Life is a bagatelle, old chum

Sir Alfred Brendel bade farewell to the concert platform in 2008, but he can still be heard on many superlative recordings that span his 60 years of music-making. Characteristically, as an encore at his farewell recital, he played one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles.

Beethoven is universally known and admired for his nine symphonies, five piano concertos and 32 sonatas, his numerous chamber works, and his one opera Fidelio. For the piano he also composed variations (the most famous being the “Diabelli”) as well as three sets of short, lyrical pieces that he named Bagatelles. It was the French composer Couperin who, in 1717, first used the title Bagatelle for one of his harpsichord pieces. With Beethoven, the form acquires depth allied to a whimsicality that lifts it into the realm of great art in miniature. “They are full of precisely the wit and fancy that children can originate and enjoy, and that men of genius can retain throughout their lives,” wrote Donald Francis Tovey in his unfinished book Beethoven (1944).

The Seven Bagatelles Op. 33 appeared in 1802, although some of the pieces originated earlier. The first three – a rondo-like design with a graceful main theme, a scherzo with marked syncopations, and a lyrical melody – lead to a central Andante with sonorous pedal points. The three concluding pieces are by turns brilliant and syncopated, intimate and understated, and boisterously humorous.

The Eleven Bagatelles Op. 119 were published in 1823, juxtaposing several pieces composed in the early part of the century with newly minted ones, two of which are by-products of the “Diabelli Variations”. Beethoven’s English publisher printed them as one collection, although it is not clear if that is what the composer intended. Some scholars argue for two separate collections, but Beethoven may have thought of No. 6 as a way to connect nos. 1–5 to nos. 7–11. Key relationships and thematic similarities support this hypothesis, as does the fact that in one letter, Beethoven expressed satisfaction with how the works had been published in England.

The Six Bagatelles Op. 126 dedicated to his brother, Johann, date from 1824 and represent Beethoven’s last important creation for the piano. Beethoven told his publisher Schott that the Opus 126 Bagatelles “are probably the best I’ve written”. Beethoven seems to have meant them to be played in order as a single work, since there is an annotation in the margin of the manuscript that reads: “Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten” (cycle of little pieces). Another reason to regard the work as a unity rather than a collection is that, starting with the second Bagatelle, the keys fall in a regular succession of descending major thirds, a deliberate pattern seen elsewhere in Beethoven’s compositions.

In reviews Alfred Brendel’s rendition of the Bagatelles often comes top of the list. In his performances, each of Beethoven’s quirky creations is wonderfully characterized and marvelously expressed. One might expect no less of a musician whose avowed philosophy in music places the composer, rather than the performer, centre-stage. He once said, “If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer tell the piece what it should be like, or the composer what he ought to have composed.”

The most famous Bagatelle of all is an entirely separate piece called Für Elise, which every piano student learns at an early age. Supposedly written in 1810, it was not published until 1867 and may not, in fact, be by Beethoven at all. No one knows who Elise was, although musicologists have their “usual suspects”. Nevertheless, in the hands of Alfred Brendel, sadly no longer to be heard in public, it is still a masterpiece.

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