The history and origins of “Für Elise” (Beethoven), and how to play “Für Elise” on piano
Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, “Für Elise” is one of the most famous and recognizable pieces of piano music in the world. Unlike Beethoven’s other famous compositions, the Fifth Symphony and Ode to Joy, “Für Elise” was not published during his lifetime. Instead, it was discovered and published 40 years after his death in 1865! It’s believed that Beethoven completed “Für Elise” on April 27, 1810, when he was 39 years old. Beethoven could still hear some sounds and voices at this time, but his hearing was growing weaker. His hearing remained strongest in the higher register, which may be why this piece is written on the higher notes on the piano. The highest note in this composition is an E7, two octaves above ledger line C.
A composition year of 1810 puts this piece toward the end of Beethoven’s Heroic period of composition, although the character of this piece is lighter and sweeter than his symphonies. Beethoven’s compositions spanned from the Classical style to a more Romantic style of composing (after all, the categories emerged later when music historians needed to classify music styles). Written towards the end of his middle period of compositions, “Für Elise” uses Classical forms. The whole piece has three sections and is in rondo form, or A-B-A-C-A . The beginning strains that we know so well form a familiar A-B-A pattern. Despite this emphasis on form, this piece has romantic sensibilities due to the clashing and contrasting emotions in the B and C sections. The Romantic period of music was all about contrasting emotions and the human condition, and the rondo structure of this piece showcases a nostalgic and sweet main theme, a sparkly section, and then a stormier section before returning to calm.
“Für Elise” has a possibly romantic backstory for a Romantic era, and the title itself is shrouded in mystery. The piece’s official name is “Bagatelle Number 25 in A minor.” (Why a bagatelle? It’s a name for a piece of music that is short and sweet – it comes from the French word for a “trifle”). However, it’s best known by its nickname, “Für Elise.” This name comes from the manuscript inscription on the front page – a dedication from Beethoven to a dear friend. Was the piece a gift for a piano student, or a tribute to a lost love? Thus one of the greatest mysteries in music history was born.
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Who was Elise?
There are three reigning theories of who the mysterious “Elise” was:
- One theory is that it wasn’t an “Elise” at all! The original manuscript looks to be inscribed “To Therese.” There was a Therese in Beethoven’s life in 1810: Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza was a friend and former student of the composer’s. He fell in love with her and proposed marriage in 1810, but was turned down. She was also the owner of the manuscript at the time of its discovery, making this theory highly likely.
- A second theory is that “Elise” was the German soprano Elisabeth Rockel, another love interest of Beethoven’s. She, too, turned down his marriage proposal and wound up marrying another composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, instead.
- A third candidate is another singer named Elise Barensfeld. Therese Malfatti may have been Elise’s piano teacher, and the theory is that Beethoven wrote the relatively easy bagatelle for Therese to teach to Elise. Thus, a favor for Therese wound up being a piece for Elise.
Whatever the story, “Für Elise” is undeniably one of the most popular piano pieces in existence. It is also quite playable with patience and practice! The first and most familiar main theme of “Für Elise,” the A section, is simple and beautiful, and playable even in the earliest levels. While the B and C Sections are a little trickier, once you’ve learned the main theme, which comes back three times, you’ve learned the majority of the piece.
How to play Für Elise on piano
Want to learn how to play this beautiful work yourself? Hoffman Academy has not one, but three different levels of video tutorials for “Für Elise!” If you’re in the early units (Units 1-4), try the Preparatory Level. If you’re in Units 5-8, try Level One . More advanced? Up for a challenge? We’ve broken the original into three parts to help you learn the whole piece! We’re confident you can learn how to play “Für Elise” on piano with skill and beauty.
- Learn the “A” Section (main theme) here (which is also lovely on its own)
- Learn the “B” Section here
- Learn the “C” Section here
Each video contains a “Printables” link for the sheet music. Premium Members can access it right away. Or, you can purchase the sheet music here! We hope you have a stronger understanding of Beethoven’s Für Elise now. Happy practicing!