György Ligeti’s delightful bagatelles for wind quintet started life as a set of eleven rather more serious movements for solo piano. In their original form, the first movement was limited to two pitches, the second to three and so on, until in the final movement LIgeti allowed himself the luxury of using all twelve pitches of the equal tempered scale. The discipline with which Ligeti constructed these pieces is less obvious in the selection of six movements he arranged for wind quintet, yet it is still discernible on careful listening.
The first bagatelle uses just four pitches; major and minor chords built on the same tonic. In the solemn second movement, the oboe’s trills gradually reveal a palette of six pitches while the eight pitches that form the third bagatelle are used to evoke Hungarian folk music. The next three bagatelles each extend the melodic range by an additional pitch, with the fourth being a highly spirited dance, the fifth a tribute to Béla Bartók, and the sixth comprising an energetic yet wry finale.
To today’s listener, the six bagatelles sound relatively innocuous – with one critic describing them as ‘beautiful stuff’ in comparison to Ligeti’s otherwise indigestible music. Yet they were not always considered so benign, with the final movement censored from the work’s premier due to authorities’ concerns that the dissonance arising from the bagatelle’ excess of minor seconds posed a danger to the public.