Ludwig van Beethoven, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest composers of all time, is thought to have completed his masterpiece “Für Elise” on this day in 1810.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born on 17 December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, and died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna, Austria. Amongst his complete oeuvre are two masterpieces that are familiar to even the least discerning ear, the Fifth Symphony and “Für Elise”. Passages from both of these pieces of music are instantly recognisable and remain famous all over the world.
Beethoven completed “Für Elise” (meaning For Elise) on 27 April 1810, but it was not actually discovered and published until 1867, a full 40 years after his funeral. The original autographed score was found by a German music scholar, Ludwig Nohl, who had it transcribed and published. However, this original manuscript is now lost, and some have even suggested that it never actually existed, adding mystery to the music.
The other great mystery about “Für Elise” surrounds the identity of the dedicatee, Elise. Some scholars have suggested that Nohl may have transcribed the title incorrectly, and that it was actually called “Für Therese” in honour of Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza. This generously named Therese was a friend and former student of Beethoven’s, whom he had fallen in love with and proposed to in 1810—only to be turned down in favour of the Austrian nobleman Wilhelm von Drossdik.
Others have suggested that Elise was actually Elisabeth Rockel, a German soprano. Elisabeth was a close friend of Beethoven—very shortly before he died, she took a lock of his hair to remember him—but she ended up marrying his friend and (far less successful) rival Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Sadly, all of Beethoven’s proposals fell through one way or another, and he died a bachelor.
At the time of writing “Für Elise”, Beethoven was well aware of the fact that he was losing his hearing. As early as 1802 he had written about this, and even contemplated killing himself before concluding: “But only Art held back; for, ah, it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce.” He started playing less in public, but he continued to compose new works in his notebooks. His patrons the Archduke Rudolf, Prince Lobkowitz, and Prince Kinsky provided him with an annuity of 4,000 florins as long as he lived in Vienna and kept composing, and he did so until his death.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s most important achievement was raising instrumental music to the upper echelons of art, when it was previously considered inferior to vocal music, and literature and painting. Through pieces such as “Für Elise”, he showed how a simple piano composition could contain as much emotion as any other art form.