'Fur Elise' by Beethoven

The short piece is easily recognized, but remains shrouded in mystery

German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) with the Rasowmowsky Quartet, drawn by the artist Borckmann.

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Ludwig van Beethoven was well into his career and almost completely deaf when he wrote his famous piano piece, Fur Elise, in 1810. Though the title of the piece comes from a discovered manuscript signed by Beethoven and dedicated to Elise, that signed paper has since been lost - sparking an interest in learning who "Elise" could be. 

Fur Elise was not published until 1867, 40 years after Beethoven's 1827 death. It was discovered by Ludwig Nohl, and his interpretation of the title inadvertently led to more than a century of speculation about the true origin of this somber tune.

Identity of Elise

There are many theories about who "Elise" may have been; was she a real person, or was it just a term of endearment? There's also a theory that the person who unearthed the score after Beethoven's death misread the composer's handwriting, and that it really said "fur Therese."

If it was dedicated to Therese, that's almost certainly a reference to Therese von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, a student and friend of Beethoven. The story goes that Beethoven sought her hand in marriage but Therese rejected him in favor of an Austrian nobleman. 

Another candidate for the role of Elise is Elisabeth Rockel, another female friend of Beethoven, whose nicknames were Betty and Elise. Or Elise could have been Elise Barensfeld, the daughter of a friend. 

The identity of Elise (if she was, in fact, a real person) has been lost to history, but scholars continue to study Beethoven's complicated life for clues as to who she was. 

About the Music of Fur Elise

Fur Elise is generally considered a bagatelle, a term that translates literally as "a thing of little value." In musical terms, however, a bagatelle is a short piece. Despite its short length, Fur Elise is arguably as recognizable even to casual listeners of classical music, as Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth symphonies

However, there's also an argument that Fur Elise should be considered an Albumblatt, or album leaf. This term refers to a composition that is dedicated to a dear friend or acquaintance. Usually an Albumblatt was not intended for publication, but rather as a private gift to the recipient.

Fur Elise can be basically broken down into five parts: A-B-A-C-A. It begins with the main theme, a simple somber melody played sweetly above arpeggiated chords (A), then briefly modulates to a major scale (B), then returns to the main theme (A), then ventures to a much more tumultuous and lengthier idea (C), before finally returning to the main theme.

Beethoven only assigned opus numbers to his larger works, such as his symphonies. This small piano piece was never given an opus number, hence the WoO 59, which is German for "werk ohne opuszahl" or "work without opus number". It was assigned to the piece by Georg Kinsky in 1955.