Ludwig Van Beethoven: Bagatelle No.25 in A- ‘Fur Elise’

Recently, I performed a search for “Fur Elise,” on Amazon.com. The search returned over 624 hits, and it was listed on diverse albums from Christmas compilations to albums to make your baby a genius.  From that I almost concluded it’s one of the Western world’s most popular pieces, but then I heard it played on a Sitar on an album called “Who Killed Beethoven with a Sitar?” Why does it have such appeal, I wonder.

Several years ago, the best friend of my daughter, Claire, started piano lessons. One day, I walked into Margy’s house to pick up Claire, and I heard Margy playing this piece. That surprised me. First, because it was Beethoven–whose works I thought only virtuoso pianist could master–and second because the girl had only been playing several months. When she stopped, I went over to the piano and saw that she had played it from a beginning Suzuki method book.

Well that must be one reason–so many people who’d taken piano had to learning. And since it was in a beginner’s book, it must be easy enough to play. True the tune starts out with nine notes, followed by a rest, four more notes, and then repeats the rest and the four again. This run of notes sounds as easy as “Mary had a little lamb.” If you look at the sheet music, though, here, you’ll see that it teaches so much–arpeggios, rests, the minor scale–that it’s a simple yet holistic piece. That is it doesn’t sacrifice any musical integrity–by being watered down–and therefore it allows a beginner to learn and integrate various different musical concepts without breaking them down mechanistically. Rote might be well for mastering physical dexterity and storing facts into long-term memory, but real learning when the brain integrates all the component parts into a meaningful whole. Something which is lost in our “teach to the test” approach to education these days.

Despite the simplicity and ubiquitous nature of this piece, however, I suspect there is something else which makes it so popular. Quite simply, it is a lovely, romantic piece of music. It made me week-kneed when I heard it as a high school boy with hormones raging through my body and a crush on nearly every cheerleader. Beethoven, after all, invented Romanticism, moving away from the airy intellectualism and rigidly structured rules of classicism. True it is sometimes hard to tell Beethoven’s early works from late Mozart, but because of Beethoven’s strong temperament, virtuosity and genius, as he matured he brought passion back into serious music. Indeed, he influence nearly every composer of the 19th century–Brahms, Schubert, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Bruckner and Mahler–and 20th century music was touched by him almost in reverse: it was a revolt by the intellectuals to wipe away the hyper-romanticism of fin de siecle Europe. The intellectuals then returned to rules of composition so rigid, it took nearly another century for the pendulum to swing back.

“Fur Elise” in the end remains so popular, I think, because people love a good tune after all. And good tunes give serious music more mass appeal and that makes them outlive the popular songs which lack the complexities of serious music. Who, after all, would cue up Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunnaire,” at a cocktail party? Whereas a pianist tinkling away at the “Moonlight” sonata or “Fur Elise,” will always be welcome.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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