The piece has its origin in early 1836, when Schumann composed a piece entitled Ruines expressing his distress at being parted from his beloved Clara Wieck (later to become his wife). This later became the first movement of the Fantasy. Later that year, he wrote two more movements to create a work intended as a contribution to the appeal for funds to erect a monument to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. Schumann offered the work to the publisher Kirstner, suggesting that 100 presentation copies could be sold to raise money for the monument. Other contributions to the Beethoven monument fund included Mendelssohn's Variations sérieuses.
The original title of Schumann's work was "Obolen auf Beethovens Monument: Ruinen, Trophaen, Palmen, Grosse Sonate f.d. Piano f. Für Beethovens Denkmal". Kirstner refused, and Schumann tried offering the piece to Haslinger in January 1837. When Haslinger also refused, he offered it to Breitkopf & Härtel in May 1837. The movements' subtitles (Ruins, Trophies, Palms) became Ruins, Triumphal Arch, and Constellation, and were then removed altogether before Breitkopf & Härtel eventually issued theFantasie in May 1839. It was printed with a dedication to Franz Liszt.
The Beethoven monument was eventually completed, due mainly to the efforts of Liszt, who paid 2,666 thaler, the largest single contribution. It was unveiled in grand style in 1845, the attendees including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and many other dignitaries and composers, but not Schumann, who was ill.