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.