Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ Doesn’t Deserve Your Eye Rolls

The ubiquity of “Für Elise” — like Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” — doesn’t void its masterly craft, nor does it preclude the possibility of performances on the level of Mr. Levit’s. Yet the eye rolls continue. In his biography “Beethoven: A Life,” which was recently translated into English, Jan Caeyers writes that the work “has assumed a significance in Beethoven’s oeuvre that is utterly disproportionate to its musical import.”

That may be true, but it’s a severe judgment nevertheless. For the outsize reputation, we can thank the catchy title, an abbreviation of the dedication: “For Elise on 27 April as a remembrance of L. v. Bthvn.” If the piece had come down in history merely as Bagatelle in A minor (WoO 59, from the “Werke ohne Opuszahl” catalog of Beethoven works without official opus numbers), it likely would have remained a lovely obscurity.

Beethoven drafted and dedicated it in 1810, though it remained unpublished in his lifetime. He is thought to have revisited it in the early 1820s, most likely with an eye toward including it in his Op. 119 Bagatelles, but he ultimately left it out. The scholar Ludwig Nohl eventually discovered and published it in the mid-1860s, igniting a debate over the identity of “Elise” that continues to this day.

Becoming a fixture of music lessons, spreading with the rise of mass media, finding new audiences as the line between high and low culture blurred: All led to the ultra-ubiquity of “Für Elise.” By the time I was a toddler, in the early 1990s, all I had to do was push a piano-shaped button on a toy to hear the opening theme. It was so entrenched in my memory that I could play it, crudely, before I could read a note of music.

Mr. Levit recalled similar experiences; he too learned “Für Elise” by ear. Then he became fascinated by, for example, a fleeting dissonance or a passage of enveloping tenderness. “This piece is an absolute jewel,” he said.

I asked him to expand on that, using his copy of the score from G. Henle Verlag. Mr. Levit has remained busy during the pandemic: He streamed a long series of daily concerts from his apartment, put on a marathon performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” and appeared around Europe. But like everyone, he has also been unusually homebound, lately baking challah and playing guitar. So he had time to dive deeply into the three pages of “Für Elise.” (All audio clips are excerpted from Mr. Levit’s Sony recording.)

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