Who Was Beethoven's 'Elise'? A New Solution to the Mystery

By Steblin, Rita | Musical Times, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Who Was Beethoven's 'Elise'? A New Solution to the Mystery


Steblin, Rita, Musical Times


This article is dedicated to my close friends in Regensburg, David Hiley and Ann Fahrni-Hiley. My solution to the 'Für Elise' mystery was first revealed in the lecture I delivered at the Kaisersaal in Regensburg on i5 November 2012, entitled 'Beethovens Elise: ein Wunderkind aus Regensburg'.

ONE OF MUSICOLOGY'S MOST TANTALISING MYSTERIES involves Beethoven's enormously popular bagatelle 'Für Elise' (WoO 59). Beethoven had inscribed the following dedication on the now-missing autograph: 'Für Elise am 27 April zur Erinnerung von L. v. Bthvn' ('For Elise on 27 April as a remembrance of L. v. Bthvn'). Who was Elise? Why did he dedicate this easy piano piece to her? What is the significance of the inscription's date? There is little doubt that this Albumblatta rondo in A minor - was composed in 1810. The year is clearly established by a sketch (BH 116), now located at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.1 This contains the nearly complete draft of 'Für Elise' alongside instructions for the incidental music to Goethe's Egmont (op.84) and musical ideas for the Military march in F major (WoO 19). Both of these other pieces occupied the composer in spring 1810 and were finished by early June 1810; thus the bagatelle must date from April 1810. Two other dates muddy the waters somewhat, but do not change the now generally accepted date of the dedication. In spring 1808 Beethoven had already sketched the work's basic idea: the opening theme in A minor.2 And in 1822 he made revisions to the 1810 draft, assigning number '12' to the piece, perhaps with the idea of including it as the final item of his op.i 19 Bagatelles. In the end, only eleven pieces were published in this opus, and it is assumed that Beethoven rejected 'Für Elise' because it did not fit in with the style of the other numbers.3

It is amazing that this rondo - now so popular throughout the world - remained unpublished during Beethoven's lifetime. The autograph was first discovered in Munich in 1865 by the pioneering musicologist Ludwig Nohl (1831-85), in the possession of Fräulein Babeth Bredl. She allowed Nohl to publish the work - which he did in 1867 in his book on new Beethoven letters (fig.i).4 A footnote informed the reader that 'this quite charming little piano piece comes from the estate of Therese von Droßdik née Malfatti, who had given it to Miss Bredl of Munich'. Nohl explained further that 'it was not composed for Therese' but, according to the inscription in Beethoven's hand, was written 'for Elise'. He then added that Baroness von Gleichenstein (the sister of Therese von Droßdik) could not remember who Elise was. Since there was no known person named Elise in Beethoven's circle of friends - he first met the rather elderly poetess Elise von der Recke (1754-1833) in Teplitz in 1811 - Beethoven scholars were mystified.

Previous theories about Elise 's identity

In 1925 The Musical Quarterly published a novel theory by the German musicologist Max Unger (1883-1959) about the work's dedication.5 Unger argued that Nohl had probably erred in deciphering Beethoven's difficult handwriting, and that the name 'Elise' might actually read 'Therese'. For many years this idea found credence in the standard literature, especially as the work had once been owned by Therese von Droßdik née Malfatti (1792- 1851), the young pianist whom Beethoven had wanted to marry in spring 1810.6 But it is inconceivable that Nohl - who was certainly experienced at reading Beethoven's script - could have made such a mistake. Besides, he stated in no uncertain terms that the work, though once owned by Therese, was not written for her.7 Unger's theory is now discredited. This is clear from the controversy, outlined below, about the identity of 'Elise' that has attracted world-wide attention since 2009. The media ball started rolling with a short notice, 'Die enttarnte Elise' ('Elise unmasked'), that appeared in the German magazine Der Spiegel on 22 June 2009: a new candidate for Beethoven's Elise - Maria Eva Elisabeth Rockel - had been proposed by the Berlin musicologist Klaus Martin Kopitz. …

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