I received a great question in a wall post last week. One of the Musical Exchange members asked: “I am in the middle of 'for elise'. I would like to know how much you would rate its difficulty out of 10.” I love this question because it seems pretty simple on the surface, but it points to some important issues for young pianists and all young musicians. The relative difficulty of piano pieces is a complex topic, and it is a topic that pianists are often overly concerned about. The question also points toward some even bigger issues in what it means to play a piece well, and how to evaluate the challenges that different pieces present to a student.
To begin to answer this question, I consulted a few sources that take a comprehensive approach to assigning ratings, levels, or grades to piano pieces. For example, Jane Magrath’s book, The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature, rates the piece a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, from “beginning” (1) to “early advanced” (10). Other examples of repertoire at level 7 include Kuhlau and Diabelli Sonatinas, Bach’s easier Two-Part Inventions, Bach’s “Little Preludes,” and Dello Joio’s Lyric Pieces for the Young. The difficulty, or grade level, of “Für Elise” is also a topic of conversation on the ABRSM website. Most participants in that discussion placed it somewhere in the range of grade 4 to grade 6. But others argue for it being beyond that grade range, either higher or lower. So why is there so much disagreement on at what “level” this piece belongs?
First, as mentioned in the ABRSM discussion forum, we should agree on which version of the piece we are talking about. The piece is sometimes published in an abridged and simplified version. Beginners sometimes learn only the first 22 measures, often with simplified arpeggios in the left hand. Let’s assume, however, we are talking about the whole piece, for which you can download a free PDF available through the “Petrucci Music Library.”
Once you get beyond the first section, you start to encounter the piece’s more difficult technical challenges. For example, as Jane Magrath points out, the speed at which a student can play the 32nd-note passages beginning at measure 31 must be considered in establishing the tempo overall. The piece provides opportunities for students to work on playing arpeggios of different styles, balancing inner voices of melody or accompaniment, handing an extended passage of a repeated-note pattern in the left hand, voicing chords appropriately, playing legato thirds and sixths with appropriate fingerings… the list goes on. There are plenty of technical topics to be addressed and learned in studying “Für Elise.”
The biggest challenge of “Für Elise,” however, may be one of musical interpretation: to play the piece really well, to balances the piece’s contrasting sections, to transcend the various technical requirements, and to offer a musical interpretation of the work as a whole. That is not an easy task, and it is made that much more difficult by the ubiquity of “Für Elise.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music writer, has a fun blog post that touches on this topic. As his observations and as his YouTube links suggest, digital and social media have created unprecedented numbers of ways for “Für Elise” to be present in our lives, and these media offer an almost unending library of different interpretations and re-interpretations of the piece. We are so used to hearing this piece--and often hearing it played poorly--that it can be tremendously difficult to offer a musically compelling performance of this piece that really speaks to your audience.
Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is not alone. Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545; several movements from Schumann’s Albumblätter (Album Leaves), Op. 124; and many other works appear in the anthologies of intermediate piano students, offer technical challenges appropriate for a students’ development, and at the same time continue to challenge and intrigue very experienced pianists.
So, if you are studying “Für Elise,” I would not worry too much about the overall technical difficulty. Identify and master the technical challenges the piece presents, and move on to creating a beautiful, expressive, personal interpretation of the piece. Both challenges--the technical and interpretative--are important to your development as a young musician.