Composer and pianist. Son of a musician; a child prodigy. At eight he moved with his family to Vienna, where his father was conductor at the Theater auf der Wieden. He was a pupil of Mozart's until 1788, when he began a tour managed by his father through Germany to Copenhagen, Scotland, and London (1790-92), where he was much admired; 1791-92, published his first piano and chamber music there; played in Holland and Germany on his return to Vienna. He spent the next decade in Vienna, first studying with Albrechtsberger and Salieri, and having a few organ lessons from Haydn in 1795; he played little in public, earning his living through a heavy schedule of piano teaching, and producing a few compositions, primarily chamber. His position in Vienna's musical life was shaken by the emergence of Beethoven, whose abilities somewhat overawed him and with whom his personal relations were sometimes difficult. (Nevertheless, he came from Weimar in 1827 to visit Beethoven on his deathbed and was a pallbearer at his funeral.)
In 1804 he became concertmaster to Prince Esterházy at Eisenstadt, thus de facto music director there (Haydn remaining titular Kapellmeisteruntil his death in 1809). In this post he composed most of his sacred music (including 5 masses, a Te Deum, motets) and was very active in the Esterháza theater as conductor and composer while keeping up contacts with Vienna, for which he composed much dance music and other works, and where he published some piano and chamber works. His tenure in the Esterháza post was not entirely smooth. For unknown reasons he was dismissed in 1808, soon reinstated, and finally dismissed in May 1811. He returned to Vienna; he had produced an opera there in 1810 and continued to compose a good deal for its theaters through 1814, when his wife (since 1813), the singer Elisabeth Röckel, persuaded him to resume his public career as a pianist. This he did with great success, soon winning an international reputation; in 1816 he successfully toured Germany, He was court Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, 1816-18, but disliked the post because of difficulties with the theater management, and in 1819 moved to Weimar as court Kapellmeister under very favorable terms. He conducted the opera but composed little theater music, and as a Catholic at a Protestant court was exempted from composing sacred music. This left him free to make piano arrangements for foreign publishers (causing him to become an important figure in the evolution of relations between composers and publishers and in the fight for copyright protection) and to compose piano music for his tours, which an annual three-month leave allowed him to make nearly every year (1821, Berlin and Holland; 1822, Russia; 1825, Paris; 1826, Germany; 1827, Vienna; 1828, Germany and Warsaw; 1830, Paris and London). He was known for the elegance and expressiveness of his playing and equally for his polished improvisations. After 1830 changing musical fashions, especially through the rise of flashier virtuosos, made him increasingly passé. His visit to London in 1831 was a failure because of the presence there of Paganini. He returned in 1833, primarily as conductor of a season of German opera, which was not successful. In 1834 he visited Vienna, after which he ceased to tour, his health also failing. He died rich.
His theater music aroused scant attention beyond its immediate purpose, and he composed little for orchestra apart from dance music. He composed considerable chamber music, mostly with piano, including piano trios and the celebrated Septet in D minor op. 74 (ca. 1816). Of his piano concertos, those in A minor op. 85 (ca. 1816), B minor op. 89 (1819), E major op. 110 (1814), and A flat major op. 113 (1827) were the best known. His piano music included sonatas and much salon music (rondos, variations, fantasies, etc.); 24 etudes op. 125 (1833); 2 Sonatas for 4-hands opp. 51, 92. Also songs, choruses.