The identity of the muse for Für Elise has long puzzled experts. A new book suggests it was named by someone else, after the composer’s death
Therese Malfatti, seated at the piano, in a painting circa 1810. Many have suggested she is ‘Elise’ but have never been able to prove it. Photograph: Granger/Historical Picture Archive/Alamy
It is one of classical music’s most famous compositions and also one of its most intriguing mysteries. Ludwig van Beethoven’s enchanting Für Elise has been played by generations of children learning the piano but musicologists have struggled in vain to find the “Elise” who inspired it.
Now a leading Beethoven expert has come to the conclusion that there never was an Elise – or at least not one that Beethoven knew.
In a forthcoming book, Why Beethoven, Norman Lebrecht presents evidence that the Bagatelle No 25 in A minor has been known as Für Elise (For Elise) purely due to a misreading of the dedication on the now lost 1810 manuscript.
He argues that Babette Bredl, a retired Munich teacher who owned the manuscript in 1865, was absent-mindedly thinking of her own granddaughter, Elise, when she read out the scrawled dedication to a visiting academic, Ludwig Nohl.
Neither Bredl nor her granddaughter had ever met Beethoven, who had died decades earlier in 1827.
Nohl, a respected expert, was visiting Bredl to examine some manuscripts in her possession. The moment he set eyes on that sheet, he excitedly recognised Beethoven’s hand and played the previously unknown music at her piano. With Bredl’s permission, he copied it out and included it in his 1867 Beethoven volume.
As the music became popular, Elise’s identity captured imaginations. In his book, Lebrecht writes of its enduring appeal: “There is scarcely a space on earth that it does not invade – from airport lounges to phone ringtones. However, in an era when all information is supposed to be retrievable online, tracking down the real Elise has proved frustrating.”
Scholars have pored over Beethoven’s notebooks relating to the period in which it was written, looking for any mentions of an Elise.
Discussing the past candidates, Lebrecht said only two appear in or before 1810, but both have been ruled out. They include a singer, who called herself Betty or Maria Eva rather than Elise.
In an era when all information is supposed to be retrievable online, tracking down the real Elise has proved frustrating
Norman Lebrecht, author
Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time, but he was unlucky in love. He fell for various unattainable women, including Therese Malfatti, who went on to marry someone else.
Lebrecht said: “She may have given Beethoven some encouragement because she was flattered to be wooed by this famous, albeit disreputable and malodorous man. He may have thought, I’ll give her a little bit of a giggle, I’ll write her a piece. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
In his book, Lebrecht writes that Therese later held court at her apartment, playing Beethoven sonatas with “incomparable virtuosity”. She went on tour with a pianist, Rudolf Schachner, who, when she died in 1851, inherited all her music.
Lebrecht said:“Schachner was the illegitimate son of Bredl, who just happened to own the Für Elise manuscript because her son had been Therese’s employee and friend.”
After Therese’s death, Schachner could not find work and had to move with his family to London, where there was a demand for musicians.
Lebrecht said that Bredl had been devastated that they were so far away and perhaps was thinking of them when Nohl came to visit because her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, was known in their family as Elise, and her granddaughter was christened Elise.
Lebrecht writes: “She reads out the title of the manuscript as ‘Für Elise’, either as a slip of her tongue because she is thinking of her granddaughter or deliberately, to ensure that her little Elise in London should enjoy this scrap of posterity.”
He said: “That’s how it gets the title. No connection to Beethoven at all. If you’re one of those people who goes around renaming things, then it should probably be ‘Für Therese’. But what’s the point? If the music is for anyone, it is actually for everyone.”
Asked what Beethoven would have made of this discovery, he said: “I think he would have roared with laughter at academics devoting their whole careers to discovering who was an Elise who never existed. For the manuscript to end up in Munich where, as far as I can tell, he never set foot, in the possession of an innocuous lady that he’d never heard of, Beethoven loved a good joke.”