Beethoven and the Bagatelle

The title “Bagatelle” on a piece of music was first used by François Couperin (1668–1733) for a work in his tenth Ordre, published in 1717. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines the term specifically as “a trifle, a short piece of music in light vein.”1 While many other works with the title “Bagatelle” were written and published in the 18th and 19th centuries, those of Ludwig van Beethoven are surely the best-known. In all, he wrote 24 bagatelles catalogued as Op. 33, 119, and 126, and four separate bagatelles without opus numbers (WoO).

These magnificent shorter works encapsulate, and in many ways, summarize the musical characteristics of one of the most influential composers in history. While the larger works (such as the symphonies and sonatas) appropriately command a great amount of attention and most thoroughly reflect his genius, it may actually be easier to get an overview of his style by studying smaller works, such as these. In short-form works we find numerous characteristics of Beethoven’s writing, seen quickly and succinctly.

It is important to see where these pieces fit into the composer’s output, and thereby learn what style of his writing they reflect. Beethoven’s compositional career is traditionally divided into three periods, marking his evolution as a composer. The idea of three compositional periods was first proposed by Johann Schlosser, in his biography of Beethoven, published only a few months after the composer’s death.2 While many would debate the specific dates of each period, it can be approximated that the first ends around 1802, the second concludes by 1812, and the final period encompasses works written from 1813 until his death in 1827.

The first period could be called Beethoven’s most “Classical” period, the time in which his works are essentially in line with the Viennese style at the turn of the century. Comparisons to the music of Haydn and Mozart are not uncommon. In the second period, we find the more adventurous or heroic style emerging, as seen in the Third Symphony (“Eroica”), the Fifth Symphony, and piano sonatas such as the “Waldstein,” Op. 53, and the “Appassionata,” Op. 57. The works of this period are the first to uniquely distinguish Beethoven’s music from the expected temperament of Classicism, and are full of experimentation in form, color, and thematic development. In the final period, Beethoven’s work is often referred to as introspective, reflecting a greater emotional turmoil in his life, and his isolated internal world of deafness. The Ninth Symphony and the last five piano sonatas were written during this time, and display in so many ways his search for new means of expression. Some of the more striking traits are his use of fugue and instrumental recitative. Today, as we look back over the course of music history, these last two periods seem to display a general move toward the Romantic era, with its increased expansiveness, rubato and accelerando, the passionate and the macabre, the ferocious and the delicate, the new heights and depths of individual musical expression. To hear some of the differences in these periods, I recommend listening—at one sitting—to one work from each period. Below are two suggested lists, with the date of completion in parentheses:

Sonatas

First period: Op. 2, No.1 in F minor (1795)

Second period: Op. 53 in C major, “Waldstein”
(1804)

Third period: Op. 110 in A-flat major (1822)

Symphonies

First period: No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800)

Second period: No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808)

Third period: No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1824)

The seven bagatelles of Opus 33 were written and first performed between 1801 and 1802, at the approximate conclusion of the first period. At this time, Beethoven’s hearing had already caused him difficulty for as many three years. Yet the music of this set is, as a whole, very bright and happy. It encompasses a wide range of technical difficulties. Opus 119 includes eleven bagatelles, completed and first performed between 1820 and 1822, in the middle of the final period. In general, these have a wider variety of styles than the earlier set, and a range of moods, from melancholy (No. 1) to restless (No.10). The Opus 126 set was written shortly after the last three sonatas, and parallels those pieces in experimentation in form and expression. Beethoven’s manuscript included an annotation reading “cycle of little pieces,” perhaps intending these to be played as a single work, imbuing these supposed “trifles” with a new level of seriousness.3

Of four separate bagatelles without opus numbers, the most famous is “Für Elise”, WoO 59.

1 Brown, Maurice J.E.: “Bagatelle”, Grove Music Online (Accessed 6/1/07),

2 Kerman, Joseph and Alan Tyson, et. al: “Beethoven, Ludwig van; The ‘three periods'”, Grove Music Online (Accessed 6/10/07),

3 von Irmer, Otto (1975) (ed.) Beethoven: Klavierstücke. G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

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Beethoven: Bagatelle in C Major, Op. 119, No. 8
Matthew Edwards