R.I.P., Milton Babbitt
It’s no surprise that Milton Babbitt passed away over the weekend. The man was, after all, 94 years old. He was also one of serial music’s founding fathers.
Unfortunately, he’s best known for this 1958 essay that appeared in High Fidelity magazine under the headline, “The Composer as Specialist.” When it was reprinted in Reader’s Digest shortly thereafter, it was retitled “Who Cares If You Listen?” Babbitt never approved the new headline and complained about it bitterly afterward. Yet the title stuck, because so much concert music, in America and elsewhere, became elitist and out of touch. Reading the essay now (whose prose is as dense and thorny as Babbitt’s music), you can see his point. He’s saying that there needs to be a place where music can evolve free of the demands of the marketplace (namely the universities, which is largely what happened in the years following the essay), and that music must grow to remain a vital art form. The weirdness of his desire to see music become as complex as particle physics notwithstanding, this is all fine as far as it goes.
The trouble was that music evolved in a single direction, which Babbitt and other modernist composers insisting that their way was The Way, The Truth, and The Light. Composers, musicians, or academics who disagreed with the party line were vociferously shouted down by Babbitt and his cohorts. If that doesn’t sound like much fun, well, it wasn’t. No wonder audiences retreated into the 19th-century repertoire, or to jazz, rock, and pop. Babbitt was concerned with keeping music healthy, but the intolerance and dogmatism of his approach (which was the same as the rest of music’s establishment) wound up hurting music.
It didn’t have to work out this way. Babbitt wrote an unproduced Broadway musical in 1946. It was called Fabulous Voyage, based on Homer’s Odyssey, and written in a recognizable Broadway vein. In the late 1980s he dragged some of the numbers out of his trunk and published them as Three Theatrical Songs. This sounds amazing unless you know that in his early days he made pocket money arranging Broadway songs. (Back in those days, theater music and pop music were essentially the same thing.) He once said he would have liked to trade places with Jerome Kern — the mind reels — and one of his many pupils was Stephen Sondheim. It’s tempting to think about how music history might have been different had Babbitt found success on Broadway. (This review in The New York Times does just that.)
Babbitt had many pupils, who went on to compose many different types of music and all seem to remember him fondly. In the end, though, what remains of any musician is the music, and though you probably won’t find yourself idly whistling one of his tunes, his stuff is pretty good. If you’re new to his music, a nice starting place is the Fanfare for All, a dramatic little piece written for brass ensemble. His Piano Concerto No. 1 shows off his considerable talents at writing for orchestra and composing in large-scale forms. Though he often wrote about music as if it needed to be drained of all emotion, his own music could be quite expressive. His anguished and despairing A Solo Requiem was written in memory of Godfrey Winham, a music critic and longtime friend who died short of his 40th birthday. Babbitt responded with this suite of songs set to elegiac poems by Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Meredith, August Stramm, and John Dryden. These showcase Babbitt’s skills at setting words; his music is a strangely good match with Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm.” The soprano you hear singing A Solo Requiem is Bethany Beardslee, the widow of the man who inspired the work.
I’m embedding one last work of his. Philomel is one of his electronic pieces, a sonic collage that combines Beardslee’s live voice with audiotape samples of her voice played through a synthesizer. Babbitt’s work with electronic music was a creative phase that he later abandoned, but this 1964 piece is remarkably ahead of its time. He was a titanic figure and now he’s gone, so we recognize.