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I've always heard that Für Elise is an extremely difficult piece to play well, despite being relatively easy in a technical sense. An added challenge is that it's been extremely over-played (I'm just glad it's no longer a fashionable ringtone where I live). I learned it as a kid but was never really happy with how I played it, and listening to "professional" recordings hasn't given me much insight.

So the question is, how can I play it well? By that I mean: What should I focus on when playing this piece?

  • What should I emphasize?
  • It's usually played with a fairly large variation in tempo within a phrase. How do I manage this? How much is too much?
  • I'm kind of lost when it comes to the tone of the piece. Parts seem melancholy, others joyous. What should I be aiming for with each section and how can I keep them from sounding too distinct?
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Another tricky point: should one emphasize the "downbeat" in the melody, or does the anacrusis just blur over it? –  luser droog Jan 7 '13 at 17:30
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One of my favorite versions though many disagree but I tend to think that this is conveying the actual message that I think there is in the music youtube.com/watch?v=yAsDLGjMhFI –  percusse Jan 7 '13 at 18:45
    
@SkippyFastol Have you seen the comment just above yours? –  percusse Jan 23 '13 at 11:17
    
@percusse : Now I have :). You can mention the name of Valentina in your comment to help out ;) –  Skippy Fastol Jan 23 '13 at 14:05
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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is very much a matter of taste. You emphasize different things and get different interpretations. Others may love it, others may hate it. The most important thing is that it "works", but it can work in so many different ways. Just as an example, there's a temporary change of key in the section with the repeated bass notes. Say you want to emphasize the sudden Bb chord there. You could do it by doing a crescendo and some ritenuto to bring the Bb out. Or you could do a subito piano. Other ways probably work, too, maybe just bring the change A->Bb in the base line out... It would definitely be easier if you made a recording and then we could comment on it.

Anyway, here's a rough roadmap of how I would approach the piece (it's not a song! :p)

  • First the big picture: The piece has a clear form of ABACA. Every section is quite uniform and quite different from every other section. This is helpful because you don't have to do anything to make the piece both relatively interesting and coherent. I would make sure that I make every section sound as a single unit and that different sections have clearly different characters. The A section sounds quite "neutral", B section is playful, and C is a little bit frightening.
  • Since the A section repeats (too much if you ask me), you don't have to care too much about the other sections being "too different". The A section will keep the piece in one piece. You can even take different tempi in different sections. Faster in B, maybe slower in C (not much of course!) The most important thing will be how you move from one section to another. It should sound natural, as if that's exactly what the music wants, not you.
  • The sections have internal structure and it's quite important in the music of that time that it "speaks". There must be words, sentences, punctuation, and so on. One could say that the first phrase are the first eight bars. It has two sentences of four bars and each sentence consists of two parts: the "Für Elise melody" and the arpeggios. I would play a phrase as one unit, which means, for example, not too much variation of tempo inside it. (A great deal of rubato without a great deal of skill in using it tends to break the music in too small ill-formed pieces thus making everything incomprehensible.) The sentences are separated by a slight breath and the parts of the sentences just by some small variation in tone. Then it repeats, and it's usually good to do something a bit different the second time. Maybe a tiny bit softer, or bring out a different "word" or something.
  • The second part of the A section begins with a sequence of four almost identical bars. I would play these as one descending unit, not emphasizing any single part. Then there's a short bridge type thing (which I find problematic to interpret satisfactorily) and the first part of the section returns. And then there's a repeat and you can vary a different thing than the last time.
  • In the B section one could at least play brighter. Use less pedal, articulate clearly and make sure the left hand stays in the background. In the C section, on the other hand, one could play darker. More pedal, heavier bass. Experiment with the balancing of chords; sometimes play the notes in a chord equally loud, sometimes play the top note louder than others, etc. Remember the horizontal line; not every chord is a stopping point. Instead, the longer phrases should still be there.
  • After all this complexish analysis, I would still try to play it "simply", not trying to do anything, just letting the music do itself, so to speak. To get to this you must learn the piece technically so well that it is easy to play. Then you can just listen and let the music do its thing.
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This is helpful, thanks. I won't upload a recording though ... 50% shame and 50% probably leading into too-narrow discussion :P –  Matthew Read Jan 7 '13 at 17:47
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This will always be subjective, but I'd say subtle tempo changes are probably best (and yes, I'm aware that's a subjectively interpreted answer in itself!)

You want to demonstrate an awareness of the tempo changes, you want to give the listener the sense of that tempo change, but without taking it to extremes. Practice until you have control over the tempo changes without stalling or stuttering, and then experiment! Find where exactly you want to place those changes, and why - but I'd advise against taking to extremes.

However, as important as tempo is I'm not sure this is the most prominent factor. When I've heard this piece played by the masses, banging it out on the nearest piano and torturing all ears around (I only semi-jest), there's almost always one thing that's missing - and that's dynamic contrast, or at least a sensitivity to dynamic contrast. If you want to emphasize anything in this piece, make it the dynamics - again not to silly levels, but make sure they're there, master them then play around until you've found a contrast which you feel adds to the music.

Finally, be aware of your use of pedal - another thing that often remains constant with many, either drowning it out in swathes of pedal or avoiding it altogether. An awareness and knowledge of how the pedal can affect and change various parts of the piece will help to add another dimension to your performance.

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