On April 27, 1810 Ludwig Van Beethoven composed Für Elise, one of the most famous melodies in the world. But do you know what its story is? In reality there is a great mystery, even today, that this work carries with it.
Before discovering it together and looking at the context of the work, let’s do a bit of a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. This will help us better understand the story of Für Elise.
Who is Ludwig van Beethoven?
Known throughout the world, this brilliant artist will never cease to amaze us. Born in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most famous composers of music. He is one of the last great figures of Viennese classicism, even if he is described as “unclassifiable.” He is unique, a bit like Mozart in fact, who inspired him a lot: there aren’t many like them!
Mostly known for his symphonic music, he has also made his mark in chamber music. Beethoven’s genius lies in his ability to continue making music despite the deafness that struck him before the age of thirty.
In spite of all this, today we owe to Ludwig van Beethoven dozens and dozens of musical works, ranging from symphony to concert or string quartet.
Among the best known works of him, we remember among others:
The creatures of Prometheus
Violin Concerto in D major
Fantasy for Piano in G major
Christ on the Mount of Olives
And obviously one of his most famous pieces… Für Elise.!
Contest of Für Elise
In 1809, desperate at not being able to live as he would have liked in this city that seemed too frivolous to him to listen to what he had to shout so loudly, Beethoven was ready to leave Vienna.
A young woman, Maria Erdödy, however semi-paralyzed and regularly destroyed by depressive states, knows how to restrain him, not with some loving maneuver, but by convincing three patrons to ensure that Beethoven can live free from any material concern.
They are three rich young music lovers: Prince Lobkowitz, his brother-in-law, Prince Kinsky, and Archduke Rudolph. Pushed by her, they draw up an official deed with which they undertake to pay Beethoven an annual pension of 4,000 florins.
In return, the composer will stay in Vienna to practice his art. Is it enough to make Beethoven happy? Obviously not, but enough to allow him to actively launch into his fifth piano concert… at a time when preparations are being made for the mobilization of a new war against France.
Dreaming of love
We must also say that Beethoven’s relationships with women have always been complicated: a few years earlier, his love for Giuseppina di Brunswick seemed to happen after her husband’s death, but the young woman still drifted away.
Even Maria Erdödy, after letting him stay in Vienna, broke up with the man for whom she had done so much. Beethoven, as we said earlier, feels confined to the city of Vienna from which he usually likes to escape to breathe.
One day when he goes on a short walk and takes notes in his notebook, he is even arrested for a few hours: he is suspected of spying! To make matters worse, having Napoleon decided to destroy the ramparts of the city, his poor sick ears have yet to suffer the roar of mines under his windows!
The months that followed left him destitute, while remaining attached to the idea of a conjugal love, which he set to music in his Fidelio. Bettina Brentano, a friend of Goethe, the great interpreter of romanticism, will soon appear in his life.
The arrival of “Elise”
But, even before that, Beethoven will be exalted for a young woman full of charm and carefree cheerfulness.
Sister of Anna Malfatti, fiancée of a friend of his, through whom she met her, this young 18-year-old aristocrat, born in 1792, is called Thérèse Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza.
As soon as Beethoven sees her, he falls in love with her. He writes to her, takes care of his outfit (modern concession) when he knows he will meet her, even borrows a mirror to “make himself cool”.
But this girl does not reciprocate much Beethoven’s sentiment, even if she perhaps gave him a glimpse of the possibility of loving him. Without further hesitation, in May 1810, the composer went to ask for the hand of the girl from her father, Jacob Malfatti von Rohrenbach, who was only a year older than Beethoven.
However, it was not so much the age difference that was accepted at the time, but rather simply the fact that neither she nor her father saw the usefulness of this marriage, which resulted in a rejection. When his request is refused, Beethoven hears himself
“hurled from the regions of highest ecstasy into a deep fall”.
Composition of Für Elise
All that’s left for him to do is drink, dig inside himself, wander at night and compose to live another life.
We can say that all this would have been just one more step in Beethoven’s difficult relationships with women if this Thérèse Malfatti had only made this lightning step in her life.
But he also left his mark on it through a short piano work that remains today one of the most famous of the composer, even if published only after his death: it is the Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59.
In classical numbering, WoO is short for a German term meaning “Werke Ohne Opuszahl”. In English it means “to work without a purpose”, in the sense that Für Elise was therefore not supposed to become a real musical composition, in fact this Bagatelle remained in a bundle of his manuscripts until the composer’s death in 1827.
The discovery of the manuscript
It was in fact only in 1865 that the musicologist Ludwig Nohl discovered the manuscript. But the document is in poor condition and difficult to read. Ludwig Nohl focuses on the music, which he restores, before looking at the handwritten dedication: he reads “für”, that is for, then a name from which he clearly distinguishes the last two letters “SE”.
However, he is unable to decipher the beginning, because there is a sort of ink block that even analysis with a magnifying glass does not show anything clear.
These two letters could, in fact, be the end of the name Thérèse, but this we may never know.
Several hypotheses are in fact still valid today as to why the piece, 40 years after its composition, was called Für Elise.
1st hypothesis: Ludwig Nohl chose the name Élise because she sounded good.
2nd hypothesis: Ludwig Nohl dedicated this score to a woman of his time called Élise but of whom we know nothing.
In 2014 Italian musicologist Luca Chiantore put forward the hypothesis, described in detail in his Beethoven at the Piano, that the piece as we know it today was actually assembled by Nohl, and not by Beethoven. Will we also have an answer to this mystery? Maybe not.
Ultimately, the name of the piece probably doesn’t matter. The fact remains that this Bagatelle, printed in 1867 under the name Für Elise, soon became all the rage in salons, thanks to its charming melody and the simplicity of its execution.
And the fact remains that if Beethoven has never written a Für Elise, he has nevertheless composed a fascinating melody in memory of a young girl whom he may have loved or believed to love and that thus, under another name, remains forever in the memory of the music lovers. All this without her having ever heard this score or seen it: Thérèse died in 1851, sixteen years before the release of Für Elise.