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Culture Re-View: Everything you need to know about ‘Für Elise’

The sheet music for 'Für Elise'
The sheet music for 'Für Elise' Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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Culture Re-View: Everything you need to know about ‘Für Elise’, the lost Beethoven bagatelle that's inspired everything from horror films to rubbish trucks.

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27 April 1810: Beethoven composed ‘Für Elise’

Those tinkering initial piano notes, as the fingers dart between E and D# are ingrained into every person’s mind. So easy to play, yet so hard to master the following flow up the keyboard that expands into the broader piece. ‘Für Elise’ is to many, the definitive work by Ludwig van Beethoven, yet in his lifetime, it was completely unknown.

If you’d have asked a classical music fan in 1810 what was the most famous work by the German composer, they’d likely respond with the Fifth Symphony. Also a famous one, it starts with that that iconic three stabs of G and then the longer E♭. That fan, however, wouldn’t have named ‘Für Elise’ because they couldn’t have. Beethoven never published it. He died in 1827 and it wasn’t until German music scholar Ludwig Nohl discovered it 1867 that the public became aware of it.

And what a piece ‘Für Elise’ is. Technically called ‘Bagatelle No. 25’, it has never been confirmed who the “Elise” is to which the piece is dedicated. Some theories have the title as a type and it is actually dedicated to Therese Malfatti, a student Beethoven supposedly proposed to in that year. One study points to Elisabeth Röckel, a young singer who Beethoven also might have proposed to. While another theory suggests Elise Barensfeld, a 13-year-old singing prodigy.

Regardless of who the true “Elise” is, the piece aches with romantic yearning. As it slides through the key of A minor, it immediately transports the listener from idle daydreams all the way through gentle passion. No wonder it’s been the cornerstone of so many other cultural works.

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Beethoven statue in BonnCanva

Rosemary’s Baby

Probably the most famous use of ‘Für Elise’ in a film has to be Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror Rosemary’s Baby. The intense film that unsettled audiences for injecting malevolence into the most trusted parts of society as Mia Farrow’s Rosemary becomes increasingly concerned her New York neighbours are part of a Satanic cult who want her baby. The creepy opening lullaby and the incessant echoing use of ‘Für Elise’ help underline the terror of one of the greatest horror films.

Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s complex 2003 film Elephant won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for its unromantic depiction of a school shooting, inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. Before the final horrifying events, we see Alex (played by Alex Frost), one of the killers, is a frustrated pianist. Alex plays ‘Für Elise’ in its entirety as Van Sant pans around his room, bringing us into the world of one of cinema’s saddest protagonists.

Rubbish trucks in Taiwan

This isn’t a deep cinematic cut you’ve never heard of. Much as I wish there was a cult-classic film called Rubbish Trucks in Taiwan, what I’m actually referring to is the practice of the rubbish (or garbage) trucks across Taiwan doing their regular routes while pumping out ‘Für Elise’ as a way to let the public know it’s time to take their bins out. Inspired.

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