Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

America’s leading avant-garde composer dies, aged 94

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One of America’s leading composers of serial and electronic music died last Saturday in hospital in Princeton, aged 94.

Milton Babbitt gained notoriety in 1958 when an article he wrote on modern music, which he had titled ‘The Composer as Specialist’, was retitled by the magazine High Fidelity ‘Who cares if you listen?’. Babbitt thought the headline ‘offensively vulgar’.

However it seemed to many to summarise the kind of esoteric and cerebral music – recently termed ‘university music’ by the maverick composer George Crumb – written by Babbitt and which dominated modern American music from the 1950s to the ’70s.

Babbitt was in fact pleading for music to have the chance to evolve away from the demands of the commercial mainstream, arguing that otherwise it could not remain a vital artform.

Babbitt’s interest in the avant-garde started in 1932 when an uncle brought back from Europe a collection of piano music by Schoenberg. He eventually took an interest in electronic music, and often combined this with conventional instruments and performers.

For instance Philomel (1964), written for the American soprano Bethany Beardslee, combines her performance with a synthesised accompaniment which includes manipulations of her voice.

Despite his reputation, Babbitt had a life-long love of Broadway musicals: early in his career he arranged Broadway songs, and he even wrote a musical in 1946, called Fabulous Voyage based on Homer’s Odyssey. And among the composers he taught was Stephen Sondheim.

Daniel Jaffé