From its first repeating notes, Für Elise is instantly recognizable. It may even be the most famous melody ever written! But did you know that when Beethoven first drafted this short piano piece, he stuffed it in a drawer, never to be seen in his lifetime?
Curious how it went from forgotten trifle to universally known? Wondering what exactly makes it such an unforgettable earworm? Need some tips on learning to play this piece? Then keep reading for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about one of Beethoven’s best-known masterpieces.
Für Elise: The Basics
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote Für Elise 1810 as a small piece for the piano, and then put it aside with his many other draft works. We only have it because a musicologist found it and published it in 1867!
And it’s a good thing for us that Für Elise was finally found! Its first five notes (alternating E and D-sharp) have become as famous as the booming da-da-da-dum first notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Why has this piece been so popular ever since its publication? Musically, Für Elise is deeply melodic and full of nostalgic feeling, with a relatively simple harmony that makes it very accessible and not overly intellectually demanding. At the same time, because its first part is easy even for a beginner piano player to learn, but is also beautiful, it is often assigned by piano teachers the world over, perpetuating its fame. And finally, the romantic and mysterious possibilities of its name make us wonder about the identity of Elise and the love life of its composer!
Where Can I Listen to Für Elise?
Before diving into the history and background of this piece, here are some versions that will give you a great sense of the range of interpretations out there.
Start with this straightforward Für Elise piano recording:
Then, you can explore interesting takeoffs, samples, and modifications. On the piano, there is a great blues-imbued version, as well as a ragtime version. At the same time, the piece’s arpeggios make it a popular choice for classical guitar interpretations like this one.
Because Für Elise is so incredibly popular, there are a million and one versions of it on YouTube. Do a quick search and check out the versions played by wildly talented four-year-old prodigies!
The History of Für Elise
In 1810, when he was 40 years old, Ludwig van Beethoven was already renowned as one of the greatest composers of all time. He was also already plagued by the horrible tinnitus that preceded his eventual deafness. Although the very next year he stopped performing in public altogether, he never stopped composing.
On April 27th, 1810, Beethoven drafted a bagatelle – a small, unimportant song – and jotted the label “Für Elise” on it in his famously messy handwriting. But he never published this piece of music. Instead, it sat in a drawer until 1822, when Beethoven revised it slightly, and shoved it back into the same drawer. In 1827, Beethoven died, and his bagatelle never saw the light of day.
It was only in 1867, 40 years after Beethoven’s death, that a musicologist named Ludwig Nohl found the piece of music and published it.
Who Was Elise?
Remember how I told you that Beethoven jotted the words “Für Elise” on his final draft of the sheet music? Well, it turns out that we only know this from Ludwig Nohl, the man who found and published the piece. The actual final draft itself is missing! Not only that, but no distinct records, letters, or accounts from people at the time make mention of an “Elise” in Beethoven’s life.
So who was the mysterious Elise that Beethoven apparently dedicated this music to? There is no conclusive answer to this question. There are several theories, however, which I will lay out in order of most to least likely.
Theory #1: “Elise” Was Beethoven’s “One That Got Away”
Beethoven had a doomed love affair with a woman named Therese Malfatti. She was his student, and he fell in love with her right around the time of the composition of Für Elise. We aren’t quite sure exactly how they broke up, but we do know that he proposed, and she either said no right away, or strung him along for a while and then said no. Either way, Therese then married someone else. So, the most popular theory is that our friend Ludwig Nohl misread Beethoven’s messy handwriting, and that in reality, the piece was labeled “Für Therese” not “Für Elise.”
Theory #2: “Elise” Was Beethoven’s Opera Singer BFF
A few years before writing Für Elise, Beethoven became friends with an opera singer named Elisabeth Röckel, whose nickname may well have been Elise (Elizabeth to Elise doesn’t seem to be that much of a stretch, but we don’t have any documentary evidence that anyone actually did call her Elise). Beethoven and Rockel were close friends until she married Beethoven’s frenemy, Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Perhaps Für Elise was written in the midst of this friendship – or as a way of saying good-bye.
Theory #3: “Elise” Was One of Therese Malfatti’s Friends
The least likely scenario is that Beethoven wrote the piece for another woman nicknamed Elise – Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, who used “Elise” as a variant first name. She was a musical child prodigy who was Therese Malfatti’s neighbor and conceivably could have been her student. This theory holds that Beethoven was willing to do anything for his one great love, Therese, including writing a quick piece of music for one of her favorites.
Since there’s not enough evidence to prove it conclusively, we should probably use Occam’s razor for this one. To whom is a sad, longing love song dedicated? Probably to the lost love of Beethoven’s life, Therese.
What Does the Title of Für Elise Mean?
The full title of Beethoven’s piece of music is Für Elise: Bagatelle in A minor WoO 59. In reality, the stuff after the colon is the official title, and “Für Elise” is just a nickname for the piece. This is because musical compositions have a specific naming system that references type, key, and a numbering system. Let’s unpack each of the components of this title separately.
Für Elise. The words “Für Elise” mean “for Elise” in German.
Bagatelle. This is the piece of music’s type (other types include sonatas, etudes, symphonies, and so on). A bagatelle is a short, lighthearted, and generally frivolous piece of music. Similar words have also been used to describe this piece. Sometimes the title uses the word “Albumblatt,” which means “album leaf” – a short, pleasant, usually solo piano piece that friends could easily share by pasting into each other’s musical albums. More rarely, you might find Für Elise labeled as a “Klavierstücke” which is simply German for “piano piece.”
A Minor. “A” stands for the music’s key, indicating the scale – the set of notes divided by regular intervals – that the piece uses. In this case, Für Elise is based on the scale that is anchored by the A key. Keys are divided into major and minor, depending on the intervals between the notes used in the scale. Here, the minor key is a technical way to convey which notes should be played higher or lower than the corresponding natural notes. It also tells us about the musicality of the piece. In Western music, music in a minor key sounds sad, helping with the sense of longing and wistfulness that characterizes the melody.
WoO 59. Usually, composers number their published pieces of music, using the Latin term “opus” (which means “work”) and whatever number followed in sequence from the last piece of the same type. However, not only did Beethoven not number Für Elise, but he really only gave opus numbers to his most significant published pieces. Because of this, much of his work has been assigned numbers by later publishers, using the German term “werk ohne opuszahl” (meaning “work without opus number” and abbreviated as WoO) and a number in sequence. So, in this case, WoO 59 means that Für Elise was the 59th bagatelle to be published that hadn’t been given a number by Beethoven himself.
Für Elise Musical Analysis
Now that we’ve explored the history and romance behind the work, let’s check out what’s under the hood.
How is Für Elise Structured?
As we already saw from its title, this piece is in the key of A minor. It’s time signature is 3/8, so there are 3 beats in each measure and each eighth note (♪) gets 1 beat.
Für Elise is a rondo, with a A–B–A–C–A structure. In other words, its first section (main theme A) is repeated between its other sections (themes B and C).
The first section is the famous melody that everyone knows, with the right hand playing the melody itself and with the left hand playing arpeggios (chords played note by note instead of all at once). The other sections are more challenging, incorporating the keys E major, C major, G major, and F major.
The repeated central theme’s A minor key builds a melancholy, longing mood. However, Für Elise‘s other themes are in complete contrast to the main theme, creating a sense of whimsy, unpredictability, and playfulness.
What’s the Musical Style of Für Elise?
Für Elise is part of the Romantic music movement that developed in the late 18th and early 19th century in Europe along with Romanticism in the arts in general. Note that capital-R Romanticism has nothing to do with small-r romance.
Instead, Romantic music was characterized by ideas of revolting against Industrial Revolution and the perceived triumph of hyper-rationalism. Romanticism instead embraced a preoccupation with nature, an imagined glorious past, and beautifully terrifying and unknowable spiritual and emotional experiences.
We can see some of this in the way Für Elise shuttles back and forth between the forlorn plea of the repeated main theme and the sudden, mercurial shifts in tone of the B and C themes.
8 Tips for Learning to Play Für Elise
Have you decided to learn how to play Für Elise on the piano? Here are some things to keep in mind!
Are You a Beginner?
Because the most famous part of Für Elise – the main theme – is reasonably easy to play, many piano teachers assign just that first part of the piece to their students early on in their piano learning. Not only is it not technically difficult, but it also provides a good basic exercise for piano pedaling technique. Here’s some advice for mastering the piece:
Watch out for tricky fingering. In this piece, precise finger position is key to the flow of the right-hand melody and the support of the left-hand arpeggios. You may want to write out each note’s fingering in your score to help you articulate the music well.
Legato, legato, legato. Think of the left-hand’s arpeggios as almost-chords. You should play them as smoothly as possible, gliding each note into the next. Imagine playing the piece as if you’re trying to demonstrate perpetual motion. Your gently flowing tempo and legato should unite to let the melody shine.
Imagine a conversation between right and left. Start by practicing hands separately. Then, when you’re combining them, listen to the way the left and right hands reply to each other – it’s almost a series of call-and-response questions, or a plaintive conversation. To articulate this, carry your legato over from the right hand to the left and vice versa, and do not privilege one hand over the other in volume or tempo.
Don’t rush. Even after you’ve learned the melody, you have to keep your tempo slow to convey the wistful and sad mood. Beethoven marked the tempo as “molto grazioso,” meaning a deeply graceful and even speed.
Are You Playing at an Intermediate Level?
If you’re learning all three section of Für Elise, here are tips to help you:
Learn the sections in order of difficulty. As we’ve already seen, theme A is the least technically challenging. The most technically difficult section is the B theme, so you may want to save that one for last. Learn each section on its own, phrase by phrase.
Rely on repetition for easier memorizing. The rondo form makes learning the piece by heart much easier, since 3 out of 5 sections are the same. Focus on the transitions between the sections to confidently go in and out of each.
Stress the contrast. Für Elise is marked by the shifting tones and moods of its three sections. Maintain the contrast demanded by the different sections, and connect your playing with the mood you want to convey.
Are You an Advanced Musician?
At this point in your musical career, you’re no longer as worried about physically being able to carry the piece from sheet music to keyboard. Instead, here are some thoughts about your main challenges:
Proper wrist placement. For an even smoother performance, you may want to rethink the way you hold your wrists and how to relieve tension in them while playing. This blog post has some very helpful pointers.
Make your mark, find your voice. The biggest challenge for those who can readily overcome the technical challenges is that Für Elise is everywhere and has been interpreted many, many times over. How do you bring your own quality to such a widely known work? You may want to simply avoid other interpretations while working on a piece, so that someone else’s vision doesn’t influence your version. Think deeply about what you want to convey, and which aspects of Beethoven’s music you want to illuminate. Let these ideas be the guiding principles of your interpretation.
Where Can I Find Für Elise Sheet Music?
For beginners. If you’d like a version that has only the first section, clearly labels each note with its corresponding key, and leaves out the sustains, check out this easy piano rendition.
For more advanced players. If you’re looking for sheet music to learn to play the piece, you can use this printable very cleanly edited PDF version.
For research and study. If you are curious about the first printed version that has the D in the 7th measure instead of the E as we now accept, explore a PDF of a potentially misprinted publication. Or you can check out the draft in Beethoven’s hand that informs how we play the piece now.
Für Elise in the World
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that Für Elise is now everywhere. Here are some of the more and less unlikely places it has turned up:
- Garbage trucks in Taiwan use the tune, as part of that country’s completely revolutionary approach to dealing with waste. Check out the 99% Invisible podcast for more of this great story.
- American rapper Nas built his 2002 song “I Can” around samples of this piece.
- Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s 2003 movie about teenage alienation, used Für Elise as a haunting refrain.
- The Peanuts character Schroeder performs the piece in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The Takeaway: 9 Amazing Für Elise Facts
- Für Elise was lost for over 50 years until a musicologist found it and published it after Beethoven’s death. And then that final draft copy was lost again and has never been found.
- We do still have an earlier draft copy of Für Elise in Beethoven’s hand, but that one isn’t labeled “Für Elise.”
- No one knows who Elise really was! But most likely, she was Therese Malfatti, the woman who broke Beethoven’s heart.
- Für Elise is versatile enough to have been musically reinterpreted as blues and ragtime, and used as a sample in a Nas song.
- There are actually three separate sections in Für Elise: the first, most famous section repeats between two other sections.
- As part of the Romantic music movement that explored beautifully terrifying and unknowable spiritual and emotional experiences, Für Elise contrasts the sad wistfulness of its main theme with the unpredictable wildness of its other two themes.
- Part of the reason Für Elise remains so popular is that piano teachers the world over assign its first section to their beginner students.
- Because there are so many versions of Für Elise out there, it can be very hard for professional musicians to put their own spin on this work.
- Garbage trucks in Taiwan use Für Elise to let people know that the garbage pickup is happening, in kind of same the way ice cream trucks use tunes in the U.S. to get people to line up for frozen dessert.