The famous three Bs of the music world are, undisputedly, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Each of these unforgettable men were foremost in their respective periods of music history.
Near the end of the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporary, Georg Frideric Handel, were bringing this period to a climatic, glorious conclusion. During this era the emphasis was on contrast and harmony rather than on polyphony—where two or more melodic lines are combined. This period saw a dynamic and expressive style that dominated music and art. Music during this era was characterized by its emotional appeal and by the energy and fluidness of its form. It had ornamented melodies, striking use of harmonics and strong rhythms.
The concerto form of music brought the stylistic contrast between the solo or small group against the larger group. After a period of predominately vocal music, instrumental music gained more attention by composers and new forms of writing for instruments became the norm.
Vocal music was mostly religious in content but secular music was gaining popularity. The music, written primarily for the church, was now for the princely courts of the aristocrats and then eventually for the general public. This was a huge change of practice and philosophy.
The chief vocal forms of the Baroque era are, opera, cantata and Oratorio. The instrumental forms were: fugue; toccata; overture; dance suite and theme and variations.
Johann Sabastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach is the first “B” of these three great composers. Usually composers can be referred to by their last name, but not in this case. He came from a long line of musicians and his sons were also composers of note. Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany and lost his parents at the age of ten. He was raised by an older brother who was his first music instructor.
Considered a conservative, Bach was Lutheran and an intensely religious composer. After three years at the gymnasium (high school) in Luneburg, in Hanover, Germany, he began his professional life as a musician. Bach was an expert performer on organ and clavier (various keyboard instruments) and also the violin.
Bach was in the Ducal orchestra in Weimar and in the same year, 1703, he was organist in Arnstadt. During this time he married his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 he entered the service of the Thuringian courts. His job as a court musician in this period, was an employee who performed and created music upon request.
Bach held various posts as organist and chamber musician. In 1723 he settled in Leipzig as the director of music at Saint Thomas church and school; where he was in charge of choir boys and taught Latin. He married twice, as his first wife died in 1720. His new wife was Anna Magdalena Wicke, whom he married in 1721. Bach fathered 20 children between both wives, however, only nine survived to adulthood.
Bach became a master of polyphonic music, exemplified by his cannons and fugues; chorale cantata; the passions; masses; suites; concerto grosso and toccata. He was at the peak of the German baroque era. His religious music was nothing short of monumental. He excelled in the concerto grosso in the six Brandenburg Concerti. With the exception of opera, all the other aspects of 17th and 18th Century musical idioms were brilliantly composed by Bach. His music was considered so superior it over shadowed the works of his contemporaries.
Classic Period (1750-1827)
This period of music is from the death of Bach to the death of Beethoven. This era saw the gradual decline of the social and political dominance of the court and the emergence of the middle class. Both the American and French Revolutions were fought during this period.
The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ championed the ideas of J.J. Rousseau, who advocated a return to nature and proclaimed the rights of the common man. Music, at last, was made available to many different levels of society. The tumultuous climax of the baroque period was punctuated by the genius of both Bach and Handel. A new and vibrant era was just beginning with the advent of new composers. Vienna became the center of music in Western Europe during this period.
Although the old style was still present alongside the new, interest in new forms and styles were taking hold, especially in the advancement of instrumental and secular music; replacing much of the religious music of the past. Music evolved from polyphony or polyphonic music to homophony or homophonic, meaning one voice or part with accompanying chords. Music took on a more simple style based on melody and harmonic structure, replacing the complexity of the Baroque counterpoint and polyphonic writing. The long arched melody of the late Baroque was replaced by short two and four measure phrases.
Big changes occurred in instrumental music with the emergence of virtuoso writing for some instruments. Clarinets were added to the orchestra. The woodwind section was now complete, as were the strings, but the brass section was incomplete.
The musical forms of the classic period became the foundation for much of the music of the 19th Century and beyond. The three phenomenal composers of this period were Haydn, (1732-1809) and Mozart, (1756-1791) who paved the way for our second “B,” Beethoven.
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven was born in the Rhine town of Bonn, Germany. The Van in his name perhaps connotes some Flemish ancestry. His father, Johann Van Beethoven, was a tenor in the chapel choir of the Elector of Bonn.
The musical talents of the young Beethoven were recognized by his father and he saw in Ludwig another boy wonder, like Mozart. His father was not a nice man and could see financial gain by exploiting his son. Young Beethoven was made to practice an inordinate length of time, to the detriment of his general education. He was abused and treated unkindly, thus he felt isolated and excluded from other worldly endeavors.
In 1787 his father took Ludwig to Vienna to play before Mozart. He had to return to Bonn because of his mother’s poor health. Beethoven did not return to Vienna until 1792, just after Mozart’s death.
Ludwig studied composition with Haydn; unfortunately the two men had temperamental problems and never hit it off. Beethoven completed his first of nine symphonies, in 1800. He became Vienna’s first successful free-lance composer and musician. Beethoven, unlike others, never held a court position after leaving Bonn.
Probably one of the worst things that can happen to a musician is deafness. In 1798, Beethoven began to experience ringing and humming in his ears. In 1802, in a fit of desperation he contemplated suicide, as his entire being was tormented and full of anguish. But even so, his musical output, over the next ten years, was nothing short of remarkable. By 1812, he completed symphonies two through eight; piano concertos; violin concerto and his opera, Fidelio, among other works. This output was extraordinary for a deaf composer and foretold some of the techniques of the future Romantic era.
Beethoven broadened the range of personal emotional expression with his music. He was a master of form and expanded and developed the existing musical structures. A few of his last great works were: The last piano sonatas; the Missa Solemnis and the monumental, Ninth Symphony, where he introduced choral parts in a symphony for the first time. His last works set the stage for the 19th Century and the Romantic period.
This period spanned roughly the entire 19th Century into the early 20th Century. Music differed from its predecessors of the Classic Period. It was more emotional and personal with a subjective or freer style. It went beyond traditional forms of structure and balance. The creation of new forms was prevalent and explored by many composers. Emphasis was placed on the ideal, the individual and the heroic, as exemplified in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (No. 3). There was a progressive spirit abounding among composers during this period.
The roots of the Romantic Period began in the late 18th Century, with Rousseau and others rebelling against the classic traditions; they wanted a return to simplicity and nature; with more emphasis on human instincts and feelings than on intellectual pursuits. The Romantics favored emotion over reason. They advocated free expression over the previous concept of restraint. This was a reaction to the aristocratic courts and was in favor of the middle class.
Program music came to the forefront during this period. This is instrumental music that relates a story or tale and often has descriptive titles. An excellent example of program music is the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz.
The range and power of the piano increased. Also many new forms of music are created; piano pieces; art songs; programmatic forms; romantic opera; tone poems and others. Improvements to wind instruments are prevalent and valves are added to French horns and trumpets. English horns, bass clarinets, tubas and harps are now accepted in the orchestra.
This was a ‘Golden Age’ for composers, as far as public acceptance and artistic freedom was concerned. Composers of this era are: Carl Maria Von Weber; Franz Schubert; Hector Berlioz; Felix Mendelssohn; Robert Schumann; Frederic Chopin; Franz Liszt; Richard Wagner; Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and many others.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
The third “B” was born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a string bass player in the town orchestra. His father instructed him on violin, cello and French horn. At the age of seven he studied piano and became very proficient at the keyboard.
Brahms’ study of music theory emphasized the music of Bach and Beethoven. Up to the age of 20 he remained in Hamburg leading an unremarkable life. Brahms had a reputation as a pianist and a conductor. In 1862, he went to Vienna and conducted choruses. Around 1864, he devoted his energies to full-time composing.
Brahms was a devoted follower of Beethoven with regard to symphonies, concerti and chamber music. However, he used a newer harmonic vocabulary than Beethoven. One of the most famous and endearing works of Brahms is, the Ein Deutsches Requiem, (A German Requiem) of 1857-58. The requiem mass is a mass for the dead. Brahms’ requiem does not use the Latin text and therefore is not technically a church mass. It was written in commemoration of this mother’s death. Biblical references are used as the basis of the text. The original text is in German and was later translated into other languages.
Paramount among Brahms’ instrumental music are the four symphonies. Hans Von Bulow, the famous conductor and pianist, after hearing Brahms First Symphony and recalling Beethoven’s nine symphonies, called it Beethoven’s 10th!
In 1879 the University Breslau conferred on Brahms a doctor’s degree. As the diploma said “The foremost living German Master of the art of composition.” In appreciation for this honor he composed the Academic Festival Overture.
Brahms was a perfectionist and would make many tries before he would accept an idea as finished. He did not primarily use poems, stories or programs in his music, like many of his contemporaries. Brahms believed “Music for Music’s sake.”
Brahms never married, however, he was in love with Clara Schumann, widow of composer, Robert Schumann. The Schumann’s were probably the greatest single influence in Brahms life.
There you have it—a thumbnail sketch of three of the greatest musical geniuses that ever lived. How ironic that they were all German, and all pacesetters in their respective eras. They wrote some of the world’s greatest and memorable music that is still very popular today. What a gift to mankind these incredible composers left.
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