If you are or ever were a piano teacher, you would look at that title and shudder. Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” is one of the most played, most practiced, most sought after pieces that just … never … goes … away. Even after a student has finished the piece, you will hear it whenever they are fooling around on the keys, whenever you are writing in their exercise book, whenever they see a spare piano. It gets almost as much play time as Chopsticks. Of course, many only play the first bit over and over and over, until a soul is ready to scrape their ears out of their heads with a dull spoon (and yes, I stole that metaphor from the “Robin Hood” movie starring Kevin Costner, only put in “ears” instead of “eyes”). I’m sure many who are not in the piano world would recognize the first few bars because someone, somewhere sat down at a keyboard and played the one part of the one song they can remember from way back when.
I remember playing it for the first time and falling head over heels in love with it. I could hardly believe something so beautiful and heart-wrenching was coming out of this instrument that I, little old me, was using. Oh, the anguish! The melancholy! It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Metaphorically, of course, since I am not a person who cries at weddings or speeches or other things that people cry at. This music, though, almost brought me there. I was so ecstatic; I must play this piece at my recital. This would make parents swoon at my feet, wondering at my talent. All other musicians would hang their heads in shame, knowing they could not hope to move the audience as I did. I would become a musical prodigy! I had big dreams, until my teacher mentioned that a different student was playing this very piece, my piece, at the upcoming recital, thereby chopping my wild imaginings off at the head. Devastation followed, hand wringing, a general plea for the possibility that two could play the same song, all to no avail. I was stuck with something Bach and baroque, and that was that.
It’s funny, how that memory comes back when I sit at the piano and play “Fur Elise” now. It is a spectacular song, no matter how many students crash and smash their way through it. It is so full of moody melody and uplifting runs, of feeling and sentiment, that it still is a favorite of mine to play. I like watching a student discover this song, recognize it from some distant memory, and be able to play it. It is like a light bulb goes off in their heads when they realize that they can make something beautiful from all the boring, hateful, technical stuff that they have practiced. Somehow, it makes it worthwhile. Even if every piano teacher must sit through it year in and year out.
To listen, go to Fur Elise.
He doesn’t look like a composer of beautiful music, and yet…