Beethoven’s Opus 119 is a collection of shorter works for piano. The Bagatelle is the first of these and displays his knack for placing entire worlds into mere measures. I could probably write a substantial, scholarly paper on just the last ten measures or so, but this post is meant to give you a broader idea of how much there is to think about in this piece, especially if you’re performing it.
I’ll talk about form and harmony and how these contribute to the formation of the lighthearted “character” of the piece as well as some interpretive decisions you get to make as the performer.
A bagatelle is a type of light-hearted piece of music. Inspired by the game called the bagatelle, which was a precursor to pinball, composers of bagatelles try to capture the sense of bounciness of the balls in the game and that once you start playing, the rest is up to luck.
The word “bagatelle” has also come to mean anything that is not meant to be taken seriously, so the overall character for this type of musical piece is meant to be light and entertaining, something Beethoven accomplishes in Op. 119 No. 1.
I recommend listening to the whole piece completely first; it’s a short one!
This piece is a great example of a ternary (ABA) form. I’ll start with a brief gloss of the overall character of each section and then go into more detail about what specific musical elements contribute to these specific senses of character.
The first section of music, which we call the A Section, creates a light and bouncy character through the use of staccato, the middle register, rests, and other elements I’ll talk about in more detail below.
The second section of music, differs in character. It’s more lyrical and flowy. Beethoven uses long-sustained notes and fewer rests between phrases than in the previous section. This is normal for a B section, as its purpose is to provide some contrasting content to the A section.
A Again (A’)
As in any ternary form, the A section is played again after the B section. Beethoven somewhat varies the return. The melody and harmony are the same, but he adds some extra notes to make it just slightly different.
A coda in music is an ending. Often the harmonic changes are few, just like here. The point is to build up tension, so listeners can sense the end of the piece is coming and to make them excited about it. It can also make listeners wonder exactly how the composer will end the piece. Beethoven does a few interesting things at the very end, but more on that below!
These brief descriptions are a helpful way for a listener to find their way in the piece and for a performer to ground themselves as they begin to learn the piece, but there’s so much more going on to make this particular bagatelle interesting.
What Specific Musical Elements Contribute to the Character of Each Section?
While using forms like the ternary form is a great fill-in-the-blank way of composing music, it’s also important to be able to look at how form is created by specific elements in the music. Doing so helps us understand why the form works at all, aids with memory, and gives us an entryway into developing our own interpretations of the piece when we play it.
In this second part of the post, I’ll dig a little deeper into each section of the piece, point out some elements that contribute to the “character” of each, and discuss how this creates some ambiguous moments. These are where the performer makes interpretive decisions. Understanding what creates these moments of choice can help you feel more confident in your performances.
The bouncy nature of this A section is expected, as it would be odd for a piece of music that’s named after a game to start in a solemn manner. This section also sets the overall key of the piece as G minor. This means the piece uses a B♭ major key signature (3 flats), but the tonal center is actually the sixth scale step of B♭ major: G. One of the signs that G is the tonal center instead of B♭ is the presence of F♯. F♯ is not found in the B♭ major scale, but it is the leading tone for G.
I’m curious what emotion you felt coming from this first section: was it sadness? For me, the first times I listened to it, I felt more a sense of mystery and trickery (like I was watching a magician) than sadness. Could this be proof that minor keys do not equal sad music?
One immediately noticeable element that contributes to the game-like character is the articulation: staccato. Short notes like these are fun to play, as you physically have to bounce your wrists or arms, so the bouncy character comes largely from the physical motion of the performer.
Remember that staccato does not mean “accent the note.” To play notes short and detached, quickly curl your fingers in toward your wrist. You can also slide your wrist and arms toward your body to get them off the keys quickly without pressing down on them more.
Dr. Josh Wright has a helpful video on how to play the different types of staccato on piano:
More than the articulation that’s marked by the dots, however, Beethoven puts a lot of rests in this section. These rests are not just thrown around haphazardly, however. They coincide with phrase ends. Phrases in music are similar to phrases in language. When we have an introductory clause, we typically place a common to signify that we take a brief pause (this sentence has an introductory clause: “When we have an introductory clause”).
Paying attention to where the phrases are in music helps it to breathe a little more and helps us as performers attend more to “what the composer was trying to say.”
In the A section of Bagatelle Op. 119 No. 1, Beethoven helps the performer out by placing those rests in important structural locations, to make sure that the performer pauses where appropriate given the syntax of the 18th century western musical language.
Looking more into these places gives us a better idea of what types of pauses (just short pauses like after an introductory clause or full stops like at the end of a sentence)
The first four measures are easily broken into two parts. Measures 3–4 repeat measures 1–2 but a major third lower. Measures 1–2 occur over the III harmony (the relative major of g minor), and 3–4 over the tonic harmony. It’s common to have different harmonies for the model and its repetition. Music theorists call this a “statement and response” repeat. This repetition comprises what is called a “presentation” in 18th century western music and can be thought of similarly to an introductory clause in language.
Beethoven clearly delineates the two parts of the presentation with the use of a quarter note rest in between, but the second one, in measure 4, separates the presentation from its second half: the continuation. I’ve called this a “second half” because if we stop the recording right here at the rest in m. 4, we don’t get a sense of completion.
The purpose of the continuation is to give us the feeling that the end is coming, that we’re not there yet, but we’re getting close. Typically, this is accomplished by quicker rhythms and more harmonic movement, which is exactly what we get here in mm. 5–8.
Finally, our sense of ending comes in measure 8 on D major.
So we’ve gotten to an ending of something, but could we end the piece here?
This cadence, or point of rest, is a half-cadence (HC) meaning that we are still in the key of the tonic (G minor in this piece), but the point of rest is on the dominant (D major in this case). It’s not the strongest type of cadence and typically, in this style and many others, signals that we’re not finished with this section or piece yet.
The end of m. 8 going into 9 probably sounds familiar…
Beethoven exactly repeats m. 1 in m. 9, which signals that there might be some even larger organizational structure than the sentence in mm. 1–8. When a section of music is repeated but not immediately, it can signal a structure called a period.
A period, like a sentence, has two parts: antecedent followed by consequent. Both sections start the same but end differently. The antecedent sets up a musical idea and ends with a weaker cadence (half-cadence, deceptive cadence, imperfect authentic cadence). The consequent repeats that idea and ends with a stronger cadence (perfect authentic cadence). Don’t worry about the cadence types yet if you’re not familiar with them already.
When we hear the repeat in m. 9 it’s a signal that maybe there’s a period here. We just had a half-cadence in m. 8 (which counts as a weaker cadence), and we have material that’s repeating. Following along, it plays out the same way as the sentence in mm. 1–8, but this time it ends in a perfect authentic cadence (PAC) in G minor in m. 16.
That means that mm. 1–16 are a giant period with two sentences inside it.
I talk a lot about hierarchy and chunking when it comes to learning and organizing music, and this is a great example of it. You have 16 measures of material that’s actually basically only 8, and it’s arranged in a specific way in groups of 4, larger groups of 8, and even larger groups of 16.
That makes up the entire A section. (Which remember, comes back later, yay memory aid!)
These structures create the character of this section: the rests help make it lighter, like a game, and the structure within a structure is like a puzzle.
It’s important that each section in a ternary form can stand completely alone as well, so along with a strong difference in character, the B section is generally in a different key than the A section, which is the case here.
Using a common-tone modulation, where the composer changes key by playing notes that are the same in the old and new keys and just placing different harmonies with each, Beethoven sets the B section in E♭ major. E♭ major is related to the old key of G minor through G minor’s relative major, B♭ major (meaning G minor and B♭ major share the same key signature). E♭ is a fifth below B♭, which is a strong relationship in the harmonic language of the common practice period.
Overall, the new key is expected for a B section, but common-tone modulations are not the smoothest way to change the key. Listeners, regardless of their musical background, will hear the key change, and that’s kind of the point. You’re supposed to know that this is a new section, and it’s very different from the previous section.
In just listening to the piece, you’ll notice that there aren’t staccatos in this section. It’s overall, more lyrical, connected, and flowy, which is a huge and not unimportant way to distinguish this B section from the A section.
There are also many block chords and an overall greater depth of sound, as the left hand plays notes that are lower than in the first section.
The way a performer approaches this section, especially those chords, is important then. Although there’s no change in dynamic here (it’s still piano from the very beginning), you can choose to lean into the notes or to keep it light.
I went into great detail in the A section regarding phrases and formal functions. This aspect is a little more complex in the B section, so I’m going to let the A section suffice and point you more to the actual repeat signs in this section.
The B section is made up of 2 sections of 8 measures that both repeat exactly (with repeat signs), but what I’m most interested in personally is the transition from the B section back to A. Can you identify what types of phrases make up the B section?
Measure 34 marks the formal end of the B section with a perfect authentic cadence on E♭ major (the key of this section) on the downbeat of m. 34. To move back to G minor, Beethoven starts m. 35 with another repeat of the main idea of the B section: the repeated G in the melody.
Instead of using a common-tone modulation like before, Beethoven gives us a D major (the dominant of G minor) chord in the left hand in m. 37 and then chromatic steps up in the right hand. By playing every note (that’s what chromatic means), he destabilizes the key. This means that as listeners, we can tell we’re not in E♭ anymore, but we may not know what key we’re going into yet.
Luckily, Beethoven starts the repetition of the main idea from the A section here in m. 39, so we can quickly re-settle our ears into the key of G minor.
Return of A (A’)
For the beginning of the repeat of A, every note is identical to the first time we heard it. But tricky Beethoven had to mix things up with what’s called variation.
Variation in music refers to a passage of music that is both the same as and different from another passage of music. In the pop world domain, you might think of acoustic covers of punk songs as a variation of the original punk song: the melody and chords are the same, but you sing and play them slightly differently.
In this Bagatelle, Beethoven adds more notes to make it sound fancy, hiding the melody in between. Starting in m. 47, the melody is on every second eighth note. It’s still there, and you can hear the shape of it, but it’s not as obvious.
The bass also gets more notes added to it, but the originally bass line is a little easier to see, as they still occur on each full beat.
Then he ends the sentence (and larger period) the same as before with a perfect authentic cadence on G minor in m. 54. In a stereotypical ternary (ABA) form, the piece would end here. We’ve had the full repeat of A, so there shouldn’t be anything left to play. But tricky Beethoven added what’s known as a coda (mentioned above).
Coda is the Italian word for tail, so in music, it is the end of a piece and doesn’t have to have material related to the piece as a whole. It can be thought of as an expanded cadence, so it has less harmonic motion than elsewhere in the piece.
Overall, the coda is made up of arpeggios in both hands on C minor 7 and D dominant 7. The D dominant still pulls toward G minor as a tonic, but the C minor 7 is sometimes viewed as the upcoming tonic.
It’s even less clear in the final measures, starting at m. 67 where the A section melody comes back but transposed (on different notes, but same melody). These measures are actually my favorite part because there are two ways to conceive of the harmony (and its relationship to the melody) in these final measures.
The first is to consider a key change.
Many analyses of this piece elsewhere on the internet argue that there is a key change to C minor going into m. 67. This makes sense when you look at the melody here versus at the beginning:
At the beginning, we know we’re in G minor, and the melody starts on D, the fifth scale step in G minor. Here, at the end, the melody starts on G, and G is the fifth scale step of C, so we must be in C minor. Indeed, we also have harmonic movement from G major to C minor. G is the dominant of C, so this is entirely plausible, and thinking of this piece ending in C minor means that Beethoven ends the piece open: on a G major chord.
That’s one way of thinking of it, and I’m certainly not arguing against this hearing in any way, but the fun part of learning theory is seeing that there are often many ways to hear the same thing: in this case, harmony.
The second way to think of harmony.
The second is to think of these measures as still in G minor and hear the movement between C and G as plagal motion. Plagal refers to motion from the tonic (in this case G) to the chord built on its fourth scale step (in this case, C).
A plagal cadence is nicknamed the “amen cadence” because it’s often used at the ends of hymns to sing “amen.” (Plagal has nothing to do with the plague) A plagal cadence is movement from the IV (C) to the I chord (G).
For this second hearing, where it’s still in G minor, I can use the presence of F♯ as the leading tone throughout the entire coda as a means of saying that we’re still in G minor by m. 67. These final measures do have a B♮, the leading tone for C, but I don’t hear a clear V-I in C minor before the melody comes in on C minor.
Additionally, leading into m. 67, the bass plays the scale steps C, D♭ (same as C♯), D, then G on the downbeat. This is a common bass line: 4 – ♯4 – 5 – 1, which would make G still the tonic at this point. So even though the melody is transposed to C minor, I latched onto the harmony still sounding like G minor, and that made me hear the relationship between C minor and G major as plagal (IV-I) instead of modulated (V-I).
The fact that there are B♮s in this section (which makes all the G minor chords into G major chords) doesn’t have to mean that the key has changed. B♮ does not have to be the leading tone to C. Instead, it could be acting as a picardy third, where composers suddenly end a minor piece on the major version of the chord.
If you hear the passage in a plagal way, then Beethoven actually doesn’t end the piece open. He ends it with a final “amen,” and this is my favorite decision to make to interpret the piece. If you hear the harmony the first way, you’ll end it mysteriously, maybe showing in your body that you’re being mysterious. But if you hear it the second way, you’ll end it with a sense of closure and reverence because you’re saying “amen” at the end. Neither is correct, and that’s the beautiful (and often most difficult part) of learning music!
The third option is blurry.
The important thing, then, is not to have the “right answer” but to be aware of the different perspectives you can take in a piece of music and have reasons to back up why you chose to play it or hear it a certain way.
Possibly I actually hear it as a blurring between C minor and G minor, not quite one or the other. I hear the harmony in G, but I hear the melody in C, and this blurring between the two keys is part of what makes this piece so interesting.
Honestly, I’ve thought a lot about the final 10 measures alone (to the point where I put off publishing this post for two months!), but I really like this third, blurry option. I’m not wholly convinced that it’s clearly in C minor or clearly in G minor (and major because of the picardy third).
How would I play it, though? I might treat it like we’re in C minor, with definite dominant–tonic motion between G and C until the end, where the dynamic is marked diminuendo into a final pianissimo. Then I might treat the final cadence as plagal, not quite open, but also not as final as a perfect authentic cadence.
Although this piece is typically given to intermediate pianists, this Bagatelle is anything but simple and has many curious moments in it, especially when you know where to look. From the articulation to how much you attend to the lyricism of the B section, you, as the pianist, have artistic decisions to make. Learning more about the choices you have for the different moments of the piece enables you to be informed and feel invested in the choices you’ve made.
This is especially significant when it comes to the way you end the piece: do you hear it more as an open dominant, making the listener wait for resolution that will never come, or do you hear it more as plagal, a final “amen” after an adventure of whimsy and seriousness? How will you share that hearing with your listeners?
Are you allowed to hear it as option 1 or 2? Absolutely! We all hear music in different ways, and this is just one example of why I love music theory so much. I get the opportunity as a music theorist to learn about other ways of hearing, and I have the tools to support these other perspectives as valid. Music is beautifully ambiguous.
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