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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles and Dances, Vol. 1
By David Hurwitz
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Bagatelles and Dances, Volume 1
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770. His father was still employed as a singer in the chapel of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, of which his grandfather, after whom he was named, had served as Kapellmeister. The family was not a happy one, with his mother always ready to reproach Beethoven's father with his own inadequacies, his drunkenness and gambling, with the example of the old Kapellmeister held up as a standard of competence that he was unable to match. In due course Beethoven followed family example and entered the service of the court, as organist, harpsichordist and string-player and his potential was such that he was sent by the Archbishop to Vienna for lessons with Mozart, only to be recalled to Bonn by the illness of his mother. At her death he assumed responsibility for the family, the care of his two younger brothers, with whose subsequent lives he interfered and the management of whatever resources came to his father from the court.
In 1792 Beethoven returned to Vienna. He had met Haydn in Bonn and was now sent to take lessons from him. He was an impatient pupil and later claimed to have learned nothing from Haydn. He profited, however, from lessons with Albrechtsberger in counterpoint and with Salieri in Italian word-setting and the introductions he brought with him from Bonn ensured a favourable reception from leading members of the nobility. His patrons, over the years, acted towards him with extraordinary forbearance and generosity, tolerating his increasing eccentricities. These were accentuated by the onset of deafness at the turn of the century and the necessity of abandoning his career as a virtuoso pianist in favour of a concentration on composition.
During the following 25 years Beethoven developed his powers as a composer. His early compositions had reflected the influences of the age, but in the new century he began to enlarge the inherent possibilities of classical forms. In his nine symphonies he created works of such size and intensity as to present a serious challenge to composers of later generations. Much the same might be said of his piano sonatas, in which he took advantage of the new technical possibilities of the instrument, which was now undergoing a number of changes. An increasing characteristic of his writing was to be heard in his use of counterpoint, an element that some contemporaries rejected as 'learned', and in notable innovations, some of which, in contemporary terms, went beyond mere eccentricity.
Socially Beethoven was isolated by his deafness. There were problems in the care of his nephew Karl, after the death of the boy's father, bringing litigation with the latter's mother. His loudly voiced political indiscretions were tolerated by the authorities in the repressive years that followed Waterloo and he continued to enjoy the support of friends, including his pupil Archduke Rudolph. In Vienna, in fact, he became an institution, at the passing of which, in 1827, there was general mourning.
During the course of his life Beethoven wrote a quantity of short piano pieces. Many of these remained without an Opus number, their listing indicated as WoO, Works without Opus Number, although they may have been published in the composer's lifetime. The present collection of short pieces opens with the best known of all, a Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59, inscribed, it once seemed, für Elise (for Elise), but generally supposed to have been designed for Thérèse Malfatti, whom he had hoped to marry. She gave him no encouragement and the match was strongly and understandably opposed by her parents. The little piece was completed in 1810, the year of Beethoven's rejection as a suitor. The piece is followed here by a Bagatelle in B flat major, WoO 60, written in 1818 and published in the Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1824. The Allegretto quasi andante in G minor, WoO 61a, a brief contrapuntal fragment, was written in 1825 and inscribed to the daughter of Dr Charles Burney, Sarah Burney Payne, who visited Beethoven in that year. Counterpoint again plays a part in the Allegretto in B minor, WoO 61, written in 1821. This was for the album of Ferdinand Piringer, who became a close friend of Beethoven and served as assistant conductor for the Concerts spirituels at the Landhaussaal in Vienna.
Beethoven wrote various sets of dances during his earlier years in Vienna. A sign of the esteem in which he was soon held is to be seen in the commission to provide sets of dances for the Redoutensaal ball of November 1795. The annual balls had been established in 1792, with dances specially composed by Haydn. In the following years there were contributions from Kozeluch, the court composer, and in 1794 from Dittersdorf. In 1795 Mozart's pupil Süssmayr provided music for the larger hall and Beethoven for the smaller. These were sets of Twelve Minuets and the Twelve German Dances, WoO 8, the latter surviving only in the published arrangement for piano in which they soon appeared. The set of Seven Ländler, WoO 11 was probably written in 1798, scored, presumably, for two violins and bass. It was published in a piano version in Vienna in the following year. All seven Ländler are in D major and end with a formal coda. A further set of Six Ländler was completed in 1802 and similarly scored, with a piano version appearing in Vienna in the same year. Once again the same key of D major is generally preserved, with one dance in the minor.
The undated Minuet in C major, with its contrasting Trio, suggests music for the piano rather than for the ballroom. The Six Minuets, WoO 10 seem to date from 1795. Each minuet has its necessary trio and the set makes a sequence of keys, C, G, E flat, B flat, D and C. The best known of all these must be the famous Minuet in G, familiar from generations of beginners at the keyboard. These dances were presumably originally scored for other instruments, but survive only in a piano version.
Beethoven published various sets of Bagatelles, the first set in 1803 and the last in 1825, two years before his death. The undated Bagatelle in C major is a curiously capricious little piece, with its imitative entries and sudden whimsical shifts of key. It is here followed by the so-called Bagatelle in C minor marked Presto and perhaps intended for the Sonata in C minor, Op. 10, No.1. It was probably written in 1795 and is here coupled with a C major Allegretto, WoO 56, seemingly dated to 1803 but making a plausible foil to the companion piece, leading some to suggest it as intended also for the same sonata. Two further short pieces follow, in C and E flat major respectively. The final Allegretto in C minor, WoO 53 seems to have represented a further attempt at an additional movement for the Sonata in C minor. It has been dated to the years 1796 or 1797.
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BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles and Dances, Vol. 1