The score was not published until 1867, 40 years after the composer’s death in 1827. The discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, affirmed that the original autographed manuscript, now lost, was dated 27 April 1810.
The version of “Für Elise” heard today is an earlier version that was transcribed by Ludwig Nohl. There is a later version, with drastic changes to the accompaniment which was transcribed from a later manuscript by Barry Cooper. The most notable difference is in the first theme, the left-hand arpeggios are delayed by a 16th note beat. There are a few extra bars in the transitional section into the B section; and finally, the rising A minor arpeggio figure is moved later into the piece. The tempo marking Poco moto is believed to have been on the manuscript that Ludwig Nohl transcribed (now lost). The later version includes the marking Molto grazioso. It is believed that Beethoven intended to add the piece to a cycle of bagatelles.
The pianist and musicologist Luca Chiantore (es) argued in his thesis and his 2010 book Beethoven al piano that Beethoven might not have been the person who gave the piece the form that we know today. Chiantore suggested that the original signed manuscript, upon which Ludwig Nohl claimed to base his transcription, may never have existed. On the other hand, the musicologist Barry Cooper stated, in a 1984 essay in The Musical Times, that one of two surviving sketches closely resembles the published version.
Identity of “Elise”
It is not certain who “Elise” was. Max Unger suggested that Ludwig Nohl may have transcribed the title incorrectly and the original work may have been named “Für Therese”, a reference to Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792–1851). She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he supposedly proposed in 1810, though she turned him down to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik in 1816. Note that the piano sonata no.24, dedicated to Countess Thérèse von Brunswick, is also referred to sometimes as “für Therese”.
According to a 2010 study by Klaus Martin Kopitz (de), there is evidence that the piece was written for the German soprano singer Elisabeth Röckel (1793–1883), later the wife of Johann Nepomuk Hummel. “Elise”, as she was called by a parish priest (she called herself “Betty” too), had been a friend of Beethoven’s since 1808. In the meantime, the Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz has shown that Rudolf Schachner, who in 1851 inherited Therese von Droßdik’s musical scores, was the son of Babette Bredl, born out of wedlock. Babette in 1865 let Nohl copy the autograph in her possession. Thus the autograph must have come to Babette Bredl from Therese von Droßdik’s estate and Kopitz’s hypothesis is refuted.
In 2012, the Canadian musicologist Rita Steblin suggested that Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld (de), who used “Elise” as a variant first name, might be the dedicatee. Born in Regensburg and treated for a while as child prodigy, she first travelled on concert tours with Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, also from Regensburg, and then lived with him for some time in Vienna, where she received singing lessons from Antonio Salieri. Steblin argues that Beethoven dedicated this work to the 13-year-old Elise Barensfeld as a favour to Therese Malfatti who lived opposite Mälzel’s and Barensfeld’s residence and who might have given her piano lessons. Steblin admits that question marks remain for her hypothesis.
The piece is in A minor and is set in 3/8 time. It begins with an A minor theme marked Poco moto (little movement), with the left hand playing arpeggios alternating between A minor and E major. It then moves into a brief section based around C major and G major, before returning to the original theme. It then enters a lighter section in the subdominant key of the relative major of A minor (C major), F major. It consists of a similar texture to the A section, where the right hand plays a melody over left hand arpeggios. It then enters a 32nd note C major figure before returning to the A section. The piece then moves to an agitated theme in D minor with an A pedal point, as the right hand plays diminished chords. This section then concludes with an ascending A minor arpeggio before beginning a chromatic descent over two octaves, and then returning to the A section. The piece ends in its starting key of A minor with an authentic cadence. Despite being called a bagatelle, the piece is in rondo form. The structure is A–B–A–C–A. The first theme is not technically difficult and is often taught alone as it provides a good basic exercise for piano pedalling technique. However, much greater technique is required for the B section as well as the rapid rising A minor figure in the C section.
Kopitz presents the finding by the German organ scholar Johannes Quack that the letters that spell Elise can be decoded as the first three notes of the piece. Because an E♭ is called an Es in German and is pronounced as “S”, that makes E–(L)–(I)–S–E: E–(L)–(I)–E♭–E, which by enharmonic equivalents sounds the same as the written notes E–(L)–(I)–D♯–E.