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Beethoven's Two Loves
It is one of the most famous piano pieces around. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in April 1810, the piece is written in Rondo form - a five-part structure where contrasting sections separate recurring ones. (Musicians also refer to this as A-B-A-C-A form to show how a repeating section A is separated by different parts.) But while it has attained iconic status - most pianists will have at some point heard attempted it - the question remains: just who exactly is the "Elise" in Beethoven's Fur Elise (for Elise)? Who is the piece for?
It may come as a surprise that the version of the Fur Elise we know may not have been the one that Beethoven wrote. There are at least two different versions and other sketches with the similar theme.
The piece itself was not played in Beethoven's lifetime; it lay undiscovered for about forty years after he had passed away in 1827.
A German music scholar, Ludwig Nohl, discovered the score among the papers of Baronness Therese von Drossdick, nee Malfatti, which had been inherited by Babeth Bredl. Malfatti was a lady that Beethoven had befriended (and possibly proposed to) around 1810.
Bredl let Nohl copy and publish the score that she had in her possession, but the original she had has since been lost. The version we play nowadays is the one that had been transcribed by Nohl.
Historians have speculated that Nohl may have erred in transcribing the copy held by Bredl. They have also suggested that Beethoven was dyslexic, and possessed very bad spelling and handwriting, because his alcoholic father was more interested in turning him into a child prodigy and had neglected other parts of his education. (You can judge for yourself the quality of Beethoven's handwriting in the Beethoven digital archives held at beethoven.de by searching for his letters.)
For many years, the commonly-held opinion was that a combination of Beethoven's bad penmanship had led Nohl to mistake the dedicatee's name as "Elise", when it should have been "Therese".
According to Nohl, the famous piece bears the inscription Fur Elise am 27 April ur Erinnerung von L. v. Bthvn (for Elise on 27 April in memory of L. v. Beethoven), although Beethoven might have meant Fur Therese but been let down by his own handwriting.
Therese von Drossdik, nee Malfatti, was a close friend of Beethoven and they were reportedly close. She was "the object of Beethoven's affection and marriage-project in the year 1810" (Unger, 1925). But in April or May in the same year, Beethoven wrote to her a letter which ended:
Now fare you well, respected Therese. I wish you all the good and beautiful things in this life. Bear me in memory - no one can wish you a brighter, happier life than I - even should it be that you care not at all for
Your devoted servant and friend
So sometime in April or May 1810 Beethoven realised that she was not going to reciprocate his affections.
Malfatti eventually married the Austrain nobleman Wilhelm von Drossdik later in 1816.
The fact that the score was found among her possessions does lend weight to the idea that she had been the original dedicatee. After all, how else would she have got it?
In recent years there has also been speculation that the piece was in fact written for the German soprano Elisabeth Roeckel, who had been a friend of Beethoven's since 1808. Beethoven was also fond of her, and in a letter where Roeckel described an evening with Beethoven, the composer Johann Hummel and the guitarist Mauro Giuliani, she wrote that Beethoven would not stop teasing her and had "pinched her arm" out of sheer affection. When Roeckel departed for Bamburg to work in theatre, it is said that Beethoven was deeply saddened by her impending depature and their eventual separation. He wrote the piece and dedicated it to her, in the hope that she would remember him. Roeckel was known in her social circles by the less formal Elise.
If Roeckel had been the intended dedicatee, how did the score, bearing her name, end up with von Drossdick? How did a score beaing the name of one of Beethoven's love interests, end up in the possession of the other? Unsurprisingly, some historians have attempted to fill in the ambiguity.
One theory goes as far as to suggest that Beethoven did write the piece for Elizabeth Roeckel, but when Malfatti turned up at his home, and realised from the score that she had a rival, she snatched it from his piano in a fit of jealousy. Then she decided also that she wasn't going to be remembered in history as "the woman Ludwig van Beethoven married as a backup plan because he couldn't marry Elizabeth Roeckel" and decided to end things with him despite his armorous pursuit.
Was Beethoven a two-timer?
That's a convenient way to tie loose ends together, but you'd really have had to be there to get to the bottom of things. Perhaps it was written for Roeckel, but Malfatti accepted it from Beethoven nonetheless. Or maybe it really was Beethoven's bad handwriting. Who really knows?
The life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and spawned a movie called Amadeus in 1984. So if ever anyone wants to make a movie of Beethoven's life, there's plenty of material available just from the Elise angle itself. Sadly, the only "Beethoven" film in existence is about a dog!
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