Für Elise is one of the most memorable melodies in classical music. It was written during the end of the classical era and beginning of the romantic era. During that time, the most common instrumental pieces were sonatas, so is Für Elise a sonata, or something else?
Is Für Elise a Sonata?
Für Elise is not a sonata because it is a short single movement piece. Sonatas typically have three movements, each one is several minutes long, and often there is a complete pause between movements. Instead, Für Elise is classified as a bagatelle. Bagatelles are short light-hearted pieces meant for entertainment.
What is a Sonata?
As we said earlier, a sonata typically has three movements each several minutes long and with a pause in between. In total a sonata can be 20 – 30 minutes or more.
Each movement of a sonata will follow some musical form. Some common musical forms are strophic, ternary, binary, rondo, and sonata form. Usually the first movement of a sonata is written in sonata form.
In addition, the first and last movements of a sonata are typically fast while the middle movement is slow.
What is the Musical Form of Für Elise?
Für Elise uses the rondo form. Rondos have a main theme that alternates with other themes. If we call the main theme “theme A” and secondary themes “theme B,” “theme C,” etc then a rondo takes the following forms:
A B A C A
A B A C A B A
Für Elise Form Outline
Theme A starts at 0:05. This is the theme that everyone knows and loves (or hates). It is melancholic and thoughtful. (In my opinion it is often taken too fast, so I like Lang Lang’s rendition).
Theme B starts at 0:55. Theme B is the most energetic and lively of the three themes. It balances out Theme A nicely.
Theme A returns at 1:22.
Theme C starts at 2:05. Theme C is the darkest theme. It always reminds me of a dark storm.
Theme A returns at 2:47.
Who was Elise?
Für Elise translates to “for Elise.” So who is Elise? That’s actually a tricky question. Für Elise wasn’t published until 40 years after Beethoven’s death. The original manuscript that included “Fur Elise” in the title was lost, and only a copy of that manuscript remains without that title.
Most speculate that “Elise” actually referred to “Therese Malfatti.” She had possession of the original manuscripts before they were published, she was one of Bethoven’s love interests, and Beethoven had terrible handwriting – so perhaps the Für Elise actually got mis-copied from Fur Therese on the original manuscript.
Für Elise is not a sonata. Rather it is a single movement bagatelle written in rondo form.