Milton Babbitt: Composer regarded as the high priest of American serialism

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The composer Milton Babbitt was the high priest of American academic serialism and a pioneer in the field of electronic music. He was also an influential university teacher whose theories achieved considerable international prestige in professional circles.

Milton Babbitt was born in Philadelphia in 1916 but was brought up further south, in Jackson, Mississippi, where he started the violin as a child of four. Later, he learnt the clarinet and saxophone and his first musical experiences were with pop songs and jazz. At the age of 13 he won a song contest sponsored by the bandleader Paul Specht.

But like some other advanced composers – Varèse, Boulez and Xenakis, for example – Babbitt also had a background in mathematics, an interest he inherited from his father, an actuary. But Babbitt soon gave up a degree course in maths and went to New York University, where he graduated in music in 1935. In New York he met Varese, who became a lifelong friend.

By this time Babbitt was immersed in the compositional techniques of the composers of the Second Viennese School, although he had been introduced to Schoenberg's music at the age of 10. It was a performance of the Fourth String Quartet in the late 1930s which Babbitt said changed his life.

Schoenberg himself, by then in the US, could not take Babbitt as a pupil because he had to go to California to escape the rigours of the east-coast climate. Instead Babbitt went to Roger Sessions, recently back from several years in Europe – a significant and influential meeting, which profoundly affected both composers.

From this time onwards Babbitt, like Sessions, was associated with Princeton University, where he did his Master of Fine Arts in music and served as in both the music and mathematics faculties. He also wrote a score for the film Into the Good Ground and a short-lived Broadway musical, and continued to enjoy New York jazz, although he later admitted that it absorbed him for about 30 minutes at a time.

His real interest was in the application of set theory to all aspects of a composition. From this point of view his Three Compositions for Piano (1947) anticipated European examples such as Messiaen's Quatre Etudes de Rythme and his later works went further in systematic pre-compositional planning. This naturally led Babbitt towards electronic music, and in the mid-1950s he was the first to work with the RCA synthesiser. Vision and Prayer (1961) for soprano and synthesiser, based on a poem of Dylan Thomas, opened up a scintillating new world of sound.

However, Babbitt's uncompromising stance brought problems. He felt the need to explain what appeared to many musicians to be almost exclusively technical and mathematical concerns. In 1958 he wrote an article which High Fidelity published as "Who cares if you listen?" This was not Babbitt's headline and the article was widely misunderstood as an arrogant attack on conservative audiences. In fact Babbitt was claiming the same status for research in musical compositional theory as that accorded to scientists, whose work the public would not understand, either. Since then, Boulez built IRCAM on a similar philosophical basis and many American university music departments have followed Babbitt's lead.

In a 1975 interview he tried to clarify his commitment to complexity: "I dare to aspire to make music as much as it can be, rather than as little as one can obviously get away with music's being, under the current egalitarian dispensation." One consequence of his method of working was music of great technical difficulty. Performances of his orchestral works, such as Relata I (1965) were often disillusioning experiences for the composer, whose demands were unrealisable within normal rehearsal schedules. It was hardly surprising that Babbitt wrote in 1970: "composers of such works who have access to electronic media will, with fewer and fainter pangs of renunciation, enter their electronic studios with their compositions in their heads, and leave those studios with their performance tapes in their hands."

Since he wrote that, matters have barely improved, and a whole generation of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass have taken quite a different line. But Babbitt also rightly pointed out that the struggle must continue, since if orchestras fail to commission and perform exploratory works they will eventually have no genuinely new repertoire to play.

Babbitt was director of the influential Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center from 1959 and Conant Professor of Music at Princeton from 1960. He also taught at the Juilliard School from 1973, where one of his most brilliant students was Stephen Sondheim. Babbitt lectured widely in the US and in Europe and received many awards and honorary degrees. In 1982 he was given the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for "his life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer". His lectures, Words about Music, were published in 1987.

Babbitt had fewer direct connections with this country than some of his American colleagues, but his role in making Princeton a Mecca of technical rigour as opposed to British amateurism resulted in pilgrimages at an impressionable age from a number of prominent British composers, including Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Jonathan Harvey.

In the Musical Times in 1994 Babbitt delivered a characteristically vituperative indictment of musical society, blaming "permissive, diluted and vocation-oriented" music education and performers who, with shining exceptions, are "less concerned about the future of music than their own careers". He continued: "the 'new' music offered is chosen for its being easy for the conductor to learn (preferably at rehearsal), for its inducing little resistance from the players who wish never again to be obliged to play what they haven't played before, for its giving no offence to the orchestra's board of directors, whose only relation to music is strictly social, and for not disturbing the passivity of the shrinking audiences."

If that sounds uncomfortably familiar in the 21st century it shows that matters have not improved. Posterity should be grateful to Babbitt for his resolute idealism, which he never compromised.

Milton Byron Babbitt, composer and teacher: born Philadelphia 10 May 1916; Professor of Music, Princeton University 1966-84; Pulitzer Prize for Music 1982; married 1939 Sylvia Miller (one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 29 January 2011.

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