Milton Babbitt, composer who built on Schoenberg, dies at 94

Mr. Babbitt once said audiences shouldn't expect to understand his music any more than lay people understand high-level physics.
Mr. Babbitt once said audiences shouldn't expect to understand his music any more than lay people understand high-level physics. (G. Schirmer Inc.)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 9:52 PM

Milton Babbitt, a composer who used his knack for mathematics to create a modern musical language that was elegantly complex, fearlessly dissonant and so dense that even critics sometimes struggled to explain its importance, died Jan. 29 at a hospital in Princeton, N.J. He was 94. The cause of death was not reported.

For six decades, Mr. Babbitt wrote orchestral pieces and music for chamber groups and vocalists, including pioneering arrangements for the electric synthesizer.

His work, praised by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini for its "mercurial contrasts of mood, impishly jagged lines, constantly shifting surface motion, elegant colors and fine nuances of texture," profoundly influenced younger musicians such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. One of Mr. Babbitt's early students was the future Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

"I am his maverick, his one student who went into the popular arts armed with all his serious artillery," Sondheim once said.

Mr. Babbitt received a MacArthur Foundation grant and, in 1982, a special Pulitzer citation for his lifetime achievement as a "distinguished and seminal American composer."

His compositions built upon the groundbreaking work of Austrian-born composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had devised a new way to write music in the early 20th century.

Schoenberg's "serial" method - in which a composer arranges 12 notes in an order that is revisited and manipulated throughout the piece - marked a dramatic break with the musical theory that undergirds much of Western classical music. Mr. Babbitt was among the first to extend Schoenberg's serialism to elements including rhythm and timbre.

The result was music guided by a set of rules that made for pieces both challenging to perform and difficult - for many listeners - to love.

"It has long been fashionable to say that music like this grows in comprehensibility if we will only give it our time and attention, but I doubt it," Times critic Bernard Holland wrote about the 1998 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mr. Babbitt's "Second Piano Concerto."

Mr. Babbitt was unbothered by the fact that his music was, as he put it, "nonpopular."

In a controversial 1958 essay - "Who Cares If You Listen?" - he argued that audiences shouldn't expect to enjoy or understand cutting-edge music, just as lay people don't expect to comprehend physicists' discussions about high-level science.

The essay turned Mr. Babbitt into a symbol of what many thought was modern music's cerebral snobbery. He was unapologetic.

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