Beethoven’s Für Elise per­haps mis­in­ter­preted, re­ally a love note Für Therese?

Beethoven’s Für Elise per­haps mis­in­ter­preted, re­ally a love note Für Therese?

RSWLiving - - Features - BY ERIK ENT WISTLE


What do the fol­low­ing have in com­mon?

• Ice cream trucks cruis­ing Amer­i­can sub­ur­bia • 40 dif­fer­ent ring­tones from a pop­u­lar phone app • Mul­ti­ple YouTube videos with a mil­lion-plus views • Nearly ev­ery­one who has ever stud­ied the pi­ano

An­swer: They all play Beethoven’s Für Elise! And they all tes­tify to the fact that this unas­sum­ing lit­tle pi­ano piece has been fully em­braced, co-opted and com­mer­cial­ized by to­day’s so­ci­ety― cer­tainly a sur­real sce­nario that its com­poser could not have imag­ined when he wrote the piece over 200 years ago. In fact, as sur­pris­ing as it may sound, Beethoven never even in­tended Für

Elise to see the light of day. Not dis­cov­ered un­til 1867, 40 years af­ter the com­poser’s death, the piece was found among the pa­pers of the work’s ded­i­ca­tee, Therese Mal­fatti. Ap­par­ently the mu­si­col­o­gist who dis­cov­ered the work (and brought forth the first edi­tion) mis­read the name on the au­to­graph manuscript, de­riv­ing Für Elise in­stead of Für Therese from Beethoven’s ter­ri­ble hand­writ­ing and caus­ing his­to­ri­ans headaches ever since.

Therese Mal­fatti was one of Beethoven’s wealthy, young pi­ano pupils at the time the work was writ­ten in 1810. It’s easy to see the piece not only as a ve­hi­cle for Therese to play, but also as a mu­si­cal pro­fes­sion of Beethoven’s feel­ings to­wards her. In that year, the 40-year-old com­poser ap­par­ently pro­posed mar­riage to the 18-year-old Therese. She re­jected him, but he gave her the piece as a me­mento.

How does Für Elise (Therese) work as a piece of mu­sic, and more spec­u­la­tively, how might it re­flect Beethoven’s feel­ings for Therese? The form is very straight­for­ward. It’s a rondo with a re­cur­ring main theme (A) and two con­trast­ing sec­tions, yield­ing the over­all de­sign ABACA. Ev­ery­one knows the open­ing eight bars; that’s not sur­pris­ing, since they are heard a to­tal of eight times dur­ing the piece, so one lis­ten­ing is all that is re­quired for the tune to be­come thor­oughly in­grained.

De­spite the A-mi­nor key, the mood of the open­ing is wist­ful rather than tragic. In­deed, the other three chords used in this sec­tion are all ma­jor chords, which causes the mu­sic to brighten to­wards hope­ful­ness. With this dis­arm­ingly sim­ple mu­sic, is Beethoven declar­ing his love for Therese in heart­felt, but non-threat­en­ing, terms?

If so, the next (B) sec­tion car­ries this ar­dor much fur­ther by be­com­ing more an­i­mated and op­ti­mistic. Be­gin­ning pi­anists like­wise need to be op­ti­mistic here, for this por­tion steps up the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties con­sid­er­ably. The note val­ues ac­cel­er­ate as the mu­sic quickly reaches a joyful, fevered pitch― only to be stopped in its tracks by echoes of the open­ing mu­sic, which then re­turns. Has Beethoven pre­sumed too much in his de­sire to court Therese, and per­haps over­stepped ac­cepted so­cial bound­aries?

In the third (C) sec­tion, the mu­sic sud­denly turns tragic. Throb­bing, re­peated bass notes in the left hand cre­ate a mood of anx­i­ety, per­haps re­flect­ing Beethoven’s fear of re­jec­tion by Therese (which, of course, came to pass), and the dis­so­nant chords in the right hand sound like stabs of pain. But this dra­matic episode is short-lived; the open­ing theme re­turns, end­ing the piece as qui­etly― and unas­sum­ingly― as it had be­gun.

Für Elise, while a far cry from the monumental works that have made Beethoven fa­mous, has un­de­ni­ably cap­tured our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. But how? Is it the stub­bornly me­morable hook of the open­ing nine notes? Or the en­tire, grace­ful open­ing sec­tion and its ac­ces­si­bil­ity to be­gin­ning pi­anists? Or is the Für Elise phe­nom­e­non the re­sult of mu­si­cal band­wag­o­ning in a so­ci­ety fix­ated on the pop­u­lar? We can re­spond to the com­po­si­tion’s om­nipres­ence by view­ing it as a hack­neyed tri­fle to be avoided when­ever pos­si­ble.

On the other end of the spec­trum, we could equip our cell­phones with var­i­ous Für Elise ring­tones and spend our days watch­ing YouTube videos of all of the dif­fer­ent ver­sions and ar­range­ments. Per­son­ally, I am con­tent to ap­pre­ci­ate the work as a touch­ing re­minder of the hu­man­ity of its com­poser (ice cream trucks not­with­stand­ing). Now if only the ti­tle could be changed to Für Therese.

Pi­anist, in­struc­tor and mu­si­col­o­gist Erik En­twistle re­ceived an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in mu­sic from Dart­mouth Col­lege. He earned a post­grad­u­ate de­gree in pi­ano per­for­mance at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis. He earned his doc­tor­ate in mu­si­col­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. He teaches on Sani­bel. Reach him at to­ti­me­­tac­tus.

Für Elise, while a far cry from the monumental works that have made Beethoven fa­mous, has un­de­ni­ably cap­tured our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion.

48”H x 9’9”W x 18”D

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