Author May Have Cracked Beethoven's 'Elise' Mystery

Book argues that 'Fur Elise' wasn't actually written for anyone named Elise
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 23, 2023 9:20 AM CST
Author May Have Cracked Beethoven's 'Elise' Mystery
Ludwig von Beethoven apparently didn't have an "Elise" in mind when he wrote his famous score.   (Getty/ Georgios Art)

You've heard Beethoven's instantly recognizable "Fur Elise" somewhere, if only in a ring tone or a movie. As the New York Times put it in one appreciation, "Even if you don't know 'Fur Elise,' you know 'Fur Elise.'" Now, an author claims to have cracked an enduring mystery about the musical score—if it was written for Elise, who was Elise? Scholars have never been able to figure out the answer. As it turns out, it appears she never existed, at least in Beethoven's world, reports the Observer. In his new book Why Beethoven, author Norman Lebrecht makes the case that it may have resulted from an absent-minded slip of the tongue decades after the composer's death by a woman missing her granddaughter.

Lebrecht lays it out: In 1865, an academic named Ludwig Nohl visited a retired music teacher in Munich named Babette Bredl to examine her musical manuscripts. He recognized the previously unknown "Fur Elise" as belonging to Beethoven, who never published it in his lifetime. But Lebrecht suggests that Bredl is the one who christened it "Fur Elise," possibly by accident. When she read out the hard-to-decipher handwritten dedication on the manuscript (which is now lost), Lebrecht suggests that Bredl inadvertently read it out as "Fur Elise" because she was missing her granddaughter by that name in far-off London. Or she deliberately misread the dedication to give the real Elise a bit of posterity.

Either way, that was the title Lebrecht went with in his subsequent book, which introduced the score to the world. "That's how it gets the title," writes Lebrecht. "No connection to Beethoven at all." Or maybe an indirect one: Bredl received the manuscript from her son, a pianist who had toured with the musician Therese Malfatti, an unrequited love of Beethoven's. It's possible the composer had written the 1810 piece for her, writes Lebrecht. (More Beethoven stories.)

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