Beethoven’s late period works never get old for me. The Op. 111 sonata, the Ninth Symphony, the Grosse Fuge…it’s a nonstop journey of dramatic intensity, revelations, deep introspection, and reassurance in the face of chaos. My first listening sessions of the late piano sonatas and late quartets in middle school remain some of my most formative musical experiences.
The imposing large-scale works of this period can overshadow smaller pieces like Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. The bagatelle, a supposedly lightweight musical form, became a fascinating source of experimentation in Beethoven’s hands. The Op. 33 and 119 sets are worth looking into as well, but Op. 126 seems like the best distillation of Beethoven’s late style.
The B minor bagatelle begins with a stern, angry energy, the left hand grumbling in a low register; Beethoven is pacing around in a temper. The first repeated material ends with a launch up to a high G before returning to the low register of the beginning. Beethoven creates several such abrupt shifts in register in this piece, forcing the pianist to lunge across the keyboard. As in the Hammerklavier sonata and other late piano works, he is making the struggle as physical as possible.
The second repeated section has a hint of mad genius, with a swirling broken-chord figure appearing in the right hand, leaning into a C major key area. It’s even a bit syncopated! But the fun comes to a halt with more stern F-sharp octaves in the bass. After some more development, the octaves take over completely for some unison gestures with Beethoven’s trademark stabbing sf on every other note.
The next section feels like stepping into another world. Suddenly the violence is replaced by a soft, sustained pad of B major, with little scale motives slowly working their way down from the sky. The static harmony creates a spaciousness that’s a welcome contrast to the claustrophobia of the opening. In this section Beethoven seems to have found some peace, and it’s more than fleeting; the recapitulation of the stormy opening section cuts off after a few bars to return to the B major mood, and that’s where the piece ends.
The whole piece is less than four minutes long, but there’s a really compelling little narrative here, a typical Beethovenian journey from struggle to quiet transcendence. It’s a perfect bagatelle; the musical materials are strong enough to spin out a short piece like this, but maybe not a longer one, and Beethoven developed them just enough in the given timeframe. You can imagine that opening theme as an earworm that wouldn’t leave the composer’s head until he wrote it down and gave it some attention.
The whole Op. 126 set is worth listening to and playing. Each piece contains experimental elements along with late-Beethoven rhetoric of reassurance and nobility. Quite a wonderful musical world to live in.
Where to find it: