Milton Babbitt, who has died aged 94, was one of the most eminent, and controversial, American composers of the 20th century. Deeply influenced by the 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg, whom he met in New York in the 1930s, Babbitt extended Schoenberg’s serial organization of pitch structure to other parameters, including rhythm, dynamics and instrumentation, an approach that came to be known as “integral serialism.” With his Three Compositions for Piano of 1947, Babbitt slightly preceded his European contemporaries Olivier Messaien, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez in producing the first work in this new and stricter manner.
Babbitt wanted “a piece of music to be literally as much as possible,” meaning that it should possess as many related internal associations as it could. He was thus often viewed as a cerebral composer, someone who approached music as if solving a problem. In a 1987 article in the New York Times Magazine, he was paired with “chance” composer John Cage as representing The Two Extremes of Avant-Garde Music. But for those who listened carefully, Babbitt’s music had an unmistakably “American” quality that seemed to give the lie to his own aesthetic pronouncements.
Most of Babbitt’s music was written for small resources: solo piano, voice and chamber ensembles, including six string quartets. But he also composed orchestral works, the most recent being his Piano Concerto No. 2, premiered in 1998 in New York’s Carnegie Hall by Robert Taub and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with James Levine conducting, and his Concerti for orchestra (2004), commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the premiere again conducted by Levine. Other important works are Composition for Twelve Instruments (1948), Sextets for violin and piano (1966), Reflections for piano and tape (1975), and Quintet for clarinet and string quartet (1997). Other works showed the pleasure he took in puns: Four Play (for four instruments), It Takes Twelve to Tango, The Joy of More Sextets and Sheer Pluck (for guitar).
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Babbitt grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from high school in 1931, he entered the University of Pennsylvania, planning to specialize in mathematics, but soon transferred to New York University to study music, receiving his BA there in 1935. Subsequently he studied with Roger Sessions at Princeton University, New Jersey, where he began teaching in 1938, and was professor from 1966 to 1984. From 1973 onwards, he taught at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Prodigiously gifted as both musician and mathematician, Babbitt taught mathematics at Princeton during the latter part of World War II.
In addition to composition, Babbitt was an important music theorist. He published a small but influential group of articles on 20th-century compositional technique that had a profound effect upon the development of academic musical thought, especially in the US. His most widely cited article, however, was a popular one, written in 1958 for the magazine High Fidelity, which dealt with the changing social situation of 20th-century composers and, given their increased isolation from the public, the need for universities to support their work. Though Babbitt entitled the article “The Composer as Specialist”, High Fidelity rechristened it “Who Cares If You Listen?” — a title Babbitt greatly disliked, contributing to its notoriety and convincing many that Babbitt simply wrote music for his own amusement.
Though primarily drawn to instruments and voice, Babbitt also cultivated an interest in electronic sound synthesis, in part because it enabled his complex music to be realized with greater precision. He helped found the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York, one of the earliest studios for musical synthesis in the world, becoming a director in 1959. He composed a number of trailblazing works using the Mark II synthesizer, lent to the studio by RCA Victor, including Composition for Synthesizer (1961) and Philomel for voice and tape (1964), one of Babbitt’s most frequently performed works.
Babbitt was a flamboyant lecturer, much admired for his delivery even by those (and there are those who claimed this included almost everyone) who had little idea what he was talking about; and he was frequently invited to speak outside the classroom. His talks were full of personal asides, jokes and barely veiled references to prominent figures. His ability to pursue a line of thought relentlessly, often spinning off into unexpected byways, letting words, sentences and paragraphs follow one another without break, never failed to impress. (A singer once came up to him after a lecture and told him how much she admired his breath control.)
Though viewed by most as simply a composer of extraordinary intellect, who wrote music of staggering difficulty, Babbitt was, to those who knew him, also a wonderfully gregarious figure. His encyclopedic knowledge spread into unlikely areas, for example, beer: He seemed to know, have tasted, and developed a decided opinion about every brand available. His love of sports, above all baseball, and knowledge of sports statistics was legendary. As one who grew up playing the clarinet, Babbitt had a deep and abiding interest in jazz and musical comedy. In his younger years he wrote a Broadway musical (the unproduced Fabulous Voyage, based on the Ulysses legend). Babbitt’s love of jazz is also evident in his concert piece All Set (1957) for small jazz ensemble: tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, double bass, drums, vibraphone and piano.
Babbitt’s many awards include the Joseph Bearns prize, two New York Music Critics Circle citations, National Institute of Arts and Letters award, Guggenheim fellowship, membership of the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Pulitzer Prize special citation.
Babbitt was a prominent composition teacher, and a number of his students achieved prominence of their own — most notably Stephen Sondheim. Blessed with a remarkable gift for friendship, he was generous almost to a fault with his time. To see Babbitt after an absence, even for those who knew him only moderately, was to be greeted as a long-lost friend. He had the uncanny ability when addressing someone, on no matter what arcane topic, to make his listener feel as if he or she were one of only two people in the world — the other being of course Babbitt himself — who really understood what he was talking about.
Babbitt met his wife Sylvia while they were both students at New York University. She died in 2005, their daughter, Betty Ann, survives him.
He was born May 10, 1916 and died on Saturday.
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