Born on May 10, 1916, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Milton Babbitt learned to play the violin as a 4-year-old and began arranging music by age 7. The highly influential avant-garde composer and teacher was one of the first musicians to create electronic pieces via the synthesizer. Honored with a special lifetime Pulitzer citation in 1982, he died on January 29, 2011, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Early Years and Influences
Milton Byron Babbitt was born on May 10, 1916, to mathematician Albert Babbitt and Sarah Potamkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but mainly grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He learned to play the violin at age 4 before moving on to the clarinet and saxophone, and began setting pop songs to original arrangements at age 7. At 13, he won a local songwriting contest.
Jazz and musicals had occupied his fancy, but having absorbed and conquered the popular route at such a young age, Babbitt hungered for a new level and more complex layering in his approach to music. An uncle's gift of Schoenberg piano compositions turned his head to the atonal and structural approach.
Babbitt enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania at age 16 to study mathematics and philosophy, but he soon transferred to New York University to study under its progressive music teachers. He began private lessons with Roger Sessions in 1935 and became committed to the avant-garde in his musical compositions.
Music and Teaching Career
Babbitt accepted Sessions’s invitation to join him on the Princeton University faculty in 1938, and he earned a Master of Fine Arts in music from the university in 1942. During World War II, he put his mathematical training to use by teaching the subject at Princeton and performing research in Washington, D.C.
In the 1950s, Babbitt's skill set and musical theories made him the ideal composer for RCA to tap as a consultant for its new Mark II Synthesizer. He rose to the forefront of the electronic music trend with such pieces as “Composition for Synthesizer” (1961) and “Ensembles for Synthesizer” (1964).
Babbitt went on to teach at a string of renowned institutions in the United States and Europe, including The Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music. His students included composers Mario Davidovsky and John Eaton, who pursued atonal themes in their creations, and musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim.
Death and Legacy
Milton Babbitt died at age 94 at a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 29, 2011. He had accumulated a stunning array of prizes, grants, fellowships and awards, including a special Pulitzer citation for "his life work as a distinguished and seminal American composer."
Because of his 1958 essay in High Fidelity, "Who Cares if You Listen," in which he described cutting-edge music as beyond the understanding of the common man, Babbitt developed a public reputation as a cantankerous snob. However, he was known for his warmth, generosity and humor among colleagues, the titles of such pieces as “The Joy of More Sextets” underscoring his wit.
For all his musical complexity, Babbitt retained a deep feeling for theatrical music and an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. He contributed to a musical titled Fabulous Voyage early in his career, and while the show was never produced, later performances of its songs proved the avant-garde composer also had an ear for crowd-pleasing fare.
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