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Pop-Classical Fusion: Alexander Joseph’s Für Elise Reimagined

Yundi Li discusses the role TikTok and other new media play in changing dialogues of genre fusion.

For many, ‘Für Elise’ conjures up imagery of an overplayed and sensationalised piece, often understood by the general public as a superficial ‘token’ of classical music. I, therefore, had my reservations upon catching wind of a viralTikTok rendition of Für Elise, fearing further injustices against Beethoven’s compositions.

The TikTok ‘cover’ in question is a piano piece entitled ‘Für Elise Reimagined’, written and performed by recent Oxford graduate Alexander Joseph (a full version has since been released on YouTube). In the original TikTok video, Joseph prefaces his rendition with the following  caption: “What if Beethoven’s Für Elise…had been written by Ludovico Einaudi?” Einaudi is a contemporary pianist and composer whose style is distinguishable by a marked sense of minimalism, repetition and quiet reflection, infused with film-like harmonies that create cinematic ambience. ‘Reimagining’ Beethoven in the style of Einaudi would entail a translation of Beethoven’s ‘classical’ harmonies into the more accessible language of modern film/popular music, potentially downsizing the role of melody and musical form in favour of communicating a more homogeneous ‘background’ sound. 

The following analysis describes the key elements of the style Joseph is adapting. Beethoven’s Für Elise is written in A minor, begins with the trademark motif of alternating E and D sharp semiquavers, and follows the structure of a Rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), where ‘A’ marks the return of the opening motif. Other distinctive features include leaping octaves shared by both hands, and modulations to various major keys, including the relative major.

Alexander Joseph’s ‘reimagination’ of Für Elise is then, reasonably, based on at least one of the above characteristics. His interpretation, however, surprises. The chosen key is B-flat minor, a semitone above the original, introduced by outlining the basic three-chord progression – (VI-v(b)-i) – that forms the harmonic basis of the entire piece. Right off the bat, we recognise that the new harmonic language is worlds away from the original: repeating progressions beginning with chord VI are most idiomatic of modern-day film/video game soundtracks and were rarely used by Beethoven and his contemporaries. 

When Joseph finally introduces his melody it is punctuated by the interjection of a 2/8 bar (amidst regular 3/8 ones); rhythmic irregularity being another hallmark of modern-’classical’ composition. However, in a manner that retains Beethoven’s original  structure, this melodic section is repeated towards the latter half of the piece and expanded upon with a quickened harmonic pace and more elaborate arpeggiation. The melody from Beethoven’s ‘B’ section also serves as a point of departure for Joseph’s own melodies in the contrasting sections. Joseph’s compositional language, though modern, is sophisticated: the piece is interspersed with creative harmonisations of the well-known ‘Für Elise’ melody, using augmented chords, suspensions and tertian harmony (harmony built on thirds). 

Ordinarily, a piece that aims to ‘cover’ a classical work might face criticism over concerns for the authenticity and oversimplification of classical music. Hence, it is crucial that Joseph chose the title ‘Für Elise Reimagined’ (my own emphasis), freeing him artistically from any responsibility to stay true to Beethoven’s musical idiom making the music distinctly his own. Indeed, there is a long history even in the classical tradition of composers ‘borrowing’ each other’s musical material, something which has generally been considered acceptable, even constructive, toward the development of classical music. Coss-genre ‘borrowing’ however, faces much scrutiny, especially when moving from classical to pop or contemporary styles. I suspect that a piece considered more complex or historically consequential within the classical canon would receive harsher criticism when borrowed by the popular genres than ‘Für Elise Reimagined’ does.

Nevertheless, my instinct is that cross-genre fusions should be encouraged. After all, interculturalism shaped the genre of jazz as we know it, giving birth to a vast array of fusion genres such as Afro-Cuban jazz and Bossa nova. Jazz has also been enriched by material from classical music. Take for instance Duke Ellington’s remake of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which features tracks such as ‘Sugar Rum Cherry’ (in place of ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’). More recently, the Netflix show Bridgerton has come up with a groundbreaking way of underscoring its unique conception as a ‘modern’ period drama through sound. Its soundtrack consists of songs by Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish scored in a classical idiom for string quartet. 

Alexander Joseph’s ‘Für Elise Reimagined’ is not the first time Beethoven’s piece has been appropriated outside of its classical context. In 2003, the rapper Nas released a song entitled ‘I Can’, which sets the opening bars of ‘Für Elise’ on a loop against lyrics aimed at empowering young Black audiences, recounting African history and encouraging young people to ‘work hard’. The music video shows a young African-American girl playing ‘Für Elise’’s opening theme, further subverting the piece’s associations with the white middle-class.

I believe the only thing worse than oversimplification or ignorance is fear-driven silence or apathy. On the surface, a review of Alexander Joseph’s ‘Für Elise Reimagined’ may be concerned with how well it retains or develops Beethoven’s material (and indeed whether it even be allowed to alter the original), but more fundamentally it raises questions surrounding the gatekeeping of cultures and people’s right to relate to and enjoy music. Ultimately, music exists as one of the few valuable ways through which we can communicate transparently with people from other cultures, see our unique backgrounds and identities reflected, and find companionship and guidance in people just like us. Cross-genre fusions should be celebrated, not shied away from. 

Image credit: Jan Bommes via Flickr  / CC BY 2.0

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