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Six Bagatelles from Op. 119

March, 10 2024: Richard Goode, piano

Beethoven was constantly composing piano miniatures, and he saved those that never found a home in his piano sonatas for later publication as collections of unrelated pieces, some to be used as exercises. When he published his first set of Bagatelles, op. 33, in 1803, he was the first to attach the French term for “trifle” to a set of unrelated pieces for piano, though occasionally the term had been used in the previous century for sets of dances or songs. He published two other collections of Bagatelles—Opus 119 in 1823 and Opus 126 in 1825. Those of the last set date from 1824, but the dates of composition for the Opus 119 set range from his early Bonn days through 1822, the period of the Missa solemnis and the three last piano sonatas, opp. 109, 110, and 111.

In Beethoven’s mind these miniatures were by no means inferior to his more extended piano works but were simply ideas that were complete in themselves. We can well imagine his incensed reaction, reported by Anton Schindler, when the publisher Peters returned six of them in 1823 saying they weren’t worth his asking price and that he ought to consider it beneath his dignity to waste his time on such trifles.

The publication of the set of eleven Bagatelles in 1823—by Clementi in London and Schlesinger in Paris as Opus 112, “corrected” to 119 later in the century—actually caps a convoluted history, discussed by scholars in exhaustive detail. One of the most salient points is that in April 1820 Beethoven broke off work on the Missa solemnis to comply with a request from Friedrich Starke for a contribution to his piano pedagogy book, Wiener Piano-Forte-Schule. Beethoven ended up supplying Nos. 7–11 of the eventual Opus 119 for the 1821 publication, calling them by the German term Kleinigkeiten, in the same wave of German patriotism that had seen him using the term Hammerklavier.

Beethoven’s sketches from this time are fascinating in that they show the first movement of the E major Sonata, op. 109, to have originated from the impetus to supply bagatelles, which helps account for its unusual form. Clearly this impetus also inspired him to complete Nos. 1–6, for which he drew on his rich store of materials from as early as 1791–1802. As it happens, however, the improvisatory-sounding No. 6 that begins this evening’s selection is of 1822 vintage judging by sketches that appear amid work on the Credo of the Missa solemnis. It seems wholly appropriate to group Nos. 6 through 11 together as examples of a somewhat later style.

The Bagatelles sometimes employ a binary form (two sections with repeats), as in the intimate, chromatically inflected No. 8, or a rounded binary (second half returns to the opening material, both halves repeated) as in the valse triste of No. 9. But many times Beethoven lets the material command its own form, as in the aforementioned No. 6, which puts us in mind of his improvisations, not only at concerts or private gatherings but for himself alone. No. 7 is especially striking for its trills—that sound like chiming bells at the outset but become almost demonic before the precipitous ending—and No. 10, briefest of all, is notable for its single-minded playfulness. With the profound No. 11, one suspects that Beethoven found its individual form totally satisfying—first section repeated, second section a series of varied thoughts—and decided against marring its delicate nuances by employing it in another context.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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