Milton Babbitt: an elegy gone awry pt. 1

New Music Lover #1: Milton Babbitt, a giant in American classical music passed away today. 1916-2011 - RIP.

New Music Lover #2: To describe Babbitt, a lovely man indeed, who was very tiny, as a "giant" made me smile. He was not a giant in any way, but a charming, provocative, and puckish elf of a man who was very kind to his students and more open-minded than most people assumed. NMM#1, "giants" are all too often pompous bores, but Babbitt was never a bore and never pompous.

New Music Lover #1: By "giant" I meant dominant that more representative?

New Music Lover #2: Well, he was never that either, NMM#1, outside of New York and Princeton -- he had virtually no influence on the West Coast avant-garde, and the Europeans scarcely knew who he was. He had a decided influence as a theorist, and wrote that one essay, "Who Cares if You Listen," but he can't be compared to Elliott Carter, for example, whose influence has been much more pervasive and profound. Literally none of Babbitt's music is in the standard repertory, and it is very little played even in New York. He was a lovely, generous, smart man, however--but Aaron Copland was a giant. Carter is a giant. Babbitt was an influential figure who composed one masterpiece, Philomela.

New Music Lover #1: Good points NMM#2, but I still think that he was a very influential and dominant force in American music. His roster of students became prominent forces in their own right: Davidovsky, Sondheim, and Lerdhal just to name a few. While I agree that Carter has been more influential as a composer, Babbitt's life work (teacher, writer, and composer) will also influence generations of scholars, performers and, of course, composers. If Carter is the "giant" in American classical, I would place Babbitt close to him as well.

New Music Lover #2: NMM#1, when Roger Sessions died, there was similar rhetoric about his being a "great" composer and dominant figure. Now Sessions is played rarely if at all, recorded not at all, and thought about even less, even by most of his former students (with the exception of a very few loyal ones such as Leon Botstein, the conductor and President of Bard College). I must say, however, that Babbitt was a far more ingratiating person than Sessions, and that Babbitt taught Davidovsky and, especially, Sondheim are very good points. Lerdhal is an influential theorist, of course. I would argue that Babbitt's most important role in American music was as a negative example -- how he rued to the day that he was led to publish "Who Cares if You Listen"! (The essay was chopped up by the editor and the title is not Babbitt's original, which was far less sensationalistic.) This essay has been argued against so much that I don't know what the detractors of it, and serialism, will do now that Babbitt is dead. Poor man! He had a first-rate mind and a good heart, but he will always be known as Mr. Serialism USA, which will hardly win him many new listeners, posthumously speaking, for that style is as dead as a dodo. Another problem is the nature of music based on technology that rapidly goes out of date. His painstakingly created tapes for Philomela, for example (a very haunting score that was jaw-dropping when I first heard it in the 70s), now is as much of its period as the electronically generated sounds in the Maxwell House Coffee commercials of my childhood -- it creates nostalgia--actually nostalgic charm--rather than awe as it did over thirty years ago. This was scarcely Babbitt's fault, however. But the idea of "progress" in music is also as dead as the dodo, so I do wonder how his music will be placed in the grand continuum of Western music history.

New Music Lover #1: I can see that happening to his (and more than armload) of other 20th century electronic pieces. Sad, but those pieces existed for a microcosm of listeners anyway. What is important is that Babbitt is in western music's lineage as an important figure, mainly as a theorist and serialist. His name will be forever associated with serial music, however derogatory the term may sound now or 100 years from now. Sessions is a good example of what may become of many great composer/teachers, his roster of noteworthy students is top notch. We only see Sessions music in 20th century theory books, I think this has more to do with his contemporaries (overshadowing his music). In the end, how do we know what will remain or enter into the canon? Carter is a tough listen for the average listener, Babbitt is no different. Is it a safe bet that Adams will remain the canon because the level of concentrated listening is markedly less?

(to be continued)


Chip Michael said…
There is a disconnect between music education and reality. Babbitt is a "huge" figure amid the education crowd, but NML2 has pointed out, few of his pieces are performed today. Does being revered in the educational community make him a great composer? If the populous ignore him is he a failure?

Dvorak used to be analyzed an discussed to a great degree (early 20th century) at a time when Brahms and Mahler were practically ignored. Now, Brahms and Mahler are darlings and Dvorak is passed over (in the educational community).

However, in the concert hall Dvorak sells more tickets than Brahms - Mahler sells more tickets than both of them. So, is one composers' music less valuable than another's? Well, in terms of ticket sales, yes, but in terms of being part of the canon, they all have merits.

The educational community has yet to accurately determine what will and will not survive the test of time. Then again, neither has the audience.

--------Nice Article!

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