On this date in 1810 Ludwig van Beethoven signed the autograph score of his Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano, commonly known as “Für Elise” or “Fuer Elise” (“For Elise”), one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions. It is usually classified as a bagatelle, but it is also sometimes referred to as an Albumblatt. “Bagatelle” (a light unpretentious composition) suits it well, although I am given sometimes to call it a “plague.” I suppose you could say that my relationship with Für Elise is complicated at best. I first became acquainted with it 60 years ago as a little boy hearing the first few measures on cheap tinkly music boxes. It was sweet enough, I guess, but constant repetition of a few notes began to grate after a while. After that it just seemed to follow me everywhere. For example, when my son was learning piano I would hear the first section drifting from his room seemingly endlessly. I was much happier hearing him practice trumpet (sans mute) at 2am. Now in China I am absolutely surrounded by it. I hear it on my hostel tape loop, and blaring from fashion shops. Every other person has it as their mobile phone ring tone. I know that the sound track of Hell will be Für Elise. (Note to self: “live a better life before it’s too late”).
But the fact is that if I heard it for the first time today I would probably like it. It’s still the master’s work and has its levels of complexity and genius. I find it palatable if the piano is accompanied by orchestra, (as long as the pianist is not going all misty eyed and acting as if it is a ballet for fingers instead of music). Here’s an acceptable performance by Georgii Cerkin.
The score was not published until 1867, 40 years after Beethoven’s death in 1827. The discoverer of the piece, Ludwig Nohl, affirmed that the original autographed manuscript, now lost, was dated 27 April 1810 and that Beethoven titled it Für Elise. The version we hear 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.
The pianist and musicologist Luca Chiantore argued in 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 suggests 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.
It is not certain who “Elise” was, one of the many speculations about famous people I find inconsequential. If we knew for certain would it change anything? 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 (1792–1851). She was a friend and student of Beethoven’s to whom he proposed in 1810, though she turned him down to marry the Austrian nobleman and state official Wilhelm von Droßdik in 1816.
According to a 2010 study by Klaus Martin Kopitz, 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”), had been a friend of Beethoven’s since 1808.
In 2012, the Canadian musicologist Rita Steblin suggested that Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld, 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. All these speculations seem to me to be time better spent doing something else.
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 on 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 pedaling technique. However, much greater technique is required for the B section as well as the rapid rising A minor figure in the C section.
In this post I noted that Beethoven’s favorite dish was macaroni and cheese and gave a recipe http://www.bookofdaystales.com/beethovens-monster-concert/. But it also known that he preferred fish to meat, and one favored dish was pollock and potatoes. Pollock is similar to cod, but these days is more sustainable as a replacement. It can now be found in most supermarkets as fresh fillets or prepared freezer items. For example, in the U.K. it is used minced in fish fingers or as an ingredient in imitation crab meat.
Because of its slightly grey color, pollock is often prepared, as in Norway, as fried fish balls, or if juvenile sized, breaded with oatmeal and fried, as in Shetland. Year-old fish are traditionally split, salted and dried over a peat hearth in Orkney, where their texture becomes wooden. The fish can also be salted and smoked and achieve a salmon-like orange color (although it is not closely related to the salmon), as is the case in Germany where the fish is commonly sold as Seelachs or sea salmon. In Korea, pollock may be repeatedly frozen and melted to create hwangtae, half-dried to create ko-da-ri, or fully dried and eaten as book-o.
In 2009, U.K. supermarket Sainsbury’s renamed pollock ‘Colin’ in a bid to boost eco-friendly sales of the fish as an alternative to cod. Sainsbury’s, which said the new name was derived from the French for cooked pollock (colin), launched the product under the banner “Colin and chips can save British cod.” In the U.S. and worldwide, Alaska pollock is the primary fish used by the McDonald’s chain in their Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
Pollock and potatoes seems like an easy recipe to prepare. You can grill or bake pollock fillets as you would any white fish, and serve it with buttered poached new potatoes and lemon wedges. A white sauce with lemon and thyme would also work. Make sure you use thick, meaty fillets
Right now I am imagining a pollock fish soup. Gently sauté a sliced onion, a minced garlic clove, and 2 sliced tomatoes in olive oil until soft. Add some hefty chunks of pollock and sauté a minute or two longer. Cover with fish stock flavored with saffron and parsley. Simmer until the fish flakes easily (but not tough). Serve in shallow bowls with the vegetables scooped over the fish. Don’t forget crusty bread.