Three Bs

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"The Three Bs" is a term derived from an expression coined by Peter Cornelius in 1854, which added Hector Berlioz as the third B to occupy the heights already occupied by Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Later in the century, conductor Hans von Bülow substituted Johannes Brahms for Berlioz. The phrase is generally used in discussions of classical music to refer to the supposed primacy of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms in the field.


In an article in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Cornelius introduced Berlioz as the third B, concluding his article with the cheer, "Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz!"[1] Decades later, Bülow composed the following pun to a friend: "Mein musikalisches Glaubensbekenntniss steht in Es dur, mit drei B-en in der Vorzeichnung: Bach, Beethoven, und Brahms!"[2] B, in German, stands for the note B as well as for the flat sign. The remark may be translated, roughly, as "My musical creed is in the key of E-flat major, and contains three Bs [flats] in its key signature: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms!" Bülow had been attracted to the idea of a sort of Holy Trinity of classical music for a number of years, writing in the 1880s: "I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music".[2] He further linked Beethoven and Brahms by referring to the latter's First Symphony as Beethoven's Tenth (though Brahms disliked the comparison, thinking it implied plagiarism rather than the homage he had intended). Niccolò Paganini had even earlier (1838) identified Berlioz as the worthy successor of Beethoven. Indeed, Hans von Bülow, two years before Cornelius' article, had himself called Berlioz "the immediate and most energetic successor of Beethoven".[3] David Matthews has suggested that if there was a "Fourth B" added to this legacy, it could be Benjamin Britten.[4]

In popular culture[edit]



  1. ^ Barzun 1969, p. 76.
  2. ^ a b Slonimsky 1998, p. 99
  3. ^ Comini 2008, p. 249.
  4. ^ Matthews 2013, p. 4.
  5. ^ Robinson-Greene 2016, p. 42.


  • Barzun, Jacques (1969). Hector Berlioz and the Romantic Century. Vol. II. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Comini, Alessandra (2008). The Changing Image of Beethoven. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press.
  • Matthews, David (2013) [2003]. Britten (Centenary ed.). London: Haus Publishing. ISBN 1-908323-38-8.
  • Robinson-Greene, Rachel (2016). "Rhapsody on a Theme by Schroeder". In Richard Greene; Rachel Robinson-Greene (eds.). Peanuts and Philosophy: You're a Wise Man, Charlie Brown!. Open Court. ISBN 9780812699531.
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas (1998). Slonimsky's Book of Musical Anecdotes. New York: Schirmer.