Für Elise: Beethoven’s Mysterious
In the 21st century, the music and notes to
Beethoven’s Für Elise are the object of millions of Internet
searches and downloads every day. The fact that the music is so freely
available for download, along with the piece’s continued popularity in
the Internet age, is testament to the great emotional power and musical
depth of Beethoven’s work. Für Elise is one of the most instantly
recognized pieces of music from the Classical era, and it continues to
work wonders in the ears and hearts of modern listeners and pianists.
But what’s the story behind this composition? Before downloading the
notes to Für Elise, let’s take a look at its history.
In fact, the true story behind Für Elise is
shrouded in mystery, and there are many theories behind the events in
Beethoven’s life that lead to the writing of the piece. What’s more, the
manuscript of Für Elise was undiscovered and unpublished until 1865,
nearly 40 years after the composer’s death. Because of this, obviously,
Beethoven could not make any first-hand clarifications about the origins
of his work, which became wildly popular almost immediately upon
In reality, “Für Elise” is actually just
Beethoven’s note of dedication included with the piece, whose real name
is “Bagatelle in A minor.” A bagatelle is a musical form, literally
translating to a “trifle,” which is usually short, light, and mellow.
Meanwhile, the piece is also a Rondo, which is a form, frequently used
in the Classical era, which usually follows an A B A C A structure,
although there are variations. As its name suggests, the key signature
of the piece is A minor, but one of the beauties of Beethoven’s
composition is how he mixes in discordant notes and continuously shifts
the tonal center of the music.
“Für Elise” translates from German to “For
Elise,” yet Beethoven historians have never figured out who Elise was.
One popular theory is that the piece was actually called “Für Therese,”
and that because of Beethoven’s notoriously sloppy handwriting, the
original transcriber of the piece simply copied the name wrong. When the
piece was written — in 1810 — Beethoven had recently been involved in a
courtship with Therese Malfatti, who eventually turned down Beethoven’s
marriage proposal. This could account for some of the effusive and
overwhelming emotion of the music.
Meanwhile, some historians have posited that
Beethoven, his heart broken, deliberately changed the name of the piece
to a non-existent woman’s name, in a subtle refutation of the woman or
women who snubbed him.
Of course, Beethoven historians acknowledge
that it is not possible to know about every single person with whom
Beethoven had a relationship. Elise may be a short-time sweetheart who
never made it into records of Beethoven. Or, the piece could have been
commissioned, and Elise could be the name of someone related to the
person who paid for the piece.
Ultimately, it’s not important who or what
Beethoven’s Elise was, as each person who plays those famous notes can
have in mind his or her own “Elise.” All that is required to play the
piece is to have some deep well of emotion to put into the music. It
doesn’t matter where this emotion comes from. Beethoven clearly had
something that he felt strongly about, which makes this one of his most
famous and evocative compositions. Most of us cannot even listen to the
first, emotionally strained notes of the piece without feeling something
in our own hearts.
This emotional intensity is what
distinguishes Beethoven from many of his contemporaries, and it also
accounts for the continued popularity of his music, both on paper and in
formats that make the notes free to download. Many of us remember
Für Elise as children and being profoundly moved even then — and
maybe it even inspired us to take up the piano — just as our own
children are moved by the piece. Because of its pure beauty, Für Elise
should remain popular for as long as music exists.