The story of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles is one of collaboration, transformation, and assimilation. Like many composers whose works have become a part of the contemporary classical guitar repertory, Walton did not play guitar. Walton’s Five Bagatelles was commissioned and written in collaboration with the world-renowned guitarist, Julian Bream in 1971. Bream went on to give the first performance of the Five Bagatelles at the Bath Festival in Bath, England in 1972, and was the first to record this work.
Walton later reworked the music of the Five Bagatelles for solo piano, and “Varii Cappricci”, a suite for orchestra. In this way, the evolution of the Five Bagatelles contrasts with that of most guitar works written by a composer who did not play guitar. In many cases, a composition will originally have been written for another instrument (such as piano or lute, for instance), and later transcribed for the guitar by a guitarist. Here, however, we see the exact opposite historical progression. The Five Bagatelles were written for guitar and then transcribed for solo piano, and orchestra, by the composer himself. Ironically, Walton later seemed to forget that he originally wrote the Five Bagatelles for guitar (see the last few seconds of the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=217&v=Wk4RsE7VJ7I).
The musical character of the work features an artful assimilation of modern and traditional classical music influences, which is a cornerstone of Walton’s compositional style. In this work, Walton blends lyrical melodies with dissonant and extended harmonies, unexpected musical detours, recurring rhythmic and melodic figures, and guitaristic techniques such as tambora, plucked harmonics, and rasgueado. Although the word ‘bagatelle’ typically refers to a short, light piece of music, each bagatelle in this work possesses a distinct feel. As professor, composer, and writer Phillip Cooke notes in his blog post on the Five Bagatelles (http://www.phillipcooke.com/on-william-waltons-five-bagatelles/) , “The five different bagatelles each capture a different mood from the relentlessly upbeat first, the languid second, the smoky, seductive third, the dreamy fourth and the frantic finale.”