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January 31, 2011

On the death of Milton Babbitt at 94

Milton Babbitt, who wrote some of the most challenging, determinedly serial music of the past 100 years, died Saturday at the age of 94 in Princeton, N.J.

Like Elliott Carter (still going strong at 102), Babbitt composed music that was as notable for its intellectual brilliance as for its lack of acceptance by mainstream audiences. Most classical music fans outside of major cities probably have heard very little of Babbitt's work; that's not likely to change.

When I heard of the composer's death, I thought about how, when a major movie actor dies, Turner Classics will switch programming pretty quickly to slip in some movies by that star as an homage. How many classical radio stations in this country do you think grabbed some Babbitt off the library shelf and added it to the lineup since Saturday as a way of honoring this eminent figure in American music? Yes, I came up with the same answer: None.

Listeners today remain remarkably protected from the supposed horrors of atonality. You have to seek it out. It's not part of the common aural universe. (In Baltimore, I hasten to add, the likes of Peabody Conservatory and Mobtown Modern have been known to present Babbitt's music.)

I think it curious that people will step into a

modern art museum and refrain from screaming or fleeing at the sight of something terribly abstract and hard to fathom, but they will still go nuts at the drop of a dissonant sound. They'll walk out, even slamming the door behind them; they'll write letters complaining to anyone responsible for inflicting the damage.

The mantra is that composers like Babbitt deliberately set out to alienate the public. That's too easy of a reaction to anyone and anything you don't immediately understand. Babbitt called his language "advanced music" and argued that it was like advanced mathematics -- harder for people to digest, but not, as a result, unworthy of an attempt to understand it.

Babbitt's singular contribution to the 12-tone method launched by Arnold Schoenberg was to expand its application to other aspects of music besides pitch, so that everything in a composition, right down to matters of loudness and softness, would be determined serially. It takes considerable effort to comprehend the way such music is constructed, but it really isn't that difficult to zero in on the frequency, so to speak, and start to experience the music on various levels.

I love the good old tonal stuff as much as the next guy, but I'm grateful to live at a time when so many forms of musical expression are possibile -- and so often wonderfully rewarding. The music would is a better, more interesting place because of Milton Babbitt and those who were inspired by him to explore the farthest reaches of the atonal realm.

I've attached a couple examples of Babbitt's work. The 1957 "All Set" for jazz ensemble and "Post-Partitions" for piano from 1966 (you can follow along with the score on this video). I hope that those of you not normally inclined to listen to such fare will give it a try. Let me know what you think (without four-letter words, of course):

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:58 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Clef Notes


I think the difference between a museum and a concert is that when you go into a modern art museum and don't like what you see, you can leave quietly (and quickly) and nobody knows or cares. It's hard to leave a concert quietly. Composers like John Adams and others learned to incorporate new styles and still make their music accessible, for the most part. Babbitt not only didn't care to make that effort, he reveled in his music's inaccessability. For all of his supposed brilliance, I think he did himself and the public a disservice and your samples didn't cause me to change my mind.

A lot of music needs a lot of practice if you want to be able to play it. Why shouldn't there be music which needs a lot of practice if you want to be able to listen to it?

My choir - International Orange Chorale of San Francisco - recently performed the first ever a cappella performance of Babbitt's "Music for the Mass". We presented a repeat performance of the work yesterday in San Francisco for an audience of about 100 people. We dedicated the performance to Babbitt's memory. It is a beautiful piece (rigorously contrapuntal, but still fairly melodic!), and it was an honor to sing.

Thanks very much for writing. Maybe it will encourage some folks around here. TIM

I've attended one Babbitt concert - it was one of the very few I booed. The few concertgoers who clapped were only being polite. I've attended concerts for 50 years and have some 7,000 recordings in various media. None are of Babbitt's 'music'. None will be. Frankly I doubt that anybody really "likes" his music. Some find it 'politically correct' to pretend it has value.

I've been surprised that no one has mentioned he was the composition teacher of Stephen Sondheim!!!!!

Thanks. I wonder which one this says more about. TIM

“It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, his music is still an incomprehensible terror.”

From a review written by the critic of the Boston Evening Transcript, November 16, 1885 of a performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 1.

It’s interesting to read how tastes evolve. Will Mr. Babbitt’s music eventually be accepted as well as the music of Brahms? Time will tell.

Raymond Kreuger
Associate Orchestra Librarian
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

There are some interesting comments about Milton Babbitt on the blog Ethan Iverson, the jazz pianist with The Bad Plus:
He has some interesting things to say about Babbitt's piece "All Set" that you link to in your blog.

Thanks for the link. TIM

WKCR in NY devoted 24 hours .

Dbc a efhg Kjhz. Zlk j abed hgf.

The sentence above was generated through serialism. It has the same linguistic value to readers as pure serialism has to music listeners. While I don't suggest serial techniques have no value, I would suggest that when taken to extremes of purity (devoid of humanistic organization) the experience is meaningless.

The old elitist position of superiority in intellect as a stance against listeners reactions against this (not atonality but some atonal compositions) music should be left behind in the 20th century.

The reason no one played Babbits music on his death is because it's only value is intellectual study. Beyond the esoteric considerations, it's really not worth listening to.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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