Ji Young Kim Plays Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 126
Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, played on a Graf replica: one could hardly call this an “off the beaten path” program, since these pieces have been performed multiple times using similar instruments. My little musical offering to Beethoven & Pianos does not set out to chart something new but is a locus where paths explored previously by other contributors to the series converge.
Beethoven’s bagatelles (whether specific pieces or as a generic title) were a significant point of orientation for Thomas Feng and Richard Valitutto’s programs last semester, which mostly comprised music by living composers. It may be no surprise that precisely this music (as well as the “Diabelli” Variations, Op. 120, about which Maynard Solomon wrote: “It is even, perhaps, not inappropriate to regard the Diabelli Variations as a gigantic cycle of bagatelles”) has been the series’ catalyst for a dialogue between music new and old.
Is it the tug between earnestness and triviality that proves so resonant? Beethoven called Op. 126 “Kleinigkeiten,” but also “die beste in dieser Art, welche ich geschrieben habe.” The sixth bagatelle begins and ends with a flourish that could serve as a prelude to an opera buffa number—cruelly so, as what lies in between is intimate, vulnerable music. Or is it the brevity and density of expression that strikes us as congenial? Exhausted of epic narratives, perhaps, our attention perks up all the more when it is presented with quick, successive snapshots. And yet, one of the main takeaways for me getting to know these bagatelles (and here I’d be merely reiterating what many have said before me) is how they suggest large canvasses with a sketch of a few strokes.
The interplay between new and old, between retrospective and forward- (or at least present-) looking seems inherent to Op. 126. While writers like Edward Cone have focused on its experimentalism, others like Theodor Adorno have emphasized the role of conventions. Listen, for example, to the combination of 18th-century dances with un-18th-century-like processes: a minuet in no. 1 that constantly reverts to V6/4, a contredanse in no. 2 that so rewrites its recapitulation as to be unrecognizable.
I imagine that this porous interplay between old and new was not one of only musical style but, more personally, of lived experience as well. The stylistic conventions and textural transparency (even weightlessness) in the bagatelles harkened to Beethoven’s own past, a kind of musical naïveté before the onset of his hearing loss. Tom Beghin’s Inside the Hearing Machine project and composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s recent article for the New York Times have heightened our awareness to the bodily dispositions and acoustic environments Beethoven may have worked in as he composed through his deafness. The abundance of drones and the sonic and tactile plays with register throughout Op. 126 would corroborate their insights.
To return to the sixth bagatelle, I had always heard the music immediately after the opening flourish as a waltz: not a real-life, real-time waltz, but rather a recollection thereof, looked at through an alternatively foggy and rosy lens. The tenute markings for the hesitant right hand appear to reach for a distant memory that has been ravaged by hearing loss and social isolation, to try to hold onto a sliver of consciousness that is allowed to blossom and then snatched away just before the final flourish (I’m reminded of the memory-erasing “services” in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Being a hearing person, I can’t possibly access what that might feel like. In a vain attempt at cross-modal transfer, I tried to close my eyes here and feel rather than see my way through the keyboard. Apologies for any stray notes that may have resulted.
—Ji Young Kim