Monday, March 7, 2011

For Elise or Therese?

There are purists who believe a work of art is best appreciated when we engage it directly and that there is no need or value in understanding the story behind it. That is, we go to a concert and here a symphony, or go to a gallery and enjoy a painting for its colors, imagery, the feeling it evokes, etc.

Then there's another school of thought in which learning more about a piece of music or a work of art helps us to appreciate the work more deeply, often more profoundly. This is the idea behind art history classes and lectures like the one I just listened to called Keyboard Conversations with Jeffrey Siegel, Pianist. Subtitled A Concert With Commentary, its theme was The Power and Passion of Beethoven.

The three short Beethoven pieces which Siegel plays here are the familiar Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata and Rage Over a Lost Penny. Siegel obviously enjoys the task of explaining the stories behind these classic pieces. For example, what was it that made Moonlight Sonata such an incredible piece of music? Was it the fact that it is simply beautiful? Maybe it helps to discover what a sonata was in the days before this piece was offered up. It's a significant piece of music in the history of the piano because it went somewhere no sonata had ever gone before.

Then there's Fur Elise. It's possible that serious music students already know the rest of what I am going to say here, but I found it new. This little lovely was found amongst Beethoven's papers four decades after he died. And the guy who found it claimed it said "Fur Elise" but in reality, the original was lost before this was ever confirmed. Since there was no significant Elise in Beethoven's life, the all so familiar tune was most likely produced for Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza, a young woman whom he tutored and whom he was in love with.

Or was it? There are still others whose research has led them to alternate conclusions, such as the opera singer Elisabeth Rockel, whose nickname was Elise.

You can see how these efforts to identify the inspiration for a small piece of music might make for an intriguing Hollywood movie plot, which you might recognize as a variant on the theme of Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as the impassioned composer.

This piece of sheet music from my youth has an "Excellent" sticker indicating I had played this piece well according to my teacher. I was ten at the time and I doubt that I have played it that well ever since. It's a beautiful piece, simple and complex at the same time. And heartwarming, especially when played by a master like Jeffrey Siegel.

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