More Than Just “Für Elise”: Exploring Beethoven’s Bagatelles

Let me begin with a controversial statement. I would be perfectly happy if I never heard Für Elise in my studio again. I understand the attraction. It’s a familiar melody that is known around the world. Students love it. Parents know that their young pianist has accomplished something when they can “play” it. That’s the problem though. In my opinion, most teachers assign this masterpiece far too early to students who are not prepared for the intricacies it contains. After avoiding this piece in my own teaching for many years, I decided it was time to take a look at the other Bagatelles composed by Beethoven.

In addition to Für Elise (WoO 59), there are three sets of bagatelles — Op. 33, Op. 119, and Op. 126. Two additional early bagatelles also exist – WoO 56 and WoO 52. Before going any further, I must tell you that there is an exceptional recording of the 24 bagatelles comprising Ops. 33, 119, and 126 by Alfred Brendel that you should definitely check out. This Decca recording can easily be found on Spotify and YouTube.

What is a bagatelle? Grove Music Online states very simply that it is “a trifle, a short piece of music in light vein.” Typically written for solo keyboard performance (with a couple of notable exceptions by Dvorak and Webern), Beethoven’s contributions are often considered the perfection of the form. Op. 33 and 119 tend to fall into the mood of “trifle”; the works of op. 126, however, are much more mature and in many ways are comparable in tone, texture, and voice to the larger scale Beethoven piano solos. With this thought in mind, I intentionally read all of the bagatelles as part of my sight reading this week and found four (2 each from Op. 33 and 119) that I think would be very appropriate for students needing to prepare for future study of Beethoven’s more mature works.

Op. 33, No. 3 in F major

I have long enjoyed the Op. 33, No. 3 bagatelle and have presented it to several of my students over the years. I find it to be very approachable for most intermediate pianists. The lilting 6/8 patterns are familiar to students and fits nicely their growing hands. This bagatelle also provides a beautiful palette in which to talk about various types of accents, grace notes, and two and three note phrases that are so common in the Classical era.

Op. 33, No. 4 in A major

A charming, slow piece, Op. 33, No. 4 is a study in contrasts. The shift to the parallel minor is unexpected and provides an excellent opportunity to work on melodic shape in the left hand. When the major theme returns, the pianist finds a new challenge as the melody shifts from treble to bass. When the melody drops to the lower register of the instrument, the student is tempted to ignore it completely because of the charming counter-melody that soars above. This is an opportunity to emphasize the fact that the line with the most notes is not always the most important. Op. 33, No. 4 is one of my favorites of the bagatelles and will soon be added to my personal repertoire list.

Op. 119, No. 2 in C major

If you have a student who likes to play rapid scale passages, this is the bagatelle for you. Although it is marked Andante con moto, the left hand is extremely active throughout. With its repeatedly crossed hands, the short work is demanding and extremely fun to play. Personally, I find the conclusion of the piece rather anti-climatic, but it can still be a great study for your prodigy in the making.

Op. 119, No. 4 in A major

What is with all of the slower pieces in A major that I love so much? Your guess is as good as mine! As I continue to look for repertoire for the intermediate students in my private piano studio, I am always looking for pieces that require a strong legato line without using overly complicated rhythms or difficult finger patterns. This bagatelle is lovely and straightforward. The singable melodic line is clear and easily identified by the youngest pianist.

Published by kennithfreeman

I am a classically trained pianist who loves all things musical. I can often be found giving private piano lessons, on the concert stage, or in rehearsal of some type. Currently I am Associate Professor of Collaborative Piano at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. When I'm not making music, I enjoy reading a great novel or trying out a new recipe.

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