This small seemingly straightforward work has become such a favourite with pianists of all ages and abilities. It is perpetually at the top of the ‘must learn to play’ list and is instantly recognisable from the first few notes. For many, Für Elise represents Beethoven (1770-1827), although in reality it’s of scant importance when surveying the Master’s output for the instrument. Perhaps it’s popularity rests on the fact that it is an easily accessible and playable piece, which is around Grade 5 standard. Several readers have written asking for practice tips and ideas, so here are my thoughts on this evocative miniature.
No-one really knows who ‘Elise’ was, and in fact it is thought that Beethoven apparently wrote this piece for Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792–1851). She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810. Therese declined and instead chose to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik in 1816. There are also several other dedicatee possibilities.
The original score was dated 27th April 1810, but the work wasn’t published until 1867, many years after Beethoven’s death. Ludwig Nohl discovered and transcribed the score and it’s the early version of the manuscript that is now the usual or ‘accepted’ version. Für Elise has become the official ‘nickname’ but the title is actually Bagatelle in A minor WoO 59.
The tempo marking, Molto grazioso, suggests a graceful tone and this should be strictly upheld; generally a slower tempo is much more effective. The work is in the style of a perpetuum mobile (perpetual motion or movement) so a gently flowing tempo allows the haunting melody to be expressively enunciated. Fingering needs careful attention because this will make or break any performance, so write it all in the score.
The familiar sections of this work consist mainly of rolling semiquaver figures; often widespread arpeggios in the left hand and a beautiful, simple melody in the right. These sections frame two contrasting episodes, both containing more dramatic material. It’s important to have a clear musical overview when learning; the form here is A-B-A-C-A.
Für Elise is in the key of A minor with brief diversions into F major and C major, so start by playing the scales, arpeggios and chordal progressions (tonic, sub-dominant and dominant) in these keys. This can help with fingering and note patterns. There are three sections with virtually the same material (containing the famous melody), so by beginning here, a large chunk of the piece can be mastered fairly quickly. Start by practising hands separately. Combining them shouldn’t prove too difficult, as much of the material is played using separate hands; one hand replying to the other, rather like a conversation.
Two issues need attention within the outer sections; the first is the necessity of a completely accurate pulse and the second is the careful balance of sound required between the hands.
The former can be solved in many ways, but a good idea might be to set a very slow metronome semiquaver pulse, so in effect each note will be accounted for (you can also do this by counting aloud to each beat; six per bar, although your pulse must be extremely regular for this to work). Try to be sure to ‘sit’ on the metronome beat with no deviation when practising at least. Whilst this passage work looks innocuous, its simplicity can make it all the more difficult to articulate. Therefore, very careful listening is necessary, in order to allow for a totally even approach on and between each note. It’s this almost robotic articulation that will help your rendition to sound professional. Care is especially required during the following passage; every note must be placed correctly (bars 14 – 16):
Work at each phrase (these outer sections consist of four bar phrases), thinking about fingering and placing each semiquaver precisely.
To achieve a good balance between the hands, a relaxed wrist and firm finger action is important, try to resist ‘locking’ the wrist and arm together; plenty of movement in your wrist will ensure a good sound which is necessary for the melody particularly. When practising rotational wrist movement, firstly try to encourage the wrist to move copiously or much more than necessary. Practising wrist movement between every note will help free tension, which can occur even when tackling simpler works.
The left hand needs to be light and very legato (or smooth). Practise moving from the bottom to the top note using a rotational wrist motion and a heavy sound (almost ‘digging’ into the key bed), then lighten the sound and you should hear even figurations. The right hand melody also benefits from heavy articulation at a slow speed. Resist the temptation for too much rubato (or ‘pulling’ of the tempo) to begin with. A completely seemless legato sound is necessary throughout the melodic line. Once the hands are combined, the left must ‘give way’ to the right, and provide the perfect accompanying role, always softer and lighter.
The first of the two more dramatic sections begins at bar 25 with three chords introducing a light-hearted melody. The left hand broken chords (or Alberti-Bass) can be ‘blocked out’ for quick study (playing all the notes in the chord in unison). When played as written, the thumb needs to be lighter and again a rotational hand movement will help with even rhythm and tone. The melody needs special attention because it contains a different rhythmic pattern and some ornamental passage work. Practice without the ornaments to begin with, adding them only when the passage is secure rhythmically.
The demisemiquaver figurations that end this section frequently cause some technical difficulties. When playing fast passages which require complete rotational movement such as bars 1 and 3 here, firstly ensure the elbow remains static, whilst the arm moves horizontally, turning from side to side, supporting the constantly pivoting hand and subsequently, the fingers. This needs to be done with freedom of movement but also very rhythmically. Equally important are active fingers. Use a firm fingertip (playing on the fleshy part of the tip), and start rotating slowly, picking up each finger cleanly. The movements will become smaller as the tempo gradually increases. Start by accenting top notes:
Then the bottom notes:
Finally accent in various patterns with different rhythms.
The second dramatic section begins at bar 62 and requires a smooth repeated note action in the left hand. Many prefer to change fingers on repeated notes, but this passage needs such a constant, equal sound that it may be better to use one finger (perhaps the third), again employing a loose pivotal wrist motion to keep articulation even. In order to build up a reliable wrist action without incurring any tension here, practice one bar at a time moving the hand in an ‘up and down’ motion (from the wrist), stopping and releasing any tension building in the wrist at the end of each bar. After a while (when flexibility has increased) the number of bars can be elongated (playing two together then three together), until all 16 bars can be negotiated without any tightness.
The right hand chords (which are full of angst, thanks to the diminished seventh chords), need a beautiful legato line. To achieve this, play the top line of each chord alone with suitable legato fingering, like this:
Pay attention to the musical shape of the line and ensure a full singing tone. When satisfied, add the other notes in each chord. They must be much softer and unobtrusive. As the harmonies change, add more tone, colour and sonority. Practice without using any pedal so as to obtain complete finger legato. The pedal can be added in small doses when the notes are securely learnt; experiment with various flutter and half pedalling techniques (continually changing the sustaining or right pedal), so that harmonies are enhanced as opposed to smudged.
A cantabile touch (or singing tone) will make for an expressive, musical rendition. Use plenty of arm weight to produce the required rich sound. Once the notes are in place, explore various dynamic colours and small amounts of rubato for a convincing, musical performance.
Here are a couple of renditions to hopefully provide inspiration!
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.