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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.
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
"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."
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
"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.
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
— Elaine Strauss
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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