. Ich beginne nunmehr mit der Erfassung in meiner Datenbank und bitte Sie, mir eine möglichst hoch auflösende Bilddatei der Eisbären zusenden. Vielen Dank “

(Herr M. T., 26. März 2014)