The 1890s were the period of Nielsen’s first great compositional breakthrough, the time when he established himself as the leading modernist voice in contemporary Danish music, and, for many critics, as an avant-gardiste whose larger works were frequently a ‘bone of contention’. However, his third piano composition from the 1890s, the Humoresque-Bagatelles
Op 11, belongs to the first category of shorter pieces or character works. Though the Bagatelles
were premiered on 3 September 1898, little is known about their compositional genesis. One newspaper compared them with Schumann’s Kinderszenen
, and argued that they were unsuitable material for the concert hall. Retrospectively, however, a more useful comparison might be with the shorter twentieth-century piano works of Bartók, Prokofiev or Debussy—pieces such as Debussy’s suite Children’s Corner
, designed to capture the imagination of younger players and listeners alike. The first piece, ‘Goddag! Goddag!’, is a playful Allegretto whose opening motif echoes the Danish for ‘Hello! Hello!’. Here, and in the following movement, ‘The Spinning Top’ (‘Snurretoppen’), the diatonic innocence of the opening bars almost entirely conceals the more modernist chromaticism of the central section. The third number is a slow waltz that constantly threatens to drift lazily into harmonically uncharted waters, despite its circularity, while the fourth is as dynamically and harmonically unpredictable as its title, ‘The Jumping Jack’ (‘Sprællemanden’), suggests. The two final movements inhabit a stylized world of eighteenth-century classicism that looks forward, in many ways, to Nielsen’s great comic opera, Maskarade
(‘Masquerades’). The ‘Puppet March’ (‘Dukke-Marsch’) is like a Haydn Allegro in miniature, whereas the repetitive figuration of the closing movement, ‘The Musical Clock’ (‘Spilleværket’) seems more suggestive of Mozart, a composer with whom Nielsen of course felt an especially close affinity.
from notes by Daniel Grimley © 2008