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Vol. LXV, No. 5
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
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Influential Composer Princeton Resident Milton Babbitt Dies

Stuart Mitchner

Composer, theorist, and Princeton University music professor Milton Babbitt, 94, who joined the faculty in 1938 at the age of 22 and was a driving force behind the growth of Princeton’s Department of Music, died January 29 at the University Medical Center at Princeton.

Quoted in a Princeton University press release, composer and William Shubael Conant Professor of Music Paul Lansky, a former student of Babbitt’s, described him as “one of the founding fathers of music as an academic discipline” but “first and foremost, he was a brilliant composer whose music speaks for itself.” In an email message, he added, “To enjoy Babbitt’s music means to revel in its dazzling and rich textures from moment to moment while not worrying about being able to thread together a coherent and logical story.”

Composer Peter Westergaard, his Princeton colleague for many years, told Town Topics that “Babbitt gave us the wherewithal to think clearly and systematically about what really makes music tick. By ‘us’ I mean not just his many face-to-face students over a half-century of teaching, but the students of those students, and their students, and all those others who got involved in the burgeoning discourse they initiated. By ‘music’ I mean not only that already written music we knew and loved … be it Mozart’s or Schoenberg’s … but also all kinds of as-yet-to-be-written music that might tick in some new and surprising ways.”

Besides being a driving force behind the growth of Princeton’s Department of Music, Babbitt was on the faculty of the Juilliard School in New York City from 1971 to 2008. The compositions and scholarly work produced by his students covered genres ranging from the avant-garde to the Broadway stage. One of his private students was Stephen Sondheim. When groundbreaking jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan was an undergraduate at Princeton, he studied with both Babbitt and Lansky.

Best known for his cerebral, structurally complex compositions, Babbitt could also inspire equally complex if not always cerebral critical responses, one of the more extreme examples being Gregory Sandow’s 1982 Village Voice article, which calls the composer and his music “products of the 1950s, as much symptoms of the eruption of tumultuous subterranean forces into above-ground life as monster movies, rock and roll, the beat generation, and abstract expressionism.”

Works like All Set (1957), written for a jazz ensemble, and Philomel (1964), which combines synthesizer with soprano voice and a libretto by poet John Hollander, have been performed and studied worldwide. Interpretations of both works can be heard on YouTube. In addition to those two compositions “as pieces that people usually recommend,” Lansky mentioned Vision and Prayer (1961), which was based on a Dylan Thomas poem, and String Quartet No. 2 (1952).

A pioneer in the field of electronic music, Babbitt helped to establish and co-direct the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, which housed the RCA Mark II Electronic Music Synthesizer, the first American machine designed for the production of electronic music. Among many honors and awards he received for his contributions to American music and scholarship were a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1986 and a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1982 for “his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer.”

Born in Philadelpia in 1916, Milton Babbitt was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, where, as he revealed in a 2002 interview, he grew up with author Eudora Welty, whose father was the president of the insurance company where Babbitt’s father was the actuary and vice president. His first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom he went to study at the age of four, although, he admitted in the same interview, he wasn’t “really all that excited” about the practicing: “Frankly, I didn’t like practicing. I faked it most of the time, and my mother and father didn’t know the difference.”

He is survived by his daughter, Betty Ann Duggan, and two grandchildren, Julie and Adam. A campus memorial service is being planned for later this spring.

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