Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ Doesn’t Deserve Your Eye Rolls


The ubiquity of “Für Elise” – like Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” – does not invalidate his masterful craft, nor does it exclude the possibility of performances on the level of Mr. Levit. Still, the eyes keep rolling. In his biography “Beethoven: A Life”, recently translated into English, Jan Caeyers writes that the work “has acquired a meaning in Beethoven’s work that is out of all proportion to its musical significance”.

That may be true, but it’s still a tough judgment. For the huge reputation we can thank the catchy title, an abbreviation for the dedication: “For Elise on April 27th as a reminder of L. v. Bthvn. ”If the piece had only gone down in history as a bagatelle in A minor (WoO 59, from the catalog“ Works without opus number ”of Beethoven works without official opus numbers), it would probably have remained a nice darkness.

Beethoven designed and dedicated it in 1810, although it remained unpublished during his lifetime. It is believed that he revisited it in the early 1820s, most likely with the aim of including it in his op. 119 bagatelles, but he ended up skipping it. The scholar Ludwig Nohl finally discovered and published it in the mid-1860s and sparked a debate about the identity of “Elise” that continues to this day.

With the advent of the mass media to become an integral part of music lessons and to find a new audience, as the line between high and low culture is blurring: All of them led to the ubiquity of “Für Elise”. When I was a toddler in the early 1990s, all I had to do was press a piano-shaped button on a toy to hear the opening theme. It was so ingrained in my memory that I could play it roughly before I could read a musical note.

Mr. Levit recalled similar experiences; He also learned “Für Elise” by ear. Then he was fascinated, for example, by a fleeting dissonance or a passage of enveloping tenderness. “This piece is an absolute gem,” he said.

I asked him to expand this with a copy of the score from G. Henle Verlag. Mr Levit was busy during the pandemic: streaming a long series of daily concerts from his apartment, giving a marathon performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” and performing across Europe. But like everyone else, he was unusually attached to his homeland, baked challah and played guitar lately. So he had time to delve deeply into the three sides of “Für Elise”. (All audio clips are from Mr. Levit’s Sony recording.)