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"The Three Bs" is an English-language phrase 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, the famous conductor Hans von Bülow would substitute 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!" 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!" B, in German, stands for the note B♭. The remark may be translated, roughly, as "My musical creed is in the key of E-flat major, and contains three 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". He further linked Beethoven and Brahms by referring to the latter's First Symphony as Beethoven's Tenth. Curiously enough, 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".
Richard Wagner once proposed an alternate candidate for the third of the three Bs; this was Anton Bruckner, a devoted Wagnerian. That appellation never took, and few know that Berlioz was the original third B.
Although the phrase "the three Bs" is generally associated with classical music, it may be found in the vocabulary of other disciplines as well. There are, for instance, three Bs of bass fishing, the three Bs of the Hattrick federation "The Alliance", and three Bs of learning. Generally speaking, however, the three Bs of music are the most frequently cited.