A survey of classical music history, however brief, will reveal a large array of composers of exceptional talent and remarkable work. This array of talent has generated much debate in which composers are ranked and determined as essential or ‘canonical’. This task of grouping certain composers together has occurred through the centuries. All are problematic if the attempt is to determine who is ‘the best’. However, they are useful when attempting to highlight certain composers. One of the more original methods is the Three Bs, distinguishing three composers, J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms from the large array of talent.
But why these three? Why the letter B? Why not Mozart, Mendelssohn and Mahler? Or Schubert, Schumann and Strauss? The use of the B for a Trinity is largely linguistic. In German the B is useful in creating a pun, wherein the nB stands for the note B♭. The German conductor Hans Guido von Bülow wrote to a friend “Mein musikalisches Glaubensbekenntniss steht in Es dur, mit drei B-en in der Vorzeichnung: Bach, Beethoven, und Brahms!” (In English it roughly translates as “My musical creed is in the key of E-Flat major, and contains three flats in its key signature: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms!”) The pun does not translate into English well, or at all for that matter, but the alliterative quality does provide memorability. Despite these linguistic origins, it is in the music of these three Bs that see justification for this union that extends deeper than linguistic coincidence.
The Holy Trinity of Classical Music
The first two Bs are fixed: Bach and Beethoven. The third slot is problematic. The first to adopt the position was Hector Berlioz. Proposed by Peter Cornelius, who essentially started the three B convention, in a 1854 article in Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. Although this was the first grouping of composers under the moniker, Niccolo Paganini, the violinist, had in 1838 already deemed Berlioz a worthy successor of Beethoven. The turning point from Berlioz to Brahms was with Bülow. Agreeing with Paganini’s appraisal of Berlioz in a 1852 article as “the immediate and most energetic successor of Beethoven”, Bülow would later in the nineteenth century place Brahms rather than Berlioz in the third position.
According to the musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky, Bülow had been interested in the notion of a Holy Trinity of classical music for a considerable time, with it coming to fruition in the 1880s when he declared: “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music”. This arrangement, perhaps owing to its pseudo-religious phrasing, has been the most lasting, and the three with Brahms is considered to be the categorization, with many unaware of the earlier links with Berlioz.
The Father: Johann Sebastian Bach
The idea of Bach as the Father in this Trinity is well placed. Beethoven himself called him the “original father of harmony” and he is generally considered the greatest composers of all time, at least in the Western tradition. Lindsey Kemp, in response to the rhetorical “what’s so great about Bach?” asserted:
Isn’t it obvious? Surely Bach’s music has that solid sense of incontrovertible ‘rightness’, with every note in its right and proper place, as if it had always been there and always will be. It seems not the work of a mere man, but something immutable and timeless reached down from the heavens, as if Bach were some kind of natural lawgiver, a musical Newton who has found the key to the secret of all music and opened it up before us.
But who is the man? Bach was born in 1685 into a highly musical family. His father was Johann Ambrosius Bach director of town musicians of Eisenach from whom he learned the violin and basic music theory. Navigating through the Bach musical family is incredibly tricky, as there are firstly a great number of them, and they had a tendency to all have the first name Johann. The other Johanns of significance for Bach’s childhood were Johann Christoph Bach, his uncle who introduced him to the organ and Johann Ludwig Bach, a well know composer. A second Johann Christoph Bach, his eldest brother, became J.S. Bach’s guardian when J.S. was 10, with their parents passing away in 1694.
J.C. Bach, the church organist at St Michael’s in Ohrdruf, introduced his young brother to the clavichord and provided valuable instruction in theory and performance. This included being introduced to the works of the great composers of the day, including Johann Pachebel (as in Pachebel’s Canon), as well as French and Italian composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and Girolamo Alessandro Frescobaldi. It is worth mentioning that unlike today, or even in the nineteenth century, music was still incredibly regional during this period. As discussed in our article on Opera, different regions like France and the Italian City States adopted different styles and approaches to composition, even denouncing the music of other regions. The fact that the young Bach as introduced to styles outside of Germany no doubt influenced his style and certainly added to his musicianship.
His studies with his brother led to his gaining a choral scholarship at the prestigious St Michael’s school in Lüneburg. After graduation Bach moved considerably over the next few years evetually settling in Leipzig in 1723 as Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche. This was an incredibly prestigious post and he would hold it for the next 27 years until his death.
At the time of and years after his death Bach’s reputation was almost non-existent or at least in decline. His style of music was out of date with audiences yearning more for his son C.P.E. Bach and Mozart’s gallant style, which feature simpler construction. However, it was later in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when people such as Mozart and Beethoven began to study and incorporate elements of his style and work into theirs that his reputation began to grow. Felix Mendelssohn really catapulted Bach and his legacy into the gaze of the wider public, leading to his current reputation as the greatest composer of all time.
His catalogue is extensive, featuring some 1,100 know works ranging from vocal pieces, orchestral works, chamber works, works for solo instruments such as the harpsichord, organ and violin, canons and other contrapuntal pieces and secular to liturgical music. For the sake of brevity we will look at two of his works, The Art of the Fugue and The St Matthew Passion, but realistically any composition would suffice in demonstrating his “godlike” ability with music.
The Art of the Fugue is perhaps the greatest culmination of Bach’s compositions, despite the fact that it is incomplete, because of its astonishing technical craftsmanship. Noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff points out the desire for knowledge and enlightenment that inspired Bach to compose this challenging work.
The challenge of a fugue, or any contrapuntal work, is that there are numerous voices playing the same or similar themes but delayed from each other. Thus the composer has two responsibilities: firstly, to write a melody pleasurable enough to retain our interest, and secondly that when one part of a melody plays over another segment it does not create an unpleasant level of dissonance, which would render the work completely unpleasant. What The Fugue does is not only manage to create such a piece, but to apply a mathematical precision with various algorithms being applied by scholars in an attempt to fully grasp the depth of meticulousness and the degree of craftsmanship that was needed in order to create such a work. However, I think I can already hear some of the criticism from some readers, namely that art is not mathematics. And this is true and indeed despite his precision I find few to truly adore Bach in the way they admire him.
What makes the his St Matthew Passion a greater work of art than the Fugue is the humanity it portrays. It too is a piece wherein Bach utilize that incredible capacity for organization befitting his status as the Father in the Trinity, but it is not purely a technical exercise in which he reveals the human capacity for, such as the agony of Peter after he denounces Christ three times, and the lament of the Virgin Mary at her Son’s crucifixion.
It is this humanity that leads Kemp to the conclusion that “Bach may have been that most potent of combinations – god and man”.
The Son: Ludwig van Beethoven
If Bach is both god and man then Beethoven, mixing the religious metaphor here somewhat, would be almost all man. Beethoven was a problematic figure; he had a ferocious temper and a severe ego that few could match. Certainly, Bach approached his art with a wonderment, and Brahms almost with a reluctance and servitude, but for Beethoven he, as the artist, was in supreme control.
Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 to Johann van Beethoven, a music teacher and singer in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne, and Maria Magdalena Keverich. As with Bach, Beethoven’s father was his first teacher, and here we need to clarify something. The story goes that Johann was a particularly harsh instructor. One story that was repeated to me at University was that his father would lock him in a closet and make him practice continually until he perfected a piece. More mundane tellings simply refer to him as a strict disciplinarian resulting in the young Beethoven being “often in tears”. However, as The Grove Dictionary of Music points out “speculation and myth-making have both been productive.” What is certain is that Beethoven had a distinct distain for traditional authority. In Teplitz, while visiting Goethe, Beethoven and Goethe were walking along the street. Teplitz, a spa town, was always filled with aristocrats, and convention dictated that common people were to move to the side to give way on footpaths for those of aristocratic background. Beethoven, perhaps to impress Goethe of his revolutionary zeal, instructed the poet to “keep walking as you have until now…they must make way for us, not the other way around.” This story, first reported 20 years after the event, is likely also an exaggerated or even apocryphal and also adds to the mythmaking. However, as myths do, it reveals in an eloquent, succinct fashion Beethoven’s overall notion that the only true aristocrat is the artist. More solid evidence for Beethoven’s disdain for authority is his refusal to perform when his aristocratic audience would chatter or not give him their utmost attention and he would not play if suddenly requested, both conditions being standard fare for performers in the era. Archduke Rudolph, one of his benefactors, recognizing his talent but needing to deal with the numerous confrontations that Beethoven would find himself in, decreed that usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to him.
Stories of his father, in light of his turbulent personal behavior and his disdain for authority, are perhaps more a product of pop-culture Freudian analysis than historical documentation. However, Johann’s attempts to exploit Beethoven’s talent by marketing him as a prodigy (inspired by Leopold Mozart’s publicity of his son Wolfgang Amadeus) are true. The most famous example of this is him dropping Beethoven’s age from seven to six on publicity posters for his first public performance in 1778.
Although passing through several local tutors, Beethoven eventually came under the tuition of Christian Gottlob Neefe, who would also eventually employ him as assistant organist for the Prince Elector Archbishop of Cologne Maximillian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels. He would also help nourish Beethoven’s first compositions. In 1790, Joseph Hayden passed through Bonn while travelling from Vienna to London and was introduced to Beethoven, who had begun to establish himself in artistic circles. It is believed that it was on his return trip to Vienna that Hayden arranged for Beethoven to come and study with him in Vienna. This connected Beethoven strongly with Mozart, who had also studied with Hayden. Count Waldstein in a note to Beethoven wrote that “through uninterrupted diligence you will receive Mozart’s spirit through Haydn’s hands.” He studied his supposed predecessors work and established himself as a highly skilled improviser. It was from now on that Beethoven began to establish himself was the primary musician of his age.
The composition that revealed his turning point was his sonata No. 8, The Pathétique. Musicologist Barry Cooper states that it “surpasses any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.”
It is also with his Fifth Symphony that we really see Beethoven’s mastery, wherein he adopts a singular motif and manipulates it, changing the development section of the sonata-allegro form to a large flourish in which a composer can reveal his full mastery over his material. Although we see this come to an almost godlike control in the Fifth it was in his Third Symphony, the Eroica that Beethoven set this explosive new technique upon the world. An article in The Economist points out the full extent Eroica’s significance:
After all, while the sound, fury and inordinate length of the “Eroica” were shockingly new, Beethoven, by and large, still stuck to established symphonic form. And Mozart had been no mere spinner of elegant notes, no practitioner of art for art’s sake; he often cheerfully flouted classical convention. True, but with Beethoven as never before individual human aspirations, fears and passion are central to the music, threatening to overwhelm its structure, albeit never (well, hardly ever) doing so.
And herein lies the different between Bach and Beethoven. Whereas Bach attempts to create a complete, ordered and structured world, Beethoven “challenges the universe” as Chopin expressed, in many ways the universe as established by Bach. Within the established structures he pushes the limits, defying the supreme, to create something astounding. Originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte admiring the French revolution and viewing Napoleon as its embodiment. On hearing Napoleon’s declaration of himself as emperor, and in Beethoven’s eyes rejecting the ideals of the Enlightenment he claimed to uphold, Beethoven furiously scratched out Napoleon’s name on the title page, declaring it now to be Eroica.
In keeping with the religious metaphor of the Son, Beethoven is the cornerstone of this Trinity. He took the heavens revealed by Bach in his music, and transformed them to create an idiom that would resound with generations to follow. And no composer was more both awestruck and troubled by that legacy than Brahms. It is also the explosion of human emotion and the combination of godlike control over the subject matter that makes Beethoven such a compelling son. What makes Christ compelling within the Trinity is his humanity. Failing that, he is just a redundant misplaced Father.
The Holy Ghost: Johannes Brahms
Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833 to Johann Jakob Brahms and Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, a seamstress. As with the other two Bs Brahms’ father was a musician and provided him with his first musical lessons. His family lived in relative poverty and he had to contribute to their income playing piano in dance halls, which has led many to discuss his later warped relations with women, although this is still heavy in conjecture. He eventually fell under the tuition of Eduard Marxsen, and gave several performances in Hamburg. A tour conducted while he was nineteen helped to establish him as a performer. He began composing early, but his early compositions from his teens do not survive. This erasing of the past but destroying or altering compositions would be a steady feature of Brahms. It was on this tour he met other giants of the age such as Franz Liszt and Peter Cornelius. These links would not last, particularly with Liszt, Brahms supposedly nodding off during one of Liszt compositions.
However, it was through these engagements that he was eventually introduced to Robert and Clara Schumann, the former being so impressed with the young composer and performer that he stated in print that he was “destined to give ideal expression to the times.” The comment, not well received by the larger community, has been attributed to adding to Brahms self-critical view. The relationship between the three continued and remained close and supportive until Robert’s death in 1856, after which Brahms and Clara had a highly discussed connection. Much of their correspondence revolves around music, with Brahms frequently asking her for advice on composition.
After 1856 he divided his time between running a ladies choir in Hamburg and Detmold where he was court music teacher and conductor. Gradually he based himself increasingly in Vienna taking on several professional appointments, resigning the last in 1875 and holding no official position thereafter, a luxury made available during the romanticist era where musicians began to become dependent not on appointments or noble financing but on public concerts and publication of scores.
He worked steadily as a composer, but his works drew mixed reviews, largely due to the impression of him being “old fashioned” in light of the New German School which included Wagner and Liszt. This was part of the larger ‘War of the Romantics’. Those of the ‘New’ form preferred losing the structure imposed by earlier styles, heavier use of chromatics (reaching its pinnacle in Wagner’s Tristan Chord) and program music where a narrative or poetic element was used as a way of organizing musical material. The other school favored absolute music, where no such narrative was attached and structure and limited chromatics were used to create coherence within a composition. Brahms, like Frederick Chopin, was firmly in the absolute camp, although unlike Chopin, stayed far more with traditional forms and structures.
The analogy of the Trinity becomes incredibly self conscious with Brahms. Living in the musical world established by Bach and living particularly in the shadow of Beethoven would have been difficult. Bülow, although initially calling Berlioz Beethoven’s successor would eventually choose Brahms. Bülow further contributed to this link by referring to Brahms’ First Symphony as Beethoven’s Tenth. This was both great praise for the composer, but also caused him some distress and even annoyance commenting that “any ass” could see the similarities to Beethoven’s work.The Symphony took fourteen years to complete with both his self-critical nature and the intense linking of him with Beethoven leading him to constantly revise the work to ensure it held up to the reputation.
His Symphony No. 3 in F was, in keeping with the Beethoven analogies, called Brahms Eroica (also Beethoven’s Third), by Hans Richter the conductor at the premier. A more neutral appraisal by Eduard Hanslick stated: “Many music lovers will prefer the titanic force of the First Symphony; others, the untroubled charm of the Second, but the Third strikes me as being artistically the most nearly perfect.”
However, it was with the premiere of A German Requiem that Brahms established his reputation. Easily Brahms’ longest work it is incredibly detailed and highly praised for its craftsmanship and quasi-classical elements. What makes the German Requeim is that, despite the criticism of Brahms as old fashioned, the piece has several qualities that are distinctly Romanticist. The first is implied by the title. Although being a Requiem, a Roman Catholic mass, it uses text from the German Lutheran Bible as opposed to the Latin liturgy. The structure of the work is also less formalized than other Brahms works, him adding newer movements and developing it over a course of time. To unify this potentially meandering work Brahms uses a three-note motif throughout (F–A–B♭), a standard technique when dealing with large amounts of material.
Despite the strong reception of the work there were still those that did not like Brahms. George Bernard Shaw, a strong Wagnerite, refered to his Requiem as something that would have been composed by an undertaker.
It is with his Requiem that Brahms adopts the role of the Holy Ghost within the Trinity. It would be tempting, in light of the constant similarities, to call him the ‘ghost’ of Beethoven, which granted has something of a ring, but feels clumsy and contrived. What distinguishes Brahms from the other two is that he not only had them as predecessors, but through the coining of the “Three Bs” in his lifetime and the endless comparisons to Beethoven’s work Brahms did not have the luxury of being able to determine his own destiny. Instead he was racked by doubt and obsessed with self-criticism. What does reveal is Brahms doubt, his being haunted by the past composers, the past giants of the Trinity, and finding himself unworthy of the sanction. But with the Requiem was his Pentecost, where the musical genius of Bach and the artistic ferocity of Beethoven were past into the world, continuing the Gospel of this great music, allowing it to spread.
The Holy Trinity? No, the human trinity
At the end of the day, it is the humanity that links these composers. Although Bach was perhaps the most “godlike” of the three, he himself attributed these seemingly supernatural powers to his diligence, his perseverance, his attempt as an imperfect creature, marred by sin, to create perfection in honour of the divine. And in doing so revealed the ability of the human to not only comprehend perfection but supersede it with emotion and humanity. For Beethoven, the flaw of his ego and the brashness of his personality created an explosion such as the Big Bang that created art we still listen to and weep at its humanity. And in Brahms, in the inevitable place of coming last of the three we see a man bound by artistic vision and hope to create a work he doubted he could. Doubt was his muse, and it proved, as did all the humanity of these composers, to be the guiding light.
As stated earlier in this article, the linking of these three composers is largely linguistic coincidence, but this does not detract from their value. Listen to the above pieces, and let us know whether or not you deem them to be some Holy Trinity.
Kemp, Lindsey. “What Makes Bach so Great?“, BBC Radio 3.
Kerman, Joseph; Tyson, Alan; Burnham, Scott G. (n.d.) “Ludvig van Beethoven”, Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy.
n.a. (December 31, 1999). The Eroica.(development of classical music in western countries, and the importance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’). The Economist (UK). Vol.353(8151), p.132(1).
n.a.(n.d.) The Meeting of Genius: Beethoven and Goethe, July 1812. Gramophone.
Slonimsky, Nicolas. (1998) Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes. New York; Schirmer Books.