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Six Bagatelles, Op. 126

In a very different way, the Bagatelles Op. 126 stand as strikingly apart from the rest of Beethoven’s works as the Diabelli Variations. Written in 1823-24, they come at the completion of the monumental Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis. It is striking that he chose and was able to conclude his writing for the piano with six pieces that manage in their brevity to give away nothing of the musical depth and density that characterize his other late works.

Though short, these are no “mere” Bagatelles. Unlike the earlier Bagatelles, their stature equals that of Beethoven's larger works. Yes, one can see a progression from Op. 33 to 119 to 126, but it seems to us that it was probably the experience of writing the Diabelli Variations that enabled Beethoven to achieve this level of musical importance in such short pieces. Unlike the variations of the Diabelli, these Bagatelles, though beautiful as a set, and conceived as a cycle, can absolutely stand alone.

The remainder of Beethoven’s life was devoted to the composition of the astounding set of late Quartets Opp. 127-135, and we wonder whether other listeners will share our feeling that the Bagatelles Op. 126 constitute a kind of transition from the style of the late piano sonatas to the related, but markedly different style of those late Quartets.

We remarked earlier that the Diabelli Variations, or rather “Veränderungen”, are really quite unlike any variations (before or) after them. In the case of the Bagatelles, however, it seems possible that they demonstrated to later composers—Schumann, Brahms, Chopin—the possibility of concentrated, serious musical expression in a short piano piece. So perhaps there is some sense in pairing Beethoven’s “The Art of Piano” with his farewell to the piano.

Eleanor Perrone & Peter Schweitzer