d or e – that is the question … when pianists sit down to play Beethoven’s “Für Elise”.

There are a great many questions surrounding Beethoven’s famous piano piece “Für Elise” – for example the identity of the lady mentioned in the title, which is even today not 100% certain, as she might have even been called Therese and not Elise … Pianists are, however, plagued by one question in particular. Why in measure 7 and analogous passages is there in some editions the root and in others – as in our current Urtext edition (HN 128) – the seventh to be found as the third from last note? And which is the right one?

The problem is caused – as is often the case – by a contradiction in the sources: the note can be traced back to a draft Beethoven wrote for the piece that is today housed in the Beethoven-Haus Bonn :

The note on the other hand is to be found in the first printing of the piece, published long after the composer’s death by the Beethoven scholar Ludwig Nohl. He had discovered the autograph of the up-to-then unknown composition and issued the piano piece as “Für Elise” in 1867.

Shortly afterwards Beethoven’s manuscript disappeared once again and is still missing today – meaning that Nohl’s edition is the only testimony we have of the text in the
autograph. So we are now faced with a tricky question: If we are to believe Nohl, did Beethoven systematically replace the seventh with the root at this place in his autograph? Or did Nohl make a mistake, meaning that we should edit the text as it has been transmitted in Beethoven’s draft – that is with ? We decided on the latter, and are still wondering whether the autograph will reappear one day to give us the definitive answer.

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8 Responses to »Beethoven, Für Elise WoO 59 – Do you strike the right note?«

  1. Pietro says:

    Nohl’s transcription of Beethoven’s autograph is now found on IMSLP. Here the variant e-c-b-a only appears in the first page (p. 28), while in all the following repetitions of the same passage there is d-c-b-a. This seems to confirm that the correct note is D — the one you chose as well. This is also confirmed by the compositional logic, of course, as the similar melodic passages at bars 10-12 all have rising 7ths.

  2. Sam says:

    Very interesting stuff. I’ve always used the E, but after reading this I can see the logic in using the D. Considering the only Autograph we have of the piece is later than the autograph Nohl transcribed, I guess it makes more sense to use the D as that’s what Beethoven put. Then we also have to take into account how reliable was Nohl? The music is often heavily edited by the transcribers (look at how much Fontana would edit Chopin’s works!). I hope the first draft that was transcribed by Nohl turns up one day, it would put a lot of debate to rest.

    • Thank you for your interest in our blog. May I just add, that it is not the sketch of WoO 59 that is missing today (it is found in the Beethoven-Haus Bonn) but the autograph of the complete piece. This is the reason why we have to take the Nohl transcription as the basis of the edition and have to decide us to correct “his” E to D. By the way, the comparison with Fontana/Chopin is of course a very interesting one. There will be a blog on this issue in the near future!

  3. TJ Martley says:

    I prefer the “D” to the “E.” Although, although my students have been bringing me many renditions of Fur Elise lately that contain the E. Overall, I wouldn’t frown at either option used by a performer. Great article and nice research.

    Here’s my rendition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-O0qb66AoQ

    Thanks!
    Tj

    • Daphne Stockman says:

      Thanks Ana for the information…..next time I play this piece I shall try and observe more closely the d and e.

  4. Caleb Carman says:

    It’s D. First of all, there’s already are already two E’s in the l.h., so another e in the melody seems redundant. The V7 chord is more dissonant and expressive than a simple V. Not only does the D make the harmony more interesting, but the melody too, since it jumps a dissonant interval. Perhaps Nohl considered this “wrong”, being out of line with common practice, which is why he “corrected” it to E. But even more interesting, this D doesn’t resolve to the C below it. This could mean a few things, including:

    1. The resolved C comes an octave too high, making the skip of a 7th – that Beethoven develops later – just a juxtaposed “step”. (If we replace the note under discussion with the D’s and E’s an octave higher, the D clearly sounds more melodic.)
    2. Beethoven intentionally leaves out the C in the next chord in order to make the arrival to “C” major more gratifying, thereby anticipating the entrance of a new key.

    What I personally find more interesting about the D is that even if it doesn’t really sink to the C below (or “Sea” below…ha, get it? Don’t – it’s awful), it psychologically makes the r.h. line reducible to two voices, the soprano moving C-B-A, and the alto, a sixth lower, moving E-D-C. If Nohl were correct, the alto would probably be singing E-E-E, which, again, sounds monotonous and less interesting.

    Furthermore, Beethoven is clearly interested in the passionate leap of a 7th since he develops that interval further in the proceeding bars in the r.h., from G-F, F-G, etc.

    My theories aside, let’s imagine that Beethoven really did want to write an E and that the D is a mistake. If so, the D that he would have written would appear very close to the intended E, since those notes are so close together on the staff anyway. Having said that, the D that Beethoven wrote doesn’t appear anywhere near the E above it. It’s not as though the ink from Beethoven’s E spilled into the D – it can’t be read as any other note. Nohl may have changed it by accident or for theoretical concerns, but whatever his reasons, he disobeyed Beethoven’s writing, and for that his choice is not “Urtext”.

    I hope that my observations, humble though I admit they may be, fall under the consideration of Henle G. Verlag.

    –Caleb

    • Caleb Carman says:

      I take back what I said about Nohl’s writing not to be “Urtext”, since it might be based off of Beethoven’s final manuscript which is lost, but the D is still more convincing to me.

      -Caleb

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