Für Elise: Beethoven’s Mysterious Inspiration
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 What’s more, the manuscript of Für Elise was undiscovered and unpublished until 1865, nearly 40 years after the composer’s death.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 publication.
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 hearing 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.