A bagatelle is a short piece of music, typically for the piano, and usually of a light, mellow character. The name bagatelle literally means a "trifle", as a reference to the innocent character of the piece.
Earliest known bagatelle
The earliest use of the name "bagatelle" for a musical work was by François Couperin, in his tenth harpsichord ordre, in which a rondeau was entitled Les bagatelles.
The best-known bagatelles are probably those by Ludwig van Beethoven, who published three sets, Opp. 33, 119 and 126, and wrote a number of similar works that were unpublished in his lifetime including the piece that is popularly known as Für Elise. Other notable examples are Franz Liszt's Bagatelle sans tonalité (an early exploration into atonality), a set for violin and piano (Op. 13) by François Schubert of which No. 9, The Bee, is often performed, the set by Antonín Dvořák for two violins, cello and harmonium (Op. 47), and sets by Bedřich Smetana, Alexander Tcherepnin and Jean Sibelius. Anton Diabelli also wrote a bagatelle in a short, happy form. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote Six Bagatelles, Op. 3, and Friedrich Baumfelder also wrote just one bagatelle, Op.386, which was composed in his later years.
In the 20th century, several composers have written sets of bagatelles, including Béla Bartók, who wrote a set of fourteen (Op. 6); Anton Webern, who wrote a set of six for string quartet (Op. 9); and Gerald Finzi, who wrote Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. Another canonical modern bagatelle is the set by György Ligeti, who originally composed a set of 11 short works for piano entitled 'Musica Ricercata' (1951-1953), later arranged a selection of them for wind quintet in 1953 (Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet). William Walton also wrote Five Bagatelles for guitar, which has been recorded by several eminent classical guitarists, including Julian Bream, Sharon Isbin, Christopher Parkening, and Ana Vidović. The American composer Charles Wuorinen wrote a Bagatelle for solo piano, which he later orchestrated. The Australian composer Carl Vine also wrote Five Bagatelles for piano (1994), which are quite frequently performed at piano competitions, especially in Australia.