Jon Lee


Beethoven Six Bagatelles, op. 126

Program Notes

Beethoven composed the Six Bagatelles in 1824, partly to settle a debt owed to his brother Johann. In a letter addressed to a prospective publisher, he declared the Bagatelles “the best” he had written.1

While applying superlatives to art seems arbitrary, and Beethoven’s own assessment might have been just savvy marketing, this collection of “trifles” have qualities that could support his claim. Unlike his previous two sets (Opp. 33 and 119), he likely conceived these as a whole, as noted by “Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten” (“cycle of bagatelles”) written in his sketches. The meticulous attention is apparent by the remarkably specific markings he gave to the score.

Music theorist Edward Cone suggested that the Bagatelles might have been a way for Beethoven to experiment without being burdened by the constraints of larger forms.2 For one, while Beethoven often extended the codas of his scherzo movements with their trio material (e.g., Ninth Symphony, Op. 125), in the fourth bagatelle, he repeats the trio in its entirety. Many experiments bear fruit, particularly in his late quartets: the play with duple and triple meter seen in the first bagatelle opens the Op. 127 quartet in E-flat major, a similar key scheme frames the Op. 130 quartet in B-flat major and the contrasts in characters outlines his seven-movement Op. 131 quartet in C-sharp minor.

Engagement with these bagatelles reveals intriguing pairwise relationships. The pastoral and contemplative nature of the first bagatelle finds an echo in the equally pastoral but more serene fifth. The anxiety evident in the second bagatelle is assuaged in the third. And, the youthful vigor of the fourth is reflected upon by the wiser Beethoven in the sixth.

Upon initial listening, this set might be overwhelming; Beethoven’s temperament is quick, and the scenes are fleeting. But we nonetheless get a sense of Beethoven’s identity and the evolution of his artistry throughout his entire career. While his most famous bagatelle, Für Elise, might be a trifle, we might be able to agree with Beethoven’s own judgment regarding this work, his last opus for solo piano.


Alfred Brendel (19:46)

Other resources

  1. von Irmer, Otto, ed. Beethoven: Klavierstücke, 7. G. Henle Verlag, 1975. 

  2. Cone, Edward. “Beethoven’s Experiments in Composition: The Late Bagatelles.” In Music, a View from Delft: Selected Essays, 179–180. University of Chicago Press, 1989. 

Hi! Have a comment, question, complaint, observation, or criticism about this post? Leave your comment below!