3 B's!

Sunday, May 22, 2011
   Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are surely among the most influential musicians who are the foundation on which rests our tradition of classical music. In 1854 when the "three B's" was first coined, Brahms was less than a year into a public music career, but replaced the original "third B"  (Berlioz) later in the century thanks to famed 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow. In addition to calling Bach, Beethoven and Brahms his "three flats in the key of Eb", Bülow was transfixed by the idea of a sort of "holy trinity" of music. Thus he wrote "I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music." Setting aside any attributions of Holy Trinity-like power, all three certainly could write a tune. And write, they did! Music that is truly timeless in both musical and textual language.
   In the case of Bach, the text of Cantata 131 comes directly from Luther's Bible, specifically, the "Penitential" Psalm 130 with the superposition of the Soprano and Alto singing two verses of the Hymn "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut," (Lord Jesus Christ, the highest good). And the music is quintessential Bach, serving to heighten the meaning of the text through musical style and form that was as familiar in the 18th century as it remains fresh in the 21st. Originally written around 1707-08 in Mühlhausen, it is among Bach's earliest Cantatas and the earliest complete work in his hand that survives to this day.  
   Beethoven's "Hallelujah Chorus" comes from his only Oratorio, "Christus am Ölberge" (Christ on the Mount of Olives) and was completed and first performed almost a full century (1803) after Bach's Cantata 131. Like the Bach, the text, by Franz Xaver Huber, is universal in scope: a simple hymn of praise. And the music is, well, the music is Beethoven! Every chord, every phrase the man ever wrote was filled with the sturm and drang, yin and yang, all the anguish and joy of the ages.
   The opus 65 "Neue Liebeslieder" (New Love Songs) of Brahms is equally universal. The first 14 texts originated in the poetry of many different lands and were translated to German by Georg Friedrich Daumer. The texts portray the universal irony and hopelessness of "romantic love" with Brahms' music heightening the effect through some brilliant choral text painting in spite of the chamber music scope of the work. Brahms ends the cycle with text from German-born Goethe that, with the music, offers a renewed sense of hope and peace in endeavors of the heart.
   Of all the "B" composers that have lived more recently than these, none have found as wide an audience or universal appeal than Samuel Barber with his "Adagio for Strings". Originally composed as the slow movement of the opus 11 string quartet, the orchestra version was arranged by the composer in the same year (1938) the quartet was completed in hopes of increasing the likelihood of publication of the quartet. Barber sent the music to Arturo Toscanini, who premiered it with his NBC orchestra in a live broadcast. Since then dozens of arrangements and transcriptions of the work have appeared in hundreds of settings with the composer himself writing the transcription of the "Agnus Dei" in 1967.
   And here, today, seeking an A grade with B composers, we are the
C(antata) Singers! - - will wickham