Dueling Pianos

A “battle of the bands” is not necessarily a modern thing. While they didn’t feature electric guitars and walls of amplifiers, famous pianists used to ‘duel’ each other in front of audiences for money and bragging rights. The most famous classical duelist is someone many musicians are familiar with, Mozart. 

What is a piano duel? A piano duel is exactly what it sounds like: an audience full of cheering crowds, some judges, and two or more piano players going all out to top the other. Mozart was the self-proclaimed piano king of Vienna, and definitely took defending his turf seriously.  We have two great stories from his piano dueling days. 

Our first story pits a young Mozart against the famous Haydn.

This tale may be more legend than it is reality, but it is absolutely hilarious and definitely sounds like something Mozart would do. Mozart challenged Haydn to a duel where they would compose pieces for each other and then sight read the pieces in front of a crowd. On the day of the duel they each showed up with the pieces they had composed for the other to play. Mozart sat down and played Haydn’s piece no problem, and then it was Haydn’s turn to play.  Haydn sat at the harpsichord, began to play from the manuscript, then stopped abruptly. There was a note in the center of the keyboard while the right hand was playing in high treble and the left hand in low bass. 

“Nobody can play this with only two hands,” Haydn exclaimed. 

“I can,” Mozart said quietly. When he reached the debated portion of his composition, he bent over and struck the central note with his nose. 

“With a nose like yours,” Haydn conceded, “it becomes easier.” 

The second story involves Mozart and the famous Harpsichordist Muzio Clementi. 

On December 24, 1781, when Mozart was invited by Emperor Joseph II himself to come to court and compete with an Italian pianist who had just arrived in Vienna. That Italian pianist’s name was Muzio Clementi. Clementi was in the midst of a three-year musical tour of Europe. Having arrived in Vienna in December of 1781, he agreed to participate in a musical contest with the local light, a dude named Mozart, for the entertainment the Emperor and his be-wigged guests on Christmas Eve. 

Clementi described his first impression of Mozart this way: 

“On entering the Emperor’s music room I found there someone whom, because of his elegant appearance, I took for one of the Emperor’s chamberlains; but scarcely had we begun a conversation when we soon recognized each other as Mozart and Clementi.” 

And so the duel began. 

Clementi played his Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 24 No. 2. It is a fluent, glittering, virtuosic piece. It lacks Mozart’s trademark melodic grace and harmonic imagination, but then again, so does everyone else’s music. Following Clementi’s performance, it was Mozart’s turn. Writes Mozart: 

“The Emperor said to me: ‘Allons, off you go.’ I improvised in turn and played some variations.” 

Mozart took a short melody he had jotted down the night before and turned it into a full theme and variations entirely off the top of his head. 

Officially, the contest was declared a “draw” and the prize money of 100 ducats was split between Mozart and Clement. The emperor awarded Mozart his 50 ducats and the Grand Duchess awarded Clementi his 50 ducats.  But privately, the emperor collected on his bet with the Grand Duchess. We don’t know how much they bet, but whatever amount it was, it must have galled her no end to admit that Mozart had bettered Clementi. 

No doubt Clementi was relieved to have survived his Viennese “trial by fire.” Certainly, he was by far the more gracious of the competitors and gladly admitted to having been entranced by Mozart’s playing. He later wrote: 

“Until then I had never heard anyone play with so much spirit and grace.”