The concept of “The Three Bs” in classical music has been with us since 1854, when the writer Peter Cornelius coined the phrase while suggesting that Hector Berlioz should join Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven in the highest realm of composers. Berlioz fell from this pinnacle later in the century, however, when conductor Hans von Bülow proposed a different set of Bs, a musical Trinity consisting of Bach, the Father; Beethoven, the Son; and Brahms, the Holy Ghost. This sacred triumvirate stuck, as every student of classical music knows, despite the fact that Wagner, disturbed by the veneration of his conservative archrival Brahms, proposed replacing him with Anton Bruckner—a suggestion that no one other than brass players has ever taken seriously.
(For the record, one should also note that a set of three Bs was put forth in the mid-18th century for German organ playing: Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude, and Johann “Bachelbel”—the last meaning Pachelbel, but spelled with a B instead of a P, a slip caused by the similarity of pronunciation in Saxon dialect.)
All of this came to mind several years ago when the music critic Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times proposed a fourth B. Tommasini asked readers to help him create a list of “The Greatest,” the top ten composers of all time. The discussion was carried forth in a democratic way through two weeks of articles, online videos, and blog posts. More than 1,500 readers weighed in with comments. To no one’s surprise, Bach won the top prize. And the next eight spots went to the “usual suspects” of Western music: Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Verdi, Wagner, and, of course, the other two Bs, Beethoven and Brahms. But with apologies to Haydn, Mahler, Puccini, and Monteverdi, Tommasini rounded out the group with an unanticipated newcomer to the pantheon of greats: Béla Bartók (1881-1945), “an ethnomusicologist whose work has empowered generations of subsequent composers to incorporate folk music and classical traditions from whatever culture into their works.”
That Bartók should achieve this recognition is long overdue. A Hungarian pianist, composer, and scholar of folk music, Bartók appeared at the height of the music crisis precipitated by Wagner and successfully forged a new path for fellow composers to follow. Wagner’s music had pushed tonality to its limits, with deeply expressive, chromatic passages that filled in the cracks of the keyboard and willfully disrupted the normal harmonic stabilities that had characterized Western music since its earliest polyphonic days. The decisive piece was the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1865), which portrayed desire and unfulfilled love by a seemingly endless chain of unresolved melodies and harmonic progressions. The conservative Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick likened the Prelude to “the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel.” Where could composers go after Wagner’s “evisceration” of traditional harmony?
They set out in different directions, taking roads that often turned out to be musical cul de sacs. One route was pseudo-chromaticism, pursued by Max Reger, César Franck, and Richard Strauss, who continued the Wagnerian tradition but in a derivative way. Another avenue was impressionism, advocated by Claude Debussy, which introduced Eastern scales and shimmering, understated atmospheric backgrounds. Though short-lived, neoclassicism represented an attractive alternative for Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, who created jazzy pieces using polytonalities and Baroque-like chamber forces. Still another approach was atonality, the full abandonment of traditional harmonic schemes in favor of abstract organizational principles developed by the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern. And finally there was nationalism, the use of native tunes and traditions, espoused by Edward Elgar, Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, and here in the United States, Charles Ives.
One of the prime reasons for Bartók’s admission into Tommasini’s Top Ten was his achievement of finding yet another path, creating a unique international musical language that was “an amalgam of tonality, unorthodox scales, and atonal wanderings.”