Babbitt’s "Music for the Mass"

Babbitt’s Bio

Teaching Composition at Juilliard

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60 Years Later, a Milton Babbitt Premiere

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.

Composer Milton Babbitt’s name finds its way into

standard accounts of 20th-century music for breaking new ground in

two main directions. Born in 1916, Babbitt by the 1940s was refining

Arnold Schoenberg’s avant-garde compositional principles of the 1920s.

In addition, in the 1950s, he pioneered the use of the electronic

synthesizer, and employed its artificially-created sounds to be used

along with acoustic instruments.

Gracious to an awed reporter during an interview in his office, Babbitt

consciously goes light on the technical aspects of his achievements.

For the general public — indeed for many musicians — it is

a bunch of arcane endeavors that land Babbitt in the textbooks. Babbitt

says that the Princeton music department had such difficulty understanding

his Ph.D. dissertation, which he called "The Function of Set Structure

in the 12-Tone System," that they called on the mathematics department

for help. Yet, he states, "I don’t write music mathematically."

Babbitt’s music is amply available on a discography that he admits

is so large that he can’t keep track of it. His 12-tone music has

characteristically jumpy melodic lines. Those of his pieces I have

listened to possess, to my taste, particularly satisfying endings.

And I find myself attracted by the way in which, in "Correspondences

for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape" (1967), for instance,

he allows string instruments and synthetic sounds to play off each


Although the reference books cite Babbitt’s work on 12-tone music

and electronic sound as putting him on the map, what brings him into

the news is the first performance ever of his relatively conventional

1940 piece, "Music for the Mass," by Princeton Pro Musica

under the direction of Frances Slade on Friday, May 14, at 8 p.m.

in Richardson Auditorium. Babbitt gives a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m.

The program includes Haydn’s "Theresienmesse" and Mozart’s

Symphony No. 40 in G minor.

Babbitt’s "Music for the Mass" is a soprano-alto-tenor-bass

setting of four of the five sections of the liturgy normally used

in the Roman Catholic Mass. "I left out the Credo," he notes,

"because the piece would have been too long." The composition

won Columbia University’s Bearns Prize in 1942. Mary Roach, mother

of Pro Musica violinist Margaret Banks, unearthed the work.

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Babbitt’s "Music for the Mass"

A man of smooth movements and an open face, Babbitt

gives little evidence of being a living legend, except for the fact

that he seems to know just about everybody in the field of music.

He seems to have all the time in the world, and to be endowed with

enormous patience. The conversation takes many byways, as Babbitt

willingly explains what he has been up to, peppering his remarks with

pet peeves and philosophically recounting instances of having been


Telling how his "Music for the Mass" came to be written almost

60 years before its first public performance, Babbitt begins with

a "given" somewhat remote from the outcome of the story by

saying, "Before the war, Princeton had no music department. Music

was a subdivision of the department of art and archaeology. We were

at the bottom of a totem pole at the bottom of the totem pole. Harvard,

Yale, and Columbia had music departments. But Princeton was Presbyterian-affiliated

and Presbyterians never had music departments. Roy Dickinson Welch

was in charge of the music program in the art and archaeology department."

"Welch hired two musicians," Babbitt continues, "Roger

Sessions and Oliver Strunk." Born in 1896, Sessions had already

made a name for himself as a serialist composer with a unique approach

before arriving at Princeton. Babbitt studied with him privately at

Princeton beginning in 1938 because of the dearth of graduate schools

in music.

"I got to be friends with Welch and lived in his attic during

the war," Babbitt says. "I thought he was suffering because

of me. I had written a string trio just before the mass. It was a

12-tone piece in three movements. The Roth Quartet, which was in residence

at Westminster just before the war, consisted of four starving Hungarians,

and three of their four members were engaged to play the string trio.

Pretty soon they told me they couldn’t do the last movement. Then,

shortly before the first two movements were to be performed, they

told me they couldn’t do the first movement either. They performed

only the second movement." Babbitt feared that drawing attention

to the unapproachable music by a member of Welch’s cadre would be

an embarrassment for Welch’s struggling forces.

"Therefore," Babbitt continues, "I wrote a tonal piece

for four-part mixed chorus. I wrote the mass in a very short time.

Normally I’m a very slow composer. I was thinking my way through new

things at the time. And many things before the mass were very tentative.

Sessions had no sympathy for what I was doing. Someone, I forget who,

suggested that I send it off to Columbia University for the Bearns

Prize. It won, and then it sat in the Columbia library. I got involved

with the synthesizer, and forgot about the mass. I heard no more about

it until Mary Roach came along. She was a graduate student at Buffalo

University and the mass was listed among my works."

Roach arranged for the preparation of a computer-generated performing

edition of the piece. Babbitt shows me a copy of the computer-generated

Roach version of his score, and also a photocopy of his original score.

Babbitt’s hand-written manuscript is meticulously prepared and seems

to make his musical intentions very clear. To this day he prepares

his manuscripts by hand. He feels no need to use a computer either

for writing music or for any other purpose.

"Mary Roach moved to Princeton, where her daughter lives,"

Babbitt continues, "and persuaded Princeton Pro Musica to do the

mass. So now we have a world premiere after 60 years. I’m amused and

curious. I’m grateful to hear the piece. I’ve got pieces that I withdrew.

One always has pieces one hasn’t heard. Many things are not performed.

There’s a disjunction between my other pieces and the mass — but

I’m not ashamed of the mass."

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Babbitt’s Bio

Babbitt, the oldest of three brothers, was born in Philadelphia,

where his family summered, in 1916. His father’s university appointment

was in Lincoln, Nebraska. "My father was a mathematician,"

Babbitt says. "He was a great planner and we were always born

in the summer."

Babbitt’s mother was descended from Prince Potemkin, the ingenious

advisor to Catherine the Great of Russia, who had her build mock villages

one street deep to create an impression of an enlightened and thriving

Russia when the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II came to visit in

the 1780s. In 1904 Babbitt’s mother returned to ancestral properties

in Russia.

"At a Christmas party, in a dacha outside of Moscow that belonged

to her grandparents, she met my father," Babbitt explains. "He

was a graduate student in Zurich. My mother brought him to the United


As a child Babbitt was the subject of a newspaper article

in Lincoln. "During World War I, there was a newspaper article

about me because I had perfect pitch. They talked about me as `Professor

Babbitt’s son’ and they misspelled the name.

"My father, who was a distinguished mathematician, went periodically

to Omaha, to consult with Bankers’ Life on actuarial work," Babbitt

says. "During one of his visits, Eudora Welty’s father came and

made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He offered him a job at his

company, Lamar Life, in Jackson, Mississippi, as an actuary, and my

father became a vice president of Lamar. He was the only man with

his qualifications. We were well off during the Depression."

"I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi," says Babbitt. "It

was a quiet town at the time. That’s no longer true. Now it’s a sunbelt

city and an industrial metropolis." I remark on Babbitt’s lack

of Southern accent, and he says, "You Northerners! Everybody talks

like I do in Jackson. It’s a school thing. We were taught at Davis

School to talk so we wouldn’t sound like country folk. It was a public

school — Jefferson Davis School. We were taught that we were the

last custodians of high culture. We all got a classical education."

"I started as a violinist, and switched to clarinet. We all began

playing music in the schools. We learned sight-singing. If we played

transposing instruments, we would bring them in and transpose. When

I grew up there was only live music. We did not listen to records.

We played." Babbitt played jazz and pop music as a student in


In alternate summers he would go to Philadelphia, where he spent much

time with an uncle who was associated with Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

"My uncle played Schoenberg at me when I was 19," Babbitt

remembers. "Of course, I couldn’t make much out of it, but my

uncle, whom I respected, took it seriously, and he had a tremendous

influence on me."

When Babbitt graduated from high school at age 15, his father wanted

him to go to music school, but Babbitt decided against it largely

because he had seen that Curtis graduates had few opportunities. After

two years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he concentrated

on mathematics and analytical philosophy, Babbitt says "I realized

that my father was right. I was spending all my time doing music."

Still, he nourishes an interest in mathematics and philosophy. He

transferred to NYU to pursue musical studies. His work with Sessions

began after his graduation from NYU. Babbitt’s Ph.D. from Princeton

was awarded only within the last few years; after Princeton awarded

him an honorary degree.

Babbitt spent the war years partly in Washington, D.C., and partly

teaching mathematics at Princeton. "During the war," he says,

"we started at 7:30 a.m. and worked six days a week. There were

no summer vacations. There was time to think about music, but not

time to do anything about it."

By 1947 Babbitt was composing again. His first project was a collaboration,

a failed attempt at a Broadway musical. During the 1950s, Babbitt

turned his attention to electronic music. He and Vladimir Ussachevsky

of Columbia University acquired the sound synthesizer developed at

RCA as a birthday present for RCA’s General Sarnoff and installed

it at Columbia.

"You had to specify everything and the machine made the sounds,"

he says. "It was a very slow process. It was an input device,

not a computer; it couldn’t deal with numbers. It had 1,800 vacuum

tubes, not because they didn’t know about transistors, but because

vacuum tubes produce the best sound at high frequencies. The synthesizer

was in sections, and went around two corners. I could reach to the

top of it, about six-and-a-half-feet high. It was bigger than my office.

The complexity of the machine can’t be exaggerated. I worked on it

until 1975, when the studio was broken into and ravaged. Since then

I’ve done no more electronic music. I didn’t want to start with computers."

The prolific Babbitt has produced almost 70 compositions since the

time he gave up electronic music. They include orchestral compositions

and concerti, chamber music for brasses, and for strings, solo pieces

for a variety of instruments, songs, piano music, spoken word pieces,

and material that defies classification. During the last season his

second piano concerto premiered at Carnegie Hall. James Levine conducted

the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with soloist Robert Taub of the Institute

for Advanced Study.

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Teaching Composition at Juilliard

Babbitt continues to teach composition at New York’s Juilliard School,

as he has done since 1971. His office in Princeton’s Woolworth Building

marked "Professors Emeriti" is well used. He is warm and responsive,

and, at 83, shows no signs of wear. To what does Babbitt attribute

his vigor? "I don’t do a damn thing except get up late and go

to bed late and work the whole time," he says. "In my generation

the war had a big effect. We all have the feeling that we’re always

catching up."

— Elaine Strauss

Princeton Pro Musica, Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000.

World premiere of Milton Babbitt’s "Music for the Mass." Babbitt

gives a lecture at 7 p.m. $22 & $27. Friday, May 14, 8 p.m.

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