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Milton Babbitt

By Charles Wuorinen

Everyone always called him Milton, even those who had never met him.  This is unremarkable now in the age of No Last Names, but when I first knew Milton Babbitt fifty years ago it was not so usual.  Milton’s warmth engendered this familiarity, which diffused beyond the people he knew into a reputation.  Behind his extraordinary intellect and marvelous artistic accomplishment was a man of great generosity and kindness, qualities which showed so vividly that even those afraid of his brilliance were reassured by his geniality.

Milton Babbitt was a gentleman, whose southern roots gave him decorum without stuffiness, and mastery of language without pedantry.  His essays—a veritable flood—are famous, and very influential.  Some of them deal with recondite music-theoretical questions, and some are fun.  I loved the way he dismissed a certain fashionable music of a generation ago when he described it as “riff-raffish displays of evanescently flashy timbral patinas.”

His music, which is unlike any other, is the result of long reflection on the revolutionary methods first introduced a century ago by Arnold Schoenberg and his colleagues.  But his enlargement of these methods and principles took him into a wholly new understanding of our musical universe, in a kind of Einsteinian enlargement of the Newtonian.  He was alone there at first, but soon his music and his writings and his conversation happily transmitted the mysteries of his new universe to anyone interested in the expansion of musical language and musical thought, and the consequent refreshment of music’s expressive character.  This gave him the company of many students and admirers.  But above all, these mysteries stimulated Babbitt to write a music whose stunning harmony and sparkling complexity will delight the ear, mind, and spirit of anyone who cares to listen, for a very long time to come.

Often during his long career Milton Babbitt was harried by the populist culture police, allegedly on behalf of some vague amorphous “public” whose interest they said they served by telling artists what to produce.  But whenever Milton was asked about this, he would just say that he always wrote the music that he himself most wanted to hear.  It’s good that he did so, for, as I said, there is nothing like his work anywhere else.  For whom does one compose?  Stravinsky talked of the “hypothetical other,” and Babbitt said “I have met my hypothetical other, and he is I”—and in another place he said: “Stravinsky used the term… hypothetical other: of course, the hypothetical other is Stravinsky.”

But this remarkable being, so beloved of his friends, students, and acquaintances, was nothing like a formidable professor of the esoteric.  Instead, pursuing his lifelong love of American popular song of a certain era, or immersing himself in the intimate details of collegiate and professional sports, Milton burbled with enthusiasm and wit.  And he was ever ready with a deflating response to the pretentious or silly.  I cannot imagine him ever afflicted with l’esprit de l’escalier, in which one thinks only afterwards, too late, of what one should have said. His mind was too quick for that, and so was his music. But sympathy lay beneath it, and you have only to hear one of his gorgeous vocal works to know the heart that directed that extraordinary brain.


© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters