I named one of my daughters, “Elise,” in honor of Beethoven’s famous composition.
That’s how much I adored the music.
A companion piece since childhood, I managed to squeak through the notes at age 8 when enrolled at a quaint music school off Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx.
Private lessons followed my two years of Music Appreciation classes.
At a parent/teacher conference my mother had been told that I excelled at playing the xylophone, marimba, triangle, psaltery and recorder, so I had a good enough ear to begin violin lessons.
But as a visually impressionable child, I really wanted to cradle a saxophone with its appealing shimmer and decorative display of key buttons.
As expected, my request was rejected by Mrs. Elston, an officious Director, who offered me piano lessons as a compromise.
My first mentor, Mrs. Vinagradov, was a soft-spoken woman with a Russian accent.
To reach her studio, I had to climb a steep staircase that led to an attic where a shiny old upright piano and bench took up the greater space. A pint-sized child, I sat comfortably snuggled beside my teacher as she brought simple two-note Diller-Quaille songs to life with resonating chordal accompaniments. Even “Ding Dong Bell” and other primer melodies were elevated to new artistic heights with her imbued singing tone.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. One day Mrs. Vinagradov vanished, and I was shuttled off to study with Emmy Schwed.
A German refugee, she was gruff and pedantic. With a hook nose and very short cropped hair, she looked like a bald eagle.
Lessons with Miss Schwed were barely tolerable. She compulsively beat out every quarter note through all my pieces, thumping loudly with her fists against the piano.
One day she went too far, applying her robotic beat to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” though I ignored her, and spun, instinct-driven limpid phrases.
Before long, “Fur Elise” had become my signature piece, though I always played an incorrect number of E, D#s in the opening and throughout the piece. Miss Schwed failed to notice.
Years later, I gained a deeper understanding of the composition after attending the New York City High School of Performing Arts and Oberlin Conservatory.
I had learned that Ludwig van Beethoven composed during the Classical period of composition that followed the Baroque era, joining master composers Mozart and Haydn to produce sonatas, symphonies, and some choral works.
In “Fur Elise,” the very contagious opening melody had an emotional expressiveness that if taken too far, could fast forward a player to the Romantic period of musical composition where effusiveness was a characteristic of interpretation.
The piece had some of the markings of the Classical Mozart with its rolling broken chord bass and melody traveling through F Major on the second page of music. But the very lilting opening theme in “A” minor kept weaving in and out of contrasting sections, wooing the player to a Romantic boundary he had to respect.
Well into the third page, Beethoven separated himself from early Mozart and Haydn compositions by suddenly registering anger in a tremulous bass against suspenseful right hand chords. A bridge of ascending arpeggios and a wind-blown descending chromatic scale led seamlessly to the return of the opening theme, and its final melted cadence.
When looking back on my early piano lessons, I rekindle a love affair with “Fur Elise” that sealed my engagement to the piano and kept it brimming with passion.
Recently, I stumbled upon an elementary school graduation album that had notes scrawled from my classmates and friends. Among these, one stood out. It was from Mrs. Geraldine Yudin, my Music Appreciation teacher.
In simple script, she wrote, ”To one of the few people who can make ‘Fur Elise’ sound like the Music Beethoven meant it to be.”
I don’t know how true it was, but it can be said that I will always treasure this piece from the deepest part of me, and with each playing, I will experience a new revelation.
Two of my El Cerrito piano students are studying Beethoven’s treasured composition. One a fifth grader, and the other, an adult both savor the journey.
In the attached video, an adult learns to sculpt phrases using a supple wrist and relaxed, flowing arms. My play-through follows: