Outstanding Features of Franz Biebl's Works

by Wilbur Skeels

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The Little Composer of Little Songs

In personal correspondence, Biebl has said of himself, "I am just a little composer of little songs." It is a humble assessment that is only partly true. The true part is that his work consists mainly of songs and smaller compositions. But there is nothing "little" about the quality of his compositions. They are finely crafted and performance tested. Nor is there anything "little" about his impact on choral music in Germany.

Folk music and 'spirituals'
Biebl tells how that, after World War II, when he had become acquainted as a prisoner-of-war in Michigan with American folk songs and spirituals, he wanted to introduce these to the German public which was largely unfamiliar with them. However, the combination of (a) the low state of choral singing in Germany at the time, and (b) the level of difficulty of many American arrangements of such music, led him to make his own simpler but effective arrangements, which served to introduce America to Germany in a brand new way. They were immensely popular, being republished in various voicings, singly and in collections. At least 40 American folksongs and spirituals, plus more from Latin America, came to be part of standard German choral repertoire in schools, and choirs, as a result. Nor did he neglect folk songs from his homeland and other European countries. There are more than 100 adaptations of foreign folksongs in his output.

Music Education
Biebl has been a life-long educator, and many of the works he has composed, arranged or edited, were done with children and amateurs in mind, such as his work with Bayerischen Schulbuch. When Georg Kallmeyer published his loose-leaf series in Wolfenbüttel and Berlin [Löse Blätter der Musikantengilde], a series which covered music from the Middle Ages to modern times, translated and edited for amateur singers [sub-title, "Die praktische Handbibliothek," the practical hand library], Biebl was one of the composers to be included. These "loose leaves of the musicians' guild" circulated among German schools, singing societies and churches, and were immensely popular, not least because they were very inexpensive. His composing mantra has been, "keep it simple." It has been just as important for him that amateurs sing well, and that there be good music available for them, as it has been to encourage professional choirs. Hundreds of his pieces are still in the active catalogs of German music publishers, where their popularity defies the dismissive snobbery of those who consider him beneath their elevated tastes. In remarks at a private dinner with the Los Robles Master Chorale from California, on concert tour in Germany in July 1997, Biebl said, "There is only one Beethoven, only one Mozart, but there are many people who speak music. Therefore we must find our niche, find what we do best, and do it while we can." One must respect a man who has humbly found his niche, and helped so many people to 'speak music.'

Like most German choral composers, Biebl has been influenced in his choice of choral arrangements by the relative strength of male choirs and song societies in the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking areas of Switzerland and Italy). Many of his compositions were written first for male choir, and only later, if at all, arranged for mixed choir or for treble voices — his Ave Maria is a case in point. In our Bibliographical Index of his more than 2000 compositions, works for male choir outnumber works for mixed choir by a ratio of about 3:2. This also means, I believe, that when he is composing for mixed choir, he is not afraid to write relatively difficult parts for the men's, as compared to the women's voices. In particular he can count on having good tenors available, which should make most American composers jealous!

Typically his songs for male choir will be for four voices: two tenors and two basses, whereas his songs for women's choir or treble voices will be only three-part with the middle and low voices appearing on the second staff. By far the majority of his works are for unaccompanied voices.

Biebl as poet
A proper appreciation of Franz Biebl will recognize that he is also a gifted poet. Those who have translated foreign language poetry and lyrics, with the necessity of making musical sense, keeping the rhyming scheme and rhythms more or less intact, and yet retaining the unique poetic content and style of the original language, may be the only ones who can fully appreciate his skill in this regard. His choice of original German lyrics by other poets to set to music has always been done with a discerning eye to their poetic value and inner wisdom. His own German lyrics would constitute a respectable literary opus on their own, even without their musical settings. The lyrics always determine the music, never the other way around.

The human occasion
Biebl loves to write for the great occasions and conditions of life: birthdays, weddings, births, funerals, friendships, love, vacations (hiking), socializing (drinking songs), celebrations and congratulations — and. of course, Christmas-New Year (about 120 titles for that season alone). One will find few songs of his that do not have a human focus. He relates how that when he returned to Germany after the war, he greatly wanted to introduce the idea of a "Happy Birthday" type song, a new custom which he had learned in the USA, and he wrote one or two. But the influence of Clayton Summy's "Happy Birthday to You" which came back to Germany with returning troops and American GI's, quickly overshadowed his own contributions! However, he still writes birthday songs for his friends. In return, we publish here a song for his birthday in 1998, and wish him alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

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