Listening to Beethoven #211 – Bagatelle in C major, WoO 56

Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven – Gold-plated bronze medal from the BH Mayer foundry based on a design by Rudolf Mayer, Pforzheim, 1903 (picture courtesy of the Beethovenhaus, Bonn)

Bagatelle in C major WoO 56 for piano (c1803-4, Beethoven aged 33)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’45”

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven published a 24 bagatelles in collections through his life, beginning with the seven published as Op.33 in 1802, there were a number of short pieces that did not get as far as publication. They reveal something of the composer’s sketchpad, and some of the directions in which he was experimenting.

Bryce Morrison remarks briefly in his Chandos booklet note that the piece is ‘less interesting’, but Keith Anderson, writing for Naxos, observes that ‘the undated Bagatelle is a curiously capricious little piece, with its imitative entries and sudden whimsical shifts of key’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s Bagatelles are never without incident, and though to the untrained observer a Bagatelle in C major would seem to be something of a routine encounter, this is far from the case.

The music starts with Beethoven lost in thought, and the implication is that a fugal exercise is about to begin, albeit one with a chromatic melody. This breaks off in mid-phrase, and the music restlessly moves around in search of a key, the left hand wandering off and having to be brought back into line. The ending resolves happily enough in C major, but there is a distracted feeling to this particular Bagatelle.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Mikhail Pletnev (DG)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
John Lill (Chandos)

Beethoven bagatelles encourage experimentation among pianists, and comparing the versions from Mikhail Pletnev, Ronald Brautigam and John Lill is very instructive. The first two are quick, while Lill gives a thoughtful account. Brautigam has plenty of air to fill in his reverberant recording, while the Jenő Jandó version shares a track with the Presto in C minor – the Bagatelle itself beginning at 4’13”.

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1803 Danzi Preiss Gottes

Next up Allemande in A major, WoO 81

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