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Ludwig van Beethoven, Skizzenblätter zum Klavierstück "Für Elise" WoO 59, zum Marsch WoO 19 und zu Egmont op. 84, Autograph

Beethoven-Haus Bonn, BH 116

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Beethoven's most famous melody

We can (sadly) no longer imagine life without this melody - it is now even a mobile phone melody. Alongside the opening motif from the Fifth Symphony and the jubilant final chorus from the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven's piano piece "Für Elise" is certainly one of the composer's most well-known melodies. Very few people realize that it was only just over 100 years ago that the melody became this popular and that no trace of the autograph score remains.

This sketch leaf, which not only contains sketches for "Elise", WoO 59, (on the outer pages 1 and 4), but also for the Incidental Music to Egmont op. 84 and for the March WoO 19, is the only remaining witness to the composition. The Beethoven scholar Ludwig Nohl published the piece in 1867. He said he had seen the original autograph score. Since then it is disappeared without a trace. Even the title of the work is puzzling. For which Elise did Beethoven write this short piece? There is no title on the sketch leaf, merely the numbering "No 12" on the top left-hand side of the first page. It is from the year 1822, when Beethoven looked through several small piano pieces, which he had composed at an earlier date, to see whether to publish them or not. To this end he ordered several older drafts; similar numbers can be seen on the sketch leaf BH 114. But now back to the mysterious Elise. As far as we know, there was no woman with this name amongst Beethoven's friends. Ludwig Nohl claimed that the autograph score of the piece was part of the estate of Therese von Droßdick, née Malfatti. It is well-known that Beethoven was attracted to Therese Malfatti and gave her piano lessons. Had Nohl misread the name? Did the autograph score actually bear the title "Für Therese"?

The bifolium contains further sketches, e.g. for the Incidental Music to Goethe's Egmont op. 84, which Beethoven was working on up to the summer of 1810. Beethoven also noted down ideas for the March WoO 19 on the leaf. He dated the autograph score of the March, 3 August 1810. Thus we can ascertain the exact date of the sketches. Nohl said that the autograph was dated "27. April" - we can add the year 1810 on account of the rest of the sketch material. Beethoven did indeed have close contact with the Malfatti family in that year.

Therese not Elise? In the end this question cannot be completely cleared up as the autograph score is obviously not to be found. This fact is also problematic for an edition of this very popular piece. All that remains in Beethoven's own handwriting are sketches in ink on this leaf (the pencil jottings belong to the other works) and Nohl's first edition, which is not completely reliable. The sketches are already quite advanced and were reworked by Beethoven in 1822. They already form a concept which can be used to reconstruct a playable piece - yet we do not know how true this is to Beethoven's original version. Beethoven's most well-known melody, which has made it into the mobile phone charts, stands on shaky ground. (J.R.)

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