Happy birthday, Franz

September 1, 2019

German composer Franz Xaver Biebl (1906-2001) was born in Pursruck, studied music in Munich, and became a church musician and a teacher of choral music. He was drafted into the German army in 1943 and captured in Italy the following year, and spent the remainder of the war as a POW at Fort Custer in Michigan, a time he seems to have enjoyed. “It was a good time,” Biebl recalled. “We got enough to eat, good food, just like the American soldiers had. I was allowed to arrange a choir and songs for it. The Americans helped me to arrange concerts with choir, soloists and chamber music.”

After the war’s end, Biebl returned to his home and his life as a musician, composer, choir director, and teacher. In 1959 he became director of choral music at the Bavarian State Radio Broadcasting Company. While there, he met and recorded many choirs from around the world, including the Cornell Glee Club. When the Cornell men returned to the U.S. they brought with them some of Biebl’s compositions, one of which was destined to become his greatest hit. Biebl had composed the piece some years earlier at the request of a member of his church choir whose day job was fighting fires. It was common at the time for factories, police and fire departments, and other places of employment to sponsor choirs for their workers, which would participate in music festivals and competitions. The man asked Biebl to compose something for him and his fellow firefighters to sing, and the result was the Ave Maria for unaccompanied male choir. 

The Cornell men introduced Biebl’s Ave Maria to American audiences, after which it grew rapidly in popularity. It’s sung here by the combined Glee Clubs of Cornell University and Morehouse College.

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