Record a birthday message for our 50th anniversary and we'll include it on our special two-hour show on March 16th!
The Bagatelle first appeared in France as a piece of instrumental music "of little importance." As our playlist shows, it became a favorite of composers all over the western world. Chiefly performed at the piano, the Ether Game Brain Trust also found bagatelles for other instruments.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Bagatelle in a, WoO 59 'Für Elise' Beethoven wrote some monumental works for piano: a typical performance of his Hammerklavier sonata, for instance, takes about 45 minutes, an endurance workout for any pianist. At the same time, Beethoven penned several works of more modest length, most of which he gave the title of bagatelle. The word bagatelle literally means “a trifle; something of little importance,” and that’s certainly what he thought of this piece, his 25th of thirty bagatelles: it was never published, and not discovered until forty years after his death. The work features the subtitle “Für Elise,” but the identity of this Elise has never been confirmed. Musicologists have produced a roster of several women in Beethoven’s sphere that might have been the mysterious Elise. Most of them were opera singers, and one was the wife of Johann Hummel, considered by many to be Beethoven’s only true rival at the keyboard. Für Elise has since become one of his most recognizable melodies, right alongside the 5th symphony.
Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) Bagatelles, Op. 47 No. 3 Antonin Dvorak wrote the piece we just heard for a cellist and friend: Josef Srb-Debrnov, for a private concert at Debrnov’s home. Debrnov regularly held chamber music concerts at his home, although surprisingly he did not have a piano for use in these concerts. Instead, he owned a harmonium, a small, single manual pump organ with hand or foot-operated bellows. Consequently, Dvorak included this instrument in his collection of Bagatelles, and probably played the harmonium part when the work was performed at Debrnov’s home. We know for sure that Dvorak performed on the harmonium when the piece was premiered publically at a concert in Prague in 1879. Dvorak was not the only famous composer to write for the instrument. Camille Saint- Saens, and Giacomo Rossini both wrote chamber music for it, and Cesar Franck wrote an entire collection of 59 pieces for solo harmonium.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) Six Bagatelles, Op. 3: Suite No. 2 No. 1 Saint-Saens’ six bagatelles are the composer's first compositions for piano, written when he was only twenty. At the time, no significant bagatelles had been composed since Beethoven, so to debut with what was thought to be an obscure genre was an unusual and bold choice. Given that Beethoven’s op. 126 bagatelles were his final compositions , and that Saint-Saens was often inspired by past composers, including Beethoven, it is likely that he thought himself picking up where Beethoven left off. Just like Beethoven, Saint-Saens treats his six bagatelles as a unified set of character pieces, which can essentially be divided into two suites. We can also hear Schumann’s influence in these pieces, as the slow movements have the lyrical quality of a transcribed lieder. However even at this early stage the unique quality of Saint-Saens’ harmonies show through.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) 14 Bagatelles, Op. 6 Nos. 10 and 11 When Bartok wrote his set of 14 bagatelles for piano, he was in the throws of melancholy, having just been scorned in love by the violinist Stefi Geyer, who the composer had obsessively courted. Perhaps he was able to successfully channel that melancholy into a powerful creative force, the resulting bagatelles were some of his most forward-looking and experimental compositions to date, and perfectly encapsulated the traits of his more mature style. Some of these short piano compositions border on atonality, only the first few bagatelles have key signatures, and even then both hands don’t necessarily share the same one. Although he had the encouragement of fellow composers Bartok had difficulty publishing this work, it was thought to be too modern for the public, but they were eventually released by a Budapest firm in 1909.
William Walton (1902-1983) Five Bagatelles, No. 1 Until the mid 20th century, the guitar did not have much of a reputation as an instrument capable of holding its own on an orchestral stage. If guitarists wanted to perform in a concert hall, they typically had to look at repertoire from the 19th century and backwards. This began to change with English guitarist Julian Bream, who, as one of the most distinguished classical guitarists of the 20th century, commissioned a number of works from popular composers to create a modern repertoire for the guitar. One of these commissions landed in the hands of William Walton, and although Walton had already had success writing for an uncommon instrument with his viola concerto, he was doubtful he would produce something worthwhile. The opposite occurred, and after Bream’s premiere in 1972, Walton’s bagatelles became beloved by classical guitarists. Walton himself remained taken with the pieces, and later scored them for full orchestra as a 50th birthday gift to fellow composer Malcolm Arnold.
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) Ten Bagatelles, Op. 13: 5 - Music of the Spheres Dohnanyi’s Winter Dances, subtitled Ten Bagatelles, was inspired by a poem with the same title by Victor Heindl, who waxes poetic about his memories while his girlfriend plays Schumann. Though this piece is clearly inspired by Schumann’s song cycles and is meant to be an homage to that composer, Dohnanyi’s harmonic progressions are probably more related to Wagner and Richard Strauss. Written at a time when the composer had moved from Vienna to Berlin in order to accept a professorship at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik, this piece is also a musical farewell to Vienna. With the exception of the first and last movement, each bagatelle has a reference in the title or specific dedication to an acquaintance Dohnanyi made in Vienna.
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 No. 2. Carol While Gerald Finzi may not have enjoyed the lucrative career of fellow Englishmen Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music has gained a growing appreciation in the years since his death from Hodgkin’s Disease. The Five Bagatelles for piano and clarinet were written for clarinetist Pauline Juler, the niece of English pianist and composer Mary Lucas. They were later orchestrated, as heard in this recording. Finzi had originally intended Juler to debut his earlier Clarinet Concert, however she had withdrawn from performing due to her marriage and subsequent pregnancy. Each movement of this set of bagatelles has its own title referencing a song or dance form, such as Prelude, Carol, Romance, Forlana, and Fughetta. It should be noted that while Finzi is appreciated for his contributions to English music, he was also a keen apple grower, and saved many rare English varieties of apple from extinction.
Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) Bagatelles, Op. 12 Valse Lente, Hungarian Miklós Rózsa has appeared on Ether Game several times, but usually in his capacity as a composer of film scores, such as Ben Hur, Spellbound and Double Indemnity. He was equally respected as a composer of absolute classical work, making aqualites out of famous classical musicians such as IU’s own János Starker. Like his Hungarian musical forebears: Liszt, Bartók and Kodály, Rozsa had a deep love of Hungarian folk music, but he strove to create a style that was more individualistic, and turned in his music education to Germany. After learning composition in Leipzig, he moved to France in 1931 where he likely encountered the bagatelle. A year later, he wrote his own collection of bagatelles and premiered them at a small concert that won the admiration of a significant audience member: Richard Strauss.
Nasir Jones (b. 1973) I Can New York rapper Nasir Dara Jones (known by his stage name “Nas”) has a special place in the heart of the Ether Game Brain Trust, for his diss track against Jay-Z called “Ether” although we would never be able to play that song on-air. Speaking of Parental Advisory labels, this song, I Can, is one of the few tracks by Nas to not include an advisory label when it was released in 2003. Nas wrote the song for children, urging them in the lyrics to avoid drugs and pursue higher ambitions. You might have also noticed the connection to our show. The main accompaniment on this track is a sample of the most famous bagatelle: Für Elise by Beethoven. Since becoming a major player on the hip hop scene, Nas has advocated for more artistry in hip-hop. In 2013, the message of I Can became real when Harvard established the Nasir Jones Fellowship which funds promising artists and scholars with connections to hip-hop.