Beethoven died in 1827. Forty years later, Fur Elise was published, resurrected from an 1810 manuscript by Ludwig Nohl, a noted 19th century music scholar. The manuscript from which Nohl worked has been lost, and the provenance of the piece is in dispute, but Wikipedia does not entertain that Beethoven might not have been the composer; it seems clear that he was.
About the identity of Elise, however, far less is certain. Three potential Elises emerge in the Wikipedia article – a longtime friend and student of Beethoven, Therese von Brunswick, who did not go by Elise – the name would have to have been some kind of transcription error. It might have been after Elisabeth Rockel, another friend of the composer, who actually did go by Elise with some people. Finally, there was a young prodigy named Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, 13 at the time, and perhaps Beethoven dedicated it to her as a favor to a friend. None of these stories is particularly compelling, to my uninformed mind.
Fur Elise is likely the most popular example of a bagatelle, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a short unpretentious instrumental composition.” (A Fun Little Piece?) Beethoven was one of the main composers of the genre – Wikipedia claims bagatelles are generally written for solo piano, which Fur Elise was. Though not the most popular musical form, the article notes that one of the earlier explorations in western atonality was a bagatelle by Franz Liszt (readers will have to reconcile on their own the fact that atonality has, by its very nature, been a relatively pretentious exploration, from my perspective at least!).
The arrangement I’m working with is in G minor (or is it B-Flat major?), though Beethoven wrote the piece for piano in A minor. I worked on it for about 45 minutes yesterday, playing the theme over and over again, trying to get the fingers to cooperate, trying to appreciate the phrasing that will eventually allow me to string together something musical. The arrangement has a two line section that repeats, then a three line section. It’s somewhat short, and I can basically play the notes, but making the piece sound like music is a real challenge; subtleties abound. I’m having a lot of fun working with it.
Thanks for reading.