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Eleven Bagatelles, Op 119
commissioned, but rejected by Carl Friedrich Peters; Nos 1-6 first published by Clementi in London in 1823; Nos 7-11 first published in 1821 by Friedrich Starke in the Wiener Piano-Forte-Schule

'Beethoven: Bagatelles' (CDA67879)
Beethoven: Bagatelles
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No 01 in G minor: Allegretto
No 02 in C major: Andante con moto
No 03 in D major: À l'Allemande
No 04 in A major: Andante cantabile
No 05 in C minor: Risoluto
No 06 in G major: Andante – Allegretto
No 07 in C major: Allegro ma non troppo
No 08 in C major: Moderato cantabile
No 09 in A minor: Vivace moderato
No 10 in A major: Allegramente
No 11 in B flat major: Andante ma non troppo

Eleven Bagatelles, Op 119
In the summer of 1822 the Leipzig publisher Carl Friedrich Peters wrote to Beethoven, inviting him to compose, among other things, some Bagatelles for piano. Beethoven, who was hard at work on his Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, was slow to respond, and it was not until February 1823 that he finally sent Peters the half-dozen Bagatelles we now know as Op 119 Nos 1–6. Peters, however, was highly critical, and did not mince his words: ‘I have had them played by several people’, he told Beethoven, ‘and not one of them will believe me that they are by you. I asked for Kleinigkeiten, but these are really too small, and in addition most of them are so easy that they are unsuitable for more advanced players, and for budding pianists there are from time to time passages that are too difficult … Perhaps my expectations were too high, for I imagined small appealing things, which, without having any great difficulties, are nevertheless friendly and attractive—in short, things where the artist would show that it’s also possible to write small things that make an effect etc. In order not to be misunderstood, I will say no more about it, other than that I will never print these Kleinigkeiten, but will rather lose the fee I have already paid.’

Beethoven lost no time in looking elsewhere, and he dispatched the Bagatelles to his former pupil Ferdinand Ries, who was living in London. ‘You will receive 6 Bagatelles or Trifles, and a further five that belong together with them, in two parts’, Beethoven told Ries. ‘Dispose of them yourself as well as you can.’ The Bagatelles duly appeared under the imprint of the London-based publisher and composer Clementi, who issued them as Trifles for the Piano Forte, Consisting of Eleven pleasing Pieces Composed in Various Styles by L. Van Beethoven. This was the first appearance in print of Nos 1–6, but Beethoven had composed the last five pieces specifically for inclusion in the third volume of the Wiener Piano-Forte-Schule issued in 1821 by the horn player and publisher Friedrich Starke. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that Beethoven removed an additional piece originally destined for Starke, and used it instead to form the opening movement of his Piano Sonata Op 109.

Among the Bagatelles composed for Starke, two pieces in C major, included as the seventh and eighth numbers of the collection, are related to Beethoven’s work on the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, Op 120. The first of the pair is a study in trills, and at the end the pianist’s right hand climbs upwards in a continually accelerating spiral, above a rumbling trill in the bass, until it propels a fortissimo arpeggio that sweeps down the keyboard to bridge the gap in registers between the two. No 9 is a panting piece in A minor with the curious tempo marking of Vivace moderato. However compressed it may be, it is surpassed in brevity by the following number, which must be the most aphoristic piece Beethoven ever published. Its mere thirteen bars (the first eight are repeated) of lively staccato played above a syncopated bass line go by in a flash. The last number in the collection is a miniature, too, though its theme, and the manner in which the melody finds itself transported to the top of the keyboard for its continuation, breathes an air of spaciousness that belies the music’s brief time-span.

The remainder of the Op 119 series is of considerably less recent vintage, though the C major second piece seems to straddle Beethoven’s early and late styles. Its pervasive triplet figure reappears in a similar form in the coda of the variation slow movement from the Piano Trio Op 1 No 3; but the Bagatelle’s own delicate coda, with its ‘rocking’ figuration in the keyboard’s highest register, transports us momentarily to the ethereal world of the ‘Arietta’ variations in Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, Op 111, and the concluding variation from the ‘Diabelli’ set. The following Allemande seems to cling more firmly to the world of Beethoven’s youth, though if it is of very early origin he must subsequently have revised it, since its topmost notes require a keyboard range that he did not have at his disposal prior to the Piano Trio Op 70 No 2, of 1808.

The gentle lyricism of the fourth piece is offset by the severity and clipped rhythmic style of the following number, in Beethoven’s characteristic C minor vein; while following its recitative-like slow introduction, the last of the Bagatelles preceding Starke’s group (No 6) is based on a tiny ‘bouncing’ figure repeated with almost obsessive insistence. Towards the end, the figure undergoes a rhythmic acceleration, and a change in metre, before this transparently scored piece disappears into thin air.

Unlike Peters, who had so curtly dismissed the Op 119 Bagatelles, there were those among Beethoven’s contemporaries who were able to appreciate the value of his miniatures, and the first German edition of the series was greeted with an enthusiastic review in the Berlin Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: ‘A rapid glance shows us eleven pieces of music on a small scale; but an infinite amount lies bewitched in their magic circle! They contain few musical words, but much is said with them—as every initiated person will willingly believe; for is Beethoven not altogether a musical Aeschylus in energetic brevity? To us these eleven bagatelles seem veritable little pictures of life.’

from notes by Misha Donat © 2012

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Details for CDA67879 track 10
No 3 in D major: À l'Allemande
Recording date
28 July 2011
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Bagatelles (CDA67879)
    Disc 1 Track 10
    Release date: May 2012
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