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Social Media, Authenticity & How Not to Play Beethoven’s Für Elise

Counting the beat correctly in one of the world’s most popular piano pieces, Für Elise by Beethoven, is certainly not a bagatelle…

As every piano teacher knows, students often have problems playing the right number of beats in bars 14 and 37. If you are not a piano teacher, just watching around on YouTube easily confirms this fact.

More surprisingly though, on a recent CD album release on a major classical label with a prominent pianist – at the time of writing no 19 on the UK Classical Artists Albums Chart – what appears to be a striking beginner’s mistake have slipped through the whole production process.

On track 2 of Decca Classics’ album “Valentina Lisitsa – Live at the Royal Albert Hall” the listeners are swindled out of one of the beats in bar 14 each of the four times that passage appears throughout the piece.
(Hear it on the sample at Amazon.)

The two notes marked red are skipped in the recording, making this bar a 2/8 instead of 3/8.

Why? Does Lisitsa play from a hitherto unknown manuscript, with a time signature change in that bar, or are the missing notes part of a PR trick or ironic joke? Did she learn the piece from this guy or any other of the hordes of incorrect YouTube “tutorials”? Perhaps more likely, we are listening to the result of a misreading from childhood left unaddressed.

Regardless of the reason, the sky is certainly not falling and Lisitsa’s well-deserved appreciation, not least as a promoter of classical piano music, persists. But her Für Elise raises several interesting questions about the current media situation and classical music scene.

Lisitsa has had a performance of Für Elise up on YouTube since 2009 (also skipping that beat), attracting a whopping number of 2.7 million views and receiving over 3,300 YT-comments. Considering her presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, one would have wished that at least somebody of her fans could have helpfully pointed her mistake out, so that she could play the piece correctly on her Decca debut.

This may say more about the nature and substance of social media than about anything else.

But there are also several professional reviews of the new album out there already, talking among other things about “admirable lightness of touch and appreciation of rhythmic flow to her Für Elise”. Nobody mentions that the bar 14 reading is by far the most unique feature of this recording. What does that mean? Does music journalists take the time to really listen to the albums they review? Or is it a “The Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome? Have we already heard so many incorrect versions that we are all immune? Or is this passage in its correct form such a tremendous metric somersault of Beethovenian wizardry that nobody is supposed to know where the downbeats are anyway?

On a side note, in one of his several versions Richard Clayderman skips the entire bar 14! This seems however like a deliberate artistic decision to get the structure to fit his re-arrangement of the time signature in the whole piece from 3/8 into 12/16.

Since listening to recordings do have impact on the learning process, not least for less experienced players, Clayderman’s 1.1 million and Lisitsa’s 2.6 million Für Elise views on YouTube (not to mention all the incorrect “tutorials”) may indeed inspire many to play piano but can also cause confusion.

So in a plea to make life easier for all piano teachers out there:
If you plan to learn Beethoven’s Für Elise, please care about who you listen to!

(And teachers, don’t let such mistakes slip through. You never know which of you students will play in RAH, or on YT…)”


Related reading:
Pianist Stephen Hough on YT and more
Valentina Lisitsa – Live at the Royal Albert Hall (watch online)

Please post your thoughts below and, if you are a piano teacher, your favourite strategies for helping students with this tricky passage!


/nilsjohan

  1. Martha Says:

    Very interesting. Does people take the time to really listen nowadays? That’s a good question.

  2. Gareth Allen Says:

    How come this was not corrected in the post production at Decca? It could have been easily fixed with simple audio editing. It must mean that even the producer, mastering engineer and many other did’t know how the piece goes and didn’t notice the slip.

  3. LaDona Says:

    From a workshop with Ingrid Clarfield:
    Starting immediately after the highest E of the octaves – say “the left, the right, the left, the right, and now we go on back to A” – or something to that effect.
    You might think that – because of its brilliance – it’s foolproof. Unfortunately, it still gets screwed up – probably for all the reasons you’ve mentioned.
    And try as I might to not get completely uptight about Lisitsa’s error, my blood pressure is rising…

  4. Niklas Says:

    Personally I don’t think it’s that important. What matters more is the feel and flow of the music, to be honest I’m just glad to hear people listen that way, just letting the music get to you without getting hung up over details. But it’s certainly quite interesting that almost no one even mentions it!

  5. muzon2 Says:

    I try ti really count to make sure that I do not overplay or underplay the sequence. No matter what others say, counting does help.

  6. counterpoint Says:

    Don’t be so petty ;)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv6iQDZp_7Y

  7. Daniel Says:

    Maybe it’s actually call to rethink the way we view classical performance. If Perhaps it doesn’t matter and it’s the bigger picture that counts after all.

  8. Eric S Says:

    I do wish you had pointed out the location (min:sec) in the video clip that corresponded to bar 14 for those of us who don’t have the music.

  9. Andrew Thayer Says:

    Who gives a damn about such a minor detail? I’m more concerned with the sense of musicality. Given that the writer fails to even go into that issue (dwelling pompously and pedantically on such a miniscule detail, instead) something tells me that he has very little…

  10. Andrew Thayer Says:

    Also, if you’re so concerned with getting it “right”, better advice would simply be to keep counting three quavers per bar throughout. That way, it will soon become obvious, if any beats go missing. If you want to be a pedant about it, it ought to be about maintaining the feel for the pulse at all times- not trying to remember how many Es you have played. Ironically, it’s when people try to work with non-rhythmic counting (instead of just feeling the pulse or counting the number whole bars) that they are at the biggest risk of losing the sense of the rhythm- not to mention musical phrasing.

  11. Marina Says:

    A minor detail, yes, but such a mistake should not slip through on a big record label such as Decca. And those millions of “watchers” on youtube are not listening the same way a piano teacher does of course and wouldn’t mind a few notes more or less but if you buy a CD, that’s another thing.

  12. samfly Says:

    Musicality and musical flow is important as many of the provious posters points out but a top concert pianist is expected to deliver a carefully consedered interpretation, excluding such misreadings. On the linked video I hear a different chord in the B section where there are 32th notes in right hand raises to the top C. I have always heard and played f-a on the second beat in left hand but it sounds like a G7 chord twice. Is it a misreading or just a different score? I don’t have the CD but it would be interesting to hear if it is the same there.

  13. Pete Anthony Says:

    I wouldn’t blame Decca, all they did was to release Lisitsas live recital on CD and then they have to accept it as a documentation of how she played those pieces on that particular day.
    What’s more interesing though, and what I think the article author primarily is questioning, is that even with current technological possibilities for communication, why didn’t anyone give her a hint about it at an earlier point? Many people must have noticed. The mistake appears tiny only for those who do not know the piece very well. Everyone who have really learnt to play Für Elise with a piano teacher have probably spent some extra effort straigtening this passage out and would find it greatly disturbing listening to this truncated version.

  14. Connie Vellekoop Says:

    I’ve taught this piece *yawn* to dozens of students, and that section(s) is a usual source of slip ups. To clarify, I yawn because most of the time the student rips thru it with little regard to musicality–probably imitating someone on YT, so this section seems like a minor issue by comparison. Anyway, I teach it as: “left, right, left, right, right, right….” and that seems to help (unless I can get them to actually count it–in which case it comes out perfectly). By sheer grit and perseverance, I usually manage to extract some real musicianship over time. I love teaching piano!

  15. chrism823 Says:

    You can’t leave out notes! And you can’t expect to be taken seriously if you claim that it doesn’t matter.

    The producer, engineer, all the post-production people and the student’s teacher are probably all so sick of Fur Elise they tune it out. I think the piece is Beethoven’s little joke on all of us. I charge extra if you even bring it into my studio . . .

    All kidding aside, if you are ready to learn a piece, you go for perfection. And teacher must be honest in his/her assessment[s].

    BTW, I like using a technique similar to what Connie V. describes above: L-R-B-R-B etc. Like Stone’s Stick Control for drummers . . .

  16. Nan Morrissette Says:

    If I purchase a recording of classical piano music, it is partly for the pleasure of listening, but it is more for its use as a reference in how I might play the music myself. Not having a teacher at this time, I listen to as many different credible performers as possible and read comments by, again credible, performers and even critics to better understand a piece. I am interested in learning about specific pieces as well as gaining more feeling for the composer’s overall body of work. If a performer changes the actual notes, playing something different than written (and I am not referring to style here) I will discover it as I read along in the score while listening. I do understand that various published editions vary somewhat. But to leave out those two notes changes the piece significantly. If you want to listen to Beethoven in muzak style, feel free. I would prefer to listen to a performer who respects the fact that Mr. Beethoven probably had a good reason to included those notes. When you are a better composer than he was, you can do it differently. Till then, please give me the real deal.

  17. Marc Anderson Says:

    Purists are so funny (or is pathetic the better word?)! Beethoven was known for playing his pieces differently all the time (isn’t that right?), and it’s only after the greats all passed that people became so obsessed with “perfection.” Indeed, many of the truly great pianists played incorrect notes, but that didn’t mean that they were charlatans or unskilled. There were other aspects of their performances that overwhelmed concerns about perfection. Classical music needs to return to its roots in improvisation, and not be fixated on note-for-note accuracy and doing what everyone else has already done. Lisitsa’s recording is beautiful, end of story. Trying to disparage the beauty of her rendition because of this is ridiculous.

  18. robert Says:

    classical players seldom have groove. it seems all in the head, the body is dead. i often read that the nineteenth century considered groove as something “primitive”. compared to other musicians, the classical players who come to record in my studio also seem to be much more stressed and panicky while playing, which contributes to a weak time feel. this possibly relates to the authoritative education they receive.

  19. Anne Scoggin Says:

    Leaving out those two notes in Für Elise means omitting an entire beat in the measure. This is not a trivial error but a distortion of the rhythm.
    I have two of Lisita’s DVD’s and admire her playing tremendously; however, she obviously goofed in Für Elise as did Decca. I fail to comprehend why someone didn’t hear the misplaced downbeat of the following measure. It is so obvious.

  20. Phil Says:

    Veteran piano salespeople agree that Fur Elise is the single most played classical piano piece in piano stores in America (perhaps the whole world?) Yet I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that in almost 40 years in the piano industry I have not yet once heard it played even reasonably correctly. invariably the worst playing begins with the 32nd notes around measure 31. When I teach this piece to my piano students we do not start at the beginning of the piece, but at the beginning of the 32nd note passage. When they have mastered this section at a tempo they can handle with accuracy and musicality, we return to the beginning of the piece to apply that tempo to the opening bars so that they do not massacre the 32nd note section when they arrive there. This means that most amateurs will need to relearn the piece and play the beginning much more slowly than they are accustomed to play it. It is indeed a beautiful and memorable melody, but please don’t make Beethoven turn over in his grave for the millionth time.

  21. Jane Wanger Says:

    These bars of music are truly counterintuitive to what the ear thinks it wants to hear. They are the bain of my existence as a teacher who has taught over 50 years. There is no other way to teach young students how to get over the pitfall except by counting Es, and the same can apply to the seasoned performer. It does not mean that it can’t be musical and it guarantees it will be right. With this advice, no student of mine has played it incorrectly in recital. I offer to teach the piece only if they promise to count their Es! :=)) There are three Es share by the two hands, and then the right hand continues alone with three Es to slide back into the original theme. Sometimes one has to throw the barlines out the window and simply depend on pure mathematics. There is no excuse for playing it incorrectly.

  22. Friend of Music Says:

    Well, if Beethoven wrote the notes, then please play the notes. And keep the beat. Not so hard. Valentina needs to count.

  23. Rodrigo Castilla Says:

    I think Valentina Lisitsa is a brilliant pianist, so I can’t conceive she skips notes from a “bagatelle” piano piece. Producers use to read the sheet music while the performer is playing on a record session, just as the Conductor does while the orchestra is performing/rehearsing… So recording classical music for a mayor label must represent that the performer and the producers must take care with those “little” details…

  24. Jerry Balzano Says:

    Since it is such a common error, it stands to reason that one wouldn’t even have to be “listening” to anyone else’s performance all that closely – which I doubt people do anyway – to show a tendency to reproduce it in the first place … since for whatever reason it appears to be a “natural” error. Why it’s such a natural error is another question, and an interesting one (I have my own ideas about this). What’s fascinating here is how even accomplished pianists like Lisitsa have undoubtedly practiced and practiced the piece, committing this error each and every time and committing it to memory, without ever noticing anything wrong.

  25. Cyril Wilkin Says:

    It’s the same as reading the beginning of a Tale of Two Cities like this “It was the best of times, it was the of times”

  26. Arthur Says:

    Since so many of you have wondered how the mistake got through post-production, I would like to point out to the fact that the album was released very quickly after the recital itself. The recital took place on 19 June and the album was already available for download on iTunes on 25 June. The CD version was released on 3 July. This may explain why the production could have been rushed.

  27. Laura Says:

    I am a piano teacher who is very proud of the fact that ALL my students have learned to play these sections correctly. I pre-teach these sections before the student starts to learn the piece. I have them count: “and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and then go on”. In the one place where there are only 5 D#-E groups, they know to count only to 5 “and then go on.” I also am a stickler for correct timing. I’ve been a judge and just cringed every time a student showed up with this piece on their program because most of them were just sloppy (but I think it was the result of sloppy teaching.) My own teacher let me get by with incorrect counting, but I am a better teacher that she.

  28. Onyeka Austine Says:

    Is a wonderful thing to hear people talk about the piano especially the classic works. One thing is obvious about all classical pianists, they love to see the piano keys still in white and black. Forgetting that even these great pianist allowed change at there time to make the work easier.

  29. Toshko Says:

    Who cares? Just enjoy the music.

  30. chrism823 Says:

    Then may I boil it down to the question I ask students who tell me ‘that’s the way I do it.’ ?

    ‘Do you want to look like you’ve done this before? Better do it right.’

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