Milton Babbitt


Born: May 10, 1916 Died: January 29, 2011
Revered for his pioneering work in serial organization and in musical electronics, Milton Babbitt (born in 1916) is a major American composer, theorist, and teacher. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Jackson, MS, he began his study of the violin at age 4. He later learned to play clarinet and saxophone, exhibiting an early interest in jazz and popular song.

Despite his gift for music, he attended the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a career in mathematics. He then decided to attend New York University, studying music with Marion Bauer and Philip James. Babbitt was attracted to the epochal discoveries of Schoenberg, at a time when 12-tone and serial techniques were still relatively new. After receiving a B.A. from NYU in 1935, he studied composition with Roger Sessions, at first privately, and then later at Princeton University, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in 1942. During World War II he worked as a mathematical researcher and taught mathematics at Princeton. At this time he developed the complex ramifications of Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional method into what came to be known as total serialism. In a nutshell, what this meant was that he expanded Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, wherein compositional structure is determined by manipulation of a constant sequence of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale -- to other aspects of music: rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and other parameters were structured according to fixed sequences that acquired structural importance both in being manipulated on their own and in interaction with other serial parameters. He succeeded Sessions on Princeton's music faculty in 1948 and later taught also at the Juilliard School in New York.

Babbitt is credited with writing the first serial work, Three Compositions for Piano, in 1947, at least one year before Messiaen's studies. Babbitt's important early works in his rigorously organized serial style include the first two string quartets (1948, 1954), the jazz-influenced All Set (1957) and Partitions for piano (1957). Babbitt is also responsible for developing and classifying such important serialist concepts as combinatoriality, partitioning, arrays, pitch class, pitch set, and the time-point system. In extending the challenging language of Schoenberg, Babbitt's "new complexity" continually met with incomprehension from audiences and musicians alike. This led Babbitt to seek means of composing and performing outside of traditional settings and formats. He found what he was looking for in the emerging analog technology of the RCA Mark II synthesizer and the Columbia-Princeton recording studio, which he co-founded with Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky in 1959. One year later, Babbitt completed his first entirely synthesized work, Vision and Prayer. Philomel (1964) shows his use of the human voice as an essential part of his conception; it was one of the earliest pieces to combine tape playback with a live performance, in this case one by Babbitt's wife, soprano Bethany Beardslee.

Later works such as Post-Partitions for piano (1966) and Relata II for orchestra (1968), show Babbitt's increasingly dense modes of musical significance, achieved through close connections between pitch and rhythmic organization, and through the use of every possible musical parameter in delineating structure. The String Quartet No. 3 (1970) includes metronomic stability, changes of velocity engineered by changes in metrical density, sectional form, and the use of many other musical parameters -- including the distinction between arco and pizzicato string playing -- to integrate the polyphony. Performances of these works have rarely been successful, if even possible.

In addition to his degrees from NYU and Princeton, Babbitt has received a lifetime Pulitzer Prize in composition for his contributions to twelve-tone and electronic music. He has also been recognized by numerous universities for his contributions. Babbitt, who once named Jerome Kern as the composer with whom he would most like to have traded places, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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There are 29 Milton Babbitt recordings available.

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