Today we’re going to talk about the musical form the “bagatelle”. We’ve talked about other forms on this channel, from the simple waltz to the complex sonata – and to wind up for the next video (on a very famous bagatelle), we’re going to tackle this one today.
In this video we’re going to talk about what a bagatelle is, look at a few key compositions, listen through a couple, and then you can check out the blog or my Spotify playlist to get more in-depth.
Let’s get started!
Musical bagatelle: Definition
Let’s start with the definition of a musical bagatelle. It literally means “a short unpretentious instrumental composition”, or a “trifle” in French and German.
Here are some of their characteristics:
- Bagatelles are usually for the piano
- They’re usually short, light and mellow
- They have an improvisational flavor
An interesting thing about the bagatelle that differentiates it from other more formal forms is that there isn’t any inherent structure. The waltz, for example, is often in binary form. But the bagatelle can and does go wherever the composer desires it to.
History of the musical bagatelle
Bagatelles date back to the Baroque era, where the term was first coined by Francois Couperin in 1717 (named after a type of tabletop billiards). However, the composer who wrote the most popular bagatelles was Ludwig van Beethoven (who wrote three sets and some change).
Liszt, Dvorak, Diabelli and others wrote some famous bagatelles in the Romantic era (19th century), as did composers like Bartok in the 20th century. Bagatelles continue to be composed to this day by people such as Howard Ferguson and Julian Bream.
We’re going to talk about a few important bagatelles throughout music history, I’ll share a couple audio examples, and leave you with a Spotify playlist. Let’s get to it!
Beethoven: Fur Elise
The first and most famous bagatelle we’ll be taking a look at is Beethoven’s Fur Elise. We won’t get into it too much today (spoiler alert!), but it’s probably one of the most famous compositions of all time.
All of you likely know the opening of this bagatelle, but I encourage you to listen through the whole thing if you have a chance. It’s written in rondo form (which we’ve talked about on this channel before), which basically means the main theme (like a chorus) is interspersed with musical episodes in between (like verses).
Let’s take a listen – though we hardly need to!
Liszt: Bagatelle sans tonalite
Liszt’s Bagatelle, written in 1885, is a standard waltz in form, but is anything but ordinary. It was written at the end of Liszt’s life and is extremely chromatic, almost atonal (hence the title “Bagatelle without tonality”). It was probably one of Liszt’s most radical compositions and is well worth checking out.
As was common with Liszt, this was program music (music that had a descriptive note to go along with it), and was labeled in the manuscript as the fourth Mephisto waltz (the first Mephisto waltz is an extremely famous composition by Liszt).
Dvorak: Bagatelles (op. 47)
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Dvorak’s light set of five bagatelles (op. 47). Composed in 1878, these were written for harmonium, 2 violins and a cello, and is one of the most popular chamber works of all time.
Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet
Anton Webern wrote a set of six bagatelles for string quartet (op. 9) between 1910-1913. These are more in the vein of Liszt as opposed to Dvorak, and are described as “exquisitely unsettling”.
Bartok: Fourteen bagatelles (op. 6)
Bartok famously wrote a set of fourteen bagatelles in 1908, which you can hear Debussy’s influence in. These bagatelles made the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni exclaim “At last something truly new!”
If you head over to the blog, you’ll see videos of all these compositions to listen to. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist called “bagatelles” if you’d like to get into the groove (linked below).
In the future I’d like to create more playlists like this, so let me know if you enjoy them!