Milton Babbitt Essays

May 15, 2017

If one reads this book from beginning to end, one gets in chronological order the writings of one of the most influential musicians and writers on music and music theory of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  However, if one reads the last four essays first, the book becomes a sort of autobiography, with each article placed in the context of the musical life and career of a sixteen-year-old boy genius from Jackson, Mississippi, who, enamored of all sorts of music and  having outgrown the possibility of further discoveries about it provided by the Jackson Boys’ Band, and being enchanted by the writing about a brave new music by Marion Bauer in her book Twentieth Century Music (which even supplied some examples of Schoenberg’s Op. 11, Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire, as well as music by Krenek, Scriabin, Casella, and others–about the only scraps of such music generally available at the time), moved to New York and enrolled in New York University’s Washington Square College, where Ms. Bauer taught,  because if ”as she strongly suggested, this was music to be reckoned with, then music’s day of reckoning must be at hand, and he wished to be there.”

The young Babbitt arrived in New York in 1934, about three months later than Schoenberg had. Although Babbitt had rare direct encounters with the master, he avidly followed, through mutual acquaintances, including Ms. Bauer and Martin Bernstein (a junior member of the music department at Washington Square, who was largely responsible for Schoenberg’s composition of his  Suite in Olden Style for String Orchestra, originally intended for the orchestra at NYU), his whereabouts and condition, as well as his latest works.  The first New York performance of the Fourth Quartet by the Kolisch Quartet at the 42nd Street Library in 1937, a month after the premiere in California, and the first performance of the Violin Concerto by Louis Krasner and Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940 were vivid confirmations of his understanding, gained through study of earlier works, especially the Orchestra Variations, of ‘the Schoenbergian hexachordal communality:’ that a twelve-tone series (or set, rather) could be not just a theme or a motive, but rather “the referential norm of a work, pervasively and persistently influential, acting at constantly varying distances from the surface of the composition” “within the formational and transformational syntax of the twelve-pitch-class system (henceforth, “twelve-tone system”)”.  

At about the same time as Schoenberg entered his musical life, Babbitt also encountered, through articles by Israel Citkowitz and Roger Sessions, and through lessons with Sessions, with whom he began studying in 1935, the theories of Heinrich Schenker.  Study of Schenker’s works, further extended by his friendships with the expatriot Schenker disciples Oswald Jonas, Ernst Oster, and Hans Weisse,  provided him with yet another method for considering the total tonal structure of works of music.  To these two sides of his ‘Vienna triangle’ was added his acquaintance with the work of the Vienna Circle, positivist philosophers, including Carnap, Feigl, and Hempel, whose “concern for responsibility and clarity of discourse and the techniques of rational reconstruction,” were major influences on  his thinking and his writing.  

Sessions joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1936, teaching in the music section of the Department of Art and Archeology, (there being no Music Department at the time) and in 1938 Babbitt followed him there, to begin his life-long association with that institution.  Over the next eight years, interrupted by war work in Princeton and Washington, Babbitt worked on composition and formulated his thoughts on serial procedures, put forth in his 1946 Doctoral dissertation The Function of Set Structure in the Twelve-Tone System.  Since there was no qualified reader in the Princeton music faculty and, in fact, at the time no officially instituted PhD program in music theory or composition, he was not awarded a doctorate, even though he had been appointed as professor (He was eventually rewarded a PhD on his retirement from Princeton in 1992).  His dissertation was never published, but it provided the material for a number of articles, published between 1955 and 1962, which became the basic formulation of the procedures of  American twelve-tone serialism.  In 1947 these theories began to produce tangible compositional results when Three Compositions for Piano, the first of Babbitt’s mature works, appeared.  

Schoenberg became frustrated with his early atonal works, whose method of composition he described as ‘composing with the tones of a motive,’ since he ultimately found it “impossible to compose pieces of complicated organization.”  He eventually arrived at a “procedure which seemed fitted to replace the structural differentiations provided by tonal harmonic structure,” namely the twelve tone system, which he described as “composing with twelve tones related only to one another.”  To Schoenberg’s definition, Babbitt adds, “by the structure of the set of which they are members.”  The hard core of  the Collected Essays consists of those works in which Babbitt details, with extreme mathematical and philosophical specificity, the workings of the twelve-tone system as practiced by Schoenberg and Webern, and as it could be further developed, particularly in terms of rhythm.  Another series of essays illustrates  ways that  the system is exemplified in works of the early masters and, eventually, how it was further extended in the late works of Stravinky and in Babbitt’s own music.  There are several essays concerning the use of computers in relation to music in general and Babbitt’s work with the R. C. A. Electronic Music Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in particular.  There are further analytical pieces concerned with the String Quartets of Bartok (1949) and the music of Edgard Varèse (1966), and the rather intimidating “The Structure and Function of Musical Theory” (1965) and “Contemporary Music Composition and Musical Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History” (1972).  All of the aforementioned essays, making up about half of the book, which are filled with musical insight and good sense, are intended for a highly specialized musical audience, and are extremely rigorously and closely argued and draw often on highly technical language from music theory, mathematics, and philosophy. (Although Babbitt’s writing, and, indeed, his music, is often accused of being “mathematical,” in fact philosophical concerns are more in evidence.)  

The essays which make up the other half of the book are of a much more informal and conversational nature, consisting of reviews, commemorative and memorial essays, reminiscences, and meditations and observations on the state of “cultivated” music in the United States and the lot of composers in it.  The most notorious of all of these is “The Composer as Specialist” (1958), whose title was changed by the editor of High Fidelity, the magazine which  first published it, to ‘Who Cares If You Listen?”  Although the essay does not actually express the sentiment of its false title, one could, on a cursory reading, perhaps, get that out of it.  In fact it considers the problems for the survival of music posed by the discrepancy between the music resulting from  the composer’s life-long, professional’s engagement with music and its advances and the interests of the lay public, a situation which was troubling then and has not over the years since then become less so.  “The More Than The Sounds of Music” (1984) and “Brave New Worlds” (1994) are later even more intense (and, possibly, bitter) reflections on the continuing development of that situation.  “On Having Been and Still Being An American Composer” (1989) is, of all the pieces in the book, the one most like having a conversation with its author.

The writing in these essays is often charming and brilliant (as Babbitt’s conversation always is). It is dense with both information and wit and can bring to mind the kind of dialog that S. J. Perlman wrote for Groucho Marx.  A sentence can often be as intricately composed as the lyric for a 1930's pop song.  The intricacy of the assonance and the control over it in the following sentence is certain impressive: “But there are more than a few of us who, not paradoxically, came to feel more ‘American’ by becoming, both by propinquity and propensity, participants in the ongoing primary practice of contemporary musical creation which had immigrated and become so assimilated that, after our participation had been abrupted, interrupted, and disrupted for a long, long time, we attempted to pick up the pieces, to relearn what we once had known, to reconnect with all of the past and our past as a path to the future, and to forget only how much time we had lost.”  Occasionally it can also be maddening in its complexity–if not obscurity-- (as his conversation never is); in at least one case one encounters a sentence which requires a footnote to explain its meaning.  

Babbitt’s writing is profoundly challenging, but there are few books on Twentieth Century Music or Twelve-Tone Music Theory or American Music which could offer its reader so much satisfaction in return for grappling with its difficulties.