Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792-1851)
Early in their courtship, in the third section of Cropper, Winnie Graham gives Caleb a look that makes him squirm. The local piano teacher and, unknown to Caleb, an accomplished concert pianist, Winnie has just offered to play for him, and asks what his pleasure would be. He tells her that tune about Elise would be real nice. He’s a simple, uneducated sharecropper, completely unaware that Fur Elise (Fuer Elise, in German), or Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor, is a classical piece by Beethoven. He just knows it’s a tune he likes, and assumes she can play it.
Most people recognize Fur Elise when they hear it, even if they don’t know what it’s called. The opening theme is a simple one that carries through even when the later sections become more complicated. I’ve heard some musicians scoff at the piece because of that simplicity, and I’ve heard others praise it for the same reason. The work shows up throughout the story, helping Caleb make the transition from his late wife to his new love. In fact, the book ends with Fur Elise’s opening notes. So, who was Elise, and why did Beethoven write a song for her?
She could have been one of several different women, and according to one music historian, the name may even have been mistranslated. If he’s correct, Elise was actually Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, and the piece was originally called Fur Therese. Therese was a close friend and student of Beethoven’s. Some believe he proposed to her, but she spurned him for an Austrian nobleman. Beethoven’s Sonata 24 is dedicated to Therese von Brunswick, and is often referred to as “fur Therese”. Regardless of translation errors, we can be sure Therese was important enough to her friend and teacher to merit her own composition.
Other theories suggest that Elisabeth Rockel, a German soprano, was the inspiration for the music. She was a longtime friend of Beethoven’s, and though she never referred to herself as Elise, it was the name given to her by her parish priest. This theory is a weak one, mostly discredited by the provenance of the original score. A third possibility, also doubtful, is that Elise was a child prodigy named Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, nicknamed Elise. Some historians suggest she was a piano student of Therese Malfatti, and that Beethoven composed the piece as a favor to his close friend.
Who knew such intrique could be hidden within such a simple melody? We’ll probably never know who Elise was. The piece wasn’t published until 1867, forty years after Beethoven’s death. Ludwig Nohl discovered the original score and transcribed two versions – the simpler, earlier one we know today, and a later, more complex version rarely heard. That makes me think that music and literature have something in common. Both are better when they’re simple and clean.