Friday, December 04, 2020

The other Beethoven piece that everybody knows

 If you took piano lessons as a kid for any length of time, you probably played some Beethoven. And if that's the case, then the odds are very good that the Beethoven you played included his Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, more familiarly called Für Elise. And if you never did take piano lessons, odds are that you've heard this piece. If not for his Fifth and Ninth symphonies, there's a good chance that Für Elise would be the most familiar piece Beethoven ever wrote.

And that's interesting, because it turns out that the piece was never heard in Beethoven's own lifetime, and in fact would not be discovered by the musical world until four decades after the composer's death. The piece is quite short; in fact, the word "Bagatelle" refers to a small, short piece for piano. And the title? "For Elise"? That seems obvious, right? Beethoven wrote the piece as a gift for someone named Elise...but some scholars have agreed that this is based on a misreading of Beethoven's legendarily awful handwriting, and what he actually wrote on the manuscript (which is now lost) was "For Therese".

Who was "Therese"? Well, this article explains:

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.

Also interesting is how this piece, apparently an unpublished trifle that Beethoven didn't even keep a copy of for his own archives, came down to us:

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. 

Imagine having something you just tossed off one night becoming one of the enduring works of all classical music, so enduring that the piece has become on its own a kind of cliche. Try listening to it again, though, beginning to end! Note the way the harmonies and the melody blend together so you can't have one without the other, and note the contrasts between the famous main melody and the less-familiar intervening sections. And if your memories of your piano teacher are pleasant ones, think of them, too!

(My teacher, Mrs. Hooker, never had me play Für Elise. My personal gateway to Beethoven was the "Moonlight" Sonata.)

Here is Für Elise.

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