The True Story and How to Play Für Elise by Beethoven

by Lars Nelissen  - September 25, 2023

If you want to TRULY MASTER this famous bagatelle or learn the ins and outs, then this is a MUST READ

3 Steps in Piano Technique to Get Superfast Fingers
The Fastest Way to Learn a Piano Piece

The History of Für Elise

In this article, we'll dive into the history of Für Elise. At the end of this post you'll find my one hour VIDEO TUTORIAL: How to play Für Elise by Beethoven. DOWNLOAD the score.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote 51 bagatelles, including Für Elise, probably written in 1810. Many bagatelles were published during Beethoven's life and got an opus number, but Für Elise was one of those published after his death and no less than 40 years after, in 1867 by the Beethoven scholar Ludwig Nohl, listed Für Elise as Bagatelle in a-minor WoO 59.

WoO stands for the German words: Werke ohne Opuszahl, meaning work without opus number. In the works of Chopin, for example, we often see "Opus Posthumous," meaning the work is published after the composer's death. This doesn't necessarily mean the same thing.

Sketch in Beethoven's handwriting with Für Elise from 1822 - Beethoven Haus Bonn

Sketch in Beethoven's handwriting with Für Elise from 1822 - Beethoven Haus Bonn

Ludwig Nohl claimed to have seen the original autograph, which has since disappeared, never to be found again. All that is left is a sketch in Beethoven's handwriting, dating from 1822, together with a few other compositions. It was a draft of compositions that Beethoven considered at the time for publication.

In the autograph is written according to Nohl: "Für Elise am 27 April zur Erinnerung von L.v. Bthvn." Meaning: To Elise on April 27th as a memory to L.v. Beethoven. Hence the name "Für Elise" that it has gotten.

The until 1867 unknown piece was found in 1851 among the personal papers of Therese von Droßdick, born Malfatti, who gave it to Miss Bredl in Munich.

Therese Malfatti

Therese von Droßdick née Malfatti

Who Elise was is still unclear. And several theories are in circulation. Beethoven was in love with Therese Malfatti, who also took piano lessons with him at the time of writing. She married someone else later on. So, most likely, Elise was a misreading of Therese or otherwise her pet name.

A misreading wouldn't be surprising because Beethoven's handwriting was very hard to read. Scholars spent many years interpreting his handwriting. Remember also that the autograph was found among Therese's papers many years after Beethoven's death. That fact would be odd if the piece didn't belong to her.

If Elise and Therese weren't the same person, Elise must have been an acquaintance Beethoven met once or twice. At the time, it was fashionable among artists to dedicate little pieces of art as a manner to bestow recognition to a friendship, with no romantic intentions in most cases. In fact, most of Beethoven's compositions are dedicated to benefactors and friends.

Ludwig van Beethoven. Found in the Collection of Philharmonie de Paris. Article: How to play Für Elise

Ludwig van Beethoven. Found in the Collection of Philharmonie de Paris.

What is a bagatelle?

A bagatelle is a little, uncomplicated instrumental piece typically for piano with light character. Beethoven wrote quite a few of them, 51 that I know of. Most of them were published during his life under the opus numbers 33, 119, and 126. 

We pianists revere Beethoven for his legacy of thirty-two piano sonatas, and not without very good reason. Those sonatas embody his robust genius in all manifestations.

His sonatas are serious and, except for a few easier ones, challenging works for the piano. They develop from his early classical yet romantic style, moving to a highly romantic, tempestuous middle period. From the 'Hammerklavier' sonata onwards, the late Beethoven style becomes more and more complex and introspective, even esoteric. At this time, he was composing in virtually complete deafness, only having his inner ear to guide him.

No serious pianist should go forward bypassing these masterworks. They bear significant importance in the development of not only piano playing but also of music history in general. 

Nevertheless, the bagatelles are not to be neglected, little gems of genius that show the master composer from a lighter side!

How to play Für Elise Video Tutorial 

What do you learn in the video?

If you truly wish to master this piece and at the same time improve your piano playing, you should watch this video for sure!

Piano Technique

Learn all the different techniques we use to master Für Elise by Beethoven successfully; arm techniques and finger technique in depth.

Music interpretation

The music behind the notes, "find the hidden meaning," as Beethoven wrote to Therese. I'll show you in-depth the meaning of the music and how to achieve this.

Watch Für Elise fully played by Lars Nelissen

At the end of the video, I shall play the music from beginning to end without stopping.

Click to read the Video Script

This is a video about "Für Elise." It's an in-depth tutorial, full-length, about the real technique behind the piece. So, at the end of the video, you will be able to follow along and practice this piece like a pro. In the description, I've time-stamped everything for you, so you can easily find your way. Also, if you come back a second time.

So let's get to it! My name is Lars from Piano Fantasy. If you're new to this channel, hit the subscribe button below with the bell icon, so that you don't miss out on my next videos! If you like this video, don't forget to give me a thumbs up! Any questions or suggestions? Please leave some comments, and I will answer your questions as best as I can.

We're going to talk about the fingerings, the arm movements, the music behind the notes, the different sounds and colors, and how to achieve that. And how to create different exercises from difficult passages. And if you stick around until the end, I will play the whole piece from beginning to end without stopping.

The character of the main theme is a little bit caressing. "Carezzando," we call that in music. You see this sometimes written. So it means with a little bit of movement, a little bit forward. Not too slow. The original indication, though, is "Molto Grazioso," which means with a lot of grace. And that should also be the character. Caressing and graceful... See! This is the main theme. It sounds free but still in the style, the classical style. Not too much "Rubato," a little bit of "Rubato" in the note, but never "Rubato" over the whole phrase.

Then we have the second theme, which is this: Which is very optimistic, joyful! After that, we get: See, again, there comes back the main theme. It ends up in this third theme or second episode, which is a completely different character: Even frightening almost! Let's try that: See, I see quite a different character there. And that finishes here quite dramatically...

In this kind of brilliant passage, which may be challenging in the beginning, it's not that difficult. We'll come to how to practice that. It's this: See! And then it ends up again in the main theme. Which is only once and comes at the end to a close. It becomes peaceful to a close. That's a little bit the form.

The beginning is very important to achieve pianissimo. But still, with a little expression in the sound, you can use the arm in a slightly higher position. Let the weight of the arm rest gently on the keys, and use a rotating movement. If you only play with your fingers, it will sound mechanical, and that's not desirable. So, we always use the arm, trying to find a way to avoid making things sound mechanical.

I would recommend doing this kind of exercise: exaggerate from one side to another. From here, you should feel the muscles in your fingers. Sometimes, I ask new students, "Do you know where the muscles are located in your fingers?" Most of the time, they point here. Yes, you do have a few tiny muscles there, but the main muscles are here. So, you should feel it when you press the key. You should feel it in your muscles here. I always feel there's a direct connection from my lower arm into the keys, even into the mechanics of the piano. I feel the whole piano with my muscles here. Pay a lot of attention to feeling, not just playing. This is very important.

So, and then, end the movement like this: a rotation and then a motion from low to up, all in one movement. As for the left hand, it goes into the right hand from here with flatter fingers. This area has rounder fingers, while here, you use slightly flatter fingers to get a velvet sound. We use different hand shapes in piano playing all the time. There's no one correct way of how to curve or flatten your fingers. There's no right way. All ways are correct when they serve a purpose, and that's important.

A round hand gives you more control, whereas a flatter hand gives you less control. Here, this hand position gives you a nice sound, with a little weight. Practice in small groups and always synchronize the movements of the left and right hands. The arm movement should be one continuous motion from the lower arm. The shoulders should be relaxed, and the lower arm should move passively. The movement starts from here, as if you have a little rope here, and someone is pulling it. The wrists should be free, and the fingers should be concentrated. We'll come to that, and I'll explain that in a moment. But first of all, the wrists have to be free. You can check if your wrists are free by dropping your hand – you should feel the weight of the arm in your fingers. When you block your wrists, you push, and you lose control over the keys. There's no longer a connection. Instead, aim for a good connection between the lower arm and the fingers.

So, this has to be free, and when you go up, see what happens... [Music] It's simple because when your wrist is free, your hand hangs. But now comes the difficult part. In daily use of our hands, we don't find that difficult. And that's to concentrate our fingers. There is a little tension in the fingers. They are not like spaghetti. We don't play with spaghetti fingers or jelly fingers, or whatever you'd like to call it. Instead, there is resistance in the fingers because without this resistance, you can't push down a key. What is enough resistance? Well, that depends on the situation. We have different levels of concentration for different kinds of sounds and situations. But the fingers should always be concentrated, never like jelly. Most students, when they concentrate on their fingers, tend to lock their wrists, and that's exactly not right. So when you concentrate on your fingers, your wrists should still be free, and there should be a good connection between what happens in the fingers and the arm muscles in the lower arm.

For example, when I hold this pencil, my fingers are concentrated; otherwise, it will drop from my hand. But my wrist is free. See? So you can make exercises like this, playing one note with several fingers, using the weight. [Music] You can do a simple exercise like this to help you control the freedom of the wrist, to work on how it feels. Because you have to know how it feels, and you have to make that your second nature. It makes the playing more free, but it also helps the fingers. If you play only with the fingers... [Music] It's awful! You start to feel tired, and it starts to sound mechanical. You lose control over the sound. It takes effort for me to demonstrate this because, for me, this is natural. [Music] Feel each note.

Now, this passage may be a bit difficult for some people because they are afraid of hitting wrong notes. But you should consider this as one movement. See, moving low and up, it's a single motion. And then you... [Music] Add a little rotation to this side for a lower position of the arm. This is in slow motion. Finish it... and... [Music] Always complete a passage before starting the next one. When you finish a passage well, it's easier to start the next one without it getting messy or losing control. By the way, don't forget to leave comments and ask questions. I'll do my best to answer them.

Now, let's play that first part, and here starts the new theme. The first three chords, you have to play them with slightly flatter fingers, and here, use a round hand shape. Find the right shape for your hand, and feel it's good... and... Play each chord with the weight. You have to... from here, supple wrists, concentrated fingers, prepare... [Music] Each chord is also played with a separate pedal. So, you have to practice this first slowly to get the pedaling right. [Music] Up, down, up, and down, up, and down... So, first slowly.

And this goes to the C. Actually, the melody is... That's a melodic line that should be emphasized, and the rest is the accompaniment. So, here we go up... Relax! Always relax from the arm muscles. From up, it's like an appoggiatura. So, these kinds of exercises... And then... There aren't many fingers there; it's concentrated fingers played from the arm up, using round fingers. It should be articulated very well.

So, that's very important, and I would recommend doing many finger exercises for both the left and right hands, like this: In the left hand, you can keep the fifth finger sustained; you can use it as an anchor point. Anyway, you use the pedal, and this is the bass note in the harmonic part. Then use the arm to go up and change your fingerings, as you [Music] see. Use two, then four, two, one, five, two, one [Music] like this. [Music] Rotation, again, a rotation. So that's the left hand, and you have to practice and make exercises. Also, use a slightly higher position and maintain a fixed shape of the hand, a locked form of the hand. For tremolo, don't let the keys completely come up [Music], see. Otherwise, it will not be as soft. It should not overwhelm the melody, so [Music] and, yeah. So, open the hands, open the hand, and prepare for the next chord [Music], up, see? That's the movement.

Also, the arm to the right, up, from up, down, [Music] relax. So, two, prepare the appoggiatura. These thirty-second notes go up without an accent. This one is heavier than that one. Not like [Music] that, but [Music]. Very light appoggiaturas always need to be prepared with relaxation. From a relaxed position, you can start it very nicely. I make these kinds of exercises, very slowly, where you lift your fingers and have a very quick strike of the key to activate your muscles to the maximum [Music]. Play with the cushions of your fingers, not with the nails, not too much with the tips, but with the cushions of the fingers. Even if you play with round fingers, use the cushions of the fingers. Only in a very special technique do we really make it sound like a [Music], like that. And then, open the hands up and relax [Music] up. [Music] And here starts a new passage.

You should come to, but first, how to get this together. Always synchronize your movements. I mentioned this before; it's very important. Even though the left and right hands have completely different notes and techniques, you should always seek synchronization, so there's a nice homogeneity between the two hands [Music]. You see how I use my arm to help the fingers and give certain notes more impulse than the others. All the great pianists do it like that. So it's very important to really think about your movements and do them consciously, not just instinctively, because often, then, they will be wrong. Think about it; they have a purpose and are a means to an end, so it's very important to take this into consideration and practice your arm movements.

Now we're going to the next section, which has these 30-second notes, which are quite a bit faster than what we had before, and it starts with a tremolo technique: two, five, one, five, one, one, one, one [Music], see? I would make exercises like this, really exaggerating it, like you're opening a door from here, so slowly with big movements. These large movements are very important. Okay, very important is the thumb. The thumb is a bit more vertical, not like [Music], not like this, see. Good [Music]. Start with the second finger and then, see, play with this part of the song, playing these notes. I all use one.

You could change fingers there, but I tried it. I think this gives more control and stability and the effect that I like. A high position of the arm and tremolo [Music]. Not like this, not with the lower arm; it's a high arm like this [Music]. The wrist is always lower than the arm, see? Then it becomes easier when you practice this enough; it's like you're shaking the notes out of your sleeve, see? And here, up and to the right, see? Do you do this little scale [Music]? Finish with one, four, three, one, low arm, two, and up, and then go over the one, back to the two, to this [Music], so you can continue that, practice it in small parts, even two notes, to feel and also leave the thumb as an anchor point and make exercises. And then [Music] and then, two, one, four, three, the thumb is very important. It's one of the, you could say, the center of the hand because the thumb can be used to extend your hand from one side to the other. It's always somewhere in between.

The thumb is very active under your hand, so it's important to make exercises for the thumb. A good exercise for this is [Music]. This exercise, see? I do it with the left hand so you can see [Music]. And do it with the right hand. It will help a lot; it will make your thumb loose and free. It will do many of its work much better and more smoothly. And this passage ends [Music], and then open a little rotation and vertical arm movements [Music], combined. So, and this you practice with the weight of the arm on each chord. The left hand makes exercises [Music]. These are good exercises for you. Leave down the five and the three and then make this exercise [Music], see? [Music]

[Music] Okay, let's say you have to make [Music], see [Music]. I do a little bit with my arm to the left, and then I loosen it and prepare anew [Music]. And then we're going to combine the left and right. So, I'll do it in slow motion. I would really practice to send you a nice left with the right. See, weight on the left and the right, trim [Music]. See how I synchronize the left with the right; the right decides the movement here. See, one movement, the arm to the right here. So we do this often with scales [Music]. Yes, like going down like that. Also, see, the fingers are much rounder than in the beginning in the first scene. So this whole episode, the second scene, is always with rounder fingers and with certain shapes.

These are the shapes [Music]. See, these are the forms of your hand. Feel them; feel everything that you do [Music]. It's almost suddenly soft, so there needs to be a little relaxation, a little opening from this old former passage to this finishing of the passage between [Music]. See, and without the pedal, almost without the pedal. I always use some pedal, sometimes just on one or two notes, little touches of the pedal. But sometimes, if you don't know how to use little touches of the pedal yet, you should practice it. And as long as you don't know how to do this very smoothly with the feet, in some passages, you're better off just leaving the pedal away. But never for the entire piece; it's just ridiculous to play the piano without the pedal.

I see you're still watching and that you enjoy this content. So please give me a thumbs up to let me know that I can make more of this type of content. If you haven't subscribed yet, then hit that subscribe button below and the bell icon, so you will be notified when new content is posted. Now, this section is finished [Music]. It goes very free from this part; it's finished [Music]. A little rotation [Music], a little rotation over [Music]. On the first doo doo doo, on the first three notes, start with [Music] [Music].

See, and then it comes back to the main scene. And now we're going from there to the second episode or the third theme, which is a completely different character [Music]. See how it gets there. We're going to work on this in the left hand. We have a kind of a tremolo, but it's not very fast. It's not like [Music]. But we use two fingers doing that, one, two, one. A little bit higher position of the arm; otherwise, it will get too heavy. So I would use a little bit more [Music], stretched fingers. Not round fingers, but a little bit more stretched fingers. And not let the note completely come up. If you do that, then it's not very nice, and it will sound too jumpy and exhausting.

And then here, one, five, two, five. [Music] And then four. I use here four, one, four, two, and then one, five, again. And then one, three, two, three. So two, and then [Music]. And then you make exercises. With the exercises, we always articulate well. We activate the muscles of the fingers, we keep the arm in a little bit higher position here. This kind of exercise from the arm, shaking it from the arm out of the sleeve, see. This is a little bit after practice, especially. So, and then from forte, we practice in forte, we're going back to piano [Music]. See, I don't let the key completely go when I play, so I keep in contact with the key. You see [Music].

All the sources you need to obtain, not a neutral that's keeping the key completely down. Sustainability is [Music]. Very close to the key; that's a good way of practicing. When the passage, when something has to be played soft, soft is far more difficult than strong. But you need strong fingers in order to play soft. Don't forget that. It sounds contradictory, but the stronger the fingers, the easier it becomes to play soft. And then we have these chords, but there's still a melody. The upper note of each chord is the melody. So this [Music], that's the melody. Now we go back to the chords, which must be played in a certain, with good concentrated form of the hand and the weight of the arm.

All the notes must be there, but the upper note has to be a bit stronger because it's a melody. How we do that is to concentrate on that melodic note, that finger. So the upper fingers, we concentrate on them a little bit more, and we put the weight slightly towards the right, see. So we work like this, and every time a little bit more towards that upper note, [Music] yes [Music], not like that. See [Music], two-four fingering, three-five [Music], but weight again towards the upper voice. So not [Music] [Music] okay [Music], and then here we have parallel sixths. It should be played legato. Everything must be legato. You can use the pedal to play legato. I use [Music] pedal for each bar. Here I will not change it between bars.

The pedal here, plus the finger legato, is always the main thing. Always, when you can play finger legato, you do it. I use here four and one, one, four, take with five, and then five, two [Music]. One, four, and then one, two, three. See, and go up. Let your arm [Music] help. So two, two up, and again the arm and the upper voice is legato. Legato means piano playing always that you leave only one key after you strike the next key. I exaggerate now, but sometimes legato can be exaggerated like that. That's correct, see. So that the notes are connected [Music].

In other videos, we'll talk about articulation and legato, which is very different in piano playing than in other instruments. We'll discuss what it means in piano playing, how we apply it, and how we sometimes can create the illusion of legato, even if we may not actually play legato.

So, let's head back to this. This could be an alternative fingering, but then you have to switch very quickly here. Quickly, see? And here, of course, we change the pedal because we have many changes here. In this particular bar, bar 66, we have to change the pedal.

In bar 71, with this B flat in the bass, the character changes, and the sound changes. We get a new color in harmony and in the piano playing, a more open color, not so dramatic. Then it goes into a diminuendo, finishing with that A minor chord and then going to the dominance of E, bursting out in this kind of a rumbling, agitato brilliant passage of broken chords with a descending chromatic scale, ending up in the main theme again.

So, let's see how to do that from here.

And then, 4, 5, see, 4 takes over with 5, and here, we do 4, 3, 4, 1, 2, 4, and all the melody is legato. Wait and relax, relax in between. Relax. Each chord with a new energy. You have to start each chord with new energy, otherwise, the chords will not sound very nice, and it will sound stiff.

So, we play here, in slow motion, a little bit more intense. We start softly, threatening, and...

a little bit more... Always in a round movement, go from one place to the other place like this, not like this, but always use your arm up and in a circle. So, if we're going to play this together, synchronize the arm movements decently.

New color, relax, new energy. It's very important to relax for each chord.

The fingering is very important, and it's very important to relax for each chord so you can really get perfect control over the sound.

And then here we finish like this, and then we have the final passage, which is just like a coda from this third theme.

So, this little coda, which comes after it, is a very nice and brilliant ending of this third theme or second episode, and it comes very nice, mostly as you come back to the main theme, which is a little bit more agitated than the last time and later comes to rest in the last line.

So, let's go into the technique first. A little bit of the coda. This is a broken chord. Without pedal. First, we play this later with one long pedal when you play it in tempo, but first, you have to learn it well.

So, it starts pianissimo, but

important is to feel these positions first. Practice the positions. See, these are the positions. Then when you make exercises;
you play one, two, four, one, three, five, four, three, two, and then one again.
A nd then the same fingering three times. Make exercises, a lot of exercises,.
This kind of piano exercises.

Feel here every note. Lift your fingers, articulate very well, and have it fast, see that you get very nice articulation. Round fingers and concentrated fingers. Particularly in pianissimo. Fingers should be a bit more concentrated to have better control and a clear sound.

On the second finger, make a little pressure. Here, a little pressure. This pressure will help you go from one position to the other smoothly without hearing a little opening. I'm not doing this now. This is just wrong. It's not playable. So you don't do this with your hand. You don't make turnings, but you do it smoothly with the help of your arm. Go from one position to the other, and in broken chords, make pressure on the second note and then release pressure. Pressure from the arm from here.

Try it, and you will see that it works. It works with all the broken chords. For the chromatic scale, we use all the fingers, so we don't use this. We use fingers four, three, two, one, and so on. Finish this with your thumb, open your hand, and let the arm move to the right. From up, the arm goes down. That's how it should be.

Now, let's address the left hand, which is very agitated, almost like a "precipitato." It's like a rapid heartbeat. You can use either fingerings, such as one, four, to one, or five, four, two. I like to use the fingering with four, five, and two. Then, make a circular movement from one to there, using the arm as a pivot.

Here's how it sounds when we connect this part: [Music] Not quicker, but more agitated. [Music] Then we come back to the main theme, and the last time, the main theme is a bit more agitated. [Music] So, that's the atmosphere I think you should aim for when you play this piece. Try to understand our movements and why we use certain arm movements. Always look for arm movements to help the fingers for smoother playing and better sound. It's very rare that we play something without involving the arm. I believe all the great pianists thought about this, worked on it, and you will see that this piece is not just a beautiful repertoire piece, but it will also significantly enhance your skills.

If you spend two to three months truly learning all that is involved, it will greatly benefit your playing, making you a better pianist. This is how we make progress.
You've followed me throughout this tutorial, I'll play the entire piece for you, from beginning to end. If you haven't subscribed yet, now is the perfect time to hit that subscribe button. Don't forget to download the score with all the fingerings and arm movements written down, making your practice easier. Give me a thumbs up to let others know this is valuable content, and I can create more of it. Feel free to leave your comments, suggestions, or questions. I'm delighted to receive your feedback and answer your questions.

Now, let's enjoy the whole piece, from beginning to end: [Music] [Applause] [Music]

Thank you for watching and listening. Don't hesitate to revisit this video if you need to review certain parts. I look forward to seeing you in my next video.

 

I made a mistake in playing this piece, an old childhood mistake that didn't leave me. I tell students to avoid mistakes in the text from the start to avoid wrong muscle memory.

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