Beethoven’s Für Elise is one of his most famous compositions. Yet it wasn’t published until 40 years after his death when the German music scholar Ludwig Nohl discovered the manuscript, and published it in 1867. Let’s explore the meaning and quirky back story of love, rejection, and sloppy hand writing that brought us this famous little piece.
What Does “Für Elise” Mean?
“Für Elise” translates from German to “For Elise.” Who is Elise? There are several candidates, but the most likely is Therese Malfatti. “Für Elise” is formally known as Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59). A Bagatelle in music is a short, lively, and entertaining piece.
Who Was Für Elise Written For?
There are three theories about the identity of Elise.
Theory 1: Elisabeth Röckel
Fur Elise was written in 1810. Around that time Elisabeth Röckel was in Beethoven’s inner circle. Röckel was a love interest of Beethoven’s who played a character in one of Beethoven’s operas – Fidelio. It’s possible Beethoven wrote the piece for her. (Source: Robert Greenberg on Für Elise).
Theory 2: Therese Malfatti
Therese is almost certainly the elusive “Elise.” Beethoven proposed to Therese around the time that he wrote “Fur Elise.” He was flatly rejected. (This was an unfortunate trend in Beethoven’s life. He fell in love with aristocratic ladies that greatly admired his music… but not his personality).
But if this Therese is “Elise” why didn’t Beethoven write “Für Therese” instead? Well, potentially he did. When Ludwig Nohl discovered “Fur Elise” he made a copy of Beethoven’s manuscript, and published that copy. That manuscript is now lost to history.
In addition, Ludwig found the manuscript in Therese’s possession. It is unlikely that she would possess the manuscript if she weren’t the dedicatee.
In short, Für Elise was almost certainly originally written for Therese Malfatti.
Theory 3: Elise Barenfield
There is one final theory worth mentioning. In 2012 a musicologist named Rita Steblin argued that Beethoven dedicated Für Elise to Elise Barenfield. Elise was a vocalist, and may have studied under Therese Malfatti when “Fur Elise” was composed. Beethoven could have given the piece to Therese as a favor to help her as she taught Elise Barenfield.
Für Elise Musical Analysis
Für Elise is not a sonata, but rather a Bagatelle which means that it is a short, lively musical piece; it takes the form of a rondo. Rondos have a short theme that is repeated throughout the piece – we’ll call it theme A. Theme A alternates with other themes – themes B and C. So the typical form looks something like:
A B A C A B A
Theme A – 0:00
Theme A is the familiar melody that we know and love. It is written in A minor. I think the melody is lilting, sad and graceful. It is not technically challenging which makes it the perfect section for a beginner.
Theme B – 0:51
Theme B is more challenging. It starts in F major and later goes to a sparkly sub section in C major. With fast scale runs, this section is better suited to intermediate players. I think of this section as exciting, even exuberant.
Theme C – 1:35
The piece returns to theme A (in A minor again) before landing on Theme C at 1:35. This theme is in A minor and is darker and murkier than the rest of the piece. To play this section, pianists will need to develop the technique to quickly repeat the same note. In addition, they will need to play arpeggios and chromatic scales in the right hand. This section is of intermediate difficulty level.
After this theme, the piece concludes by going back to the main theme – theme A.
Fur Elise has three contrasting themes. Theme A is lilting and melancholy, theme B is sparkly and exciting, theme C is dark and moody. Beethoven was the first composer to move out of the classical era of generally pleasant and happy sounding music, and into the romantic era of deep emotions and contrast. In my mind, Fur Elise sits somewhere between classical and romantic, but leans towards romantic.
Why is Für Elise so Popular?
Für Elise is popular because many piano teachers assign the first section to beginner students. Most classical music is unobtainable for beginners, but the first section is both easy and extremely catchy. This makes it the perfect piece to assign to beginners who want to play something with more significance than Chopsticks and Mary Had a Little Lamb.
What Difficulty Level is Für Elise?
Für Elise is an early to middle intermediate level piece. The first section can be approached by some beginners, while the second and third sections can only be approached once the player has developed the technical ability to play fast arpeggios, chromatic scales, and major/minor scales.
Is Für Elise a Love Song?
Sure, Für Elise is a love song. At least, it is if you buy that Elise refers to Theresa Malfatti (who Beethoven proposed to). If Elise refers to Elise Barenfield, Theresa’s 13 year old student, then no it was not. (Ok so technically Für Elise is a “piece” not a “song” because it has no vocal part.)
Für Elise translates from German to “For Elise.” While there is speculation about who Beethoven dedicated the piece to, it is likely dedicated to Theresa Malfatti – an aristocrat who rejected his marriage proposal.
Für Elise is written in rondo form taking on the format of “A B A C A.” Due to its simple, yet catchy main theme, it is played ad nauseam by beginner pianists all over the world.