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A bagatelle is more than a mere trifle

This hour: everything you need to know about the bagatelle, backed up by performances by the pianists Thomas Wypior, Ben Cruchley and Siegfried Mauser.

Listen to audio 54:59

Concert Hour: Bagatelles

Webster's Dictionary defines bagatelle as "something of little importance or value; trifle." Another definition is more to the point of this program: "a short musical composition, especially for the piano."

Why did Ludwig van Beethoven call these pieces such? It might have been an early 19th-century marketing strategy, Ben Cruchley told DW. "When a composer calls his work a trifle, it's like saying: 'Don't look! There's nothing to see here!'"

Cruchley added, "The false modesty in the title is also a recurring theme in Beethoven's writing and in his works: He liked to act as a champion for anything perceived as small or insignificant. He could make something so enormous out of something considered so banal."

Ben Cruchley also elaborated on the works he plays this hour: "Opus 119 is very interesting. It consists of 11 bagatelles, five of them written around 1802 or 1803, and the other six 20 years later. We don't know whether they were meant to be performed as a whole or studied as individual pieces. But the fact that pieces of different styles fit together into a single work says a lot about his idea of how parts of his music could interact with a whole." 

Ben Crunchley (Beethovenfest/Barbara Frommann)

Canadian pianist Ben Crunchley at the Beethoven House

Many musicians cite the difficulty of performing music by Ludwig van Beethoven, but not Cruchley: "I personally find that Beethoven really wants to communicate and to touch people. I consider the sincerity with which he does that and the positivity of the underlying message overwhelmingly affirming - even in his most dramatic and tragic works. That makes it perhaps even easier for me to approach it than certain other composers, because you understand why you're doing it."

Beethoven is the source of the best-known bagatelles, and when later composers wrote them they were often referring back to him in one way or another. One of them was Franz Liszt, who in his later years traveled in his music to the outer fringes of tonality, examplified by his "Bagatelle Without Tonality."

While the Liszt piece builds to a dizzying waltz rhythm, the Bagatelles of Béla Bartók are also based on dance, but with a high sense of experimentation - and fun. 

Siegfried Mauser (Thorsten Mischke)

German pianist and musicologist Siegfried Mauser

Ludwig van Beethoven
Six bagatelles, op. 126 
Thomas Wypior, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven
Eleven bagatelles, op. 119 
Ben Cruchley, piano 

Béla Bartók
Fourteen bagatelles, op. 6 (excerpt) 
Siegfried Mauser, piano

Recorded by Deutschlandfunk Cologne (DLF) in the Beethoven House, Bonn on September 18, 2016.

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