Milton Babbitt (1916 – 2011)

Milton Babbitt was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where one of his neighbors and childhood friends was the novelist Eudora Welty. Babbitt began studying the violin at the age of 4, but was initially drawn to more popular forms of music and switched to the saxophone and clarinet three years later. His father was a mathematician and Babbitt started at the University of Pennsylvania as a math major until he discovered the serial music of Arnold Schoenberg. He received a bachelor’s in music from New York University and then got his master’s degree from Princeton, where he studied with Roger Sessions. During World War II, he worked briefly as a researcher in Washington, D.C. before being sent to Princeton as a math teacher. He joined the music faculty at Princeton in 1948 and later taught at the Juilliard School as well.

Babbitt’s background in mathematics became the basis of his compositional technique. He was one of the first to take the serial technique of Schoenberg and expand it to other elements of music besides pitch, such as rhythm, dynamics, and articulation, in early works such as the Three Compositions for Piano and Composition for Four Instruments, paving the way for future composers like Pierre Boulez. His interest in jazz and experience playing the saxophone also was shown in pieces like the groundbreaking Third Stream composition All Set for jazz ensemble and pieces for the saxophone including Images, Whirled Series, and the Accompanied Recitative. (Although Babbitt’s public image as a cerebral, academic composer was often correct, he was known by his friends and colleagues for his keen sense of humor and often gave whimsical titles to his pieces, such as the Whirled Series, Semi-Simple Variations, It Takes Twelve to Tango, Minute Waltz (3/4 ± 1/8), The Joy of More Sextets, Play It Again, Sam, and the Bicenguinguagenary Fanfare.)

Babbitt was one of the first composers to utilize the electronic synthesizer and became the head of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where he was a consultant to RCA in developing the Mark II Synthesizer. Babbitt was not as interested in the new sounds that could be produced as he was in the precision and authenticity that could be achieved in performance by utilizing technology. Some of his first pieces to use the new synthesizer include the Composition for Synthesizer and his most frequently cited work, the Philomel for soprano and pre-recorded tape, written for Bethany Beardslee. He became a leading proponent, not only of synthesizers, but of musical reproduction through sound recordings. As he remarked about the difference between a live performance versus a recording:

“I can’t believe that people really prefer to go to the concert hall under intellectually trying, socially trying, physically trying conditions, unable to repeat something they have missed, when they can sit at home under the most comfortable and stimulating circumstances and hear it as they want to hear it. I can’t imagine what would happen to literature today if one were obligated to congregate in an unpleasant hall and read novels projected on a screen.”

Some of his later works include the Phonemena for soprano, Post-Partitions for piano, Around the Horn for solo horn, and the Elizabethan Sextette for women’s chorus. He also wrote two piano concertos and six string quartets, along with a large body of piano, vocal, and chamber music. Babbitt taught many leading composers during this lengthy career, including Benjamin Boretz, Mario Davidovsky, Eric Ewazen, David Lewin, Donald Martino, Markand Thakar, Peter Westergaard, George Balch Wilson, as well as jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and famous Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

Babbitt retired from full-time teaching in 1984, but continued to compose almost to the end of his life. He received a special citation in 1982 from the Pulitzer Prize committee for his contributions to American music. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and had been chairman of the BMI Student Composer Awards from 1985 until his death. He also finally received his doctorate from Princeton in 1992, almost fifty years after his dissertation was rejected. When it was originally written, it was so advanced that none of the music faculty could understand it.

In 1958 he wrote an infamous article for High Fidelity magazine, originally titled “The Composer as Specialist”. The editor changed the title to “Who Cares If You Listen?” Although Babbitt was upset about the title change, he defended his assertion that his music (and the compositions of other modern composers) was not meant for the average listener. He argued that the average average person shouldn’t expect to understand the highest forms of music anymore than he should be able to understand the latest developments in physics. He further defended himself against charges of elitism and musical snobbery in an interview:

“The real arrogance comes not from composers, but from people in the audience who presume to know without having earned the right to know… Illiterate musical audiences have no idea what music has been, so how can they have any idea of what music is or could be?”

Despite this, Babbitt’s musical technique had a profound effect on minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, although Babbitt liked to call himself a “maximalist”, due to his dense, complicated musical structures. His influence is even seen in popular music, such as the progressive jazz trio The Bad Plus, who recorded a version of his Semi-Simple Variations along with covers of Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Heart, and the Bee Gees.

Selected Listening:

  • Piano Works (includes the Three Compositions, Semi-Simple Variations, and Post-Partitions)
  • All Set for jazz ensemble
  • Philomel (also includes Phonemena and Post-Partitions)
  • Solo Works (includes Whirled Series, Around the Horn, and Play It Again, Sam)
  • An Elizabethan Sextette (also includes Minute Waltz and It Takes Twelve to Tango)

Suggested Viewing:

Robert Hilferty & Laura Karpman. Milton Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer. (Available for viewing at NPR’s website)

Suggested Reading:

Milton Babbitt. The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt. (Contains the original essay from High Fidelity: “Who Cares If You Listen?”)