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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!


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