This story is by Avery E. Walker and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ludwig sat at the piano. His hands trembled as they raked through his wild hair and reached towards the keys.
As he played, his stony facade cracked with emotion. Time slowed down. When it ended with a sound like rain, the audience broke the stillness with their applause.
The pianist rose. He couldn’t hear the cheers, but that didn’t matter. The audience loved the song, but it was the girl behind the music that was dear to the composer…
Years before, Ludwig van Beethoven had fallen upon dark times. He was only twenty-five when his hearing began to fade, taking with it his greatest love: music. As a musician, he felt everything deeply. When he was happy, he was exuberant. When angry, enraged.
When he was sad, he sank into a deep depression.
The composer sat in his Vienna flat, alone but for the ringing in his ears, an inescapable bell. On his desk lay a piece of paper and the heavy words he had written to his brothers.
“My misfortune is doubly painful to me, because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished…”
Beethoven slumped, pushing the letter from him. If it went on like this, maybe living wasn’t worth it after all.
The next morning, Beethoven returned to his desk, sifting through mail, when one envelope caught his attention. The script on it was thin. Elegant. And the signature. Beethoven’s heart reacted before his mind. There it was in letters all spidery and curled:
Julie Guicciardi. Her handwriting was so familiar.
Julie had been one of his favorite piano students. Close in age, Beethoven had been taken with Julie. He wasn’t just in love. Every part of his heart was hers. However, though good friends, they remained only that. And because he loved her, Beethoven let her go. But now…
“My dearest Ludwig,
I hope you are doing well. I listen to your music and remember our lessons so many years ago. I never loved you like you did me, but you were one of my dearest companions. Which brings me to why I am writing. Eight years ago, I had a daughter called Elise. I named you godfather. I’m sorry to have sprung this upon you. I am sick and believe I’m dying. I write to ask one last favor of you. I beg you to take her in. My Elise loves music, and I would rest easy knowing she was with someone I trusted. I am sending her by train; she’ll arrive in three days once you receive this letter. I know this is a lot to ask. But if you are the same person I once knew, you will take good care of her. I say goodbye now, and thank you.
Your friend and student,
Beethoven dropped the letter and sank back into his chair. As he processed the task thrust upon him, his excitement deflated.
He could barely hear, was a bachelor, and knew nothing about children. Now he was expected to raise one? He glanced at his letter from the night before and realized he could never send it.
But he would much rather be alone. Beethoven grabbed a piece of paper to write his refusal, but paused, pen hovering over the page. Could he refuse Julie as she was dying? He put away the piece of paper.
The three days went by in rapid succession. Frau Lucia, the landlady, helped prepare a room for Elise, making pointed comments about his lack of housekeeping and lecturing him about parenting. “Children aren’t like music,” she said, “you can’t just tweak things and hope they’ll turn out.” Beethoven only half-listened, though she was speaking loud enough for him to hear.
When Frau Lucia picked up the girl from the train station, Beethoven inspected her. She was the image of her mother, blonde hair and blue eyes
“This is Elise?” he asked.
Frau Lucia nodded.
“Well then. Follow me.This will be your room.” The girl observed the plain walls and the twin bed. “Will it do?”
Elise answered him with a smile. He could see her lips moving but heard nothing.
The girl blinked and glanced at the landlady, who bent down and whispered in her ear.
“Yes, sir. It is nice,” she replied, raising her voice.
“Good,” Beethoven replied. “I will be downstairs. I trust you can entertain yourself.”
Later that evening, at dinner, Beethoven realized that his deafness would not be a problem with Elise. She talked incessantly, whether he could hear or not. He answered her questions briefly, occasionally reminding her to speak up.
The days went by unchanged. Elise would play with her doll as Beethoven played his music. They ate lunch together, then returned to their separate lives.
Once when Beethoven was working, Elise wandered into the room, enchanted by the piano. She reached out to play a key. Beethoven jumped when the note lent itself to his song. After ranting about how she was never to touch the piano, he dismissed her. Later that day, he found an apology note on the music stand, signed in a childish hand.
From then on, Beethoven pretended not to notice when a figure slipped into his office to listen. It went on like this for a while, Elise listening as Beethoven played, “oblivious” to the presence of his audience.
One day, she forgot herself and applauded after “Moonlight Sonata.” Beethoven turned around as Elise scarpered for the door.
“You like that song?”
Elise sheepishly turned around. “Yes, sir. It’s beautiful.”
Elise came forward until she stood in the shadow of the piano. “I wrote that song for your mother, did you know that?”
Elise shook her head, eyes wide.
Beethoven patted the bench, and Elise sat down. “Your mother was a friend of mine.”
Beethoven was surprised at the affection he felt for the girl sitting next to him.
“Would you like to learn a song?”
Elise smiled widely. “Yes, sir!”
And so their piano lessons began.
The rest of the year was different. Elise turned nine years old and began to improve at piano. Beethoven took her to concerts, even though he could barely hear the music. The note to his brothers was forgotten as the composer found a purpose: doting on his adopted daughter. Each evening, they played piano together, and Beethoven enjoyed every minute.
People were amazed at the transformation the girl had worked over the reclusive musician. He was still introverted and awkward, but none could deny that he’d found happiness.
Then tragedy struck.
Beethoven and Elise became sick with scarlet fever. Beethoven recovered quickly. Elise did not.
Beethoven cared for her best he could. She requested to be taken downstairs so she could hear him play. A cot was set near the piano and she rotated between sleeping and listening to his music.
“My mother’s song,” she would murmur, and Beethoven played until she was content.
The days went by and Elise weakened.
Once, Elise asked, “Will you write me a song? Like you did for my mama?”
“Elise, I can barely hear anymore. I can’t.”
“You can,” Elise replied sleepily. “You’re the bravest person I’ve ever known. You have so much to be sad about, but you’re happy too. Put that in the song.”
He froze. It was impossible. But the words escaped him.
So Beethoven had one more purpose: figuring out how to write Elise’s song. He experimented to make the music louder than the ringing in his ears.
The solution was difficult, but he would do it for Elise.
He sawed the legs off his piano, until its body rested on the floor. Tentatively, he played a note, ear pressed to the floor. His heart leapt as it echoed in the floorboards. So he set to work, pouring his emotions into every note. Love, sorrow, anger, confusion, all translated into song.
When it was finished, Elise lay propped up on several pillows and Beethoven played for her. Never had any piece of music been played in that way. Never was a piece played that way again. Elise smiled, “What are you going to call it?”
“‘Fur Elise,’” Beethoven replied.
Beethoven continued playing, his last concert for his audience of one until Elise fell asleep.
When Beethoven was almost completely deaf, “Fur Elise” was played for the first time in public. It was an immediate success, never failing to bring the crowd to an ovation.
Beethoven could no longer hear the audience’s applause. But he could hear something nobody else could: Elise, clapping, laughing, begging for one more song.
He owed everything to Elise. She gave him joy again – in life and music. He gave back the one thing he could. Though only one song bore her name, every song he played was for Elise.
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