If this ear-catching piece strikes you as utterly original, like nothing you’ve ever heard before, you’re right. György wrote it in 1953 in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain in virtual cultural isolation from the outer world. Under the repressive thumb of Josef Stalin, the Communists silenced all works they considered subversive, including pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Britten, and Arnold Schoenberg. Composing anything that sounded “modern” could bring down the wrath of the Party on you, meaning you might simply disappear. Accordingly, György worked quietly on experimental pieces which he kept to himself. Because of his isolation, he set out to construct an original musical language from the ground up. As he later explained, “In 1951 I began to experiment with very simple structures of sonorities and rhythms as if to build up a new kind of music starting from nothing. I regarded all the music I knew and loved as being, for my purpose, irrelevant and even invalid. I set myself such problems as: what can I do with a single note? with its octave? with an interval? with two intervals? What can I do with specific rhythmic interrelationships which could serve as the basic elements in a formation of rhythms and intervals? Several small pieces resulted, mostly for piano.”
In 1953, he arranged for brass quintet six movements from one of his new piano pieces, and the unique Six Bagatelles was born.
Although Stalin died that year, György did not release his bagatelles to the public for three years, still fearful of the State’s menacing authority overall artists. Even then, the sixth bagatelle was omitted from the first performance as “too audacious”. The complete set of six was not played until 1969 after he emigrated to Germany.
György labeled the Bagatelles in order (1) “spirited”, (2) “lamenting”, (3) “graceful”, (4) “rapid and coarse”, (5) “mournful and melancholy (Bela Bartok: In Memoriam)”, and (6) “capricious”. In the third movement, György lightens the texture by calling for the bassoon to stick a rag in the instrument’s bell to serve as a mute.
Postscript. György, his father, and his brother were sent to a Nazi internment camp after Hitler invaded their country in 1944. His father and brother perished. György did not, only to fall prey to Stalin. It is a tribute to the human spirit that a man who survived the horror of the mid-20th century could survive to write music full of optimism, life, and energy. Bagatelle means “trifle”, but these six are anything but.