Für Elise

I always intended to bring you some of the great classics of the piano repertoire as well as my own compositions, and here is the first. This is Beethoven's beautiful little bagatelle Für Elise.

It's easy with a piece as popular as this one to buy into the many myths that have grown up around it. In fact we know very little about it. The original manuscript has been lost, though we do have some sketches in Beethoven's hand. It is generally thought to have been written for Therese Malfatti, who was a pupil of Beethoven's, and given to her as a souvenir, and it certainly ended up in her estate. But the publisher of the first edition is quite adamant that it was not written for her (the argument that Elise is a misreading of Therese can be rejected as the publisher was very clear to distinguish between the two). We don't know who Elise was, nor what her relationship to Beethoven was, but given its simplicity it would seem likely that it was intended for her to play, and might give some indication of her skill level at the piano. Stylistically its very out of keeping with its 1810 composition date.

It's not something Beethoven considered good enough for publication, which shows how wrong composers can be about their own works (he didn't think much of the Moonlight Sonata either). It wasn't published until 1867, long after both he and Therese were dead (Beethoven 40 years, Therese 15). It is a private piece, of intimate character, perhaps a parting gift from teacher to pupil, and not intended to be something to set amongst the great concert works of Beethoven. There are sketches of his in which he attempts to revise it for a hypothetical set of bagatelles, but nothing came of them. This would have given it a completely different character - setting the left hand off the beat by a demi-semiquaver (32nd note) and allowing the left and right hands to interweave.

What did Elise, whoever she was, make of it? Did she treasure it as her private piece of the world's preeminent composer? Did she hate the piano and tuck it away,  a part of her history best forgotten? Did she even look at it? How did it end up with Therese? Is this the only record of this woman in history? We can speculate, but we can never know. Certainly if she knew what she had, if she understood the charm and elegance, the quiet longing, she kept it to herself.

Or perhaps she was just trying to spare parents of the world from hours of incessant practice! There is no doubt that Für Elise is very often badly played. I struggle to really enjoy even some professional renditions of it, and this recording has its own flaws (though hopefully you won't notice them!).

The first thing to say about performing it is that it should flow. That might seem obvious, but I've heard so many interpretations were the timing is grotesquely pulled around and each phrase becomes a world to itself divorced from all the others.

It's usually a good idea to trust Beethoven even though his markings are often incomplete (which is especially true in this case). There are two dynamic markings in the whole piece, one right at the start and one at the long arpeggio towards the end, both are pianissimo. Put that together with the tempo marking, Poco moto (little motion), and you get an idea of the character: fairly slow, very quiet, quite restrained, intimate. That feeling should colour your whole interpretation.

Follow Beethoven's pedal markings. They're incomplete but you can work out what he meant. Most bars have a pedal through the whole bar, some of them do not; some clashes are briefly held by the pedal, others are allowed to speak freely – that sounds random, but when you look at the score it's very logical. Crucially, the long arpeggios section followed by the chromatic sale is covered by one long unbroken pedal. Play it really softly (you can use the soft pedal) and try it as Beethoven wrote it: it's beautiful.


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