What is a... Bagatelle?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Bagatelle?
What is a Bagatelle?
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As anyone who has ever heard a typical school concert performance of the most famous of all bagatelles, Beethoven’s Für Elise, will testify, casual lightness of touch is one of the hardest of all effects to achieve: you need to work hard in order to convey the impression that you’re not working hard.

The brief ‘Les Bagatelles’ from Couperin’s tenth harpsichord suite is the earliest example of the form – if ‘form’ is quite the word – we have. In effect it’s light as thistledown, but the overlapping and interweaving of the hands on two keyboards requires counterintuitive concentration from the player. 

A French court composer naming a tiny piece of music after a sophisticated table-top version of billiards would have raised few painted eyebrows in early 18th-century Versailles. Rather more surprising is the interest shown in bagatelles by Beethoven.

Study Beethoven’s sketchbooks, in which ideas go through revision upon revision before arriving at the form in which we know them, and you’d probably conclude that nothing was ever ‘throwaway’ for this obsessive perfectionist.

But Beethoven’s Bagatelles, especially the fascinating Op. 126, remind us that he was also a great keyboard improviser.

In the first of the set, a gentle, song-like theme in three-time suddenly changes to two-time, fragments melodically, dissolves into a blissfully throwaway cadenza, then re-emerges as a sublime late-Beethoven meditation – as though Beethoven had forgotten that he was writing a miniature and strayed into the exalted realm of the last piano sonatas.

After Beethoven, the idea that normal rules somehow don’t apply to bagatelles stuck.

Liszt’s astonishingly radial Bagatelle sans tonalité (1885) is at one extreme, Dvoπák’s delightfully eccentric Bagatelles for two violins, cello and harmonium at the other.

Webern’s tiny, exquisitely unsettling Six Bagatelles for String Quartet are clearly in the Beethoven-Liszt lineage, but Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet are more Beethoven-Dvoπák, with a haunting memorial tribute to Ligeti’s countryman Bartók (composer of 14 deliciously spare piano Bagatelles) in the fifth movement.

In all these works, from Couperin to Ligeti, there’s a sense of something discovered while just ‘playing around’ – something which, in several cases, turned out to be anything but ‘mere’.

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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