Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the builder of imposing monuments for the keyboard required compositional diversions, needed to work from modest rather than mammoth blueprints. Apart from the several sonatas in which a relaxation of supreme striving is apparent, there are those pieces that are determinedly “small,” little things, or as Beethoven called them, Bagatelles, or Kleinigkeiten. An early set of the composer’s “little bits,” seven in number, were published in 1803 as Op. 33. Eleven pieces, Op. 119, came out in 1820, and the six of Op. 126, the last of his Bagatelles, were composed around 1823, the year he was finishing the Ninth Symphony, the Missa solemnis, and the Diabelli Variations for piano.
In regard to the Bagatelles, Eric Blom (1888-1959), the distinguished English writer on music and a Beethoven scholar, says that, in spite of their modest size [or perhaps because of it], the Bagatelles “reveal [Beethoven’s] character more intimately than anything else he ever wrote. They are,” he continues, “if anything in music can be, self-portraits, whereas his larger compositions express not so much personal moods as ideal conceptions requiring sustained thought and an unchanging emotional disposition for many day or weeks – indeed in Beethoven’s case sometimes years. But these short pieces could be dashed off by the composer, whatever he felt like at the moment, while the fit was on him. No doubt,” Blom concedes [and well he should], “there is an element of exaggeration in this theory of a difference between composition on a large and small scale, but the fact remains that in the Bagatelles we have some perfect and almost graphically vivid sketches of Beethoven in his changeable daily moods, tender or gently humorous one morning and full of fury, rude buffoonery or ill-temper the next. Not even his letters, in which we may find all these turns of mind too, reveal him more clearly than that.”
Whichever selections Mr. Kovacevich chooses, there is certain to be a myriad of fascinating Beethoven moods, from gently charming to volatile, from meditative to brash, from improvisatory to jaunty, from simple to lofty – and many more.
It is impossible to imagine the agony endured by the deaf composer and the energy he had to summon in order to create the massive, visionary works that obsessed him in his last creative years, thus it is understandable for him to have turned to the relative miniaturism of the late Bagatelles. These pieces could indeed have provided just the right therapy for the man as well as the artist, allowing him to relieve his creative tensions in spurts of modest invention. Already in the seventh of the Op. 33 Bagatelles, Beethoven’s evolving style is apparent. By 1820, his language had become increasingly transcendental; in the Op. 119 Bagatelles we find Beethoven the giant as both a musical seer and an extravagantly temperamental human being.
-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.