Beethoven: 11 Bagatelles, op. 119

performed by Alfred Brendel

A rapid glance shows us eleven pieces of music on a small scale; but an infinite amount lies bewitched in their magic circle! They contain few musical words, but much is said with them—as every initiated person will willingly believe; for is Beethoven not altogether a musical Aeschylus in energetic brevity? To us these eleven bagatelles seem veritable little pictures of life.

Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung

(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)

We begin our Petite Piano series for July with an installment from Beethoven that pretty well typifies the various approaches to (or rather interpretations of) little sets of such short pieces.

Various sources give different definitions for the word ‘bagatelle.’ Merriam-Webster tells us it is “a short literary or musical piece in light style.” Cambridge says that it is “something, especially an amount of money, that is small and not important,” and a closely associated word is ‘trifle.’

So you could think of it as a little collection of sketches, small musical ideas gathered together in a set. But this set, at least, isn’t so straightforward. The eleven pieces in this opus number were composed across about three decades. The first five of the set were written by 1803, but potentially begun as early as 1790, and the last five were composed in 1820, with the final addition, the sixth, written in 1822.

There is some discussion about what Beethoven originally intended for these pieces, how they were to be published. They were presented as one set of eleven works (as now) in England, and Beethoven expressed nothing but satisfaction with this, so he at least wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Misha Donat gives us a bit more insight into the compilation of these works into one opus number:

In the summer of 1822 the Leipzig publisher Carl Friedrich Peters wrote to Beethoven, inviting him to compose, among other things, some Bagatelles for piano. Beethoven, who was hard at work on his Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, was slow to respond, and it was not until February 1823 that he finally sent Peters the half-dozen Bagatelles we now know as Op 119 Nos 1–6.

The impression this gives to me is that instead of fulfilling the commission by composing new material, he thumbed through old sketches and dug some stuff up that maybe would suit the criteria. This could be perceived as either resourceful or lazy. Peters, however, was not impressed. Donat reproduces the publisher’s response.

I have had them played by several people’, he told Beethoven, ‘and not one of them will believe me that they are by you. I asked for Kleinigkeiten, but these are really too small, and in addition most of them are so easy that they are unsuitable for more advanced players, and for budding pianists there are from time to time passages that are too difficult … Perhaps my expectations were too high, for I imagined small appealing things, which, without having any great difficulties, are nevertheless friendly and attractive—in short, things where the artist would show that it’s also possible to write small things that make an effect etc. In order not to be misunderstood, I will say no more about it, other than that I will never print these Kleinigkeiten, but will rather lose the fee I have already paid.’

Ouch.

Remember, then, that the high opus number doesn’t really mean that these works were contemporary with things like the ninth symphony, etc. So let’s see if there’s anything for Peters to have been so upset about.

  1. G minor. Allegretto
  2. C major. Andante con moto
  3. D major. A l’Allemande
  4. A major. Andante cantabile
  5. C minor. Risoluto
  6. G major. Andante — Allegretto
  7. C major. Allegro, ma non troppo
  8. C major. Moderato cantabile
  9. A minor. Vivace moderato
  10. A major. Allegramente
  11. B major. Andante, ma non troppo

The first bagatelle is one of only three of this set in a minor key, along with the fifth and ninth. You’ll notice that as we discuss the pieces for this month, it’s almost just quicker to listen to the piece and form your own impression than to read anything I have to say about them. We’ll be seeing this dichotomy throughout the series, that such seemingly simple, straightforward music also has a surprising sense of depth and meaning.

The first bagatelle is an example of this. It’s somber; maybe solemn is a better word. There’s a very direct contrast of moods, with a lighter section that isn’t as serious but still subdued. After listening to so many of the composer’s sonatas, I feel like these very small pieces should go somewhere, that these little morsels of musical ideas have so much potential, but they’re just presented and finished. The convincing tenderness we find in the Gm bagatelle seems to outweigh its brevity.

The second bagatelle, with its conversation between the two registers scaling up and down, also seems like it comes from a larger-scale work, and shows that penchant for orchestral color that even the very young Beethoven possessed. The third also seems destined for greater things, and it’s the liveliest so far, as an allemande, with trills and a bit more show.

The fourth, in contrast, is soft and sweet. The cantabile is warm and round, with a barely bubbly central passage. It feels like sinking into a cozy blanket, somewhere we could stay for a long time, but of course is over quickly. The fifth, even more lively than the third, is our second of the set in a minor key, and is certainly risoluto. There are more trills and a full-bodied spirit. This one is really just a single thought, one almost march-like line that lasts barely a minute. This sounds very Beethoven to me!

The sixth and most mature of the set seems really to reach for greater things, and is the second longest in the set (with the first being the longest, at least in Brendel’s reading), and it feels like it’s… a trailer, a promotional segment of some fantastic, exciting sonata we never got to enjoy in full. It’s dramatic, cute, a wonderful little piece full of things that I can see being a joy to interpret.

This leaves us now at the second, more mature half of the set, with the seventh. It’s also just one thought, a pastoral idea with some darker moments, while the eighth is more placid, almost Romantic in nature. The ninth doesn’t let us get too comfortable, though, with its impulsive, virtuosic flashes of color and energy, even in a minor key. It’s not dark, though, and ends abruptly.

The tenth is kind of… just a 15-second afterthought to the ninth, and if you aren’t paying attention, they seem like two parts of the same thing, moving from A minor to A major.

The final bagatelle in the set, number eleven, is majestic, stately, almost hymn-like, and seems to reach for the greatest depths, the highest level of poetry in less than two minutes. It gives pause.

If anyone is unconvinced of Beethoven’s musical genius, or intimidated by his sonatas, this is where you can get a glimpse of how wildly magical and satisfying his writing is. There’s almost no concern for structure or development here, just quick little pieces, easy-to-enjoy morsels that may create a desire for something greater. In fact, a reviewer at the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (where Schumann would later write) wrote the words of the quote that opens this article. I couldn’t agree more.

This article is already much longer than I anticipated it being. Stay tuned for more short music, and thanks so much for reading.

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One thought on “Beethoven: 11 Bagatelles, op. 119

  1. Good grief – I didn’t even know this blog existed until I stumbled across it entirely by accident (as it turns out, via the following somewhat idiosyncratic Google search: “tom service” “robert simpson”)! I’m very glad to have joined the party, even if it is nearly 5 years in, and, given the clear parallels in our respective musical tastes, you will doubtless be bored to tears in the days/weeks/months/years ahead by relentless commenting on my part. You have been warned!

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