Before "Free Bird," There Was Clementi Vs. Mozart
It's hard to argue against the guitar solos that make up the second half of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" as being one of the most famous duels of musical virtuosity in audio history. It's Gary Rossington vs. Allen Collins in a six-string fight to the death as notorious as The Devil vs. Johnny for ownership of a golden fiddle.
Musio Clemente, as painted by Aleksander Orlowski
Though there is sadly no listenable record of it, there is talk of a greater duel, however.
Meet Muzio Clementi, who would be 259 today. Back in his day, Clementi was very much the shit, trailing only Joseph Haydn in terms of musical reputation. Not only was he a stellar composer of piano sonatas and six famous sonatinas, he was also an inventor who developed his own line of pianos.
As a sheet-music publisher, Clementi was so trusted that Beethoven himself pretty much turned all his rights over to Clementi to handle the publication. Many early composers have stayed in modern repertoires thanks to his work in preserving them.
In between all this, Clementi would take long trips through Europe from his home base in London, basically touring the continent looking for a piano to be awesome at. Think of him as a kind of musical Man With No Name.
On one of these trips in 1781, he found trouble. Trouble by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Clementi had been on tour for a year by that point, and had even played at the personal request of Marie Antoinette. French royalty was the warm-up. The next notch on his ascot would be at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Joseph II, on December 24, 1781.
However, the emperor didn't want just a concert, he wanted to watch Clementi and Mozart battle for his pleasure in a drawing-room arena in a conflict involving on-the-spot improvisation of their piano works.
Like any good fight, there was some smack talk... at least by 18th-century standards.
"Clementi plays well, as far as execution with the right hand goes," sneered Mozart in a letter home to his pops. " His greatest strength lies in his passages in 3rds. Apart from that, he has not a kreuzer's worth of taste or feeling - in short he is a mere mechanicus"
Mechanicus, by the by, is Latin for robot. Is anyone else a little worried that the Ancient Romans had a word for robot?
"Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians," followed up Mozart. "He marks a piece presto but plays only allegro."
The emperor was so impressed with the skills of both musicians that he declared the contest a draw. That was old Emperor Joe for you, though. What other emperor abolishes serfdom? It's kind of the whole point of being the emperor.
After the dust had settled, Clementi was full of praise and admiration for his opponent.
"Until then I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace," he said.
Mozart responded by ripping off Clementi's Sonata in B-Flat Major Op. 24, No. 2 as the overture for his opera The Magic Flute without any kind of credit, shout out, or royalty check. It got to the point that Clementi had to notate in published editions of the sonata that he'd written it ten years before Mozart began The Magic Flute.
What's worse, Mozart died right after he finished the opera, so there was no suing him. He was also buried in a communal grave, so Clementi couldn't even go out and write the 18th century version of "gaylord" on his tombstone.
On the other hand, Mozart died young, in poverty, and had his corpse desecrated. Clementi died at 80, rich, surrounded by friends and family, and was buried in style at Westminster Abbey.
Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.