Milton Babbitt

(10 May 1916, Philadelphia - 29 January 2011, Princeton)


Milton Byron Babbitt was an American composer, music theorist and teacher. He is well known as a leading proponent of total serialism (i.e., musical composition based on prior arrangements not only of all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale but also of dynamics, duration, timbre, and register) and electronic music.
At the age of 4 he began studying the violin, soon after he switched to piano, clarinet and saxophone. Jazz and theater music constituted early influences in his life. By the age of 7 he was already making his own arrangements of popular songs, and when he was 13, he won a local songwriting contest. Although he was musically gifted, in 1931 he attended the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a career in mathematics. Shortly after, he left and went to New York University instead, where he studied music under Philip James and Marion Bauer.

In his period spent at the New York University, he became very interested in the music of the composers of the Second Viennese School and went on to write a number of articles on twelve tone music, including the first description of combinatoriality and a serial "time-point" technique. Babbitt was attracted to the epochal discoveries of Schoenberg, at a time when twelve-tone and serial techniques were still relatively new. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree from New York University College of Arts and Science in 1935 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, he studied under Roger Sessions, first privately and then later at Princeton University where he received a Master of Fine Arts in 1942.

During World War II, Babbitt worked as a mathematical researcher in Washington D.C, and became a member of the mathematics faculty from 1943 to 1945 in Princeton. At this time he developed the complex ramifications of Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional method into what came to be known as total serialism. In a nutshell, what this meant was that he expanded Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, wherein compositional structure is determined by manipulation of a constant sequence of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale -- to other aspects of music: rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and other parameters were structured according to fixed sequences that acquired structural importance both in being manipulated on their own and in interaction with other serial parameters.

In 1948, Babbitt returned to Princeton University's music faculty and in 1973 became a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School in New York. Among his more notable former students are music theorists David Lewin and John Rahn, composers Michael Dellaira, Kenneth Fuchs, Laura Karpman, Paul Lansky, Donald Martino, John Melby, Tobias Picker, and J. K. Randall, the theater composer Stephen Sondheim, composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, and the jazz guitarist and composer Stanley Jordan.
His interest in electronic music grew and was later hired by RCA (Radio Corporation of America) as consultant composer to work with their RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center (known since 1996 as the Columbia University Computer Music Center), and in 1961 produced his Composition for Synthesize which displayed his interest in establishing precise control over all elements of composition; the machine is used primarily to achieve such control rather than solely to generate novel sounds.

Although he would eventually shift his focus away from electronic music, the genre that first gained for him public notice, by the 1980s, Babbitt wrote both electronic music and music for conventional musical instruments, often combining the two. Philomel (1964), for example, was written for soprano and a synthesized accompaniment (including the recorded and manipulated voice of Bethany Beardslee, for whom the piece was composed) stored on magnetic tape.

More traditional in medium is Partitions for Piano (1957). Babbitt wrote chamber music (Composition for Four Instruments, 1948; All Set, 1957) as well as solo pieces and orchestral works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Babbitt continued to use serialist techniques in his later works, which include Arie da capo (1974), The Head of the Bed (1982), Swan Song No. 1 (2003), and An Encore (2006; commissioned by the Library of Congress) for violin and piano, among other compositions for small ensembles; solo pieces, such as Play It Again, Sam (1989; written as a viola solo for Samuel Rhodes) and More Melismata (2005–06; commissioned by the Juilliard School) for cello; and Concerti for Orchestra (2004) and several other pieces for larger groups.

As an active participant and thinker, Babbitt wrote extensively about music. His writings are collected in Milton Babbitt: Words About Music (1987; edited by Stephen Dembski and Joseph N. Straus) and The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt (2003; edited by Stephen Peles). From 1985 until his death he served as the Chairman of the BMI Student Composer Awards, the international competition for young classical composers. Milton Babbitt died in Princeton, New Jersey on January 29, 2011 at the age of 94.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Milton Babbitt.