Sound Field

S2 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Why Is Für Elise so Famous? (And Is It Overrated?)

Für Elise has become one of the most widely recognizable classical pieces in the world. It has appeared in commercials, movies, and even garbage trucks in Taiwan. So how did it get so popular, and is it overrated?

AIRED: May 13, 2021 | 0:15:08
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TRANSCRIPT

("Fur Elise")

- If your school had a piano chances are,

you've heard this piece, at least once.

("Fur Elise")

Beethoven's "Fur Elise" has become the

go-to classical piano piece for young students.

- Do you have a favorite piece

or song to play on the piano?

- Yes. "Fur Elise."

- Oh, that's your favorite?

That's your favorite one?

It's also been programmed into music boxes,

played on wine glasses,

and used for garbage trucks in Taiwan.

It's made appearances in movies, such as "Harry Potter",

"Django Unchained", and a "Charlie Brown Christmas".

- It's one of the few classical piano pieces

that most people would recognize by name.

Yet when played at serious piano recitals,

it's often met with giggles and confusion,

according to pianist, Igor Levit.

- It's one of Beethoven's

most recognizable melodies.

But the first person who published it

wrote that it was graceful, but not exactly important.

- The piece was, of course, written for someone named Elise,

but who was Elise?

- So why is "Fur Elise" so famous and, more importantly,

does it deserve its popularity or is it overrated?

("Fur Elise")

- Okay, well, here's the deal?

Here's the deal.

I think I'm actually in favor of the tune.

I really like the song.

- Oh no!

- I was like in seventh grade, I think.

Nas came out with a song called "I Can"

and it was like a little sample.

You know what I'm saying?

I was just like, "Oh, this is dope.

This is the old Beethoven tune? I can learn this."

♪ I know I can ♪

♪ Be what I wanna be ♪

So I'm a fan of a song, now. I'm sorry.

I know you're.

- No, no, no.

I am being a little facetious about how much I dislike it.

But, that being said,

I do not love it.

- Before we get into whether or not

"Fur Elise" is overrated,

let's dive into the history

and mystery surrounding Beethoven's most famous piece.

- Despite "Fur Elise's" popularity today,

it wasn't published until 1867,

40 years after Beethoven's death.

The musicologist, Ludwig Nohl, found it with the possessions

of one of Beethoven's friends, Therese Malfatti.

But Nohl didn't think much about the piece.

As mentioned earlier, he wrote that it was

"Not exactly important."

And it's possible that Beethoven would have agreed.

In 1822, he considered publishing it in a set of

easy piano pieces, but he decided not to.

- Even though the publisher

didn't think the piece was important,

the greater public disagreed.

The piece quickly grew in popularity.

It was published again several times in 1870.

In 1900, just 33 years after its first publication,

Tonger published "Fur Elise" in a collection

of the most popular classical and romantic piano pieces.

Development in the recording technology of the early 1900s

allowed the piece to be heard by mainstream audiences

and even played in movies.

In the 1940s, at least three movies included "Fur Elise"

in their soundtracks.

In 1965, "Fur Elise" aired on A Charlie Brown Christmas.

And so, 100 years after his discovery,

"Fur Elise's" rise into popular culture was cemented.

- So how did "Fur Elise" become so famous?

Part of the popularity probably comes from

the stardom of Beethoven.

He's influenced generations of composers and artists

throughout the 1800s and 1900s

even still today, of course.

And one can get a sense of his legendary status

as symbolized in this Zeus-like sculpture from 1902.

- The mystery surrounding the title

also adds to the appeal of the piece.

"Fur Elise" translates to "For Elise".

So who is Elise?

Scholars have been fascinated by this question

and they've proposed many different theories.

Is it Therese Malfatti?

She had possession of the piece at the time

of its discovery.

In addition, Beethoven was once wildly in love with her.

But her name isn't Elise.

Or, is it Elisabeth Rockel?

She was a close friend of Beethoven.

But then, how did Therese gain possession of the piece?

Or was it another Elise entirely,

like the child prodigy, Elise Barensfeld.

She lived across the street from Therese Malfatti.

These theories have appeared in newspapers, magazines,

and even documentaries.

But the identity of Elise remains unsolved.

And while it's unclear,

whether Elise was one of Beethoven's love interests,

popular culture has picked up on the idea.

The comments of YouTube recordings are full of jokes like,

"Maybe if Elise hadn't rejected him,

I would have been able to play this."

- At the time "Fur Elise" was discovered in the 1860s,

there was an increase in demand

for relatively easy piano music.

This was due to a growth in a wealthy middle-class

and advancements in piano design

that drastically increased piano ownership in Europe.

Pianos became smaller and more affordable,

so they were accessible to more people.

Now let's dive into the music of "Fur Elise"

to see what, specifically,

may have contributed to its popularity.

For one, the opening sounds rather complicated.

Yet, it's still very approachable for piano students.

("Fur Elise")

- Why do you think the song "Fur Elise" is so popular?

- Because it's a little bit complicated.

Nothing can be too fun if it's not complicated enough.

- A little bit of challenge in there.

- Yep.

- Ms. Emily, why do you decide to teach

"Fur Elise" to your students?

- I've been teaching piano for about 20 years now

and I've realized that the first section

of "Fur Elise" is actually pretty achievable

to most intermediate students.

And what's interesting is, I think

that, the tune that so many people have heard,

that the kids really feel like

now I've arrived as a piano player.

You know, I'm not playing those songs

that are just in the lesson books.

This is like a real song by a real composer.

- Another reason why "Fur Elise" may be so popular

is because its structure is very similar to many pop songs.

Pop songs often use a verse chorus bridge structure.

"Fur Elise" uses a similar structure called the Rondo form.

The Rondo form typically consists of a main theme

alternating with supporting themes and sections.

Here is Theme A of "Fur Elise."

("Fur Elise")

Theme B.

("Fur Elise")

And theme C.

("Fur Elise")

Notice how the verse chorus bridge form

and the Rondo form are nearly identical.

The overall effect is that the A theme is repeated

enough times that the listener can recall the tune

after listening to it once.

It's kind of catchy.

("Fur Elise")

We've mapped out "Fur Elise's" rise in fame,

but does it really deserve its popularity?

Let's consider what a "Fur Elise" enthusiast

and a "Fur Elise" critic might have to say about the piece.

Let's first talk about the melody.

("Fur Elise")

Definitely singable, definitely

lovely and memorable.

But does it have a profound quality?

Not really. It's very casual, it's sing songy.

I just think that it lacks

in the emotional depth of the melody itself

combined with the harmony.

("Fur Elise")

And it doesn't hold this tension

that I think a lot of great melodies do.

For example, Beethoven's second movement

from his Pathétique Sonata.

("Pathétique Sonata")

There's so much tension there.

It's very delicate because each chord change

makes you hold your breath.

And I feel

("Fur Elise")

I feel like I can breathe very easily during "Fur Elise."

I do think it's catchier

than many of his other bagatelles but it's hard to say

that catchiness can be a merit onto itself because

think of nursery rhymes, for example, they're great.

Of course they're memorable. They're catchy.

But is Humpty Dumpty the most profound thing ever?

- Popular doesn't mean it's good, but

I think it is popular because there are some merits

in these things like his repetition, I think.

So, yes, it is miniature and seems kind of like

there's no finality to it.

But, I think that's a feature and not a bug as they say,

of this piece.

It's also great because it repeats forever.

It's like background music for a video game,

something, you can almost,

you would maybe get tired of it.

But I think most people,

they could hear that on repeat for a long time

and it kind of just settles in that background

and it gives us sort of comfort to it.

- You're almost changing my mind about "Fur Elise."

But I would add one thing.

I think the melody is not quite as melancholic nor tragic

nor as longing as people give it credit for.

- I think one of the most beautiful things actually is

in the main theme when he goes to C major right?

You...

("Fur Elise")

Sorry, I'm skipping a lot of notes.

And then.

("Fur Elise")

You're back.

He always tries to go to C major, brighter.

We know when Beethoven writes C major, it's like

(intense C Major music)

Right, very heroic, bright kind of thing.

And he tries to go there but,

he just sequences back down into A minor.

I think there's something beautiful about that.

- The last question that I really wanted to ask you is that

if you had a student beginner to intermediate level that

was looking to learn a new piece,

would you and have you ever assigned

"Fur Elise" before it was requested?

- I have not assigned "Fur Elise" before it was requested.

I could definitely see myself assigning it,

depending on the student, but no, I have not assigned it.

Ever.

- Joseph just cut that we that's all we need.

We can clip that.

That's all that matters and we can use it.

Just kidding.

- Since "Fur Elise" isn't as important

as some of Beethoven's other works,

it seems strange that it became so popular.

But, this is a common trend in music.

For example, Johann Pachelbel helped develop the "Fugue"

and the "Chorale Prelude" during the Baroque period.

Yet, several hundred years after his death,

Pachelbel's Canon became his most popular work.

The piece itself is not that musically complex.

It includes a cello line that repeats the same eight notes

for five minutes straight.

("Pachelbel's Canon")

- Today. You can hear "Fur Elise" in almost

every part of the globe, from ice cream trucks to TV shows.

It's even gone commercial

and featured in many advertisements.

("Fur Elise")

♪ And not give any ♪

♪ To my dumb brother ♪

♪ Can't offer mine oh mine ♪

- "Fur Elise" continues to inspire musicians today.

The legend Ennio Morricone remixed "Fur Elise" into

a Western score that opens the film Inglorious Bastards.

Listen for how the music communicates tension

by contrasting "Fur Elise's" simple melody line

with a dramatic guitar part.

("Fur Elise" remix)

You can see how today's artists

use the familiarity of "Fur Elise"

to communicate complex emotions and ideas.

This leads us to our friend, Andre Sims,

who composed his own rendition of "Fur Elise"

and mixed it with his jazzy style

to create something completely new and surprising.

- Can you explain why you chose "Fur Elise"

to make an arrangement out of it,

what attracted you to it,

and what the process was like?

- As a teacher, I was like, okay, well,

I hear this song so much.

Even when I heard other teachers

teaching from other rooms, for example,

"Fur Elise" was playing.

It was just becoming externally exhausting to hear.

I did this in a live show at a jazz show

and it was on the wing.

We didn't practice it.

After the show, it was like,

everybody's giving me a standing ovation.

All the jazz songs we did that night,

it was like, great, great.

But that one song people was asking me like over

and over again after the show,

"Hey, where could we hear that at?

Like where this at? Is this on iTunes?

I'm like, no, it's just

the way that I can cope with my students.

(laughing)

Can you guys hear this good?

- Yeah, I can hear it.

- I'm gonna play it the way I started off

like I did in the show.

So it was like.

("Fur Elise")

("Fur Elise" remix)

- So by now you hopefully have a better idea of

why "Fur Elise" has become one of the most famous

classical pieces in the world.

When it comes to whether or not it's overrated,

well, that depends on who you ask.

For some, it's way too overplayed.

But to others, it's their favorite piece to perform.

What's more important is that "Fur Elise" has somehow

now become a permanent part of our culture.

("Fur Elise" remix)

- Oh. Awesome.

Awesome. Awesome.

Amazing, amazing, amazing.

(clapping)

- A huge shout out to The Cliburn,

whose mission is to advance classical piano music

throughout the world, for partnering with us on this video.

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