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Arrogant colleagues can make life hell and some people are prepared to go to any lengths to avoid working with them. So it was for Jean Baptiste Volumier, concert master to the court of King Augustus of Saxony in the early 18th century. French music was all the rage in Dresden, and Volumier, who had been educated in Paris, was the ideal man to provide the court with music in the fashionable French style.
However, in 1717, Volumier’s comfortable existence was turned upside down by a visitor to the court – Louis Marchand, said to be the top harpsichordist in France. He was invited to play before the King, who was so impressed that he immediately made Marchand an offer of a lucrative court position.
For Volumier, the new harpsichordist was competition. Not only that, but he was also notoriously vain and arrogant with a reputation for erratic behaviour – a real prima donna. Working alongside Marchand was out of the question, but Volumier had a plan. His first step was to send an invitation to his counterpart at the Weimar court, a musician by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach eagerly accepted. He too was keen to impress in Dresden and Volumier’s plan gave him a chance to show off his skills. On arrival, he was taken by Volumier to hear Marchand play, remaining concealed throughout the concert so as not to give the game away. Having heard the performance, and with the encouragement of the courtiers, Bach challenged Marchand to a contest.
He set out in a letter the terms of the challenge: each man would set the other a series of musical tasks, including themes to improvise on and styles to imitate. Marchand accepted – unaware, perhaps, of the ability and reputation of his challenger. The palace of the senior minister General von Flemming was chosen as the venue. Volumier’s plan was going like clockwork.
News of the contest, no doubt embellished by Volumier, reached King Augustus. It was to be a grand spectacle! The musical event of the decade! The King took the bait, not only agreeing to attend, but also offering a prize of 500 talers to the winner.
The day of the contest dawned and a crowd began to form, with the Royal family and the aristocracy of Dresden all in attendance at Count Flemming’s grand palace. Bach arrived in good time and the contest was ready to begin… just as soon as his opponent appeared. After a long wait, Count Flemming sent a messenger to remind Marchand. Surely he could not have forgotten such an important engagement? When the messenger returned, the assembled company was astonished to discover that the Frenchman had fled.
Realising that he was in for a humiliating defeat, Marchand had left by stagecoach at first light and was now well on the road back to Paris. Worse still, an unscrupulous servant had pocketed the prize money.
The contest was off, but Volumier’s plan had succeeded – he was rid of Marchand for good. And Bach was able to make the most of the situation. He still had an eager audience made up of some of the most powerful nobles in Saxony, so instead of a contest they were treated to a recital, with Bach demonstrating the improvisation skills he had been honing for the competition.
What would have happened if the contest had taken place? Marchand was probably right to anticipate a defeat. As a composer and improviser, he was considered a master of the French style. The trouble was, Bach was also a master of the French style, as well as of the German style, the Italian style, the Spanish style, the English style... There would really have been no contest at all.
Neither man was keen to dwell on the story in later years. Bach, we are told, was too modest to ever brag about the incident; according to his son Carl Phillipp Emanuel, he “told the story but seldom, and then only when urged”. Marchand also kept quiet, leading to fervid speculation in France about the reason for his early return.
The Parisian diarist Titon tactfully offered one explanation: that it must simply have been a case of homesickness.
THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET
The keyboard face-off has a long and distinguished history.
In the late 16th century, St Mark’s in Venice played host to the ‘Duel of Two Organs’ with Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Merulo vying to match the complexities of each other’s improvisations.
In 1709, Handel met Domenico Scarlatti in Rome for a contest of keyboard skill; the host, Handel’s patron Cardinal Ottoboni, declared a draw, with Handel winning at the organ and Scarlatti at the harpsichord.
Mozart and Clementi went head to head in Vienna in 1781: Mozart won by a nose, it being agreed that "while Clementi had only art, Mozart had both art and taste".
But the most fearsome duellist of all was Beethoven, who squared up to three formidable opponents – Joseph Wölfl, Josef Gelinek and Daniel Steibelt. All were defeated, making Beethoven some powerful enemies but ensuring his continued dominance of Viennese musical life.