"Listen. Don’t worry about whether or not the music sounds coherent to you the first time you hear it,” Milton Babbitt advised novice listeners to his works. This advice works. I have tried it.
Princeton’s William Shubael Conant Professor of Music Emeritus, Babbitt died in January at age 94. “His music is challenging,” says Princeton music professor Paul Lansky. “It is not the kind of music that you slide into easily.” Having earned his Ph.D. under Babbitt’s guidance in 1973, Lansky now occupies Babbitt’s chair as Conant Professor of Music.
A free concert on Sunday, June 5, at 2 p.m., followed by a reception, celebrates Babbitt’s life and music. Both are open to the public. Refreshments at the reception will include southern-oriented tidbits, honoring Babbitt’s Mississippi childhood, and Chinese food, a favorite cuisine of Babbitt’s, as well as beer, a favorite beverage.
A cohort of musicians who knew Babbitt well contributes to the June 5 event. The roster includes cellist Fred Sherry in Babbitt’s “More Melismata for Solo Cello (composed in 2005-’06); soprano Judith Bettina and pianist James Goldsworthy in “Phonemena for Soprano and Piano” (1969-’70) and also “Penelope’s Night Song for Soprano” from Babbitt’s “Fabulous Voyage” (1946); pianist Robert Taub in Johannes Brahms’ “Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 4 and Babbitt’s “Three Compositions for Piano, No. 2 (1947); and the Zukovsky Quartet in Babbitt’s String Quartet No. 6 (1993).
Why does Taub play the Brahms “Intermezzo” as well as Babbitt’s 1947 “Three Compositions,” the very first work Babbitt wrote for piano? “Brahms was one of Milton’s favorite composers,” Taub says in a telephone interview. “These pieces relate to one another in ways that are obvious when you hear them. They both evolve from silence, and have gradually shifting sonorities. They complement each other. They’re different sides of the same musical coin.”
In 1938 Roger Sessions, distinguished composer and Princeton professor, invited Babbitt, then 22, to join the Princeton faculty. At that time music was a branch of the department of art and archaeology. Babbitt had earned a bachelor’s degree at New York University and had studied composition privately with Sessions in New York. His 1946 Ph.D. dissertation for Princeton, “The Function of Set Structure in the 12-Tone System” was rejected by Princeton’s newly established music department, which then offered only a doctoral degree in historical musicology. After Babbitt received an honorary doctorate from Princeton in 1991, the music department reviewed his thesis and granted him a Ph.D. in 1992.
Babbitt played a formative role in the creation of its music department. He was a versatile composer, and his works include pieces for a dictionary’s worth of solo musical instruments, for chamber ensembles, for voice, jazz, and pop performances. His irreverence and sense of humor are legendary.
A pioneer in taking musical composition in new directions, he was midwife to electronic music, using an instrument with 1,800 vacuum tubes that occupied the space of an entire room.
In addition, he extended the serial approach to music developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1900s. Schoenberg rejected standard western scales and prescribed that all 12 pitches within an octave be treated equally in what he called a tone row; each of the 12 pitches had to be sounded before any of them was repeated. Babbitt increased the rigor of Schoenberg’s recipe, arranging the order of musical ingredients not only by pitch, but also by loudness, timbre, duration, and other aural elements.
Typically, pianist Taub’s study with Babbitt went beyond the standard student-teacher encounter. Professionally and personally, the relationship was lasting, warm, and exciting.
“I studied with Milton as a Princeton undergraduate,” Taub says. “He was my junior paper advisor and my senior thesis advisor.” For his junior paper, Taub wrote a pair of piano compositions. For his senior thesis, Taub set poems by German poet Heinrich Heine for soprano and instrumentalists. “The voice part,” he says, “consisted not only of lyrics, but of syllables and phonemes.”
Working towards a doctoral degree from New York’s Juilliard School, Taub studied composition there with Babbitt, and piano performance with Jacob Lateiner. “I learned not only composition from Milton,” Taub says, “but the ways composers think and feel about music, whether or not it’s their own, by other living composers, or by classical composers. We often discussed Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin and other romantics. He often illustrated by going to the piano and playing excerpts of pop tunes.”
At Juilliard Taub began to play Babbitt compositions. “Learning Babbitt initially, I felt as though I was entering uncharted waters,” Taub says. “But I had a glimpse of the enchanted islands in these uncharted waters. It was a steep learning curve. I knew that Milton’s music was part of a continuum that started with Bach and Mozart and continued with Beethoven and Brahms. Challenges abounded. So did the rewards.
“Milton’s music is challenging pianistically and musically,” Taub says. “As an interpreter, I needed to internalize his style of writing. For the faster pieces, the tempos seemed impossible at first. But I stuck with it, and realized Milton wanted to create a shimmering surface with deep structural integrity. Accidentals abound. There is no traditional tonal reference [i.e., no traditional key]. Each piece is what Milton liked to refer to as self-referential. There is a separate sonic world for every individual piece. Mastering each one is time-consuming.”
Curiously, the initial difficulty of Babbitt’s works decreases the difficulty of returning to them, Taub says. “As you go back to Milton’s pieces and perform them repeatedly, it’s similar to getting on a bike after not having ridden for the winter. Coming back to a piece of Milton’s is very easy because of having internalized it the first time around in order to understand it.”
Eventually, Taub learned all the piano works Babbitt had composed through the 1980s, including several that Babbitt wrote for him. For his 1983 New York concert debut in Alice Tully Hall, Taub played Babbitt’s “Canonical Form,” a piece commissioned through the Fromm Foundation. “I was thrilled to be able to use a new work of Milton’s as part of the program,” he says.
In 1998 Babbitt composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 for Taub and James Levine. They premiered it with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “When I was working on the piece, I played it through for Milton at my home,” Taub says. “After gentle nudging, he made revelatory comments. For instance, he told me how to play a particular phrase. ‘That’s the Chopin Nocturne part of this piece,’ he said. That remark conveyed a sense of the rhythmic freedom and liberty, and the heightened expression that he wanted. I knew just what to do.”
Milton Babbitt Memorial Concert, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Sunday, June 5, 2 p.m. Concert celebrates the life and music of composer Milton Babbitt who was professor of music from 1938 to 1984. He died in January at age 94. Musicians include Judith Bettina, soprano; James Goldsworthy, piano; Fred Sherry, cello; Robert Taub, piano; and the Zukovsky Quartet with Aaron Boyd, violin; Cyrus Beroukhim, violin; David Fulmer, viola; and Alberto Parrini, cello. Reception follows concert. Free. 609-258-5000 or www.princeton.edu/utickets.