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The Story Behind the Piano Piece "Für Elise" by Beethoven

A rose on piano keys representing Fur Elise

Für Elise: Overview

The musical savant, Ludwig van Beethoven was born on the 17th of December, 1770 in Germany, passing away on the 26th of March, 1827 in Austria. Bagatelle in A Minor WoO 59 or Für Elise, was composed by Beethoven on the 27th of April, 1810, but the work wasn’t published until 1867, which was many years after Beethoven’s death. Ludwig Nohl, a German music scholar from the 19th century, found the original signed document, reading “Fur Therese am 27 zur Erinnerung and L v Bthvn" which means "For Therese on the 27th April in remembrance of L. V Bthvn". Subsequently, Nohl had the document published, thus bringing one of the greatest pieces of music to the forefront of global recognition. 

Für Elise: A Study into an Artist’s Mind

Beethoven’s original autographed manuscript apparently talked about Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), for whom Beethoven had very strong feelings. Although, other rumors state that it was actually dedicated to someone by the name of Elise, hence the modern-day name of the song. 

Therese was a former student of Beethoven’s with whom he had fallen in love and who rejected the composer’s romantic proposal, settling for Austrian nobleman Wilhelm von Drossdik. Elise’s identity, on the other hand, been a matter of much speculation. Some historians believe her to be the German soprano, Elisabeth Rockel. She was very close with Beethoven but nonetheless married Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the master composer’s friend, and rival. 

As Fur Elise was published decades after Beethoven’s death, no letters or accounts survive to assure us of the identity of the dedicatee. Klaus Martin Kopitz, in 2009, a researcher specializing in Beethoven’s life and times, was the one who claimed that the ‘Elise’ in Fur Elise could have been Elisabeth Rockel. Another rumor suggests that ‘Elise’ could very well be a substitute for ‘sweetheart’ in Beethoven’s vocabulary. Klaus Martin Kopitz also mentions the discovery by Johannes Quack, a German music scholar, ‘Elise’ can be decoded as the first three notes of the song.

Michael Lorenz, an Austrian musicologist, put forward the theory that Rudolf Schachner, the inheritor of Therese von Droßdik's scores, was the son of Babette Bredl. The latter was the one who apparently let Nohl copy the manuscript which means that she could have received the original manuscript from Therese von Droßdik, thus neutralizing Kopitz’s theory. 

The year 2012 saw Canadian musicologist Rita Steblin expressed her belief that Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, a child prodigy during Beethoven’s time, may have been dedicatee of ‘Elise’. She traveled a lot on musical tours around Europe, learning under Antonio Salieri. Rita Steblin believes that Beethoven may have dedicated his masterpiece to the 13-year old girl. 

The music for Fur Elise is endearing to the trained ear as well as that of the amateur. The tempo of Molto grazioso, consists of a beautiful sound and the style is that of a continuous motion to enable the tempo to effectively express the wonderful melody. In technical terms, the musical piece consists of the arpeggiated left-hand pattern. The right hand mainly deals with simpler melodies and works in conjunction with the left. 

Fur Elise was composed mostly in the key of A minor, major, and F major in the midsection briefly. The initiation of the music is with an A minor themed Poco Moto or little movement, with the left used for arpeggios, which jump between A minor and E major. This moves into a small part of C major and G major, after which it reverts to the original theme. This is followed by the F major section and consequently builds on a C major figure before reverting to the A section. This wonderful combination is followed by a rather agitated theme in D minor, with the right hand used to play diminished cords. This descends into two octaves after ascending with the A minor arpeggio, eventually returning to the A section. The ultimate of the song is marked by A minor, its starting key. Rondo form has been used in Fur Elise, despite it being established as a bagatelle. 

To sum it up, Fur Elise is a magnificent composition by one of the greatest composers of the Classical and Romantic eras. Ludwig van Beethoven’s versatility is world-famous and this is aptly displayed in his popular Bagatelle in A Minor WoO 59. From the soul-numbing melody to the heightened emotions which is evident in the piece, we are touched beyond general comprehension. Despite the controversial identity of the dedicatee, the sheer brilliance of the music inspires and makes us emotional. Beethoven’s Fur Elise is a testament to intellectual music and a calling of the heart for many. A spectacular achievement by any standard.


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If you like to learn more about Beethoven who composed Fur Elise please visit our "About Ludwig van Beethoven" page.