Biebl was born in Pursruck, now part of Freudenberg, Bavaria, in 1906. He studied composition at the Musikhochschule in Munich. Biebl served as Choir Director at the Catholic church of St Maria in München-Thalkirchen from 1932 until 1939, and as an assistant professor of choral music at the Mozarteum, an academy of music in Salzburg, Austria, beginning in 1939, where he taught voice and music theory.
Biebl was drafted into the military beginning in 1943 during World War II. He was a prisoner of war from 1944 to 1946, being detained at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. After the war, he moved from Austria to Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, where he served as director of the town chorus.
Biebl's best-known work is his Ave Maria (1964), which sets portions of the Angelus as well as the Ave Maria. The piece was brought to the United States by the Cornell University Glee Club in 1970. The ensemble met Biebl while on tour in Germany, during a recording session at a radio network where Biebl was music director. Conductor Thomas A. Sokol was given a number of Biebl's works, premiering them after returning home. The Ave Maria quickly gained popularity, most notably after becoming part of the repertoire of Chanticleer. Although it was originally scored for male voices, after "Ave Maria" became popular the composer himself rearranged the piece for SATB and SSA choirs as well.
Wilbur Skeels – who published some of Biebl's other works – prepared the following information about the piece for use in choral program notes. All or parts of the information in this note are commonly cited by choirs recording or performing the piece.
Herr Biebl told me that when he was organist/choirmaster and teacher in the Fürstenfeldbruck parish near Munich he had in his church choir a fireman. It was common for companies, factories, police and fire departments, etc. to sponsor an employees' choir, which often would participate in choral competitions and festivals with other similar choirs. This fireman asked Biebl to please compose something for his fireman's choir for such an occasion. The result was the Ave Maria (double male choir version).
The piece gained practically no attention in Germany for many years. However, when Biebl was the head of choral programs for the Bayerischen Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) he made a habit of inviting American choirs to come to Munich and sing on the radio and with other German choirs. One of these choirs was introduced to his Ave Maria and brought it back to the US, where it became increasingly popular. When Chanticleer recorded it, it became a hit, not only in the US but in Germany too, which now considered the piece must be special as it was such a hit in America! Biebl did arrangements for other voicings, and the seven-part mixed choir arrangement is now probably the most popular.
The text is unique in its conjoining of two sources. The first source is the thrice-daily devotional exercise called the Angelus in the Catholic Church. It is cued by the ringing of the "Angelus" bell, sometimes referred to as the "Peace Bell." It consists of a thrice-repeated "Hail Mary," each with an introductory versicle based on the Gospel, followed by a concluding versicle and prayer.
Here is the first part of the Angelus, the only part that Biebl uses:
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae The Angel of the Lord announced to Mary
Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
[Ave Maria, Sancta Maria.] [Hail Mary, Holy Mary.]
- Ecce ancilla Domini
- Behold the handmaiden of the Lord
- Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
- Do to me according to your word.
- [Ave Maria, Sancta Maria.]
- [Hail Mary, Holy Mary.]
- Et verbum caro factum est
- And the Word was made flesh
- Et habitavit in nobis
- And dwelt among us.
- [Ave Maria, Sancta Maria]
- [Hail Mary, Holy Mary]
- [Ora pro nobis sancta Dei genetrix . . .]
In place of the 'Ave Maria, Sancta Maria' from the Angelus text, Biebl has substituted the first part of the even more familiar text of the standard 'Ave Maria' prayer [Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, etc.] and in lieu of the closing versicle and prayer of the 'Angelus' he has substituted the second part of the 'Ave Maria' [Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis, etc.], so that the whole is a hybrid of the two ancient texts.
The San Francisco Renegades, an all-age Drum and Bugle Corps, first adapted sections of Biebl's Ave Maria in their 2003 show: "Red Skies At Night". In 2005 they played the piece as the opener to their show, "The Days of Future Past". In 2006 the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps, an International World Class Corps based in Rockford, Illinois, used the piece in its 2006 field show "Faust," further expanding awareness of Biebl's arrangement. Both drum and bugle corps continue to perform Franz Biebl's Ave Maria as part of their yearly repertoire.
A recent arrangement of the Biebl "Ave Maria" was transcribed by Jerry Brubaker, horn player and arranger for 30 years with the US Navy Band, after hearing the piece sung at a Navy funeral. It has been performed by the Navy Band horn section and the NIH Community Orchestra Horn Club on numerous occasions.
Pacific Crest Drum and Bugle Corps uses Franz Biebl's Ave Maria as their corps song.
Role in First Amendment Litigation
In 2009–10, an arrangement of the Ave Maria for wind ensemble was the subject of litigation that reached the United States Supreme Court. At issue was whether a school district was justified in prohibiting an instrumental performance of the piece (without lyrics) at a high school graduation ceremony due to its underlying religious nature. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the school district's actions. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but Justice Samuel Alito issued a rare written opinion dissenting from the Court's decision. In a footnote, Alito described Biebl's setting of the Ave Maria text as "relatively obscure" in comparison to settings by Franz Schubert, Charles Gounod, and other more well-known composers.
- Michael Slon, Songs from the Hill – A History of the Cornell University Glee Club.
- ChoralNet Forums Archived 2014-12-23 at the Wayback Machine. (visited March 5, 2012). Wilbur Skeels (1938–2011) was a pastor, accompanist, composer, and music publisher who knew Biebl and published some of his works through Skeels' Cantus Quercus Press. See H. Wilbur Skeels online obituary (visited March 5, 2012) and Cantus Quercus Press (visited March 5, 2012 – website now largely defunct, except for downloadable catalog with section on Biebl's works)
- Nurre v. Whitehead, 580 F.3d 1087 (9th Cir. 2009), available at https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16640877058818770540
- 130 S. Ct. 1937 (2010), available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/09-671.pdf
- Matthew Oltman, The Iconic One-Hit Wonder: The History and Reception of Franz Biebl's Ave Maria, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2017 (visited Aug. 2, 2017)
- Outstanding Features of Franz Biebl's Works at the Wayback Machine (archived July 16, 2011)
- Index of Biebl's principal works (Archive from 16 July 2011)
- Recording of Biebl's Ave Maria by Chanticleer (click PLAY button on "Sample Clip")