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The Legacy of Milton Babbitt


Milton Babbitt, an American composer particularly noted for his serial and electronic music, died on January 29, 2011.  Retired Tufts Professor and BMInt stalwart reviewer Mark DeVoto gave us permission to republish his tribute that appeared in the American Musicologist Society Electronic Discussion List. (A link to a very interesting documentary video is here.)

Milton Babbitt died yesterday in Princeton, age 94. He singlehandedly placed the theory of serial music on a solid footing, with a degree of comprehension of basic principles and possibilities that certainly went beyond what Schoenberg himself understood. Above all, he realized the basic principles of twelve-tone technique, and its extension to different parameters in musical architecture, in a significant body of his own compositions; but his works remain masterpieces in beautiful sound entirely independently of the abstract basis with which they were conceived. He was the first composer in America to validate the electronic medium as an essential adjunct to serial operations, and in works like Vision and Prayer and Philomel he brought this combination to amazing heights of expressivity. He was my teacher, and the beloved teacher of generations of American composers. No composer or theorist alive today has escaped his influence.

I remember Milton for all these things, but especially for his unforgettable friendship and valuable advice, and his amazing knowledge of music far beyond his own specialties. He was on the scene in all branches of American music ever since the 1930s, and he knew everybody. I remember how he could discuss Schütz as a theorist with the same ease as he discussed Schoenberg as a political figure. About twenty years ago there was a conference at Harvard in connection with the establishment of an endowed chair, and Milton was one of the invited speakers. At a dinner in Lehman Hall, Milton and Sylvia invited me to join them. We listened with delight to a cocktail pianist thirty feet away who was playing through all the old favorites, and Milton and Sylvia sang right along with him, not missing a word.

Sylvia died six years ago, and now Milton too is gone, and an era comes to an end. We say farewell to a dear friend, knowing that his achievement will always live, because it is part of us.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Since Mark has linked to the NPR site and the Hilferty-Karpman documentary here, it is probably not out of place to put in my oar on behalf of Dinosaur Annex, the Boston new-music ensemble on whose board I sit and of which I was Chairman for many years. Milton Babbitt was an avuncular adviser to Dinosaur Annex over a good bit of its history, and was formally a member of our Board of Advisers. We performed a fair amount of his music over the years, and we worked to get a Koussevitzky Foundation commission for him to write the piece “Septet But Equal” that is performed at the end of the documentary. Like all the other groups on the documentary, Dinosaur Annex was not credited by the filmmaker, although all the “talking heads” were identified.

    The performance of SBE on the film was the second performance, at a Fromm concert at Harvard in 1996, conducted by Gunther Schuller (Charles Fussell conducted the premiere two years earlier), with ensemble members Ian Greitzer, Diane Heffner and Katherine Matasy, clarinets; Cyrus Stevens, violin; Anne Black, viola; Michael Curry, cello; and Donald Berman, piano.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — February 6, 2011 at 6:23 pm

  2. Vance. I am the editor who worked with Laura Karpman to finish Robert’s film. Thank you so much for identifying SBE. When we received hard drives from Robert’s partner nothing was identified. We were able to identify the talking heads because Laura knows all the interviewees personally. We will be sure to ID SBE net time it is shown.

    Comment by Shannon Halwes — February 7, 2011 at 12:10 am

  3. I meant we’d make sure to ID Dinosaur Annex as playing SBE!

    Comment by Shannon Halwes — February 7, 2011 at 12:26 am

  4. A nice way to start my Monday morning (I am currently in sunny, clear, warm California, three hours behind you East-Coast suffering hordes, until March.) This is a wonderfully constructive “blog” illustrating the importance of this feature insisted upon, against doubts, by our Fearless Leader.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

  5. I’m very gratified to read Shannon’s remarks. I’m sure that with a very small amount of effort, we’ll be able to identify all the groups who performed–they are well known to many of the people I know who had been involved with Milton. If Shannon would be so kind as to send an email to, we can channel the information–or at least the appropriate contacts–expeditiously.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — February 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  6. Shannon – here are some other IDs
    THe performer in the silver shirt throughout the film is David Horne. It was from the same Fromm 80th Birthday concert. (Also on the concert was Music Theatre songs with myself at piano with Karol Bennett, soprano, and a 4-hand piano piece with Anton Vishio and Christopher Neidhoffer.) THe recording snippets of “Joy of Sextets” and “More Joy of Sextets” is Rolf Schulte, violin with Alan Feinberg, piano. All Set is a performance conducted by Gunther Schuller (I think) – its also on You Tube,

    Donald Berman

    Comment by Donald Berman — February 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm

  7. Many are aware that Milton Babbitt composed and taught — and was the author of THAT article.

    But how many have read it? See:

    Comment by Richard Buell — February 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  8. Thanks for the link, Richard Buell. I just read the article. It seems to mean that “new” music of the sort he wishes to see supported by grants does not belong in the concert hall. I won’t argue against the point. Would that symphony programmers had taken it to heart.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 9, 2011 at 2:00 am

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