Monday, January 12, 2015

Beethoven - Seven Bagatelles, Opus 33

The Romantic vision of Beethoven with wild eyes and disheveled hair hunched over his writing desk illuminated by an almost spent candle as he scribbled out serious masterpiece after serious masterpiece, is about as far from the truth as it gets. Beethoven was an early riser and did most of his composing in the morning.  He spent many of his afternoons wandering about in the countryside with his sketchbook in his pocket so he could capture any ideas that would come to him.  He spent his evenings in various activities such as reading or in the local tavern, but seldom composing.

The raw material for his compositions that were contained in his sketchbooks were mulled over, added to or subtracted from as his artistic taste dictated. Many of his longer works went through a long period of gestation and revision before they came to their final form. While Beethoven's craft and skill as a composer is evident, his frame of mind did not always lean towards storming the heavens.

Beethoven had a sense of humor that worked its way into his compositions. Sometimes the long and serious works had moments of humor, as is heard in the third movement of the Sixth Symphony In F Major 'Pastorale', where the orchestra mimics a village band, or the imitation of an oomp-pah-pah band in the quite serious 4th movement of the Ninth Symphony In D Minor.  The piano sonatas also have their humorous moments (and movements) as well.  Sometimes Beethoven's sense of humor took over a complete piece, as happened in some of the Bagatelles For Solo Piano, opus 33

The term bagatelle is of French or Italian origin and means something of little value, a trifle, and was first used as early as 1717 by the French Baroque composer François Couperin. Beethoven wrote three sets of bagatelles, a total of 24 with opus numbers as well as an additional 6 individual bagatelles without opus numbers. One of the without opus number bagatelles is arguably one of Beethoven's most well known pieces, Für Elise His first set of bagatelles opus 33, was written in 1802-1803 and contains seven works. It would be a mistake to take the term bagatelle literally. These are short pieces, but they aren't all fluff and stuff. Pieces like these were Beethoven's laboratory; he used them to experiment in writing for the instrument he knew very well:

I. Andante grazioso, quasi allegretto -  Written in the key of E-flat major, the first bagatelle of the set is graceful, though somewhat heavily seasoned with grace notes in the melody. A short middle section in a minor key provides contrast, after which the first section is repeated.

II. Scherzo. Allegro -  It is not certain if all seven of the pieces in this opus were written between 1802-1803, but this scherzo follows a general pattern of music Beethoven labeled as 'scherzo' at about the same time. Piano sonata Opus 14, No. 2 In G Major of 1799 includes a scherzo as the final movement. Symphony No. 2 In D Major, Opus 36 written in 1803 also has a scherzo movement.  Beethoven followed the experiments of Haydn in writing scherzos, but Beethoven's were quite unique. This scherzo is in C major and begins with a rhythmically quirky figure:
With sudden changes in dynamics, a mix of slurred notes and staccato notes and rests, Beethoven trips the ear as we try to grasp the pulse of the music. This first section is repeated, and just as the listener is beginning to get the feel of the rhythm Beethoven changes things abruptly with a section in A minor that has the melody played in octaves in the right hand to a triplet accompaniment. Like a swelling ocean wave a crescendo from piano to fortissimo spans a 3-bar section, and rapidly dies down to piano, only to do it again before the end of the minor section. The minor section is repeated, and the opening scherzo returns. The trio is of a more mellow mood, as runs of thirds in the right hand spell out the simple theme. The trio repeats, after which the scherzo returns but with some syncopation thrown in for good measure. A short coda begins to wind down the music, but the final bars hammer out a C major chord in the right hand alternating with a low C in the left.  The accents shift for a few bars until the music ends on the low C in the second beat of a measure.

III. Allegretto - The third piece is in F major. The first phrase is in the home key, but Beethoven throws the ear another curve ball when the second phrase unexpectedly shifts to the key of D major. This section repeats. The next section begins with a very short development of the initial phrase before the initial phrase is repeated. This section also repeats. Another development section begins and leads back to the beginning material which is now decorated with grace notes. A short coda ends the work solidly in F major.

IV. Andante -  A graceful theme in A major begins the piece, and shifts to a contrasting section in A minor. The A major theme returns and is varied. The melody shifts to the bass, and a shor coda brings the music to a quiet ending.

V. Allegro ma non troppo - Written in C major, this is another scherzo in all but name. Ascending arpeggios bring the music to rest upon a high A after some hand crossing, after that both hands descend in triplets before the hands move in contrary motion. The right hand plays trills to the chords in the left hand.  The next section has both hands playing triplet figures along with long bass notes in the left and the melody in the right. The middle section is in C minor, with the melody in right hand octaves with low triplets in the bass. The C major scherzo begins again, but it not a verbatim repeat as Beethoven makes changes.  A coda of longer duration begins and ends the piece in C major.

VI. Allegretto, quasi andante - Written in D major, this piece carries the added instruction Con una certa espressione parlante (with a kind of speaking voice) along with the tempo indication. It is a gentle, lyrical and short bagatelle that ends not long after it begins.

VII. Presto -  After the gentleness of the preceding bagatelle, this one comes as a surprise. Written in A-flat major, the music begins with pianissimo thirds in the left hand for 4 measures in a beginning that may have been an experiment for what was to become a similar opening in the scherzo of Symphony No. 3 In E-flat Major 'Eroica'. The motive of this scherzo staggers into the picture in the right hand:
 The second section follows the same general pattern. The next section begins with a low note in the bass played fortissimo, with pianissimo arpeggios in both hands for eight measures.  This section has the added effect of Beethoven instructing the player to hold the damper pedal down the entire time, thus the bass note rings out while the arpeggios quietly spread over the bass, an effect that could only be done on the piano. The first section repeats with slight variations. The extended pedal music also repeats. One more time the first section repeats, again with slight variations.  Large chords played forte in both hands begin the coda, are then repeated in a different chord position and fortissimo. The right hand plays a variant of the opening motive under strongly accented chords and the movement comes to a quiet ending.

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