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My Interpretation of "Für Elise" by Beethoven

Cory Hall

Für Elise (For Elise) is arguably "the most popular" piano piece of all time. I recorded it about four years ago for YouTube; however, I decided to upload a new interpretation which was brought about by my recent teaching of it to an 11-year-old student. (Teaching certain pieces to students often gets me motivated and in the mood to make video recordings.) I have since deleted the older version.

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One of the great things about music and piano is that, as long as one remains a human being and is still living and breathing, one will inevitably develop new interpretations of the same music. Play the same piece when you are 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and beyond, and you will discover a different performer each time. This does not necessarily mean a "better" performer, but rather a "different" performer with a new conception of a very familiar work. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus claimed that one can never step in the same place in a river twice because the water is always flowing, and thus, the ground and sediment below constantly change. Such is also the case with musical interpretation.

In my new interpretation, I have decided upon a slightly faster tempo than my first recording. Most pianists, and especially young piano students, play this piece too fast and aggressively. Moreover, most piano students -- and I know this by teaching it hundreds of times -- play it much too loud and not "cantabile" enough. For example, the third section (with the repeated "A" in the bass) is often played like an aggressive "Indian dance" as if it were one the ubiquitous "Indian" pieces found in almost every piano method book. The correct character, however, is "subdued" and "mysterious" rather than "aggressive" or "energetic."

It is important to note that Beethoven marked most of Für Elise piano or pianissimo and that the loudest dynamic mark is mezzo forte. In addition, Beethoven also indicated several diminuendos combined with ritardandos, usually before the return of the main theme or end of a section. These are very often ignored or overlooked by most pianists. Another interpretive subtlety often overlooked by most pianists is the crescendo-decrescendo hairpin accompanying the first measure of the main theme. This indicates a slight emphasis on the second beat where the last "E" occurs before moving down to "B". I like to do an ever so slight holding back in tempo here, that is, a slight "rubato" which gives the theme added expression.

Für Elise is a calm, serene, and cantabile piece of music that should be played with a controlled tempo and with much expression. I have known this piece for around forty years now, and I never get tired of it. A good way to ruin Für Elise is to play it like a robot and ignore all the expressive indications, which is the way I have heard it played 90% of the time -- even by seasoned professionals. By the way, the tempo I have chosen in my new interpretation is 108 per eighth note (quaver) which to me, at this point in my life, seems like the perfect tempo. Please enjoy my new interpretation of Für Elise and thank you for reading this blog!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8FDzcXKPNc&w=560&h=315]