In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to be talking about Bagatelle no. 25 in A minor (WoO 59) by Beethoven – but it goes by the much more common name of “Fur Elise”.
This is one of Beethoven’s most famous pieces, and arguably the most famous piano piece of all time. It’s been a long time coming for us to talk about it on this channel!
In today’s video we’re going to talk about the history of the composition, who “Elise” is, and listen through some excerpts so you can get a better understanding of this composition.
Let’s get started!
Fur Elise details
“Fur Elise” (or the English “for Elise”) was written for solo piano and is in rondo form (see the video on rondo form for more details).
This composition wasn’t published when Beethoven was alive, instead being discovered 40 years after his death, in 1867. The original manuscript was dated 1810.
Ludwig Nohl, the musician who discovered the manuscript, transcribed it and created the version we know and love today. Beethoven probably intended this bagatelle to be part of a cycle of bagatelles, like his other three sets of popular bagatelles.
Who was Elise?
We don’t know for sure who the mysterious “Elise” is – but the most likely candidates are Therese Malfatti, Elisabeth Rocker and Elise Barensfeld.
One theory is that Ludwig Nohl transcribed the title wrong, and it was instead supposed to be called “Fur Therese”, referring to Therese Malfatti. She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s, and he apparently proposed to her in 1810 (the year this was composed).
Therese as Elise certainly makes for a sad love story, since she turned him down and married someone else.
Elisabeth Rockel, another candidate for the title, was a German soprano singer. She had a couple nicknames, including “Betty” and “Elise”, and was a friend of Beethoven’s since 1808. She featured in some of Beethoven’s opera, including the main soprano lead in Fidelio.
A newer candidate is Elise Barensfeld. She was a child prodigy and toured with a friend of Beethoven’s, later living with him in Vienna. At the time of Fur Elise’s writing, she would have been 13 years old.
The idea is that Beethoven dedicated it to little Elise as a favor to Therese Malfatti, since Malfatti lived near Beethoven’s friend and Elise, and he might have given her piano lessons.
Since Fur Elise is in Rondo form, that means it looks like this:
(Part A is the main theme or chorus that everyone knows, and the B and C sections are alternating episodes.)
The nice thing about the A section is that it’s actually pretty easy – many first and second year adult students are able to give it a go, and it’s a great study in pedal work and expression. However, the B and C section, which people are less familiar with, are significantly more difficult.
Fur Elise is in A minor and in 3/8 time. We’re going to look through each of the three sections (A, B and C), while remembering that between each section it always goes back to our main idea, the A section.
Our tempo marking at the beginning is poco moto, which means “a little motion”. The left hand is doing arpeggiated patterns (mainly 158s), alternating between Am and E major chord. In the middle section we see a couple different chords (C and G major) before returning to the original idea.
The melody in this section is interesting in that it mainly outlines chords. Oftentimes melodies involve more stepwise motion, but here there are large chordal leaps.
The B section, in typical rondo fashion, moves to the VI key of A minor (the sixth note in an A minor scale is F, and thus this section is written in F major).
This part, like the C section, is way more difficult to play than the A section, at approximately a grade 7 level.
The melody in this section is scale-based and moves stepwise much more than the A section, which creates a nice contrast. There’s some fast-moving parts after the light little opening figure – this part is very cheery!
Our left hand features an Alberti bass pattern (a bass note, then alternating the top notes) – very common in Classical music.
And then we head back into the A section.
The C section is the dramatic part of the composition – and my favorite part!
This part is written in the IV key of A minor (D minor). There’s a pedal point (basically a repetitive bass note that chords riff on top of), and some diminished 7th chords for full angsty effect. There’s also some chromaticism here.
Despite the angst in this part, it’s really important to keep the melody singing, so it doesn’t come off as overly harsh here. Remember – bagatelles are all about lightness!
We modulate back to the original key of A minor with a rapid passage of broken A minor chords and a descending chromatic scale.
Here’s a video of Valentina Lisitsa performing it:
Video: Fur Elise credits