Milton Byron Babbitt, 12-tone composer

Milton Byron Babbitt, 94, the intellectually trailblazing composer who lived to see his primary musical language pass into disfavor, died Saturday in Princeton, where he lived.

For many listeners, Mr. Babbitt's dense scores were the manifestation of ambitious and highly ordered ideas. Others knew him as the creator of a dystopian musical landscape, a theorist whose music came from - and belonged in - academia.

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Milton Byron Babbitt in 1987. The classical and electronic-music composer taught at Princeton University and other institutions.

On this latter point Mr. Babbitt might have agreed.

In a notorious essay of 1958, published in High Fidelity magazine, he argued that the university was a serious composer's realm, and that the general concertgoing public was not the proper audience for the music of such composers. The title of the essay, which overstated the author's case considerably, was "Who Cares If You Listen?"

He later complained that the title had not been his idea; he had suggested "The Composer as Specialist."

Mr. Babbitt was highly influenced by Schoenberg and Webern, and took their 12-tone method to its inevitable conclusion. Twelve-tone, or serial, music was a method of composition that in its most orthodox strain called for all 12 tones of the Western scale to be used in a row before the first tone could be sounded again. Mr. Babbitt extended the serial technique to rhythm, duration of notes, and dynamics, making for music that was intellectually rigorous but, for many, emotionally limiting.

His Three Compositions for Piano (1947) and Composition for Four Instruments (1948) were the first works to be totally serialized.

He was also a pioneer in electronic music, which he admired for its ability to produce a predictable and perfect product. He wrote one of the seminal works of the genre, Philomel (1964), for soprano and taped sound. He helped to develop one of the first synthesizers, and was a founder of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

In 1982, the Pulitzer Prize board awarded a "special citation to Milton Babbitt for his life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer."

His music was so difficult that the Philadelphia Orchestra found it could not perform a work it had commissioned from him. Transfigured Notes was requested to mark the 1987 constitutional bicentennial. The work for string orchestra was thrice scheduled by conductors Dennis Russell Davies, Hans Vonk, and Erich Leinsdorf - and thrice abandoned.

Although tagged "unplayable" by some musicians, a designation not uncommon in the annals of music, it was eventually premiered by Gunther Schuller and a pickup group of professionals in Boston. In 1995, Orchestra 2001 of Swarthmore played its local premiere.

James Freeman, Orchestra 2001's founder and music director, explained the work's difficulty: "There will be a quintuplet [five notes to one beat] that doesn't begin on the beat - and you may be playing not the whole quintuplet but only its second and fifth notes. If there were only one player to the part, and you miss the note, who would know?"

But Transfigured Notes did prove unplayable for the Philadelphia Orchestra; it remains the only one of six constitutional commissions unperformed by the orchestra.

Mr. Babbitt's wife, Sylvia, died in 2005. Survivors include a daughter and two grandchildren.

He was born in Philadelphia; was raised in Jackson, Miss.; and entered the University of Pennsylvania as a student of mathematics. He soon transferred to New York University, changing his major to music. He studied privately with Roger Sessions.

Later he taught at Princeton University (both mathematics and music), the Juilliard School, Harvard University, and the New England Conservatory of Music.

While many observers of the business attributed a perceived loss of interest in classical music to composers such as Mr. Babbitt, he attributed the decline to lack of education in public schools.

"When I grew up in what you Yankees would call the backwoods of Mississippi we had one hour of music in school every day," he told The Inquirer in 1992. "We were not told about Mozart, we did not have records played. We sang. We learned to play instruments. We transposed. If you took the B-flat clarinet [his instrument, along with saxophone] you had to learn to transpose.

"Every friend of mine played an instrument. They didn't become musicians. They were too smart."

It was a typically smart-alecky statement from the man who merged mathematics and computers with music with preternaturally intellectual results. Mr. Babbitt, often described as personable and funny, once played jazz. He attended Princeton, where he studied with Sessions, earning a master's degree in 1942, and taught for almost four decades.

Princeton also awarded him a doctorate, but not until 1992 - 46 years after he submitted his dissertation on 12-tone theory.

In explaining the delay, university officials said that at the time, no one at the school had understood the document.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.