The History of Für Elise: A “Trifle” That Has Become a Classic

history of fur elise

One of the most recognized tunes from the annals of classical music, the Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor WoO 59 (better known as Für Elise) is also one of the three most recognized melodies of Ludwig van Beethoven. The other two are the theme from the first movement of his Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-dum!) and the theme “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony (called by many titles, including “Bells Are Ringing” and the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”).

Although Beethoven never intended this piece to be a large part of his musical legacy, the history of Für Elise has grown far beyond the size or relative importance of the music. It has become one of the most taught and played piano pieces in the early and intermediate years of study. For a student to mark this piece with his own interpretation, he should know a little more about Beethoven and the Für Elise history.

Ludwig van Beethoven and Für Elise

Beethoven wrote this small gem on April 27, 1810, and called it a “bagatelle.” The term’s meaning is a trifle or a thing of little importance. In music, a bagatelle is a short, light piece of music, usually for the piano. It is similar to an “Albumblatt”, literally an “album leaf”, a solo piano piece friends could share with one another by pasting it in a musical scrapbook.

Musically, it is a five-part rondo with the form ABACA. It is in the key of A minor, which gives it a sad or wistful sound, full of regret and longing. The repeating A section is the most recognized part of Für Elise. It is the easiest section to learn and play. The other sections are more difficult to play, although shorter in length. They are more virtuosic for the intermediate student, creating a flash of brilliant light among the repetitive darker minor strains of the A section.

The History of Für Elise

The history behind Für Elise is a fascinating part of Beethoven’s story. This small piano piece has become the source of a much larger mystery. Who is the "Elise" Beethoven dedicated this "trifle" to? Was it a gift for one of his many adult female attachments, or was it a reward for one of his piano students who was making his progress?

Of the possible candidates, three stand out. One is Therese Malfatti, a piano student of Beethoven’s and the woman to whom he proposed marriage in 1810, the year Für Elise was written. The original autograph copy of Für Elise was found among her papers many years after Beethoven’s death. 

The second is Elizabeth Röckel, a German soprano who sang in the original production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. She was a good friend of Beethoven until she turned down Beethoven’s proposal of marriage and instead married his musical rival, Johann Nepomuk Hümmel. Perhaps he wrote the piece as a farewell to her.

The final possible “Elise” actually carried that name! She was Juliane Katherine Elisabet Barensfeld, known to her friends as Elise. She was a child prodigy who lived across the street from Therese Malfatti and was possibly Therese’s piano student at the age of 13. At least one scholar thinks Beethoven wrote the piece for Elise, the young student, as a favor to Therese--perhaps to win her favor.

Of these three possibilities, Therese Malfatti emerges as the one with the most evidence in her favor. Für Elise history falls into place most easily when her relationship with Beethoven is closely considered. How did he meet her, and how did she inspire him to write such a lingering melody?

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Beethoven’s deafness and personal traits

By 1810, his hearing had been worsening for more than ten years. The horror of deafness to a musician cannot be underestimated. To hear the music in your mind without being able to successfully create it yourself--what a miserable existence he was leading. He tried to hide his growing deafness for many years, but by the turn of the century it was unavoidable, making his already abrasive personality more and more unlikable.

Beethoven was 40 years old in 1810 and well known for his compositions and piano playing in Vienna, the city of music and musicians in the early 19th century. Despite creating a successful career for himself, Beethoven had not been able to find a wife. He had been connected with several young women of the upper class, but none of them were able to look beyond his middle-class beginnings. 

Of course, his lack of decent hygiene was also a part of his failure to wed. He had paid little attention to his appearance through most of his life, ignoring personal grooming and the condition of his clothes. He often just poured water over his head instead of washing, and his friends often took his clothes and had them cleaned while he slept, as he would go days and days in the same garments.

And then there was his personality. He would tell a person exactly what he felt, often to the point of rudeness. He was never willing to adjust his behavior to what society required; in fact, he always believed in his own musical genius and could not understand why the people around him didn’t always allow him to have his own way, rude and arrogant though he was. He seemed incapable of understanding the feelings of others, male or female. This led to many one-sided relationships, with Beethoven always seeing himself as the one who had been wronged.

All that seemed to change when he met the Malfatti family and their oldest daughter, Therese. In 1810, Therese was 18 years old and one of Beethoven’s piano students. Her father was a medical doctor who treated Beethoven for some of his many illnesses. Beethoven was quite taken with her from their first meeting and soon began heaping great praise on her piano skills, which weren’t all that notable. There was probably some flirting on Therese’s side, as it would have been very flattering to have a famous musician like Beethoven falling all over himself to impress her. He started cleaning up, ordered new clothing, and even combed his wild mane of hair. 

Last but not least, he wrote her a piece of music, composed deliberately for her skill level. All seemed well, at least to Beethoven. Then everything came crashing down. Although we don’t know exactly what happened, later letters to and from Beethoven speak of an unfortunate incident at the Malfatti home. Beethoven had a little too much punch and behaved rudely with Therese, and she rejected him outright. In a later letter to Therese, Beethoven wrote about the piece he had written for her and invited her to find its hidden meaning. “Work it out for yourself, but do not drink punch to help you,” he wrote, apparently referring to the unfortunate incident that ended their relationship.

The history of Für Elise after Beethoven and Therese

So, what was this piece of music? It was found in Therese’s personal papers in 1851, 41 years after it was probably written. A small piece, Beethoven gave it its formal name, “Bagatelle”. But it was what he wrote at the top of the page that not only gave this piece its informal name, but also created a mystery that has fascinated students of the history of Für Elise ever since. 

At the top of the page, Beethoven wrote (translated from German): “For Elise on 27 April to remind you of L.V. Bthvn”. Ludwig Nohl, a German music scholar, discovered the original manuscript in Beethoven’s own handwriting among her musical papers, transcribed it, and published it in 1867 in a book he edited of Beethoven’s letters. The original has since been lost, so we have had to rely on Nohl’s copy of it. 

Beethoven had notoriously bad handwriting, and many history scholars think that Nohl misread Beethoven’s original title, which may have read, “Für Therese.” However, nicknames were a common practice in society during this time of history, and it’s quite possible that Therese was called “Elise” by her family, as well as Beethoven himself, who liked to give his friends nicknames. Whichever reason is correct, the piece became known as “Für Elise” from then on. 

The history of Für Elise is also a part of the history of our popular culture. The melody has been used in commercials for McDonalds, Adidas, Doritos, and the GMC Sierra truck. You can hear it in TV episodes of The Closer, Modern Family, Futurama, and The Simpsons. It was the most-used melody for a ringtone in the 1990’s. It is also commonly heard as “elevator music” in office buildings, and in Taiwan, garbage trucks use it to let people know that they are picking up the garbage. 

Some would say that Für Elise is overheard, something that people are tired of. However, the history of Für Elise starts a new chapter every time a piano teacher asks a student what they would like to learn, and the student replies, “That Für Elise song!” 

Somewhere, Beethoven is smiling!