The Beethoven-Malfatti Connection Revisited

By Beahrs, Virginia | The Beethoven Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Beethoven-Malfatti Connection Revisited


Beahrs, Virginia, The Beethoven Journal


"Elise" or "Therese"?

Ever since 1867, when Ludwig Nohl published his discovery of the autograph copy of Beethoven's fortepiano piece, WoO 59, with its tantalizing handwritten notation ("Für Elise am 27 April mit Erinnerung von L. V. Bthvn"; "For Elise on April 27 in remembrance from L. V. Bthvn"), devotees of the composer and his music have speculated on who this Elise might have been and the possible significance of the date.1

But was the recipient indeed someone named "Elise"? Or, as Max Unger postulated half a century ago, should the name properly be read "Therese," Therese closely resembling Elise in German script? If Therese is correct, the piece would conceivably have been intended for Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), since the autograph copy of "Für Elise" eventually turned up in Munich in the possession of her niece, one Fraulein Bredl, who had received it among papers passed on to her after the death of her aunt.2 Among recent critics, William Kinderman follows Unger's widely accepted reading. Barry Cooper, however, prefers the original "Elise," noting that often in German poetry, even in an occasional German . song, Elise is simply a term of endearment analogous to the English use of "Phyllis" for "nature." Thus Cooper reasons that "Beethoven may have used it to denote These Malfatti."3 Some critics even question the pertinence of arguments over the Elise/Therese distinction. Albrecht Reithmüller, for instance, quoting Shakespeare's Juliet, asks, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."4 Such criticism aside, however, the inscription and Beethoven's plans in 1810 warrant a reexamination.

Largely on the strength of the autograph copy of "Für Elise" having been in Therese Malfatti's possession, the probability that Therese was intended remains most plausible. Other Elise's who might be convincing are conspicuously absent in the life story of Beethoven. Neither Elise Keyser nor Elise Müller was a fortepianist (both were singers). Elise Bürger appears as an object of disdain in a letter of 1809 from Beethoven to his friend Gleichenstein: "you might find , some girl at F[reiburg] ... who would perhaps now and then grant a sigh to my harmonies. But she must not be like Elise Bürger." Elise seeburg, the Brunswick's cousin, is another unlikely prospect.5 Beethoven did not know Elisabeth (Elise or Elisa) van der Recke, mistress of the poet Tiedge, until he joined their circle of literati at Teplitz in the summer of 1811. In a letter to Beethoven she enclosed, along with two Tiedge poems, some verses of her own - "poetic offerings of my soul" - hoping he might "find a few of my spiritual songs worthy of composition!, giving them] a value they do not yet have."6

For the purpose of this discussion, I am assuming that Beethoven did indeed present "Für Elise" to Therese Malfatti "in remembrance" as the autograph states - remembrance, I believe, not of the often perceived but unsubstantiated romance read into the relationship, but of heart warming intimacy with the entire family during many months of cherished association with the warm and welcoming Malfatti circle. Before turning to the details of the case, a brief summary of the history of Beethoven's relations to the Malfattis is in order.

Beethoven and the Malfattis

Although a story of a formal proposal of marriage from Beethoven to Therese was passed down from generation to generation, often embellished by the supposition that Beethoven was devastated by a refusal from Therese, no positive documentation exists to authenticate it. Apparently, the story was based on three considerations that are discussed below. Although each is an outgrowth of certain known "givens" stemming from actual experiences, hypothetical interpretation of these givens too often lacks a firm foundation in any verifiable fact.

First, an interview of Therese's niece with Beethoven biographer Thayer many years later which - though testifying to Beethoven's fondness for Therese and perceived hope to marry her - stops short of confirming an actual offer of marriage. …

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