The familiar harmonic language of Beethoven may invite a relaxation, but I wonder what Beethoven's contemporaries made of these miniature detonations and meditations. Far from being the "trifles" that their title suggests, the Bagatelles of Op. 126 are the product of the same period as the Ninth Symphony. Concentrated and explosive, they are every bit as expressively dense and seemingly modern as the compositions of Schoenberg we have already experienced. It is worth noting that Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, composed in 1909, bear roughly the same chronological relation to us that the Bagatelles did to Schoenberg.
While Beethoven's previous sets of published bagatelles had largely been accumulations of leftover minor statements, the six bagatelles of Op. 126 were deliberately composed as a single entity. In a letter to his publisher, Beethoven wrote that they were "quite the best pieces of their kind that I have written." The instant juxtaposition of frantic motion and serene contemplation that we find in the final bagatelle, when contained in such a short duration, seems to enhance and deepen the sensations rather than constrict them.
In 1820, four years before the completion of Op. 126, Beethoven had already started work on not only the Ninth Symphony, but the monumental Missa solemnis as well. At this period of creative magnificence he also produced his three final piano sonatas, each an experiment in form. The first two movements of the Sonata in E, Op. 109, could be taken for two contrasting bagatelles. Their concision, whether in introspection or march-like vigor, is a startling contrast from the vastness of the Hammerklavier Sonata which came before. That the finale of Op. 109 is a set of six variations on a theme seems an almost misplaced technical observation as we experience the noble benediction of the last movement.
— Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.