Beethoven Bagatelles, Op. 126

Herbert Brün


       This is a set of observations, reflections, comments, and speculative
statements. They all refer to a set of pieces composed for the piano. The pieces
are not usually considered a very important part of Beethoven's output.

       Most often, the set is spoken of with the slight condescension that
meets pieces that are considered light, trivial, frivolous, and incidental. Or
they are mentioned with the puzzled awe that greets all tricks, especially like
tricks that involve putting a large object in a small bottle. But these pieces
are not mere tricks.

       These pieces are often considered examples of a certain kind of piano
piece that flooded the salons and recital halls of the nineteenth century:
impromptus, serenades, songs without words, musical portraits, character pieces,
miniatures, novelties, etudes, and so on. All of these names refer to a kind of
piano piece that Beethoven, when he wrote one, called "Bagatelle".

       But in the intention behind the composition of this kind of small scale
piano piece, the difference between tricks (or novelties) and a musical
statement emerges. The intention behind the worst of this type of small piece
requires the presentation of an almost meaningless musical idea in a meaningful
musical expression; the intention behind Beethoven's Bagatelles requires the
presentation of a meaning-charged musical idea in a small, terse, yes even
fragmentary, form.

       Among Beethoven's numerous short compositions for piano, there are
twenty four that he himself gave the title "Small Things (Kleinigkeiten) or
Bagatelles". They were published in three stages: first, seven bagatelles,
Op. 33 (in the year 1803); then the 11 new bagatelles, Op. 119 (20 years
later); and shortly thereafter (in the year 1825) the "Six Bagatelles, Op. 126".
The dates of publication, however, say next to nothing about the time in which
the individual pieces of a collection were composed. Research into Beethoven's
many sketch books has shown that problems and ideas from widely divergent
creative periods are addressed and given form in these "small things", the
Bagatelles.

       This fact is a symptom of a condition about which the pieces themselves
are concerned: It is as if there is a contradiction between small, constructive
musical elements (motivic ideas) and formal development It is as if Beethoven
were acutely aware of how, in the first moments of music, something
less (or something more) is promised than is delivered as things are worked out.
The central problem is how to keep the working out of a potent element of
musical construction (motive) from dampening the impact created by the
juxtaposition of different musical events created with these elements (motives).
In other words, can a potent motive undergo an extended development without
becoming either pompous or cumbersome and tiredly strained? And (the second
aspect of the problem) can an extended development be constructed that does not
minimize the contrast between one musical event and another?

       Almost all of these bagatelles lay aside so-called "classical balance".
They do it drastically and openly, so that the intention and the concern is
unmistakable. Now this concern can be discovered very often in Beethoven,
particularly in the late sonatas for piano and string quartet. Indeed, this one
concern leads both to the dynamic expansions of the sonatas and quartets, which
take on dramatic dimensions, and to the charged compressions found in the small
art of the bagatelles, which seem lapidary, fragmentary, yes, even ironic.

       Beethoven wrote about the 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126, in a letter to his
publisher Schott in Mainz. In the letter, he speaks of "Six bagatelles, or
"little things", for piano alone." He says that "many of them are the most
worked out, and probably the best of the type, that he has yet written". In it,
Beethoven indicates that he knows the publisher and the public
will find it difficult to accept something shorter than a symphony,
a Missa Solemnis, or a holf-hour sonata from a composer of Beethoven's
stature. What he must be trying to say is something that should be
clear to anyone who looks dosely into the score. Whoever knows the
last five sonatas of Beethoven and the painstakingly composed element
of rhapsody in them, whoever values their unyieldingly developed
abundance, will be astonished to meet it in the Bagatelles, in the
sharpest reduction, presented through the most concentrated of means.
The presentation is of the subtlest type: at no point does one have
the impression that something requires more time than it has been given
or that a threadbare idea gets by just by avoiding any development.



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