Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

Laura Karpman’s completion of Robert Hilferty’s unfinished documentary on Milton Babbitt, via NPR Music.

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Milton Babbitt

American composer Milton Babbitt, a pioneer of serial and electronic music and one of the most influential composition teachers of the 20th century, died on January 29th of 2011 at the age of 94. Born in Philadelphia 1916, Babbitt was raised in Jackson, Mississippi.

Among his notable compositions are: Composition for Four Instruments (1948), the earliest work to extend serial procedures to realms other than pitch; Composition for Synthesizer (1961) and Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964), which both utilized the resources of the early RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; Philomel, an extremely effective setting of a poem by John Hollander for soprano, recorded soprano, and synthesized tape; All Set for jazz ensemble; two piano concertos; six string quartets; and numerous solo piano pieces. Before he adopted the 12-tone system, he completed a musical, Fabulous Voyage (1946), and while he decided not to pursue that direction as a composer, he remained a Broadway enthusiast for the rest of his life and his most famous composition student was Stephen Sondheim. Other notable students, at Princeton and Juilliard, include Mario Davidovsky, Paul Lansky, Laura Karpman, Stanley Jordan, Fred Lerdahl, and the late Donald Martino. Babbitt’s lifelong commitment to the music of younger composers was also reflected in his chairing the BMI Student Composer Awards for many years. In addition, Babbitt was a prolific and influential music theorist; although the most famous of his music articles, an article he submitted to High Fidelity magazine with the title “The Composer as Specialist,” caused Babbitt to be greatly misunderstood and gained him unintended notoriety when the editors retitled and published it as “Who Cares if You Listen?”

In 2001, NMBx published a 12-part interview with Babbitt. David Rakowski, one of Babbitt’s last students at Princeton, has also written a special essay for us in memory of Milton Babbitt. —FJO

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Milton Babbitt with Stephen Sondheim at the American Music Center’s 2006 Annual Membership Meeting and Awards Ceremony. Photo © by Jeffrey Herman.

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