I was certain that I knew this little piece of Beethoven’s quite well having played it, listened to it, and taught it for decades. Following my recent research, it transpires that my certainty was unfounded. What I am referring to is an article I unearthed in The Musical Times by Professor Barry Cooper that sheds a different light on this famous work and makes a notable difference in the difficulty of the piece.
Für Elise Difficulty
Mystery, speculation, and idle gossip have surrounded this notable composition. In reality, it appears that less is known about the piano work than is often claimed. Für Elise is not a piece that Beethoven attached a great deal of significance to. It was conceived as a bagatelle, a word that means something of small significance; light-hearted and simple; not as a major composition. (The original title was simply ‘Bagatelle’ No.25 in A minor).
The year of composition is thought to be around 1810 although this is not necessarily the case. Some indications allude to the date being as early as 1808. Beethoven having completed the first draft of the piece, relegated it to a draw in his study. Für Elise was only published forty years after Beethoven’s death (1867) in a version by Ludwig Nohl who is credited with the discovery of the work.
Alongside the obvious attractive qualities of Für Elise comes the mystery of who the dedicatee was. Still, in 2021 we appear to be no clearer as to the definitive answer to this enduring question. It seems most likely in my view, that Beethoven dedicated the piece to Therese Malfatti to whom it is thought, Beethoven proposed marriage around 1810. If this did happen Beethoven was not the recipient of good news and Therese Malfatti married an Austrian nobleman.
What is important to realize is that the edition that Beethoven would, in all probability, have published is different in several significant ways from that of the Nohl version to which most of us have subscribed over the years. Perhaps the most vital change is what Beethoven made to the autograph (around 1822) when he was preparing this score for possible inclusion into the Op.119 collection of short piano pieces.
In the version of Für Elise that most of us have learned, the left-hand accompanying figure (essentially broken chords), begins on the first beat of the bar. According to Cooper’s findings, Beethoven changed this to start the accompaniment after a semi-quaver rest bringing a totally new rhythmic feel to the piece. This alteration makes the performing of this opening section more challenging as the temptation will be to rush the accompaniment and lose the rhythmic subtly that Beethoven intends.
Another change is in the ‘B section’ that arrives after the repeat of the opening melody. Here Beethoven had crossed out four additional bars on the original draft that he then decided to include. This Beethoven indicated in his pencil markings with a ‘wavy line’ and it just brings a small but key clue as to how the composer intended the work to sound. Other changes from the ‘Cooper’ edition make important changes to Für Elise, including a change to the structure of the entire piece. If you wish to investigate the Barry Cooper edition of Für Elise, it is published through Novello.
Für Elise is structured in rondo form. This means that the well-known opening melody keeps coming back creating coherence and interest in the piece. It may also contribute to the appeal of the work. The initial melody and accompaniment are not particularly challenging to play it care is taken with selecting an appropriate practice (and ultimately performance) tempo. Attention must also be given to phrasing and pedal markings that if overlooked can lead to a muddy and unappealing rendition of the work.
The second (B) section sees Beethoven lighten the mood with the change of key to F major. As you would expect from a new section comes a new theme and accompaniment that lays under the fingers quite nicely. There are some accompanying bars (third after the second time bars) that may be difficult for smaller hands. This charming melody is short-lived and soon comes a quicker moving demi-semi quaver passage that needs to be practiced slowly in two-bar sections. Consider the phrasing and dynamics here with care. The purpose of this five-bar passage is to lead us back to the original section again.
Beethoven, never being short of an idea, introduces new material after this repeat of the main idea, with a ‘C Section’. This is not difficult to play but the repeating left-hand accompaniment must not overbear the chordal melody. These chords require some individual attention to ensure a smooth transition from one chord to the next whilst maintaining a clear sense of phrase and harmony. To return to the A Section Beethoven brings in a short semi-quaver triplet passage. Again, this is not overly challenging to play convincingly but needs to be light, quiet, and not sound like a dull study. Für Elise concludes with the famous melody making a final return before the piece closes with a perfect cadence in the tonic key.
Whilst Für Elise is probably not a piece for the absolute beginner, it is approachable by most pianists with perhaps a year or two’s experience. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music has the piece at Grade V. One of the greatest challenges surrounding Für Elise is its popularity and therefore the issue of how to make a performance convincing rather than hackneyed and dry.
Most of the technical challenges can be met with a clear idea of how the music is formed and where you wish to take it as a performer. It is never enough to be able to play all the notes in time. Instead, I suggest, it is more about developing your own informed interpretation of the composition, and that takes much more time to bring to fruition.