The Three Faces of “Elise”
Who was She?
“Who was she?” is still an enigma because of competing theories, but of the three pictured above, Theory I below seems to me to be the most plausible.
Theory I: She was reputed to be Therese Malfatti (1 January 1792 – 27 April 1851), who was an Austrian musician and a pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven. He fell in love with her and decided to propose marriage to her. His plans came to naught. On her death, the original manuscript was found in her effects. It was taken to a music publisher, who immediately recognized the notation as being in Beethoven’s hand and decided to publish it posthumously. He published it under the title Bagatelle, but apparently misread the dedication. “Für Elise” appeared on the top of the title page, and the piece – quite possibly the most famous piano music Beethoven ever composed, probably because practically anyone can play it! – has been known by that name ever since.
Theory II – According to a 2010 study by Klaus Martin Kopitz, there is evidence that the piece was written for the German soprano singer Elisabeth Röckel (1793–1883), later the wife of Johann Nepmuk Hummel. “Elise” – as she was called by a parish priest (she also called herself “Betty”) – had been a friend of Beethoven’s since 1808.
Theory III – In 2012, the Canadian musicologist Rita Steblin suggested that Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, who used “Elise” as a variant first name, might be the dedicatee. Born in Regensburg and treated for a while as a child prodigy, she first travelled on concert tours with Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Malzel, also from Regensburg, and then lived with him for some time in Vienna where she received singing lessons from Antonio Salieri. Steblin argues that Beethoven dedicated this work to the 13-year-old Elise Barensfeld as a favour to Therese Malfatti who lived opposite Mälzel’s and Barensfeld’s residence and who might have given her piano lessons. Steblin admits that question marks remain for her hypothesis.
An MP3 version of the piece can be found here, performed by Valentina Lisitsa:
The score of Für Elise was not published until 1867, 40 years after Beethoven’s death in 1827. The discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, affirmed that the original autographed manuscript, now lost, was dated 27 April 1810.
Then, along came German organ scholar Johannes Quack, who proffered the idea that the letters that spell Elise could be decoded as the first three notes of the piece. Because an E♭ is called an Es in German and is pronounced as “S”, that makes E–(L)–(I)–S–E: E–(L)–(I)–E♭–E, which by enharmonic equivalents sounds the same as the written notes E–(L)–(I)–D♯–E.
So there you have it! Three plausible theories of which only one can be truly authentic, or authenticated by musicologists.
Why not weigh in with your own determination – Theory I, II or III! – by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org when you feel that you do have a definitive answer.
– Multiple sources used, including Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Concert Music –