Bagatelles for Beethoven’s Birthday Bash!

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Luis Dias

Child’s Play India Foundation’s tenth anniversary celebrations continue into 2020. The charity was registered in 2009, and the first music lesson began exactly ten years ago, in January 2020.

This year is also the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Celebrations of the milestone have begun all over the world. Beethoven’s birth date is December 16, a date he happens to share with Jane Austen, and incidentally, my wife as well. So celebrations have in fact begun from last December.

Child’s Play is pleased to kick off the Beethoven birthday party in Goa with a piano recital by Goan-origin pianist Karl Lutchmayer on January 18, 2020, 6 p.m. at Menezes Braganza hall Panaji.

Karl needs no introduction to Goan audience, but for the benefit of visitors who might be reading this, here’s a brief summary:

Karl Lutchmayer is equally renowned as a concert pianist and a lecturer. A Steinway Artist, Karl performs across the globe, and has worked with conductors including Lorin Maazel and Sir Andrew Davis, and performed at all the major London concert halls. He has broadcast on BBC Television and Radio, All India Radio and Classic FM, and is a regular chamber performer. A passionate advocate of contemporary music, Karl has also given over 90 world premieres and had many works written
especially for him.

Karl’s London lecture-recital series, Conversational Concerts, has garnered critical and public acclaim, and following his landmark recitals celebrating the Liszt and Alkan Bicentenaries, he has received invitations from four continents to give concerts and lecture-recitals. In 2019 he was part of the team introducing the London Prom concerts for BBC television and he curated and performed in a three-day festival of the music of Busoni in London, including a performance of the Piano Concerto for which he received extensive media attention. Karl held an academic lectureship at Trinity Laban (formerly Trinity College of Music) for 15 years and is a regular guest lecturer at conservatoires around the world, including the Juilliard and Manhattan Schools in New York.

An OCI of Goan parents, in recent years Karl has focused much of his time and attention on
nurturing the burgeoning Western classical music scene in India, his family home. There, as well as giving regular concerts in the major cities, he helps young musicians and music teachers to fulfill their potential through developing educational opportunities and programmes and has recently created an international pre-college music programme in collaboration with Musee Musical in Chennai. It was for this education work that he was awarded the Bharat Gaurav (Pride of India) Lifetime Achievement award in 2015.

Karl studied at the Junior Department of Trinity College of Music, then at the Royal College of Music and undertook further studies with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatoire. His research interests include the music of Liszt, Alkan, Busoni and Enescu; The CreativeTranscription Network; reception theory; the history of piano recital programming; gesture and performance, and the piano concert arrangement as a challenge to the work concept.

For the last two years Karl has been undertaking research at New College, Oxford where he was awarded with a Master of Philosophy degree and has been advised to undertake research towards a Doctor of Philosophy next year. However, he usually resides in London, where he is sometimes spotted in his alternative incarnation as keyboard, percussion and theremin player in the prog rock band ‘The Connoisseur’.

Karl’s concert programme (which also features works by Mozart, Liszt, Scriabin and Medtner includes Beethoven’s six Bagatelles, Opus 126.

A punny Goan friend of mine once quipped that ‘Bagatelle’ sounds like a massage oil used on our beach belt!

The term ‘bagatelle’ literally means “a short unpretentious instrumental composition” as a reference to the light style of a piece. Its earliest use for a musical work was by François Couperin, in his tenth harpsichord ordre (1717), in which a rondeau is titled ‘Les bagatelles’.

In Beethoven’s usage, it refers to a short piece of music, a character piece, typically for the piano, and usually of a light, mellow character. Beethoven’s bagatelles are arguably the best examples of the form. He wrote three sets of them, Op 33, 119 and 126, and similar works that were left unpublished in his lifetime. The popular piece ‘Für Elise’ that has crept into ringtones, hotel lobbies and elevator music is in fact also a bagatelle.

Beethoven dedicated his Opus 126 set of bagatelles to his brother Nikolaus Johann van Beethoven. It was published late in his career, in 1825.It contains the following: Andante con moto, Cantabile e compiacevole, G major, 3/4 time; Allegro, G minor, 2/4 time; Andante, Cantabile e grazioso, E flat major, ¾ time; Presto, B minor, cut time; Quasi allegretto, G major, 6/8; Presto, cut time then Andante amabile e con moto, E flat major, 3/8 time.

Beethoven was evidently quite pleased with them, for he wrote to his publisher, Schott Music, that they (are probably the best I’ve written).

He made a marginal annotation in the manuscript: “Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten” (cycle of little pieces), indicating that they were to be played as a “cycle”, a single work, rather than separately.

American musicologist Lewis Lockwood proffers another clue to their unity rather than merely a ‘collection’ of small works. From the second bagatelle onward, the keys of the pieces fall in a regular succession of descending major thirds (G; E flat; B; G; E flat).

BBC radio broadcaster, music critic, reviewer and author Stephen Johnson (described as “the authoritative British voice of classical music”) tells us how revealing these works can be: “Listening to Beethoven’s Bagatelles can be like looking over the composer’s shoulder as he works. A scrap of a theme, a repeated chord, a formulaic accompanying figure – an idea too simple even to be banal – suddenly blossoms into something rich and strange; the one-dimensional turns magically into the three-dimensional. One can imagine Beethoven strumming absently at the keyboard, then crying “Eureka!” and rummaging frantically for his pencil.An unassuming little Andante con moto tune dissolves into a cadenza, then emerges transfigured in ecstatic counterpoint (Op 126 No 1); and so often in the Bagatelles humour is at the core. If there’s such a thing as profound levity, this is it. I forget who it was who said that pianists ought to be compelled to play the Bagatelles before they attempted the ‘serious’ Beethoven, but I’d endorse it all the way”.

Connections can also be found between these bagatelles and larger works also written in Beethoven’s ‘late’ period: between #1 and the first movement of the Piano Sonata Opus 101 (1816); between #3 and the slow movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata (also 1816); and the similarity between the ‘chaotic’ opening of the final Bagatelle and the opening of the finale of the Ninth Symphony (1824).

Come along to this, the first (hopefully of many more!) celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in Goa this year!