For many, Für Elise is 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 viral TikTok composition, ‘Für Elise Reimagined’, by recent Oxford graduate Alexander Joseph.
It is prefaced: “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.
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.
Joseph’s 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.
The anticipated introduction of the melody is punctuated by the interjection of a 2/8 bar (amidst regular 3/8 ones); rhythmic irregularity being another modern-’classical’ hallmark. 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).
Critically, 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.
Nevertheless, I would encourage cross-genre fusions. After all, interculturalism shaped the genre of jazz as we know it, giving birth to fusion-genres such as Afro-Cuban jazz and Bossa nova. Joseph is not the first to appropriate Beethoven’s piece outside of its classical context. Nas’s ‘I Can’ (2003) looped the opening bars of ‘Für Elise’ 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, subverting its white middle-class associations.
Aside from how well Joseph treats Beethoven’s material, more fundamentally I question the gatekeeping of cultures and promote people’s right to enjoy music. Ultimately, music is valuable for our transparent communication with people from other cultures, seeing our unique backgrounds and identities reflected, and finding like companionship.
Image credit: Jan Bommes via Flickr / CC BY 2.0