I work in a music store and I’ve lost count of the number of times someone came in and eighty-sixed the first six or eight notes of Fur Elise. Lacking a musical background, but with some digital dexterity and an ear, most of us can learn the first few measures by ear. And this joyous process of discovery, most likely stumbled upon innocently in a moment of genuine curiousity, is what causes eyes to roll and hackles to rise.
Fur Elise has become, is, a massive landmark in piano pedagogy. Before it’s well-trodden measures, most of our repertoire has the flavor of the teaching piece. That is to say, most of what we play up to this point has an inuitively felt, if not immediately definable, pedagogical purpose. Children are very apt at recognizing this distinction as they’ll have spent the majority of their life up to this point being taught things by adults. While they may not immediately reject the lectures of their elders, the path for them to do so is clearly laid out for them as they proceed into their teens, and they are likely to feel and express this rejection on a molecular level while they’re still tots.
“I don’t know why I don’t like it. I just don’t.” said every child ever.
Fur Elise is often their first encounter with something that isn’t totally pedagogical. For the first time in their musical education, they’re discovering something rather than having it spoonfed to them and it earns a special place in their musical memory. The broad ubiquitousness of this experience is what is most amazing to me.
I found a YouTube video of Valentina Lisitsa performing it as the last of a set of four encores. The audience’s reaction is noteworthy and very telling. Expecting a fourth, even more bombastic encore than the three that preceeded it, she instead trots out the most frequently performed student recital piece of all time. The chuckles and laughs from the audience die away almost immediately as a conditioned choke chain snaps from the violent whiplash of a thousand minds being blown.