Saturday, November 17, 2007

Holy Trinities, Batman!

Those who listen to XM Classics are now probably thoroughly saturated with this quote:

I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.

Unfortunately, XM Classics has never really worried about its provenance; but, since it lies the heart of what we now refer to as "The Three Bs," it is worth paying a bit of attention to its origins. The text is by Hans von Bülow, probably best known today for conducting the premieres of two Wagner operas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. We also know that his wife, Cosima, had a major extramarital affair with Wagner and eventually divorced Bülow to marry Wagner. Unless I am mistaken, my first exposure to the Beethoven piano sonatas was through his edition.

According to the Wikipedia "Three Bs" entry, Bülow wrote that text in the 1880s; and, since Wikipedia gives Nicolas Slonimsky as the source for that date, I am inclined to believe it. There are some interesting connotations behind it in music politics. Wagner had proposed that the "Holy Ghost" be Anton Bruckner, which is no surprise, given the extent to which Bruckner tried (not particularly successfully with either general audiences or later generations of musicologists) to follow in Wagner's footsteps with orchestral music. Bülow's conception, on the other hand, presented Brahms as continuing a tradition (although Brahms himself expressed frustration with trying to compose in the wake of such an intimidating tradition). To some extent it may even have fueled a general public attitude that Brahms was too "old fashioned," an attitude that prevailed far enough into the next century that Arnold Schoenberg felt obliged to "deflate" it with his "Brahms the Progressive" essay.

Nevertheless, the fact that this "Trinity" is still with us today (with XM Classics playing only a minor role in its diffusion) indicates the extent to which music lovers are still deeply rooted in traditions that keep receding in time. In my student days, when I felt it was important to give music of the twentieth century its due, I had proposed that we replace the Bs with Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, and Benjamin Britten (without worrying very much about assigning them to "roles" in the Trinity). If we look at both catalogs of recorded music and season programs for major orchestras, these composers are definitely receiving more attention than they did during the lifetimes; but Bülow's Trinity still dominates the repertoire.

Needless to say, this is an easy game to play. Readers may recall that I have played it in the context of modern ballet, drawing upon an old friend who formed a Trinity from Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton. All of them are now dead and gone; but their works remain in the repertoire, which, where ballet is concerned, is saying something. Unfortunately, their presence in the repertoire is not always honored by faithful productions, which is why I seldom attend ballet performances any more; but that is another story.

On the other hand, since the game is so easy, I would like to propose playing it with another letter, in an attempt to cover a broader scope of time and an alternative perspective of priorities in one fell swoop. In my Trinity the Father is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and I doubt that the selection would raise many eyebrows. Things get interesting, however, when we progress to the Son, for whom I nominate Gustav Mahler; and, in an even sharper break with tradition, I would propose Thelonious Monk as the Holy Ghost. That "attempt to cover a broader scope of time" should go without saying; so the real question is what my new priorities are. My basic argument is that we tend to think of the Bülow Trinity in terms of the scores they have left for posterity, paying less attention to the roles that each of them played as performers. On the other hand Mozart, Mahler, and Monk were all intensely involved in activities of performance that ultimately informed much of their compositional work. They were, so to speak, just as creative as performers as they were as composers. In other words my Trinity is an effort to get our noses out of the manuscripts; so our minds and bodies can be more engaged with what it means to perform as these three, all of whom were pioneers in their respective ways, did. Who knows? If my Trinity can achieve a shift of attention, it will likely have an impact on how we think about Bülow's Trinity; and I cannot imagine that impact being another but positive!

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